Professional Building Inspections for Your Historic Building | Wisconsin Historical Society

Guide or Instruction

Professional Building Inspections for Your Historic Building

Professional Building Inspections for Your Historic Building | Wisconsin Historical Society

Before you can plan a major rehabilitation project for your historic commercial building, you’ll need to know the existing condition of your building. You should hire professional inspectors to advise you on the condition of your building. No amount of reading can give you the specialized knowledge of an experienced professional. The best way to find the right professional inspectors for your building is to ask other historic commercial building owners or contact the office of your local Main Street Program.

Choose the Right Approach to Your Building Inspections

You can approach your building inspections in one of these two ways:

1. Hire a professional to coordinate all the inspections. You can hire a historic preservation construction consultant or preservation architect to coordinate every inspection. Often one firm will have all the in-house skills to conduct most of the inspections you need. A professional consultant can also evaluate and interpret each inspection for you. Make certain the person or firm you hire has a preservation construction background and the ability to bring in additional experts as needed. These additional experts might include a structural engineer, a window restoration expert, a historic plaster expert or a historic masonry expert.

2. Coordinate all the inspections yourself. If you decide to coordinate all your building inspections yourself, you should recognize that it will be a monumental task. You must have the right contacts and enough knowledge to evaluate each inspector's background. You will also need the time to contact and evaluate each inspector, arrange for the inspections and evaluate each inspection report.

Consider the Types of Inspections You Might Need

There are many types of inspections you should consider for your rehabilitation project. Here is a list of inspections to consider:

  • Structural. Hire a structural engineer who understands the nature of old and historic buildings. The engineer will look at every aspect of the structural integrity of your building from the foundation to the roof.
  • Mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP). In most cases, you should be able to find an engineering firm that can perform all MEP inspections. The firm will evaluate your heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems, as well as your electrical and plumbing systems.
  • Roof. Hire a roofing consultant who has verifiable experience with historic commercial building roofs.
  • Masonry. Hire a masonry consultant who is experienced in historic masonry to evaluate masonry failures, mortar and moisture penetration and make repair recommendations. This inspection should include laboratory analysis of brick, stone, stucco, concrete, paint and mortar.
  • Chimney. Hire a chimney sweep if you anticipate using an existing chimney in your building. Chimney sweeps are usually the best equipped to evaluate the flue inside your chimney. Be sure the chimney sweep has a camera system that can be dropped into your chimney to inspect every square foot of the flue.
  • Environmental. Hire a consultant who specializes in environmental inspections to evaluate whether your building has asbestos, mold, lead paint or any other environmental issues pertaining to health and safety. An environmental inspector should also know all the federal and state environmental laws that affect your project.
  • Energy audit.
    EnlargeBlower door test

    A blower door test is one way to evaluate where air infiltration is occuring at your building's exterior. One of your exterior doors is removed and a door panel is installed that has a high powered fan built in it. Source: WHS - State Historic Preservation Office

    Hire a firm that specializes in performing whole-building energy audits. An energy audit will tell you where you need to tighten up your building to save energy. An energy inspector will perform blower-door testing to identify where air infiltration is occurring throughout your building. Infrared testing will identify areas where insulation is needed.
  • Land survey. If you plan to do an addition, parking area or landscaping, you should obtain a land survey. A land survey tells you exactly where your property lines are. It can also help you avoid problems in the future. It is often a good practice to get a land survey whether or not you plan to make exterior changes.
  • Landscape. Too often, landscaping is delayed or not considered at all in a major rehabilitation project. However, it is a good idea to hire a landscape architect to evaluate your drainage and parking as well as existing trees and other plantings.
  • Preservation tax credits. If you are planning to use federal or state historic tax credits, it is smart to hire a historic tax credit consultant. This professional will evaluate whether your building will be eligible for tax credits.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance. Any major rehabilitation project you undertake will present ADA issues. Some of these potential issues include access into and through your building, sidewalk grades and restroom access. Hire an architect with experience in ADA issues for historic commercial buildings for this type of inspection. 
  • Architectural features. All historic buildings have character-defining materials and features. A preservation construction consultant who is highly experienced with the preservation trades can evaluate all these elements. This professional will determine which of your original materials and features can and should be saved and repaired to meet the Secretary of the Interior Standards for Rehabilitation. A preservation construction consultant will survey the condition of all the structural wooden features, plaster, woodwork, staircases, windows, original floors, paint issues and exterior features that are important to the historic integrity of your building. 

Choose the Right Professionals for Your Inspections

When you are deciding which professionals to hire for your building inspections, keep the following considerations in mind:

  • Conflicts of interest. Be aware of potential conflicts of interest. For example, you might want to avoid hiring a chimney sweep who also relines or repairs chimneys. The chimney sweep might be a good person to work with and have your best interests in mind. However, if the chimney sweep suggests your chimney needs to be relined and that person also installs liners, the situation presents a potential conflict of interest.
  • Third-party interest. The best inspectors are independent third parties who represent only you. They work on your behalf and are not interested in bidding or performing any of the work for you. The point of hiring an inspector is to get high-quality advice and specifications you can use when you hire other professionals to bid and do the actual work.
  • References. Get references and referrals from each inspector you are considering for hire. It is important to take the time to check out each potential inspector. Talk to previous clients and ask them about their experience with that inspector. Did the inspector listen to the client’s concerns? Were the inspection fees reasonable? Did the inspector produce timely reports? Ask a potential inspector to share reports that he or she has written. Review other projects the inspector was involved with that are similar to your project.
  • Tax credits. If you plan to use state and/or federal historic tax credits for your project, ask potential inspectors if they have experience with tax credit projects. Request references specific to projects they have completed that utilized tax credits.
  • Expectations and fees. Make certain any potential inspector understands your expectations and is clear with you about his or her fees. Each inspection report should clearly describe existing conditions and the solution to every problem noted in the report.