Emery Grover building on Highland Ave./ Credit: Needham Observer

A close encounter with 19th century masonry practices has added two to three months to the Emery Grover school administration building renovations and pushed the project’s $23.7 million budget close to its limit.

The delay means the school administration staff won’t be able to move back into the building on Highland Avenue by the start of the next school year as planned. They will likely remain housed at the former Hillside School through at least the end of this calendar year.

School Superintendent Dan Gutekanst has taken the news in stride. The 45 members of the administrative staff have been working at Hillside for more than a year.

“Hillside is working out for us,” said Gutekanst. 

Hank Haff, the town’s director of building design and construction, said problems came to light in the early fall while workers were demolishing the interior plaster walls of the 125-year-old building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We knew that there were two layers of common brick behind the plaster walls that support the structure,” Haff said. “What we could see from the exterior was a regular pattern of bricks that were rotated 90 degrees. The (original) masons did that so that they can tie all three wythes of brick together.”

{A “wythe” is a vertical section of a masonry wall that is one unit thick. Most older masonry structures consist of an outer wythe of brick — the exterior façade of the building — and an interior wythe of brick to which the drywall is attached.}

“Once we removed all of that and started doing further investigation, we found that a lot of those bricks that were turned 90 degrees and were supposed to tie all three layers together had been broken,” said Haff.

The project’s structural engineer required that certain areas of the interior brick be rebuilt. “And in other areas, there had to be metal brick ties that were drilled into all three layers to tie them together,”said Haff.

The added effort has been both labor and liquid intensive. “The repointing and the injection of all the grout required the masons to be on site about two months longer than anticipated,” which also delayed other aspects of the project, said Haff.

The masons had to regrout the majority of the inside wall using an injection system, Haff explained. “They would drill holes every 18 inches on an offset grid, and then pump the grout to fill the voids that were between those various layers. That firmed up the wall and provided structural stability to that exterior wall.

“It’s a fairly messy process because the injection grouting system is very fluid. It has more water in it than if you were just laying up brick,”he said.

Also, the brick underneath most windows had to be reconstructed because the window frames had, over time, leaked. “The mortar had pretty much fallen out in most places,” Haff said.

No other big surprises

Interior brick walls with injection grouting in Emery Grover building/ Credit: Town of Needham

Given the age of the building and its historic status, Haff said the team was girded for this sort of setback. “It’s an existing historic building that’s 120-plus years old. And similar to the Town Hall renovation or any historic building renovation, there will be surprises.”

Alicia Svenson, an architectural conservator who is now a doctoral student at Northeastern University, is writing her dissertation on the transformation of brick as a building material between 1880 and 1940. She said the techniques used in 1898 represented a challenge for current masons because they require matching the “Roman bricks” that are smaller than standard contemporary bricks and must be arrayed in particular patterns.

“If you used something that was a different size or shape or a different color it’s really going to start to look very odd,” she said. “You’re basically reattaching the front layer to the back layer so that it remains load bearing.”

The building’s historic status required other special attention to preserve its distinctive architectural features, such as the large windows that front on Highland Avenue.

“We are trying to make the exterior of the building look as close as possible to what it used to look like originally,” said Haff. “That’s standard for building preservation and adaptive reuse.”

“The ones that are more complicated, obviously, are the large, curved windows. All of the rectangular ones are pretty much all in place at this point. The curved ones are still in fabrication and they’ll be put in place.”

Svenson said Emery Grover reminds her of other Boston-area buildings built in the same era, including the Boston Public Library, which was built between 1888 and 1895.

“If you’ve been to the interior courtyard of the McKim building you may remember it also uses Roman brick in a running bond, and it also has arched windows,” said Svenson.

She called Emery Grover a very lovely building. “I’m glad to hear that they are doing right by it.”

Haff said he does not anticipate the project exhausting the contingency funding that was built into the budget to accommodate unexpected expenses. “We’re beyond the major surprises. As in any renovation project, it was going through the demolition and putting in all the new structure that were the biggest opportunities for surprises.”

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