My Most Challenging Project

My Most Challenging Project is a series in which we ask members to share their most difficult projects and lend advice on how others can solve similar challenges. Thomas Ollari, head of the emergency services division at Complete Restoration Solutions (CRS), based in Chicopee, Massachusetts, oversees all cleaning projects, ranging from a normal-sized house to a commercial property that could be a 200,000-square-foot warehouse, or, as you will read below, an over 100-year-old congregational church from the gothic architectural era.

What was the project?

On Jan. 3, 2018, a fire occurred in a centuries-old congregational church. The fire began in the lower-level kitchen when a rag caught fire and was left unattended. The ensuing fire created a smoke and soot issue throughout the lower level of the church. After the initial inspection after the fire, it was determined that the smoke and soot had traveled from the lower level into the far west chapel, which seats 1,000 parishioners, and the much larger main sanctuary, which seats over 3,000 parishioners.

The chapel consisted of a 42-foot-high cathedral ceiling, granite walls, marble flooring and a mosaic marble tile design on the main altar. At the rear of the altar was another higher altar that would house choirs during church services. On either side of the altar were the components for the 100-year-old pipe organ, which has been valued at well over $1 million. Intricate stone statues adorned the perimeter of the altar as well as the front and rear portions of the sanctuary. On either side of the chapel were panels of elaborate stained glass windows. The cathedral ceiling is built of solid oak and canvas panels from front to rear. Over 20 chandeliers, with 16 lights on each, hung from an angle perched above at the base of the ceiling. Sixty 22-foot-long pews also were in need of cleaning and restoration, including all the hymnals and books.

In the main sanctuary, over 120 pews sat covered in soot. A large balcony with another 15 rows of four pews each, also covered in soot, overlooked the beautiful sanctuary that was rebuilt from the ground up in 1903 after a devastating fire leveled the original church. Looking up at the wood ceiling gave the impression of looking into the deep keel of an antique wooden ship. The ceiling, adorned with a multitude of colors over the main altar, also features hand-carved angels on each side of the main aisle of the sanctuary and hand-painted verses along the base of the ceiling — all of which sat at 66 feet above the floor.

Numerous rooms, offices, classrooms, storage rooms, an auditorium and several bathrooms behind the chapel and sanctuary were also affected by the soot. With the structure being the age it was and the many open staircases and hallways, the smoke and soot traveled throughout the structure.

CRS was contacted by the insurance agent that represented the church on the morning of Jan. 4 and did the initial walkthrough with the church facility management team and its pastors. CRS initially set up negative air equipment to help stabilize the air quality and to begin removing as much particulate in the air. The next day, when the insurance adjuster arrived, it was determined after two hours of walking and testing walls, flat surfaces, and contents for soot and smoke that the entire buildings square footage would have to be cleaned.

Before, during and after cleaning: The church’s angels were cleaned and touched up with gold leaf paint to give a beautiful glow off the lighting below them.

What were the unique challenges to overcome?

The game plan was put in place immediately to clean every ceiling wall and floor along with the contents in the entire building and on all levels. Since the church has numerous parishioners, hosts many concerts and musical events, and is home to many after-school and outreach programs, the task of removing all the soot and smoke from this monster was now at hand. This would have to be completed to ensure no one coming into the building in the future would become sick from soot or smoke particulates being in the building. The first order of business was to get the church back up and running for weekly services as soon as possible. While that plan was put into place, the task of erecting scaffolding in the smaller chapel was being delegated to a regional scaffold company that began a seven-day project to get our workers 42 feet up in the air — not to mention the same would have to be built only substantially larger and higher to tackle the 66-foot ceiling next door. The scaffold was erected to the base of the ceiling with a deck built on the top that would have rolling independent scaffold units to allow the workers to touch the top of the ceiling.

Fully equipped with hard hats, harnesses and gloves, the task to bring temporary lighting and cleaning supplies up seven narrow scaffold staircases was now at hand. I knew this was not going to be an easy job and realized it had become my largest cleaning project in all my years in my career. Up to this point, cleaning a 200,000-square-foot warehouse top to bottom was easy compared to this.

Before and after restoration: The chapel consisted of a 42-foot-high cathedral ceiling, granite walls, marble flooring and a mosaic marble tile design on the main altar.

How where the challenges met?

Once the scaffold was complete, it was time to climb up the staircases, go to the top and begin the setup of temporary lighting. Numerous extension cords were dropped down though the deck to power sources below. Once all the lighting was in place, LED light towers created a daytime atmosphere to a very dark and dirty place. The ceiling had 12-foot sections that were 4 feet wide and covered in a canvas that was originally a lighter brown. Dry sponging and HEPA vacuuming the area proved to be the most effective way to clean. These surfaces were cleaned a minimum of five passes to ensure as much particulate as possible was removed. The scaffold had four levels underneath the top deck that workers could walk around the perimeter to access the walls lighting and stained glass windows.

A stained glass specialist was brought in to care and clean for the intricate and delicate stained glass, which are pieces of art in themselves. This task went on simultaneously as the cleaning occurred.

A local pipe organ specialist, who luckily the church had worked with in the past, was hired to go through the entire organ system. The organs in both the sanctuary and the chapel have values of well over $1 million each.

A local restoration dry cleaner was brought in to handle all the textiles that were affected, including choir robes, tapestry, stage curtains and numerous clothing articles, as the church is home to a community program that offers infant and toddler clothing and toys every Thursday to the community for free.

Immediately, the three large parlor rooms that sat directly behind the main sanctuary would be the first task to undergo cleaning. These rooms would be the future temporary home to the weekly services held at the church. A staff of 25-30 cleaning technicians was put together to begin the cleaning process. The parlors consisted of 12-foot-high ceilings, large antiques windows, numerous bookcases with various types of books, a daycare area, complete with children’s toys, and the church’s main offices. These areas would all be cleaned top to bottom, inside and out over the next two weeks. Services were only delayed one week, as the two larger main parlors were cleaned and ready for services thanks to working two shifts to get the cleaning accomplished. A lot of hard work and effort was put in by the cleaning staff.

Daily meetings took place at the beginning of the day to go over where the cleaning was left off from the day before and what was expected to get done for the day at hand. Crews had to move pews and antique furniture that adorned the altar, of which many pieces were over 100 years old. The woodwork around the organs was extremely intricate in detail and had to be slowly cleaned by hand to ensure all the soot was removed.

Meetings were held twice a day with the congregational staff to inform them of what was taking place and what tasks were completed for the day. The project cleaning of the entire facility would take over six months to complete. Painting of the main sanctuary was needed as the amount of soot left discoloration to the side walls and pillars. This would take another month to complete.

Reconstruction of the kitchen was also completed by CRS. This posed numerous issues to bring a kitchen in the basement of the church up to today’s codes. The clay pipe, which comprised the duct system, would no longer be allowed. The new duct to get up to the roof to replace the old one would mean the opening up of walls inside the main sanctuary. Not only would the church’s council never go for it, as it would mean taking away from the original beauty of the church, the insurance company didn’t want to pay for a duct to be installed that high, even though the church had proper coverage. More meetings with building officials, duct manufacturers and a new wave of specialists to accomplish the task were brought in.

A stained glass specialist was brought in to care and clean for the intricate and delicate stained glass.

How did the project turn out?

After having the parlors up and running for services, the church was comfortable in getting back in the business of being the church. The ongoing cleaning of all other areas where they would need to be immediately used continued as the scaffolding was being put in place. Cleaning crews handled these areas as another set of our crew began to work on the top of the scaffold and the other levels.

The cleaning and restoration of the chapel and sanctuary were unbelievable. Hard work by the entire staff exposed colors that were dull over the past years. The angels were cleaned and touched up with gold leaf paint to give a beautiful glow from the lighting below them. The beatitudes adorning each lower level section at the base of the ceiling gleamed. The stained glass windows allowed in more colorful lighting than ever before. And the statues and marble floors have never looked brighter. Our customer was ecstatic with the results and was beyond impressed with the amount of labor our team displayed.

What lessons did you learn to be shared with fellow members?

The lessons learned are to make sure you have resources to help you through major losses such as this. Not being able to contact the right person for the right task could lead to a disaster. Do not try to clean a million-dollar-plus organ. Leave it to the experts. The same goes for stained glass portions that have a total value throughout the building of over $3 million. Listen to your customers’ needs and help them get through the initial shock of having a major loss and what happens next. Communicate to them what the game plan is at hand, and don’t be afraid to tell them bad news as well. Delays happen. Things may break, and sometimes things may not go according to plan. Fortunately for me, I have an amazing crew. We never damaged any of the intricate statues or artwork, and we were able to install brand new LED lightbulbs in all the fixtures while we had the scaffold in place. I have done many large cleaning projects and always have had great end results due to proper planning, using resources who are specialists in their fields and working hard to get the project complete on time.

This article was shared in C&R with the permission of the Restoration Industry Association.

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