Saturday, April 29, 2017

A Closer Look at the 2011 Architectural Report On Veblen House and Cottage

The fate of Veblen House now hangs in the balance, as the Friends of Herrontown Woods proposes to acquire and repair the buildings. The county has moved ahead with preliminary environmental studies, and has stated its intent to demolish the structures. One document it has used to rationalize demolition is "The Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen House and Cottage Conditions Assessment, prepared in 2011 by an architectural firm. A close look at the document reveals a number of basic errors, a negative bias, and a questionable approach to estimating costs.

The firm was paid $20,000 to develop a cost estimate for repairing the Veblen House and cottage. The report begins by reiterating research done in 2001 when the buildings were determined to be of national historic merit. There's a detailed history of ownership of the relevant parcels, along with some biographical information on Oswald Veblen's extraordinary career and the House's original owner, Jesse Paulmier Whiton-Stuart.

The county report then proceeds to detail the buildings' flaws. There is no positive language about such things as the high quality of construction or the custom craftsmanship inside the Veblen House. Though it offers some useful insights, the report makes some fundamental errors, misidentifying the materials used for interior walls and roof of the Veblen House. It estimates the cost of repairs by going room by room, rather than giving, for instance, one quote for painting the interior of the house.

The county has referred to the report, most recently in an April 25 document from the county administrator, and is using its cost estimates as a means of measuring the fitness of the Friends of Herrontown Woods for becoming the owner and caretaker of the buildings.

Members of FOHW, including a distinguished architect, have studied the county's architectural report and dug into its calculations. Along with the uniformly negative tone, the misidentification of basic elements like wall and roof material, and the room-by-room cost estimates, the report also boosts its cost estimate by adding a 50% "general conditions" and "concept design contingency". We also know that the cost of government projects tends to be higher, sometimes much higher, than when done by nongovernmental organizations.

To what extent, then, should we consider the Conditions Assessment to be the last word in determining actual cost of repairs? Below is a sampling of the report's cost estimates for repairing the Veblen House:

"Urgent Work"

$37,500 to replace wood shingle roof--Roof is not wood shingle. Most of it is metal, and is not leaking. The area covered by the roof is 1000 square feet.
$10,000 to install drainage system and waterproof foundation--Improved drainage around house should be done first, and may be sufficient
$5000 to install rat slab in basement--not necessarily advisable
$30,000 to mothball building with window covers and ventilation--FOHW would not mothball building but continue working
$36,500 in "general conditions" and "concept design contingency"--essentially, this assumes a 50% cost overrun.

"Necessary Work"

$36,800 to raise the house--Real problem is that gravel was piled next to the house, making the ground higher than original. Lowering ground to original level, and redirecting drainage away from house may be sufficient.
$71,000 to repair and paint exterior walls--seems high for replacing and painting some boards
$11,000 to repair exterior doors--also seems high for four doors
$26,500 to repair interior plaster walls and ceilings--Walls are not plaster. This does not include painting
$30,500 to repair windows and screens--Windows are very high quality. Some window sills and windowpanes need replacing. Other than that, they appear in good condition.
$10,000 to replace fixtures in bathrooms--Fixtures are from the period, in good condition, and don't need to be replaced. Two modern efficient toilets can be purchased for $400 total.
$26,500 to paint interior walls. Add to $26,500 for wall repairs, to equal $53,000 for interior walls.
$19,000 to refinish hardwood floors. For comparison, a ballpark figure offered for a 2000 square foot house by a local business was less than $10,000.
$183,000 for "general conditions" and "concept design contingency"--this is the 50% cost overrun added on to the already high estimates above.

The architectural study claims a total cost for "urgent" and "necessary" work of $600,000 for the Veblen House. Essentially, $220,000 of that is "general conditions" and "concept design contingency".

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge


Ever since finding Oswald Veblen's will, which stipulated that the Veblen House was to be a "museum and library", I've been collecting books to sit on the custom chestnut wood shelves in the living room when Mercer County finally allows our Friends of Herrontown Woods nonprofit to fix the house up. Two new additions were purchased last month at a talk by Robbert Dijkgraaf, the charismatic director of Institute for Advanced Study. With his rich baritone voice and well crafted slides, he gave a talk to a packed room at the Princeton Public Library on "The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge." The title comes from Institute founder Abraham Flexner's 1939 essay, for which Dijkgraaf has written a companion essay. During the talk Dijkgraaf made a compelling case for funding research "motivated solely by curiosity and without concern for applications."

During Q and A, I asked a leading question "How did the Institute end up in Princeton?" Dijkgraaf said "Oswald Veblen", his Dutch accent imbuing the name with consequence, as he pronounced the "Ve" syllable as "vay" rather than "veh". (There's been an ongoing question as to how Veblen pronounced his last name.) The funders of the Institute, the Bamberger family that started Macy's, had wanted the institute to be near Newark. When he read about the planned institute in the NY Times, Oswald Veblen contacted Flexner and suggested locating the institute in Princeton. Like many of Veblen's ideas, initial resistance finally yielded and the idea was realized. Veblen's ideas influenced the Institute in many other ways as well, and he became its first professor.


On a personal note, the importance of basic research--following one's own curiosity--was a matter close to my father's heart, as an astronomer at Yerkes Observatory, and it was good to hear Dijkgraaf present the case so beautifully and convincingly.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Hazelnuts and Pawpaws in the Ground


We had a good workday this past Sunday, with three board members and three additional volunteers. Here, board member Sally Tazelaar and Laura Strong are planting one of the 16 hazelnut plants rescued from a construction site nearby. Stan de Riel donated nine pawpaws grown from seed collected locally.

A strong theme in our restoration of the Veblen grounds is the use of donated materials, skills and time. The stakes next to each new tree, and the protective fencing to be added later, are also of the "found" variety.

Of course, by far the most important "found" material is the buildings on the site: the Veblen House, cottage, garage, barn and corncrib at the site. The Friends of Herrontown Woods has officially submitted its detailed proposal to acquire and repair these historic structures, at no cost to county or town.


The planting was done in an area cleared of invasive shrubs by board member Kurt Tazelaar. In the middle of this aerial photo from 1988 is a square open area. We're turning some of that area into an unusual native orchard for nut and fruit trees. The woodland opening will expand as the many ash trees growing nearby are lost to Emerald Ash Borer. Sunday's planting will help insure that diverse native species are in place to catch the additional sunlight as the forest thins.

Meanwhile, some daffodils that have long ornamented a spring drive up Snowden Lane are being rescued prior to pending construction. They will be planted in the Veblen field.

Thanks to all who lent their spirit, skill and energy to the workday.