If you’re a follower of this blog, then you know my passion lies around saving old buildings. It’s not just their character and history but also the fact that the greenest building is the one already built.
So, what can we do to save more historic buildings in 2016? For starters, I want you to share this post with anyone you know who works in historic preservation for a city, state or the federal government. Some things need to be done and they are pivotal players.
After you share this post with them, I need your involvement as well. Write or call your local officials and ask them to make some of the changes below.
Weak Protections for Historic Buildings
It is far too difficult to protect historic buildings in America and other countries with the toothless ordinances most communities have. We proclaim to care about and protect our nation’s built environment by passing laws and regulations that pay lip service to historic preservation, but ultimately do nothing to preserve the buildings they supposedly protect.
Did you know that buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places can be demolished if the owner wishes?
Did you know many local historic districts allow original windows to be replaced with no resistance?
Before the private property rights folks come and attack me let me say a few things.
- I am incredibly pro private property rights. It is your house and you should be able to do as you wish with it, but if you buy into a protected property or historic district you knowingly limited yourself by freely choosing this particular property. If you want more freedom, then buy elsewhere.
- Buildings in historic districts almost always appreciate faster and retain their value better than similar housing in non-landmarked areas despite what fear-mongering developers may tell you. Don’t believe me? Read below (there are dozens of other studies that show the same thing):
- Property values in local historic districts appreciate significantly faster than the market as a whole in the vast majority of cases and appreciates at rates equivalent to the market in the worst case. Simply put-local historic districts enhance property values (Preservation & Property Values in Indiana: Rypkema 2002).
- A study of the Speedway-Drachman National Register Historic District in Tucson, Arizona showed that between 1987 and 2007 the average assessed value of homes in this district appreciated 15 percent higher than the average in a nearby neighborhood with housing stock of similar age, construction, and design (The Economic Impact of Historic Preservation: L’Orange 2007).
What Should Change?
There are a lot of things that need to change in how we protect our history, but here are four things we can do today.
#1 Make Demolition Harder
Demolition is a choice, not a solution. It’s far too easy to demolish a historic building today. The National Register should afford special buildings special protections, but they rarely provide anything other than a fancy plaque. These buildings are an important part of our history and should be protected before anything else.
Also, local districts have also made demolition by neglect far to easy. Leave a building in bad shape to sit for a few years longer until it is a financial hardship to restore and suddenly, the historic board is open to allowing you to demolish it. I’ve seen it happen too often and it is a reward to those who flaunt the law.
The solution: Much like when code enforcement comes out to mow the lawn on a house that has been neglected and then charges the owner for the service, protective improvements should be made to buildings in historic districts when necessary and the cost billed to the owner if they refuse to maintain their own building.
Clearly, there is line between blatant neglect and simply delaying maintenance. It should be up to the local districts and their residents to determine where that line is.
#2 Save the Windows
There are rarely any consequences when owners replace original wood and steel windows and there needs to be more oversight. Windows are an integral part of the historic character of these buildings that should be maintained.
It’s true that many homeowners don’t even know that this is not allowed, or at the very least, frowned upon. The first step is educating them that this is not allowed, even though the replacement window contractors will tell them otherwise.
Next, if your historic districts allow window replacement, it needs to stop. I have yet to find a historic window that couldn’t be restored and brought up to meet current energy codes. There is no excuse for replacement if a building is a protected structure. None. What kind of protections are you offering if homeowners can dispose of important historical elements of their building?
If windows are replaced against the wishes of the district, there should be consequences beyond just a slap on the wrist. People talk and they know that it’s often easier to ask forgiveness than permission. Set some real consequences for owners who remove their windows to make folks think twice.
#3 Institute Minor Reviews
Many historic districts have this, but too many are lacking this option. If you want to make it easier for homeowners to come to the city for approval of their projects, then help eliminate some of the red tape.
Minor reviews are a simple way to allow for minor repairs like re-roofs, siding repair, painting, fences, etc. Homeowners don’t have fill out lengthy dissertations as to why they need/want the work done and don’t have to wait to attend a board meeting for approval of their project.
A local professional can check out the details of the project and approve or disapprove the request quickly and painlessly. Everyone saves time and money, so everyone wins.
This will encourage more folks to come out of the shadows with their home improvement projects and will generate more money for local governments as well.
#4 Encourage Adaptive Reuse
This has made huge strides in recent years and needs to be a continued weapon in the arsenal of historic preservation. Adaptive reuse:
- Gives old buildings a second life
- Saves energy by using existing buildings instead of new construction
- Keeps materials out of the landfill
It’s a win all the way around and creates a beautiful story for our communities that ties the old in with the new.
That’s at least four ways we can start. If you’re a preservation professional, I’d love to hear from you. Where am I going wrong? What did I leave off?
Preservation, like many things, is a marathon, not a sprint. Sometimes you race to save a building before it’s demolished, but the rest of the time you work tirelessly to improvement the protections you have on the books or to educate people as to why it matters.
These are my preservation New Year’s resolutions. and I hope you’ll join me in the fight.
Founder & Senior Editor
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.