Guest Blog: Electrical Plan Challenges With Older Buildings

Designing the electrical plans for the Warrior Foundation Freedom Station was a chance to improve the safety and living conditions for our injured veterans. It was a volunteer project that not only enlightened me on the merits of this non-profit organization, but also allowed me to explore the underside and inner walls of a cluster of old buildings.

The Warrior Foundation offices and Freedom Station are on the old San Diego Electric Railway 2-Line going east on Broadway via ‘B’ Street to Golden Hill, per an historical railway map.

I was invited by the Foundation to work on the electrical plans. The complex has four apartments, eight small cottages, and an office (circa 1920) that provided housing for United States veterans who are adjusting to civilian life. Located in Golden Hill, these craftsman-styled buildings presented several challenges.

My concern for these buildings included the following:

  • Safety
    • Existing fire hazards
    • Inadequate power for medical devices or necessary appliances
    • Inadequate grounding electrodes and grounding conductors
  • Balance of preservation and historic features
  • Update electrical plans for today’s needs and consider tomorrow’s tech applications
  • Adherences to current building codes and the California Historic Building Code
  • Opportunities for energy savings

I arrived at the Freedom Station on the rainiest day of the year this past February 2017. I had been to this facility once before and understood the basic layout of the cottages. Even though they are similar, I found differences in each cottage and apartment that needed to be addressed. Rainfall actually revealed some problems:

  1. Puddles of rainwater caused slippery walkways.
  2. Electrical boxes were not NEMA ‘rain-tight’ (About one week after a rainfall, a short shutdown of the power to two of the apartments occurred. Emergency calls to the electrician and the power company allowed for a temporary connection until the power service could be rebuilt).
  3. Several apartments had no individual circuit breaker panelboard.

I addressed these problems in the new electrical power design.

I couldn’t help but enjoy the traces of early construction and the simple sophistication prior to today’s safety regulated environment. At the same time, I knew it was time to design a completely new electrical plan, advancing fire protection and electrical safety in these buildings by nearly a century.

One of my major challenges was creating construction documents with strict standards for installation of new wiring and equipment.  Reference: California Historic Building Code

  1. Electrical outlets must have ground fault protection and arc-flash protection while original walls are preserved. To preserve historic façade, new outlets need not be installed.
  2. Air conditioning must be energy efficient but not exposed—original façades preserved.
  3. Lighting must also be energy efficient, but original fixtures and chandeliers must be preserved in place.

Reference: California Historic Building Code

I’ve worked on several historical buildings and enjoy the preservation of history, and the exploration of years past. It was worthwhile to preserve part of site’s proud history and provide a safe and efficient home for our veterans.

John Whitcraft is President of Whitcraft Engineering Solutions, Inc., and is an Allied Member of AIA San Diego. If you have an electrical design challenge, contact John via his website or cellphone: 858-229-8722.

Resource:  Blue Beam Technology