Colonial Building Restoration

Preserving Heritage One Stone at a Time

With one statement, Andrew Lough encapsulates the importance of the work done by Colonial Building Restoration: “You can’t ignore your old buildings. They are part of your history and you just can’t ignore them.” Lough, the Owner, President, and General Manager of Colonial, started the company in 1984, and since then it has grown into a successful heritage building restoration and preservation business, accumulating valuable experience on numerous high-profile projects. Specializing in stone preservation and consolidation, brickwork, non-invasive cleaning methods, and a wide variety of repairs, Colonial has set to work on buildings such as the 51 Division Police Station and the Royal Conservatory of Music, both in Toronto, the Kingston City Hall and Courthouse, the Royal Military College, and numerous buildings in Ottawa, including the Library of Parliament.

Colonial has made a name for itself throughout a swath of Southern Ontario, completing projects in Toronto, Ottawa, Kingston, London, Barrie, Sarnia, and Windsor. Though Lough says, there are some notable exceptions, Colonial’s standard projects range take anywhere from three months at the least to two years to complete. However, there are times when the projects’ timelines are drawn out. “We have a project that’s been ongoing for five years, the Victoria Memorial Museum,” says Lough, explaining that it has been deliberately phased over five years. Colonial’s employees often complete projects on buildings that are occupied for all or part of the work period, a fact that illustrates the company’s ability to accommodate its clients’ needs and tailor projects to meet, and often exceed, their expectations.

The flow of projects generally slows in the winter: “The projects do wind down because it just gets too cold for materials to work,” says Lough. The company`s operations do not cease completely, however—as of mid-January this year, Colonial still had active projects. “We keep a small staff going as much as we can,” he adds.

Excelling with a well trained, dedicated work force
On any given project, Colonial will have from eight to 20 employees on site. The employees are drawn from a union, but Lough says that the same ones keep coming back to Colonial. “We’ve had the same guys for 20 years,” he notes.

Employees are trained through the union at a school that was set up specifically for their purposes. Training takes place during an eight-week period, usually in the winter months when work slows down. This is in addition to the apprenticeship program that new employees are put through to hone their skills. Lough explains that the apprenticeship is structured as an hour bank—an employee must put in 3,800 work hours to complete an apprenticeship. The eight weeks of in-school training do not apply to this tally. Employees also receive additional training as they go along to upgrade their skills. A specific program is put together for a group of journeymen, who are obligated to attend. “They may have their old skills, but when we introduce something new we want them to know about it as well,” says Lough. This union training has replaced that which employees used to receive through their guild membership.

For the industry, labour supply can be problematic, says Lough. “It’s not becoming a lost art, because we are constantly training new people, but definitely the supply of people is low.” He adds that, for 10 or 15 years, there was a general movement away from the trades, when young people sought office jobs. “Nobody wanted to do anything but work on computers.” But this has reversed in recent years, and the number of workers going into the skilled trades is on the rise. “There was a change in attitude towards being a tradesperson,” says Lough. “There’s good money in it. And there’s nothing to be ashamed about being a skilled person in the field.”

Time isn’t always on our side
As buildings age, numerous problems can crop up. The one that Colonial encounters most often, says Lough, is the wear on stones that are constantly exposed to the elements. “What shows up the most is that we get stones breaking, which allows for water to go into the stone,” he explains. “If that stone is not fixed, any moisture in there has a tendency to freeze and expand, so it does more damage to the stone.” Damage can also occur in the same manner in the masonry joint, which is built to be softer than the stone around it. “That’s what we want to break; we don’t want the stone to break,” says Lough. To correct this damage, epoxy is injected into the stone to seal the crack, or Colonial employees will use a technique called the Dutchman, which involves cutting out the cracked piece of stone and replacing it with a new piece—it’s a complicated procedure, Lough notes. There are also some propriety products on the market that can be used to fix stone, such as Jahn, which has been around for about 20 years and is used by Colonial on some of its projects, says Lough.

Colonial avoids using sealants, which Lough says are often detrimental to stone, because they don’t allow them to breathe and can lead to aesthetic problems or even the face of the stone or brick breaking off. Says Lough: “Sealants are easy money. You buy the cheap stuff, you spray it on. But all you’re doing is ripping people off; you’re not doing your job properly.”

Keeping history strong and vibrant
Colonial does a lot of consulting with the heritage staff of the federal and municipal governments—and in some cases, says Lough, Colonial is teaching them what needs to be done, especially with staff of small municipalities. “They don’t have the heritage experience,” he says. Larger departments are often easier to work with because they often have already been involved in similar projects, and they know what the work involves.

In order to get government contracts, Colonial has what is called a Prequalification Document, on which the company must show a minimum five- to seven-year history of working on these types of projects. The information on the document is thoroughly checked out, says Lough. “You’re not going to let just any contractor on a government building. You go through a rigorous survey to see that you’ve done this type of work.” There are just a handful of companies in the region that meet this standard—they are notified when these types of projects come up so they can bid for the contract.

Red tape and rigid long-term plans can get in the way of efficiency, says Lough. As an example, he explains that Colonial worked on revitalizing the Peace Tower in the Central Block of buildings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa where the scaffolding alone cost $250,000, at that time, and Colonial determined it needed another million dollars to spend beyond the budget to complete the job. “And that would mean that you walk away from it for a minimum of 20 years,” Lough notes. Knowing there was money for work to be done on the West Block on the Hill—a much smaller project—they suggested that since the scaffolding was already in place, the funds allocated for the West Block could be redirected towards work on the Peace Tower. The suggestion was shot down, says Lough, and instead the government opted to work on the tower again in five years and rebuild the scaffolding.

When asked about the current downturn in the economy, Lough is hopeful, though he recognizes there will be short-term cuts. “Private jobs and government jobs will definitely decrease,” he says, as governments cut their budgets. “But we also keep hearing that they’re going to put so many billions of dollars into infrastructure. We fall into that category.” Lough says that this is a necessary move. “They have to. Whether they like it or not, they can’t keep putting off looking after their historical buildings. They have to fix these buildings, so that makes a good place for us to be.” As is the case with most restoration, the longer the project is put off, the more costly it will be.

Colonial’s motto says everything about the company: “Preserving the past for Canada’s future.”

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