Giving History a Hand

by R. Tasha Wallis
Commissioner, Department of Labor and Industry, State of Vermont
November 2002

"Those who fail to understand history are condemned to repeat it,” wrote the legendary Harvard philosopher George Santayana. Had he been living today in our world of rampant development, he might have appended, “…and those who fail to preserve history are doomed to lose it.”

Not here, though. We Vermonters are not about to lose the many beautiful symbols of our rich history. That history and its symbols are really vital parts of our everyday existence in ways found in few other states. Here, for example, 40% of Vermonters actually live in historic buildings. Twenty percent of Vermont's economy--jobs and businesses--reside in historic downtowns. More than 30,000 historic buildings are included in the Division for Historic Preservation’s inventory. With so much at stake, we go about the task of preserving these historic assets very seriously indeed. You can see evidence of this ongoing work everywhere in Vermont, from the splendid Art Deco auditorium in Brattleboro’s high school to Burlington’s historic Flynn Theater to East Arlington’s town center to the exquisitely restored Grand Isle Lake House. These and many other beautifully restored and preserved historic architectural symbols immeasurably enrich the everyday lives of those of us lucky enough to live here. They are also an important part of the allure which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to Vermont each year.

Such widely successful historic preservation requires the collaboration of many different individuals and organizations including businesses and individual property owners, nonprofit organizations, local governments, the Preservation Trust of Vermont, and the Vermont State Division for Historic Preservation. Several divisions of the Department of Labor and Industry are involved, as well. All of us here recognize what a great privilege it is to help preserve Vermont’s historic assets and we take great pleasure in the effort. Of all our divisions, though, perhaps none is more intimately and critically involved with historic preservation than the Fire Prevention Division.

Fire Prevention Division officials face two primary challenges with every historic project: ensuring life safety while at the same time helping Vermonters who want to preserve historic buildings. Life safety concerns always have and always will come first, as our experts use their understanding of the behavior of both fire and people in fires to create safe environments for guests, employees, and customers in historic buildings.

Safety codes are the tools they use to create this absolutely essential condition of life safety.

Codes are rules. Rules imply enforcement. Enforcement of code requirements has always been an important part of the Fire Prevention Division’s work, but in the past has involved processes that were not as user-friendly as they could be. Inevitably, those somewhat unwieldy processes helped create a “construction cops” image of Fire Prevention Division personnel. Recently, however, we completed a thorough review of our own process that began with a Legislative Task Force in 2000 and which incorporated invaluable feedback from the Preservation Trust of Vermont, the Vermont State Historic Preservation Division and the Upper Stories Task Force. As a result of that review, we’ve made very significant changes, launching new procedures to make things easier and more comfortable than ever before for our customers without sacrificing any emphasis on fire safety.

Our first working premise, borne out by long experience, is that building owners almost always voluntarily meet safety code requirements when they understand and know in advance what their responsibilities are. Thus we’re working hard to provide more observation, consultation, and recommendations up front, before work-and the formal inspection process-begin. First contact with Fire Prevention Division people usually occurs when a building owner applies for a construction permit. Our consultation now begins right here in the first paper stage, helping applicants understand the permit process and advising them about the details of fire safety.

After an applicant actually files his or her application, the Fire Prevention Division reviews it proactively to find any potential problems or code violations. The operative word here, of course, is potential. The Division’s goal now is to help applicants spot these wrinkles and smooth them out as early as possible when it’s easier and a whole lot less expensive to do so. For applicants’ convenience, the Division has four regional offices throughout Vermont. At this stage, applicants will usually be working with an Assistant Fire Marshal assigned to one of the Division’s regional offices.

The Division’s Chief Fire Prevention Officer himself is also available to answer any technical or administrative questions. In addition, his expertise is at the disposal of applicants to develop solutions to any problems, no matter how complex. This help is available at any time to building owners and can be especially valuable to people just starting their planning. It can also be of service in working out knotty technical problems or helping deal with sensitive historic issues. The Division’s Regional Managers are additional resources for applicants.

In addition to working more proactively with applicants, Fire Prevention Division personnel are placing more emphasis on two key processes known as “equivalent solutions” and “alternative solutions.” These take advantage of the fact that just as there are many ways to skin the proverbial cat, there are different ways to create safe buildings. Equivalent solutions are actually written into the fire code, but can require considerable expertise to interpret. Bob Howe, the Division’s Chief Fire Prevention Officer recently worked with a building owner in North Bennington to find a rewarding equivalent solution. To open a delicatessen, the building owner was renovating the first floor of a building with an authentic, historically valuable tin ceiling which he naturally wanted to retain. But his layperson’s reading of the fire code indicated he would be required to cover or replace the ceiling. Asked to help, Bob Howe determined that the owner could keep his historic ceiling and provide equivalent safety by installing a fire alarm system and applying gypsum wallboard to an existing stairway leading to two apartments above the deli. The equivalent solution was there, written into the code, but it required Bob’s expertise to make it work for this Vermonter.

An alternative solution is one that is not included in the code, but which works anyway while meeting the intent and objectives of the code. Recently in St. Johnsbury an owner was renovating a historic building with a narrow staircase that used “winders”, or triangular steps, rather than landings to change direction. The fire code requires winders to have a minimum tread depth of 11” at a point 12” from the narrowest edge. Rather than remove the entire historic stairway, the Fire Prevention Division determined that a wider than normal handrail installed over the stair tread’s narrowest part would redirect people’s feet to the stair tread’s widest part. This helped to keep people from tripping and falling while retaining the historic stairway.

In both cases above, solutions were created and approved at the local level with a minimum of bureaucratic delay. Previously, our administrative rules required applicants seeking equivalent or alternative solutions like these to appear at a variance hearing with the Commissioner of Labor and Industry in Montpelier. We now have created a faster, more efficient local variance process that gives inspectors and regional managers greater flexibility to reach agreement and find creative solutions for building owners. Applicants can still apply to the Commissioner, but we’re happy to report that most cases are now resolved locally.

All in all, the procedural changes we’ve implemented will make a tremendous difference not only for Vermonters working to preserve historic buildings but for all architects, builders, and owners here. From my perspective as Commissioner, I can say that it’s very rewarding to have helped make this department more user-friendly and efficient for Vermonters dedicated to preserving our history. And you know, I like to think that Vermont is one of the few places where that kind of change still happens.