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Solomon Awards 2018 – St. Stephen Church (Building Contractor)

“Renovation” is not an accurate noun for the procedure that has taken place at the St. Stephen Catholic Church. Instead, a “restoration of grand proportion down to miniscule detail” would be more fitting.


The church, built in New Orleans in 1887, has undergone many “renovations” through its history. Flooring has been layered as trends come and go; HVAC retrofit as an innovation; new roofing installed over existing roofing; masonry tuck-pointed and bricks sealed as sections of walls failed to keep water out; electrical systems installed to replace fire-burning lanterns, then patched with new wiring and devices through the years.

Our challenge — as awarded through interview with the design team, parishioners, and the pastor—was not to bring the latest trends to the aging finishes, but rather to restore the church to its original magnificence by way of the original construction techniques, materials, and methods, while upgrading all behind-the-scenes mechanics to the latest technology to ensure future decades of seamless operation.

Preconstruction efforts started immediately upon a verbal contract award with extensive discovery work to ensure the right team was matched with the right work scope. Foundations were hand-excavated, basement access was mapped, wall sections stripped and tested for lead in multiple layers of paint, roofs and flashings carefully visually examined with the use of drones, and floors deconstructed in test areas to determine substrate and material makeups.

Keeping the church open during construction was not a requirement of the project at bid time. After we started meeting regularly with the Owner, it became evident that, although the Parish had an alternate church nearby, the Monsignor and the parishioners wanted to keep their home through the transformation. Upon mobilization, we built an ADA-compatible ramp to allow elderly parishioners to access the church through the front door while the existing ramp was torn down for replacement. Every Saturday, DonahueFavret personnel would move materials and fencing, clear all passageways, and remove all possible hazards of ongoing construction from the church floor. St. Stephen continued to hold Mass every Sunday for their congregation. DonahueFavret even advised Monsignor of times when he should remove the Blessed Sacrament from the tabernacle.

Upon signing the contract, DonahueFavret Contractors kicked off the project with the installation of protection fencing around oak trees as historic as the church they shadow and scaffolding elevating to 125 feet at the steeple. Historic masonry specialists began their cleaning work with a revolutionary low-pressure micro-abrasive blast machine to remove old dirt before hand-tuckpointing every single brick joint on the entire church – approximately 300,000 in total! The existing mortar was sent off for petrographic analysis and chemically re-created so that the new mortar matched in makeup, color, and longevity with the 150-year-old lime-based mortar that it replaced.

With the properties of the existing materials defined, specialists reviewed the entire approach to weatherproofing the project. The specifications called for a brick sealer to keep water from penetrating the brick and mortar and a paint coating on the interior plaster. The specialists removed the sealer from the scope on the exterior and changed the interior coating to a thin lime-based coating that would allow air and water to penetrate, rather than remain between layers of wall. This makeup of lime-based mortar, plaster, and paint allows water to enter and exit the walls for a more durable, longer lasting construction.

Roofing was removed for the installation of new slate, shingles, and copper, only to find the substrate had been layered up to eight times with felt and old roofing, with no roof decking below. DonahueFavret stripped the roof to the old wood framing and installed over 770 sheets of plywood decking before installing the new waterproofing.

The phasing of certain areas of interior work could only follow the re-pointing of bricks on the exterior. The roof was divided in segments, the exterior was divided in elevation, and the interior was divided in quadrants. The installation of the new MEP systems was timed to allow no failure of existing or new finishes.

Once the exterior walls on half the church were restored and the roof installed, DonahueFavret began interior restoration. The paint on every surface was stripped due to lead makeup and incompatibility to the new lime products. Plaster was sounded for weak spots throughout the interior of the church and replaced in nearly half of the area. The existing carpet and vinyl floors were removed in full containment due to asbestos adhesive and materials in the tile. During the abatement phase, the inspections for clearance were held with rapid turnaround to ensure ample time to set up for the weekly church services.

After the flooring demolition, we found the original tongue and groove wood floor in remarkably good shape. Originally the main aisles, sacristy, and narthex were all scheduled to have floor coverings. The wood restoration work ended up being so beautiful that it became the standard finish for all areas.

To allow Mass to continue, the pews were removed first at the exterior walls to allow scaffolding from floor to ceiling. As soon as the scaffold could be removed, the floor was abated and demolished. One side was completed, temporary chairs brought in, and the second side started. Half of the church was fully tented for safe demolition while floors, walls, and millwork were fully restored on the opposite side.

A significant challenge was to incorporate MEP/AV systems into a historic church in a way that was minimally noticeable. The entire electrical service and sub-panels were replaced with state-of-the-art systems. Ductwork, once visible in the nave, was cut down and enclosures were custom finished to match the existing wall millwork. New custom fixtures included up-lighting to highlight the amazingly constructed church. Downlighting was inconspicuously built into the attic vents and altar spotlighting hidden in the front columns.

DonahueFavret battled termites, settlement, wood rot, and material degeneration in many areas. Despite a very difficult project schedule, we vowed to minimize shutdowns as much as possible. DonahueFavret opened the church for Mass every Sunday during construction without fail.

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