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4 Ways Preservation Could Be Better

preservation502016 is the 50th anniversary of the Historic Preservation Act and I have been thinking a lot about where we have been, where we are, and where we could be when it comes to historic preservation.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. Gives old buildings a second life
  2. Saves energy by using existing buildings instead of new construction
  3. 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.


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11 thoughts on “4 Ways Preservation Could Be Better

  1. Scott,

    A fan of your book and writings. Thanks for this very timely post. I live in a city in Virginia where demolitions happen quite often, usually the result of no one paying attention. Thankfully, our city has just hired its first-ever preservation planner to join the planning and zoning department. Hopefully this will be a positive step in the right direction. Living in an 18th-century home that I am currently seeking state and national register status for (only a bit more paperwork), it is sad to think that even after all of that work, there is little stopping someone from tearing it down in the future.

    Thanks again for making this a point of public conversation!


  2. I am just curious. I just recently purchased an American four-square. All windows are original but there are gaps between frame and windows. You can feel cold air come through. i bought your book about restoring old windows, which is what I want to do but it was suggested that I now purchase storm windows for the outside. Doesn’t that also change the look? What other chose do I have?

    1. Patricia, weatherstripping your windows will help eliminate the drafts and make a big difference. I’d do that first before you decide whether you need storms. Storm windows would be the next step in increasing their efficiency and there are historic wood storm windows that keep the old house character but help keep things much warmer.

  3. I agree with you on many points, and agree with Kurtis and Chris that there are too few people, including architects, who appreciate or understand traditional buildings, building techniques and aesthetics. However, I’m not sure better historic preservation regulation is the answer. I live in a small town that struggles to maintain the streets and schools and it simply does not have the administrative capacity nor the will to enforce any type of local historic district. For many rural and small town locals, it just isn’t an option.

    Even for folks like me in small towns who want to do right by their old houses, finding folks who are able, or even sympathetic, to what you want to do are hard to find.

    I truly believe that historic preservation shouldn’t just be for the big cities or for those with high incomes, but the system is hard to change. The last of the old-timers who came of age when wood windows and siding were the norm, and every handyman knew how to patch plaster and lathe, putty a window or hang a door, are ready to retire now, if they haven’t already, and there aren’t many to replace them. Until these skills are reborn and widespread, and people grow up learning them from their parents and neighbors as they once did, only the most determined will go through the hassle of teaching themselves to do it. Plus go through the expense of equipping themselves with the right tools and materials, if they can find them.

    It is not just ignorance, it is a lack of time and resources. The “easy” solution that minimizes labor and maintenance is what sells, not the best solution, even if the material cost is more expensive. And as in processed food, the profits are greater even though the result is of lower quality.

    When we make ALL demolition permits more difficult to get, dumping of old windows and construction materials much more expensive, and penalize businesses and owners who abandon their property rather than reward them, and perhaps make lead abatement, insulation and other building codes more old-building and small contractor friendly, then perhaps we will see a change of heart.

  4. We have this problem in Canada as well, especially now with low interest rates and a society of people who do not understand aesthetics/design/heritage and craftsmanship/quality. I call it willful ignorance. Historic preservation is actually discouraged by local levels of government and most contractors are only skilled enough to slap 2x4s together.

  5. Materials materials materials. Train more people who know how to render natural materials into permanent structures, and less architects. Drag the architects out of class and make them mix lime putty by hand. Let them gain master builder status before they are ever ever ever allowed to make decisions on buildings.

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