Integrating modern materials into a historic renovation
Historic buildings are both a link between the past and the present, and a means of preserving local memory and culture. They are witnesses of a bygone era and living examples of specific building techniques, styles and materials from another time. Their upkeep is therefore essential for local communities to feel a sense of belonging and shared history, especially if the building is a meeting place in itself, such as a church. Such is the case with Calvary Episcopal Church – located in the town of Burnt Hills, New York – a wood-frame construction completed in 1849 that survived a large fire in 1967. In the prominent steeple, leaks serious events became so frequent that it was feared the structure and 1,000-pound bell were on the verge of collapse. To remedy the situation while maintaining its familiar and characteristic appearance, the choice was to use PVC materials, known for their durability.
As with any renovation, uncertainties, surprises and last-minute changes arose throughout the process, amplified by the fact that this was a historic building. An example was Father Gabriel Morrow’s discovery that the square tower was topped with four magnificent spiers and finials, one in each corner, before a previous renovation which removed them. Another surprise was the realization that there were structural issues that required stabilization of the wooden structure, which required the professional advice of an architect. Suddenly, what was once a cosmetic repair project has become a true historic restoration, with the aim of returning it to its original features and extending the life of the structure.
Jim Nally, who was in charge of the project, proposed to cover the exterior not with wood, but with a AZEK PVC polymer exterior product. Although initially skeptical, the church board eventually agreed after seeing the aesthetic appeal and strength of the new material, as well as the fact that it required minimal maintenance (unlike wood).
Once the tower was stabilized, Jim’s team carefully removed the carved wooden ornaments in order to replicate them offsite. For the pinnacles, the designs for the new detail work were created from images found in the church archives. The structure was coated with a modern cladding system in preparation for the AZEK sheet metal panels and trim.
Wood is an amazing natural material, but it is high maintenance and requires a number of treatments to ensure its durability. In outdoor use, as is the case in this project, the use of synthetic materials makes it possible to fully meet the needs of the structure without requiring maintenance. AZEK trim and molding products use engineered polymers to stand the test of time and weather. They have consistent density, simple labor requirements, and are unattractive to insects. Additionally, they have structural stability and will not warp or delaminate over time.
The artisans who worked on the project experienced the ease of installation and handling of AZEK products. According to Nally, “They appreciated the consistency of dimensions and the absence of knots, suction cups and splinters. As their experience with the material grew, their willingness to experiment with carpentry and fastening techniques timber for their jobs was also increasing. For example, Jim and his team use biscuit joinery to make tight joints that will not open due to water absorption. For finishing work, they use Kreg jigs to create fastening pockets Unlike some materials like fiber cement, special tools and PPE are not required.
All decorative elements, such as panels and other details, have been recreated with AZEK. To make the decorative finials, for example, sheets were joined to create strong PVC blocks, which could be placed on a lathe and formed as if they were pieces of wood, with no gaps or visible seams. The expected longevity of the project also means lower costs throughout its lifetime and reduced future costs related to paint, materials and labor. Ultimately, the renovation led to better management of the building’s financial and environmental resources.
The end result was a building with renewed distinction and beauty, which even surpassed its previous versions in various aspects. The project has won industry awards for its material use, praise from the local press, and captured the hearts of members of Calvary Episcopal Church. On the heels of this success, the church is considering the next phases of the building’s restoration: the cladding, eaves and woodwork of the building itself – also done with Nally Restoration and using AZEK Exteriors products. Summing up the feelings of worshipers and townspeople, Nally said, “This church…is going to have a long life. I know I won’t be there, but I would love to see it in 50 years.