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HOW TO DETERMINE THE AGE OF STRUCTURES

By Jack Lynes, CEO of SEER Insurance Inspections, Inc.

We are frequently asked how we determine the age of buildings. This is an introduction to this inexact science, and is how we at SEER determine age.

1) We ask the insured. The first line of information gathering is to ask the insured. Usually they have the facts on the building they own and we report what they say. Sometimes they are wrong, and sometimes they don't know. If we have easy access to local tax records (such as county records online) we verify there. Failing that,
2) We base it on experience and our knowledge of buildings. This is not an exact science, an illustrated guide to building age would be helpful, and perhaps we can work on that later.  Basically we judge based on style of construction, style of detail, type of ornamentation, age of neighborhood, how it looks, and technological features.

In dwellings, homes can be evaluated based on neighborhood, style, aging of components, sizing of different things. It gets tougher when the underwriter wants an exact date; then we have to confirm it somehow. But if you want a range, we are pretty good at just looking at a building and telling the "era" it was built in. The newest are hardest, because in the cosmic view of things, brand new and ten years old are nearly identical. But a Craftsman style house was probably built in the 1920’s, a rambling Queen Ann style or big boxy house with high ceilings is generally 1880s-1915.

Look at it this way: Most periods of construction in our country can be divided up into war-year eras, each era pretty much distinctive, divided by a period of war where not much was being built.

Colonial

Colonial: very little exists from Colonial times. Anything that does is on the historical register or has some sort of placard declaring its antiquity. Hardly anything was built from 1777 to 1790 because we were in the turmoil of war. In fact, many structures were lost during that period.
After Revolution

After Revolution: (also known as Ante-Bellum)1790 to 1860 is only a 70 year span and a good bit was built during that era, but the styles are pretty distinctive: "Greco-Roman" columns, lots of hand done trim; hand planed, wide boards; structural board are either hewn or if sawn, the kerf marks are straight, not circular because saw mills were not yet mechanized or if so they were steam adapted and the mechanism was still and "up and down" type of saw. Civil War destroyed many large structures in the southeast part of the US courtesy of the invading northern troops and again, whatever managed to survive is placarded with its history.
But sometimes not, so we look for the tell-tale signs of hand planning, hand worked trim, antique glass in windows, high ceilings, wide floor boards and other non-standard sized lumber, that sort of thing.

After Civil War

After Civil War: The War of Northern Aggression ended in 1865 and the south was left in ruin. Reconstruction was slow and painful, and not much was really built until the mid to late 1870's. Existence was hand to mouth, there was only Yankee money immediately following the war. Confederate money was worthless.

The 1880's and 90s and up to the advent of the War to End all Wars, known now as WWI, was the golden age for most of the US. Most small downtowns date to that period, and are characterized by solid brick, joisted masonry construction with ornamentation in the brickwork, and iron trim. Sometimes the date of construction is on the trim somewhere. Large houses of this period were large and spacious, with high ceilings and gingerbread or other distinctive ornamentation. Glass is often still rippled, but the glass industry is in transition during this period. Indoor plumbing is coming into vogue, and the earliest electricity is the single wire type with ceramic posts and tubes. Much of this electrical tube and post is retrofitted into houses built before electricity. Much of the small houses from this era doe not survive, as they were not pleasant places to live and have been razed in favor of newer dwellings. Sometimes you can still see these old relics standing near or beside fields, sometimes with a mobile home next to them. In the cities, many of the smaller homes from this period, if still extant, are insignificant. In parts of the west, adobe was popular during this period. President Wilson was not successful in keeping the US out of war in France, and we ultimately plunged into the conflict, and the nation's attention was directed to the next war effort.
America’s involvement in WWI lasted from 1917 to 1918.

WWI to WWII (1917 - 1941)

WWI to WWII (1917 - 1941) was a period of expansion, and the days immediately following the war were heralded by boys coming home from war, the economy doing pretty well, and men such as Frank Lloyd Wright were influencing styles. Like after WWII, the soldiers coming home from war resulted in new smaller homes being built to house the delayed families, and there was a rush of building. Styles common to this era are Craftsman or Bungalow. Glass has larger panes, no ripples. Indoor plumbing is still rare. Electricity is unknown in the country, only the city has it. The crash of November 1929 brought the economy to its knees and resulted in the Great Depression. Not much construction dates from the years 1930 - 1941. Some government buildings, different WPA projects and so forth are the primary building projects. Not many people had money to build. Businesses were closing left and right. There just wasn't much money in circulation, and your grandparents can tell you what a hell life was in those days.
WWII (Dec 1941-1945)

WWII (Dec 1941-1945) brought an end to the Great Depression, but the country's attention and resources were directed to the war effort once again. You won’t even find a civilian automobile built during this period.

Young men that grew up in the depression, and then served in the war, returned home in 1946 and started one of the largest booms in our nation’s history. Many of us in the present working generation were conceived during this time, this Baby Boom. There was a need for housing in a very big way, and for some reason the "ranch" style house became the standard and favorite, usually built in new developments or "named" neighborhoods in the suburbs. These early post war houses are characterized by their rectangular shape, front door that opens directly into a living room, a central hallway with bedrooms opening off of them. Windows run up into the eaves, and there is usually not much overhang. The first of these were relatively small, the siding was often plywood or wood of some type. A big picture window in the living room was common.

Rapidly following in the mid to late 1950's was the brick veneer and a bit more size and ornamentation. The 1960’s were a time of tremendous building of the ranch house. Aluminum siding came out in the early 60's. Windows are normally aluminum framed.
Commercial construction is not that much more distinctive, though the European styles of Mies Van der Roh and the American Phillip Johnson influenced the 50's-60's modern styles characterized by sleek brick work, aluminum framed windows, and a low, flat-roofed, unadorned style. Think of the "Life of Georgia" buildings from this era. Shopping centers sprang up and are often masonry non-combustible, with solid masonry walls and bar joists for rafters. Decking in the late 40's to mid 60's is usually wood. Interior partitions are wood framed, and walls may be real plaster. Later, they change to sheetrock with wood stud walls. All metal buildings of the Non-combustible type, or Butler Building type, started out in the early to mid 60's. Metal building from the war years to this steel framed concept were often of the Quonset hut type. Many times they were military surplus.

After Vietnam, which didn't really have much impact on building styles as there was not the definite stop and resumption of the economy as during previous conflicts, styles only changed in the fact that new materials were introduced and people coming of age or better resources looked for newer and better styles. T-111 plywood siding became endemic and particle board common.
There is a unique style common in the early to mid 1970's utilizing plywood siding, angular walls, sky-lights, sliding glass doors, and other experimentation with shapes and layout. No longer were houses built with hardwood floors that were then covered with wall to wall carpet; the hardwood layer was skipped altogether, and carpet was laid directly on the subfloor. Styles became more varied, many people not going Hilton Head modern, opting for a more "country" style, returning to a "homey-er" era, characterized by homes with Masonite or false wood siding, and peaked roofs. Commercial styles continue to be modernized, though extruded aluminum framed openings changed to the "store front" type we have now with squared anodized aluminum framing and glass held in neoprene gaskets. Many more commercial buildings are made with steel frames, with masonry to cover sides. Fronts are store-front glass. Natural plaster is long gone, and walls are metal stud with sheetrock covering. Suspended ceilings become common.

The 1980's are a real mixture, but the country style persists in dwellings, although vinyl, originally designed for use in the mobile home industry, now is found on retrofits and new homes started in this era. Porches are more common, although only representative of porches of the pre-WWII era, in that they are not deep enough to really use. Building since the 1970's is overall more representative of appearance than substance, in that windows don't have real mullions, but have removable grill work, to just look like "real" windows, most products are pressed from cheap materials to give the appearance of their original, siding is vinyl, everything outside is covered with vinyl, brick is not solid, but is a veneer merely attached to the wall, posts are often extruded aluminum or vinyl, and trim is plastic. Ceilings have returned to higher elevations, as people have tired of the cramped ranch house. Commercial styles still maintain steel frame or masonry non-combustible construction although late in the 1980's a new product pioneered by Dryvit was introduced, and it rapidly was put into use. This Dryvit product is a synthetic stucco and is a quick and easy covering for buildings, though is mostly ornamental, in that it is used for signs, facades up out of traffic areas, and coverings of buildings not normally subject to traffic areas (since it cannot take any abuse). This material, also called EIFS (exterior insulation finish system) was also applied to many dwellings in the period of 1985 - 1995 but has fallen from grace because of moisture retention and lack of resistance to abuse. Many companies produced it, including Sto, Dryvit, Damtite, among others. There are class-action lawsuits active involving the use of EIFS and Masonite siding in residential construction.

The Strata of Towns

It is interesting to take a ride through any small town. Start at the courthouse. Look at the buildings around it and try to guess the era. Look at clues, such as ornamentation, placards or cornerstones. Ride out of town and watch how the styles change. It is like riding down a time line. It is really kind of fun to do. "Here is Civil War era, now reconstruction, here is the golden age, oh, now is WWI." Go a little further, and you can see depression era, then after WWII. 1960's. 1970's. Then our present era. It's like archeology. The deeper you go into the city center, the older it is. When you look at buildings all day long and test and confirm these notions, you get pretty good at estimating.

These are some of the factors we look at when dating a building. Some things are easy, others not so. But all these factors go into the estimation of age, including other clues such as the date that can always be found on the underside of a toilet lid. Asking, determining from clues, looking at cornerstones, initials written when concrete was fresh all are used to determine the age of a building.


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