Heritage Restoration, Inc.

Plaster: To Save or Not to Save

Our house has failing lead paint on the original horse hair plaster walls. The firms contacted thus far have stated that, given the size of the job, the most sensible way to proceed is through the removal of the plaster and the lath and then replacing it with sheetrock. This removal process would have no impact on any of the decorative elements, the trim, the molding, the doors, the window trim, etc. Do you have a thought as to whether this is a reasonable way to proceed?

Struggling in Newport, RI

I understand the struggle of proper engagement with buildings, especially balancing modern conveniences and older nuisances. Each building part has a different value and role. In consideration of their fundamental roles, exterior elements are sacrificial protectors of the interiors. Exterior elements can be valuable through unique craft or contribution to an overall aesthetic and many should be conserved or reproduced exactly. Other times they are recreated using improved techniques or materials, not taking away from an original design intent or hurting the building’s dynamic. The “purist” view of recreating these parts has been challenged by new technologies, layering methods, and materials, so we are not really reproducing them but rather creating the same aesthetic with new parts.
They key is learning from their failure and improving on them. Interiors are not sacrificial and typically do not fail by environmental exposure. If the building was built well, lived gently, cared for, and had a high significance to a method or period, then it has more value. But when things fail by poor craft, age/life cycle, or there were poor choices of intervention, then options can be limited but not so black and white.
Methodology/Intent 
Every building owner should have goals based on intent and a methodology that defines how it’s done and how it will look. This can be a short, bulleted statement like:
  • Repair rather than replace, whenever possible
  • Replace with in-kind materials when necessary
    • Except, introduce steel frames to stabilize the timber frame
  • Use modern techniques and methods, making 2008 repairs read clearly as new.
  • Document to keep archival record of information about the building’s history and evolution

This Methodology will dictate all decisions going froward. So if the plaster is dead and cannot be repaired or stripped, then replace using modern methods. But if the plaster has some damage, excessive paint, and can be covered with a fiberglass mesh and skim coated, then save it.

Budget

Most projects have a budget…well, pretty much all projects. Does your project need to be limited for cost? If so, then perhaps the Methodology dictates you stabilize, repair, and coat the plaster. Or you put paneling or a wall covering over it. There are always options….
Available Craft
I should say available AND willing. Many historic crafts are not practiced like they used to be. It can be hard to find talent that is good enough or worthy to reproduce something. Yes, there will ALWAYS be someone saying they can, but don’t believe it unless they can prove it by previous work or samples. And when a contractor says “There is only one way to do it” that usually means that’s the way they always do it. Look for options, because they are always many. And can’t means they don’t want to.
Time
Hopefully time is not the sole determining factor. Too often having it done quick causes something that has value to be lost. Demolition for time is a poor excuse for not considering options.
Aesthetics
Your methodology should cover this. But be easy on the old house, since perfection is on the eye of the beholder. The aesthetics of an old house is typically one with parts in various states of failure, it’s just asking if that state of failure puts the building or the occupant in danger. If things are at risk, then the level of intervention may depend on  budget, time, and available craft. I often say “It doesn’t have to be you”, meaning if something has been in a state for so long it’s OK if it goes a little more.
So the short answer about plaster is that if the house’s interior is irreplaceable and there are options for repair, then save it. If not, then reproduce the finish in a modern way; skim coating over blueboard. New plaster done thoughtfully and well crafted will resist air flow and moisture migration, resolve bad layers, create a pleasing well manicured fresh surface, and allow the building to be appreciated for many generations to come.