Materials and Education: The Sustainability of Preservation


Interview with Paige Pollard

Commonwealth Preservation Group paige@commonwealthpreservationgroup.com


How did you get into the resiliency side of historic preservation? Are you based in a community highly affected by natural disasters?


I have run a historic preservation consulting firm for almost 17 years. Prior to that I worked for a couple of municipal governments as a preservation planner, and I worked for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, running their Certified Local Government and statewide survey & planning program as well as the regional architectural historian for 30 cities and counties in Tidewater Virginia. When I opened Commonwealth Preservation Group in 2004, it was envisioned to be a full-service historic preservation consulting firm. We do tax credit work, register nominations, easement work, and architectural surveys. My educational background is in urban planning with a minor in architecture and a master's in preservation, so I bring to preservation a design and community development standpoint rather than pure history.


I'm located in Norfolk, Virginia, and we are at the tip of the spear when it comes to vulnerability to sea level rise, as well as subsidence. In about 2009, we started having clients who were struggling with addressing recurrent and nuisance flooding. They had tried all of the off-the-shelf remedies, which weren't working. The flooding was and is getting more intense, and we were unable to find a lot of work in the world of preservation around physically addressing those issues. There was a lot of disaster planning, disaster recovery work, and documentation work, but not a lot to help someone who has their masonry foundation degrading because of repetitive or recurrent, sunny day flooding. We couldn't find answers to that, so we decided that since we live here, we had better start coming up with the answers ourselves.


What kind of education do you bring to your clients?


When I talk about education as a private sector consultant, what I mean is having the conversation with the client about their issues and the way we would approach them, such as identifying the driver of flooding. The next step would be to figure out what is the scope of work to address the specific cause, and what is the cost to implement that scope of work. In those conversations, we also have to talk about how to finance the work, what is involved in the building permitting, and what other professionals should be involved. All of this can be new information for a lot of folks who are facing these issues.


When we are working with a client, our methodology is that we use data driven metrics to determine the source. We have a kit that we install in a property to monitor where there is water coming in over, say a 30-, 60-, or 90-day period, and then we'll overlay different weather mapping, climate data, and flood risk mapping to figure out whether the flooding is related to high tide or a rain event or a major storm. We look at what all of the factors are that we can identify, so we can really focus in terms of solution development on what the actual problem is, not what we think the problem is. We put that in a report format along with a lot of historic data about the property, the kind of the land development in the immediate surroundings, and we use that as a tool to educate the property owner about what their actual risk is, and what they can expect in the way of resolution. We've noticed that it's also a tool for helping property owners determine how much they want to invest in a property. If the situation is hopeless, and there's no real solution, do they want to make a lesser investment to buy themselves some time to make some difficult decisions, or if they have a 30-year horizon, maybe it's a different approach in terms of addressing the problem. We’ve also found that some problems don’t necessarily have to do with flooding at all—they have to do with some maintenance or property management issues that can be easily resolved. So, there's that kind of education as well, which is more about collecting the data in a professional way, analyzing it, and presenting it in a way that the property owner can understand and internalize and use for decision-making. Having worked with so many different situations, we’ve realized that we can't really go in and give a prescription until we actually stop and diagnose the problem.


What kind of materials do you use? How does resiliency play a role in your solutions?


We're currently constructing a flood module which is designed to test traditional building materials for flood resiliency. We expect we'll be kicking off our first round of testing in September. Our experience tells us that traditional building materials are far more resilient than modern materials, and probably the easiest example to illustrate is that a traditional plank sub floor with a tongue and groove. Heart pine or oak floor assembly is one that can survive our type of flooding where the flooding comes in and is gone pretty quickly, then you just have to dry out the material. Often what happens is that when someone has that experience, they file an NFIP flood insurance claim, and the contractor comes in and removes that natural material and might replace it with plywood or engineered wood. Those products aren’t resilient to water, so once that first replacement has occurred, the property owner has entered a cycle of replacement that they can't break unless they go back and reinstate the traditional building materials. Now, there are modern materials that can work just as well, like moisture resistant drywall material. But the existing traditional materials are pretty resilient. Places with terrazzo floors, for example, usually have no issues after a flood. We always try and analyze the condition and the resiliency and the future projected resiliency of a traditional building material. We’ll only remove it if it's beyond repair or if it's just too hazardous to retain.


My very first memory of watching someone deal with flooding was my great grandmother who had a bungalow in Caguas, Puerto Rico. It was primarily concrete and it had a terrazzo floor and an open living area that had iron work, so the breeze could come through. I remember whenever there was a big storm, she would just take all of her furniture, which was pretty resilient itself, and move it to the side and just literally hose out the living room. The bungalow was turned into a Toyota dealership when my family sold the property after she passed away, and it has continued to survive all the recent storms.


What is it that you see preservation-based firms, like The Craig Group and Commonwealth Preservation Group, bring to the table in community resiliency efforts?


Having worked in government previously, I'm very aware of how strong public policy is. But being in the private sector has also made me aware that many times when you are in that government realm, even when you're working with property owners, you're not out in the trenches. You're not going to the job site every day, and you're not as informed about the day-to-day experience. What the private sector offers is more insight into that side of things, the nimbleness to deal with emerging issues and call attention to gaps in public policy. We have all this great guidance on new construction and how to address new construction in flood-prone areas. We have the most progressive zoning ordinance in the country, but our community is over 90% built out and so those policies focused on new construction aren’t helping the 90% of places already constructed. The private sector has a real role in that regard.


A lot of the work that we've done thus far has been to serve our clients better so we consider it in an investment in our business. We can zero in on the things that we see are most problematic, or that would result in the greatest change, or that might be hardest for the government to address. Our role is to help connect the individual issues on a site with policy and help identify and fill in the gaps between the two.


How did you connect with Lisa?


Lisa and I both served on the board of the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions, so we've known each other in that regard, and when she worked in Annapolis and I was in Norfolk, we knew each other because of her exposure to flooding and the challenges there. We planned a peer-to-peer learning day where a bunch of folks from Annapolis came down to Norfolk, and we exchanged ideas and best practices. It was really neat to see members of council, members of the planning commission, our chief resiliency officer, community members, and the Architectural Review Board coming together. We learned that we have so much in common, but also how different the challenges were that each of our communities face.


It's critical work that Lisa is doing, and I love the fact that Lisa is trying to build bridges between all of us who are in our silos, barely handling the work that we have. She's been the one encouraging us to reach out and talk to each other, and that's so important.


Paige Pollard Bio

Paige Pollard received her undergraduate degree in City Planning with a minor in Architecture from the University of Virginia, and a graduate degree in Historic Preservation from the University of Georgia. Prior to establishing Commonwealth Preservation Group, she managed the Virginia Department of Historic Resources Local Government Assistance Programs as well as the department’s Tidewater Region Preservation Program, working with property owners and local governments from over 30 cities and counties. In that role, one of her duties was to manage the Certified Local Government program, including providing technical assistance and evaluating local programs. Paige worked extensively with the local government officials and Architectural Review Board members in Smithfield in her capacity as CLG coordinator.


In addition, Paige has experience at the municipal level having worked for the City of Norfolk as a historic preservation planner. In that role, she revised the local historic district design guidelines, expanded the Virginia Landmarks Register and National Register listed Downtown Norfolk Historic District, and reported to the Norfolk Design Review Committee, City Planning Commission and City Council on issues related to historic resources.

Paige currently serves as a principal at Commonwealth Preservation Group. She is also a partner in Building Resilient Solutions, a joint venture focused on empirical data and materials testing to inform resiliency and retrofits for historic resources subject to flooding and moisture inundation.