TECHNOLOGY FOR CULTURAL RESOURCE MANAGEMENT: THE HISTORIC HOUSE TRUST INFORMATION SYSTEM
3 THE HISTORIC HOUSE TRUST INFORMATION SYSTEM
The Historic House Trust Information System (HHTIS) is a Microsoft Access database designed for multiple purposes. Property management was the impetus for the system; however, more uses were envisioned and designed. For the conservation division, assessment surveys were added and then a project management system. Finally, an attendance-tracking database was created for analysis of site visitation. These systems are all linked together and create a robust IS for the management of historic resources. Easy-to-use switchboards and data entry screens were designed to facilitate its use by those not familiar with the technology. Two additional systems are being used by the Trust. The first predates the HHTIS and is used for membership and development, and the second is a commercially available collection-management software purchased to standardize each site's software and enable the Trust to assist with the management of the site's collections. The property management and conservation aspects will be discussed below.
3.1 HHTIS: PROPERTY MANAGEMENT
The property management portion of HHTIS was designed to provide quick answers to routine and not-so-routine questions. More than 400 unique pieces of information about each structure are stored in the system in a number of categories. The system tracks such basic information as current names, historic aliases, addresses and other geographically sensitive information, as well as license and licensee information. For historical information, the system contains construction dates, alteration dates, a chronology of building campaigns at the structure, the different levels of historic certification, and other crucial pieces of information about the history of the site and structure. The system stores the structure's base information regarding the exterior envelope, including materials and conditions of the structure, roofing, flashing, chimneys, and water dispersion systems. Additionally, mechanical system and utility information are included with information about electric, heat, HVAC, water, sewer, fire, and intruder alarm information and the structure's history of pest infestation. A section has been included to aid in the management of the cultural landscapes surrounding the structures, and another to log work orders generated for DPR by the historic houses to better track the progress of work.
To access these data sets, an easy recall system has been created to answer basic questions. From the name of the caretaker at the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage to which structures need an oil delivery in preparation for tonight's blizzard, the answers to all categories of questions are easily accessible. Of course, this information does not just appear in the database; it must be gathered and entered, but this process is a valuable exercise. Site visits, archival research, and interviews with the site stewards all create powerful insight into a structure and its maintenance needs.
3.2 HHTIS: ARCHITECTURAL CONSERVATION
The conservation division's demands from this system are different from basic building maintenance information. The HHTIS was developed to assist the conservators with planning and tracking conservation, restoration, and capital improvement projects. A number of systems were developed to facilitate these tasks. The first is a facade-by-facade survey of all the structures in the collection, the second is an interior room-by-room survey, and the third is a project management system that enables Trust staff to track all the concurrent projects at the sites.
3.2.1 Facade-by-Facade Surveys
A facade-by-facade survey of each structure, modeled after the Conservation Assessment Program (CAP) assessment, was integrated into the HHTIS. Three categories of information—materials, conditions, and condition comments—are collected for the following features: overall wall structure, materials and finishes, cornices, windows, shutters, doors and door surrounds, water dispersion, porches, decorative features, foundation, and bulkheads. Site visits are required to gather these data, and, again, interviews with the site staff help provide a more complete record of the issues affecting the structure. The data are then entered into the system and are categorized, under the appropriate structure, first by date and then by specific facade. Future and past surveys can be entered in the same manner.
3.2.2 Issues with the Survey
The HHTIS was created for ease of use and for simplicity in querying data. However, when the conservation system was being designed, a number of issues had to be confronted, including standards for condition assessments and the level of detail in the surveys.
To create a reliable system, a set of standards for determining the condition of a material or set of materials had to be created. Each material's condition potentially could be based on a different set of criteria, creating a complex set of relationships in the database among materials and condition fields. Since standards would help ensure consistency and also make the database easier to use, the solution was to use the terms “Excellent,” “Good,” “Fair,” and “Poor.” These terms do not stand for a specific material condition (e.g., spalling brick) but rather represent a time frame for failure. “Poor” implies that the feature requires immediate attention, or failure of the material is imminent. “Fair” indicates a six-month-to-two-year time frame. “Good” implies that the feature may need attention within two years, and “Excellent” indicates there are no apparent issues with the material.
Certainly, a condition field that references a time frame for failure rather than an actual material condition is incomplete. In the office, it is barely sufficient to know that the material is in “fair” condition because it does not help one plan for the actual treatment of the material or feature. Comment fields adjoin every feature's material and condition fields in order to qualify and describe the conditions affecting the material in question. So, if a brick wall was in “poor” condition, the comment field would contain the specifics such as “spalling due to improper mortar, rising damp” and, conclusively, “major brick damage.”
The second issue concerns the level of detail in the survey. Planning discussions covered both ends of the spectrum, from a bare-bones survey that, for example, gave one condition to all the windows of the structure, to a detailed survey of each window. The middle ground was chosen, a facade-by-facade survey, as the most reasonable solution. In the facade-by-facade survey, windows and their condition are grouped by facade. Certainly, with 12 windows on a facade, the ability to accurately analyze and define conditions is compromised. In line with the aim only to identify analogous problems with the structure and not treatments, a facade-inclusive condition provides a look into the trends of a structure. Once a trend has been identified, the Trust will send staff to perform an in-depth survey of the features in question or, depending on the scope or complexity of the issue, hire a consultant.
3.2.3 Room-by-Room Surveys
In the same manner that the facade-by-facade survey was developed, a room-by-room survey was integrated into the HHTIS. The same categories of information collected for the features on a facade—materials, conditions, and condition comments—are collected for the interior architectural details of the structure. These features include floor, ceiling, and wall materials and finishes; information about the different wood elements that may be in the room; the different decorative details in a room; the interior condition of the windows and interior shutters, including their operability; door conditions; and information about fireplaces and mantelpieces.
3.2.4 Project Planning
After the data from the surveys are entered in the system, they are available for analysis and printed reports. Many questions can now be answered without relying on memory or requiring a site visit—for example, the windows on the east facade are in poor condition, a structure requires a new paint job, or site drainage is not sufficient. As the database grows, comparative analysis can occur: the windows on the east facade have become progressively worse in condition since the 1985 survey (entered into the system) or the pointing problem highlighted in 1980 has yet to be resolved.
Priority lists and project wish lists can now be generated with an understanding of the issues at the site. The Trust is continually juggling different potential sources of funds for projects. Major restoration projects often occur through the City of New York's capital process, and small projects are often funded on a case-by-case basis. Trust staff use the surveys and the time frames that the condition fields provide to assess the urgency of different projects, allowing priority lists to be generated with respect to actual known conditions. From a small project to a large project, the overall information required to create a prioritized project list is in the HHTIS.
3.2.5 Future Improvements To Survey Database
There are several functions not currently built into the current system. The ability to forecast cost implications, while an incredibly useful tool for project planning, has not yet been incorporated. The integration of an estimator's guide for preservation projects would allow basic cost estimates to be generated by linking a digital form of the guide with the known material conditions in the HHTIS. In addition, the system does not include detailed surveys of individual features, the type of survey that would be appropriate for inclusion in a detailed project scope. As is the case with determining cost implications, this function has a potential future application and would expand the utility of the system.
3.2.6 Project Management
The third portion of the conservation IS is the project management database. This system was developed to track all aspects of each conservation, preservation, or facility improvement project monitored by the Trust, including any Trust-sponsored project, projects funded by the individual sites or through grants, or DPR capital improvement projects. Each project is entered into the system with such key information as budgets and funding sources, contractors and contact numbers, and project descriptions. The database also features a log sheet that displays phone calls, conversations, and meeting notes entered by the conservators. In the system, the conservators can review their project notes and conversations and then print out reports when problems arise or the project has been completed. The ability to view these project screens has also enabled Trust staff besides the project manager to be kept up-to-date on a project without having to attend the site meetings.