February 27, 2017
This week Nick sits down with a bonafide preservation engineer, Mat Daw of Keast & Hood. Mat has done critical building preservation work on all different scales and all over the world, from an annual trip to the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse here in Maryland to doing disaster relief work saving buildings in Haiti. Lend us your ear as PreserveCast learns what a day in the life of a preservation engineer is like.
[Nick Redding] Ellis Island, disaster response, chain grocery stores. What do all these have in common? For us, it’s today’s guest Mat Daw. Mat is here to talk to us about his work in building preservation as a principal engineer for Keast & Hood‘s Washington, DC office. Stick around and learn how Mat’s work has saved buildings all over the state and beyond on this week’s PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] Hi, this is Nick Redding and you’re listening to PreserveCast. Mat Daw is a principal engineer and director of Keast & Hood’s Washington, DC office. He’s experienced in the structural design and project management of a wide variety of complex architectural and engineering projects. While his project, engineering, and management experience has encompassed significant new landmark building construction, he’s also amassed an equally extensive background involving the renovation, diagnostics, repair, and emergency stabilization of many notable historic buildings. And for our purposes, Mat also serves on the Preservation Maryland board of directors. Mat, welcome to PreserveCast.
[Mat Daw] Great to be here, Nick.
[NR] So, I think one of the big takeaways that I’ve had since being Executive Director of Preservation Maryland is that knowing a preservation engineer may be the single most important thing a preservationist needs to have in his back pocket. And he needs to become good friends with a preservation engineer because it seems like every corner we turn around, we need to know about the structural stability of a building. And so it has been fantastic to have developed a relationship with you and to be able to go together and look at some of these old structures. What got you into this? How did you end up in this career?
[MD] Well, it’s been a long, circuitous path to where I’ve gotten. About 20 years ago, actually exactly 20 years ago, I had relocated from New York City, back to Philadelphia, where I was educated at Drexel University. And I stumbled onto the firm Keast & Hood, where I’m currently principal and in charge of the Washington, DC office. But the firm had a history of being involved with historic preservation focus projects. And one of the founders of Keast & Hood, Nick Gianopulos, who is now in his 90s, retired about six years ago, or so. Nick became a very strong mentor of mine. I call him a father of historic preservation in the structural engineering world. That’s sort of his claim to fame, was being involved with the drafting of the Secretary Standards [Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Buildings] in the ’60s working at the time with the National Park Service at Independence Hall. And that [could take another?] approach of repairing and stabilizing that building using reversible approaches with a real sensitivity to maintaining historic fabric. At the time, the Park Service was taking a very different approach, a very heavy-handed approach. So Nick Gianopulos, at the time, put his foot down and had convinced the Park Service that the approach of maintaining the fabric, and doing no harm, and leaving the building in a better state than we found it, he convinced them that this was a great approach, so –
[NR] And that was a big shift too, right? I mean –
[MD] Very big shift in the ’60s. Yeah, I think, prior to that period, we used the term Trumanization.
[NR] Right, of the White House.
[MD] The White House was a perfect example of complete gut, renovation, really, destruction of a lot of historic fabric. It was a very common approach. At the time, I think it was the easiest approach. It had become accepted and that was really the period where the shift occurred in the ’60s.
[NR] And it seems to me that on the engineering side, although, I think a lot of preservationists get into this work because they’re excited about maybe the architectural details, the look of a building, but there is no quicker way to either destroy a building or lose a building than to lose its structural integrity.
[MD] Of course.
[NR] I mean, once that goes, it doesn’t really matter how beautiful the gingerbread is [laughter] on it. If the foundation is compromised or you really damage it by doing something incorrect, it goes pretty quick.
[MD] Absolutely typical historic buildings that the structure is a very important piece of the overall building. The structure is the architecture in a lot of cases. But often times, we see deterioration of building structures in historic properties, mostly moisture related or related to renovation projects gone bad and bad decision.
[NR] Right. How many changes have you seen? You said you’ve been with Keast & Hood now, I guess 20 years. As technology really advanced in a big way, has it changed the way you do your work, or are there still some core fundamentals to that?
[MD] I think certainly there are core fundamentals. Technology is changing weekly, it seems, in our industry, so we’re always trying to stay up ahead of the curve on changes in technology and new building materials, surveying. There’s so many different technologies that have become very useful to us, and the core of our work is we use the expression, “Letting the building tell us the story,” but I think the diagnostics of what we do is something that’s – I think it’s a very creative process. That process really hasn’t changed. We do have useful diagnostic tools.
[NR] What kind of tools would those be? I mean, are you guys using drones, I would presume, to get a look at higher things.
[MD] Drones are technology, they’re very useful especially in an emergency response work, or when we’re evaluating buildings which were in a dangerous condition. they become very useful. Certainly, safety of our staff is paramount. But other technology we’ve used X-ray technology. For instance, at the bell tower at Independence Hall, we’re able to use X-ray technology to identify hidden elements within a lot of the wood cladding systems.
[NR] Now is that something the Keast &Hood would bring to a project or do you sub-contract that kind of work out?
[MD] We have some capabilities in-house of, we call them toys, but tools to help us do our jobs, but I think if a project requires a significant amount of diagnostic testing, we typically will bring in an outside consultant who specializes in that field.
[NR] So when you go to a particularly historic structure – and I know that you’ve had really a wonderful career, with both new build and looking at older buildings as well, but when you were brought onto a project, and they say, “Mat, we want you to come in and tell us if this building is structurally stable.” Right? And that’s sort of a tall order, it seems to me, but I guess it’s sort of old hat for you. When you’re brought into that sort of situation, what’s the first thing you do when you get into that building? When you say you let the building talk for itself, how does that actually play out?
[MD] We do like to go in with a fresh set of eyes, and we try not to be tainted by past reports or information that may have been presented to us. We like to formulate our own perspective and opinion on the building, but we often use the term kicking the tires. We will go in initially and evaluate the building. A visual observation, often these are very quick –
[NR] Looking for big cracks, big concerns, things like that.
[MD] Yes. Yeah, looking for indicators –
[NR] Red flags.
[MD] Yeah, red flags or indicators that maybe there are issues with this building. Sort of hidden money in a development world. We like to alert our clients to concerns that they may be running into.
[NR] Probably a lot of moisture, looking for moisture challenges, too, right?
[MD] Moisture challenges, cracking, settlements. Any indication that there may be a compromise, but typically we start from the bottom up. If the building is in a very dangerous condition, we feel it’s imperative to start from the bottom up, as typically you’re looking overhead at structures that you will be standing on as you perform an assessment and service.
[NR] So it’s not even just the building at that point? You’re also thinking about the safety of your staff.
[MD] Absolutely, yeah. Absolutely.
[NR] And that, I guess, can be sort of a dangerous situation, particularly when you’re dealing with disaster response. And I know that Keast & Hood has dealt in many different cases with disaster response.
[MD] Yeah, most recently, in Ellicott City, we assisted with a number of properties there early on.
[NR] Right, and for listeners who may not be familiar. Mat’s referring to a pretty disastrous flood in Ellicott City, Maryland in the center of our state when on July 30th, 2016, the historic district there received close to six inches of rain over two hours. That deluge turned into a flash flood that was really destructive, lifting off granite doorsteps – flying down the street. Mat joined us within the next day or so after that to try and help and figure out strategies for saving some buildings that many thought were too far gone. Is that similar experience – are you used to going into situations where they say, “That can’t be saved. We had our engineer take a look at it,” and you’re sort of in this second opinion phase?
[MD] Certainly, yeah. We’re often faced with that issue coming into a situation. We’ve had experience in Haiti after the earthquake in 2010.
[NR] Did you physically go down to Haiti?
[MD] Physically, we were in Haiti.
[NR] So you were in Haiti?
[MD] Yes, personally within a month after the earthquake.
[MD] It was just devastating.
[NR] What does that work look like? Obviously, in a sense, those historic structure are old, I’m sure. So you’re going in there trying to figure out how to rebuild, if they can be saved? What is that? That’s wide-scale disaster.
[MD] Yeah, that was a wide-scale disaster and probably is extreme a case as I think an engineer would ever experience. The initial concern is can we save these buildings, is there an approach that we can take take to physically save these buildings. Initially in Haiti, most of those buildings that we did evaluate, it was a very easy decision. Majority of the buildings either they were catastrophic failures or primarily cosmetic damage and not a lot in between. I’ll say that was – some of those were easy decisions to make. We do run into the condition of other engineers may have been at the site before us, made certain judgments or decisions.
[NR] That was the case in Ellicott City where we had some other engineers with the municipality who had already suggested that, in particular a set of buildings that supposedly may have been the oldest two standing frame structures in Ellicott City were too far gone.
[NR] In large part, thanks to your involvement, we can say that those buildings were saved. Really, at that point, you were the difference between those buildings being lost and those buildings being saved. I imagine that those aren’t the only two buildings in the United States or this world, I guess, that have Mat Daw to thank for still standing, I suppose.
[MD] It was a fantastic experience. We were fortunate to have been asked to visit and offer our opinion. Certainly in defense of others involved in that situation prior to our getting involved, it was a very stressful situation.
[NR] Right, and people are thinking about life safety, and they don’t want anyone to get hurt. I’m not calling in to question the other engineers, but obviously, you came up with a strategy for saving a building that when you and I looked at it, it was sort of standing out of habit or something. I don’t know what was actually holding it up at that point.
[MD] The finishes were holding building [laughter]
[NR] The very good paint! So when we return to PreserveCast after this quick break, we’re going to talk to Mat a little bit more about some of the signature projects that he’s worked on and perhaps if he has some favorites out there. We’ll be right back.
And now it’s time for a Preservation Explanation
[Steve Israel] Hello, this is producer Steve. This week on PreserveCast, we’re discussing preservation engineering. But we also wanted to have a chance to talk about Black History Month, and especially how it relates to historic preservation. For instance, have you heard of the Rosenwald Schools? Even if you never heard of them or recognize the folks that built them, coming out of a partnership between Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, who was the president of Sears and Roebuck, the Rosenwald Fund supported more than 5,000 schools and other community services in the South from 1917-1954. Because of segregation, many black children did not have access to adequate educational facilities – and the Rosenwald Schools helped to fill that need.
What made the schools unusual, was that Rosenwald and Washington required for their construction that both black and white community members be involved. This allowed the schools to flourish and nearly one-third of Southern black students during this period were educated at Rosenwald Schools. Over 150 of the schools were built in Maryland alone. After the ruling of Brown versus Board of Education, many of the schools closed and fell into disrepair. In recent years there’s been a great effort to preserve these buildings as they represent the dedication to education held by many southern Black communities. If you want to see a Rosenwald School yourself, you can simply search online to find a list of surviving Rosenwald Schools. Though, I am happy to say that Maryland has 53 such schools still standing. All right, let’s get back to Matt and Nick.
[NR] You’re listening to PreserveCast, this is Nick Redding and I’m joined today by Matt Daw of Keast & Hood where he is a principal engineer and director of the Washington, DC office of Keast & Hood. Matt, we were talking about natural disasters and some of those projects that you worked on, be it in Haiti all the way to a recent flood project here in Ellicott City. But beyond the disaster side, do you have any particular projects that sort of stand out in your career as something that you’re really proud of?
[MD] Certainly, I was asked recently in an interview in my office, “What was your favorite project?” And it’s not possible for me to really come to that decision, it’s it’s a tough question, and it really is. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve been involved in a lot of exceptional projects that I am very proud of. A few do stand out. In 2001, I had an opportunity to evaluate 28 buildings on Ellis Island and be involved with stabilization and repair, essentially mothballing –
[NR] Mat, just out of curiosity, did your family come through Ellis Island?
[MD] I don’t believe so.
[NR] You’re not sure?
[MD] Not that I’m aware.
[NR] On behalf of someone’s family who did, thank you.
[NR] It’s a powerful place.
[MD] It was an incredible experience. I was there during that process, right around 9/11. We were actually pulled off of the Island for a period because of 9/11 and then had to reconvene after things settled down in New York City. I think part of that story maybe makes that a very important project in my career.
[NR] Any big projects in Maryland that you’ve been pretty happy with?
[MD] In Maryland, we’ve done a tremendous amount of work at the Maryland State House, one of my favorite buildings in the State of Maryland.
[NR] I think that building has come up more on this podcast than any other building in the state! Obviously, it’s one of the longest – if not the longest – legislatively utilized buildings in the nation. I think it holds that title, and it’s also the place, of course, where Washington turns over command and goes back to being a civilian. The Treaty of Paris was signed there. There’s just no end to the amount of interesting and fascinating things that have happened there. Were you involved in the restoration of the Old Senate Chamber?
[NR] So you’ve had your hands on a lot of that building.
[MD] Yeah. Since ’99. It was really the first time I had set foot in the building. Initially, it had started as a comprehensive condition assessment of primarily the annex building, but it’s led to, yeah, one project after another. We’ve really gotten to know that building extremely well, and working with the Maryland State Archives and Maryland DGS [Department of General Services], primarily, on those projects. And they’ve also been a great client to work with, all of those involved on the state side with this project, they’ve been great clients, and we’ve had a lot of fun together, the Maryland Historic Trust and many great players. It’s been a great experience there.
[NR] Now, that’s an 18th-century building. There’s been a push as of late, as you know as a preservationist, that we take a look at our mid-century modern, the so-called recent past. What kind of challenges are associated when you start dealing with concrete? I mean, you hear some people – I’ve even read that there’s some types of concrete with rebar [reinforcing bar] in it that there’s no way of saving it, that it’s self-destructive, and that some of these modern building techniques are really tough to deal with. Have you found that? Is there any thinking on that from the engineering side of this world?
[MD] Sure. I’d say, specializing in archaic structural systems, and “archaic” simply just means those are systems that maybe aren’t used any longer in our industry – we specialize in dealing with systems that are no longer state-of-the-art, but there’s always a solution. Certainly, some buildings were built better than others or with materials that were maybe inferior or better than others, but there’s always a solution. Recently, we finished a project in Columbia, the Howard Hughes Rouse building which was an early Frank Gehry design in 1970, early 1970s, I believe. And that was a case of a building that was built by a developer likely at very low cost at the time. So they did their best to minimize material in that building, and it was a very difficult building to renovate because of significant structural limitations. It was meant to be a very lightly-framed office building. The building was retrofitted to accommodate a new Whole Foods grocery store with –
[NR] Won a bunch of awards for that as well?
[MD] Yeah, significant awards. It was arguably a very interesting building as a Frank Gehry-design. I think it was a very important. I’ll call it historic, a historic building.
[NR] Yeah, absolutely.
[MD] I think it has a– just has a great story. But the building had very significant structural limitations which required a lot of finesse and obviously cost to renovate.
[NR] But you were able to obviously to figure out a strategy because it’s Whole Foods now?
[MD] Absolutely, yes.
[NR] So I guess with the right amount of money anything can be accomplished. Is that right? [laughter]
When to Contact a Structural Engineer
[MD] Unfortunately, it often boils down to – down to cost and down to money. And I think the interesting thing I find in working in historic preservation projects or even just general building renovations. A lot of our clients are non-profits or organizations who don’t have unlimited funds. So sometimes it takes a lot of creativity to renovate these buildings or repair them without causing significant cost. I think, at times, sometimes the best approach is do nothing. And when we can take those kinds of approaches, sort of minimalist interventions. Whereas some engineers may tend to be on the more conservative side, but having experience working with existing structures, historic structures, we tend to have a better sense of what we can get away with doing, without reinforcing.
[NR] First, do no harm.
[MD] Correct, that’s always the first approach is do nothing.
[NR] And speaking of approaches, if someone’s listening to this and they are managing a historic site or perhaps they own a historic home, and they’re thinking about engaging with a preservation engineer, or they’re beginning to at least think about structural issues concerning the property that they’re taking a look at, do yo have any sort of rule of thumb, if you’re going to start working with a preservation engineer, you’re going to start looking through issues, what should they start thinking about as they go into a project like that?
[MD] I think at the early stages of a project, they should do some level of due diligence or an early condition assessment. And typically, it may not just be structural, it may be architectural, mechanical, electrical systems. At the early stages, those systems should be evaluated at least at a so we’ll often a very quick condition assessment. They may take a couple of hours and a quick report early on in the project, and this gives an owner an idea of what they’re up against. I think that always should be the way to start a potential project. Unfortunately, far too many times, we’ve been pulled into projects where there wasn’t enough due diligence down upfront, and when you get into a renovation of an older building, historic or mid-century modern so to speak, when you uncover conditions in the field and construction, they become very expensive. When these are unknowns or unforeseen conditions, they can become extremely expensive. So you only hope that those on the project have done their homework and have done sufficient due diligence upfront.
[NR] So like so much in preservation, get to know the building first, really get your hands on and get your eyes on it, and consult with the right people, make sure that the people that you’re working with are credentialed, I suppose. Is there something that people should look for if they’re looking for a preservation engineer? I mean, obviously, it would be great if everybody could go to Keast & Hood for your purposes. But if they’re in some far-flung part of the country, or perhaps you’re not doing work, or it’s not easy to access you, is there something that they should look for when it comes to a preservation engineer?
[MD] Obviously, the portfolio, the history of doing preservation projects or significant renovation projects. Again, an owner or a potential client really needs to do their due diligence in selecting the right team may not just be engineering but the right architecture firm, the right consultants for that group. That’s a challenging question, and there are a lot of– within our region alone, here in the Baltimore region, there’s a significant number of exceptional firms that– we have called them friendly competitors, but there are some great firms in the region, a lot to choose from. And it can be a difficult decision for an owner to make.
[NR] So, normally we ask everyone who comes through the studio sort of a parting-shot question. And we’re not going to ask you what your favorite project you’ve worked on is, because obviously you’ve already told us that’s too difficult to do, but we are going to ask you if you have a favorite building in Maryland. And it doesn’t have to be one that you’ve worked on, although it certainly could be. And almost everyone we’ve brought through has had an exceptionally difficult time doing this, so don’t worry if it’s hard. But we still like to see where everybody lies on their favorite building.
[MD] I would say, probably one of my favorite buildings, if not the favorite building in Maryland, a building that we’ve worked on and have volunteered within the organization, is the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse near Annapolis, I mean in the Chesapeake Bay. And we initially had done condition assessment and some repair work early on for the Foundation, for the Lighthouse Foundation. And annually we volunteer our entire office at the lighthouse in June, usually the last week of June, every year, and we go out and strip paint and have fun on their lighthouse but help them as volunteers.
[NR] That’s awesome. Now, are you just generally a lighthouse fan as well?
[MD] I think so. I was told years ago by one of my firm’s founders, Carl Baumert, who retired just a couple of years ago. But he had a long history of doing lighthouse projects, and he said, “Once you do your first lighthouse, you’ll get the bug.” And now, I’ve now done five lighthouse restoration projects and looking for the next one right now.
[NR] Well, there’s plenty of stock out there, I’m sure [laughter].
[MD] Sure they are, but I– we’ve had a lot of fun, now, at Thomas Point, and it definitely is– it’s a very unique building.
[NR] What a great answer.
[MD] Really, the engineering of that structure is just exceptional and so definitely one of my favorites.
[NR] Great. If people want to get in touch with you or they’d like to get in touch with Keast & Hood about a project that they’re working on or need some help with, how do they do that?
[MD] Go to our website www.KeastHood.com. That’s K-E-A-S-T-H-O-O-D.com. There you can get my personal contact information or we have three offices – Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Charlottesville, Virginia.
[NR] And you do projects around the country, though, right?
[MD] Around the country, we’re currently working in 25 states and a number of countries, also, internationally. We go where our clients take us and travel well.
[NR] Well, that’s wonderful. Mat, thank you for joining us today. Loved having you here in the PreserveCast studios here in Preservation Maryland’s headquarters. And the next big project you have make sure you come back, and tell us all about it.
[MD] Certainly will. Thank you, Nick. I appreciate you having me, and thank you for all that you do in Preservation Maryland, and the state of Maryland. We greatly appreciate it.
[NR] Thanks, Mat.
This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Milestones Heritage Area and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
This week’s episode was produced and engineered by Ben and Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band Pretty Gritty. You can learn more about them at their website: PrettyGrittyMusic.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @PG_PrettyGritty.
To learn about Preservation Maryland or this week’s guests, visit: PreservationMaryland.org. While there, you can check out our blog and learn about what’s current in historic preservation. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter @PreservationMD. And of course, a very special thank you to our listeners. Keep preserving!