Capitol Hill Restoration Society

Modern & Traditional Building Materials – Preservation Cafe

Posted on September 1st, 2016

Local contractor Gary Barnhart gave a presentation on the characteristics of modern and traditional building materials and techniques on Thursday, September 15, 2016 at 6:30 p.m. at Ebenezers Coffee House, 2nd and E Streets NE.

The September Preservation Café speaker was Gary Barnhart, general contractor and owner of GL Barnhart Construction.  A Capitol Hill resident, Mr. Barnhart previously trained as a construction inspector before starting his firm in 1997. Today, the company focuses on modern renovations, historic restorations, and construction work in the Capitol Hill area.  The presentation, titled “Traditional & Historic vs Modern Building Materials,” focused on the many choices of exterior materials that can be used on Capitol Hill homes.

The construction trade has been affected less by advances in modern technology than almost all other industries. However, many products have changed with modern advances in materials and technology. To the surprise of many, various materials are made with modern methods to appear just like original materials. In some cases, the fake materials perform better in terms of durability and longevity than the originals.  There are also circumstances where the fakes are of much lower quality and natural materials are better from an environmental perspective.

Examples of traditional vs modern-equivalent materials discussed by Gary included:

  • Rubble or Brick vs concrete foundations. All these materials work well and require maintenance over time, but concrete is the preferred method these days because of labor and transportation costs.  Ready mix concrete has been around Capitol Hill since the 1915 and can be usually found in homes east of 15th St.
  • Solid (mass) vs veneer brick walls. Solid brick walls are fully masonry and some face bricks are hard to match either in color or dimension. Hollow bricks of a standard dimension are used in a veneer wall construction, which is a wood-framed structural system with an air gap between the materials.
  • Lime vs cement-based mortars.  Lime-based mortars should be installed at historic mass walls and are required to be used in the Capitol Hill Historic District (CHHD).  Cement-based mortars will work well in a modern (typically veneer) brick system.  If one installs cement mortar in a historic solid wall, the mortar may damage the original bricks over time.
  • Wood vs cement-fiber siding. Wood siding is to be used when replacing in-kind materials at the front façade in the CHHD.  Wood siding requires a lot of maintenance while cement-fiber is a heavier material that will hold up well over time.
  • Traditional stucco vs EIFS. EIFS is an acrylic stucco, pre-finished, rigid-insulated exterior system and can be problematic if not installed correctly.  Traditional stucco should be used on existing homes, EIFS can be used on additions if the installer has experience installing this type of system before.
  • Solid vs hollow metal fencing. Traditional wrought iron and hot-formed steel fences are heavier and will last longer than hollow cold-formed steel or aluminum.

Happy to answer any renovation questions, Gary can be reached at 202.569.8471 or