When the economy is chugging along and money is flowing through our society, it seems to me that some terms get new definitions. The line between “need” and “want” is blurred beyond recognition. Another couple phrases whose definitions get a little hazy is the difference between “have to” and want to”. While these can be annoying, there is another phrase that is tossed about with no regard to its actual definition and that phrase is “beyond repair”.
How often have you really come across something that is truly “beyond repair”? Sure, it may be too expensive or even sometimes impractical to repair, but that’s not the same as “beyond repair”, Beyond repair implies that there is absolutely no way to fix something. It’s irreparably damaged, old, worn out, or whatever. Let’s be careful with our words, though, because words have meanings and when we change those meanings, the results are not good.
In this post I want to talk about “beyond repair” and what this potentially dangerous term means in historic preservation, because I feel like it is being used to justify all kinds of architectural wrongs and I want the damage to be stopped.
What is Beyond Repair?
Typically, we use this term the same way we talk about a car being totaled. It’s not that your mechanic couldn’t fix the car, but it will likely cost more to repair than the book value of the car is worth. Why sink $4,000 into a car that is only worth $2,000, right? So, something is beyond repair if the following formula applies.
Value in Good Condition – Cost to Repair ≥ $0
What do you think? Can we agree on that definition of beyond repair? I feel comfortable with it since it can be applied across a wide variety of items and their valuations. So, then we need to agree upon a method to accurately find the value of an item. As you’ll see below, this can prove a bit more difficult.
How Do You Value Old Buildings?
The book value of a car, or a piece of land may be easy to calculate, but the value of a historic building is not as clear. Yes, you can go to the local property appraiser and find out what your home is “worth”, but would any of you feel good about selling your house for what the property appraiser lists it at? How about selling your house for what the insurance company values it at. No thank you!
So, then for difficult to value items like historic buildings, how do we come up with an appropriate value? For most real estates, a local realtor can help with a basic valuation since the price of real estate is extremely localized. But, how do you put a value on the endless intangibles incorporated in an old building? Things like custom woodwork, wavy glass, unique and hard to find hardware, old-growth lumber, etc. Those are hard to value with any degree of certainty. We all know they are worth more, but how much more?
Then there are the really intangible things like local history. Was your house built by the first mayor? Was a famous writer born in the house, or the town’s first doctor? Maybe it was part of the underground railroad during the civil war, or it had a distillery in the basement during prohibition. There are so many stories incorporated into our historic buildings that are almost impossible to value. After all, the house built by the town’s first mayor is the only house like it in the world. How do you pull that comp?
What about valuing a building during the great recession in 2009 vs in 2019? It’s the same building but those numbers would be vastly different. Does that mean that in a down real estate market there are more buildings that are “beyond repair”? Struggling through this valuation we can see that determining a true value of a building that incorporates the book value and intrinsic value is really difficult if not impossible.
If you wanna know the real reason most people toss this phrase around, it’s because they are copping out, in my humble opinion. Here are some of the responses I’ve gotten on projects I’ve sometimes been awarded and sometime lost to the wrecking ball to show you what I mean.
- Saving Original Windows: Developer says, “they are beyond repair” Translation: It’s too expensive to restore them to turn a quick profit on this project.
- Saving Historic Brick Facade: City says, “it is beyond repair” Translation: The new anchor tenant wants to move in quickly and restoration will take longer than demolition.
- Painting Wood Clapboards: Homeowner says, “they are beyond repair” Translation: Wood requires regular maintenance and I want vinyl siding because I’m tired of maintaining my house.
Ultimately, this comes down to private property rights and how much tenacity local historic preservation ordinances have. I don’t think I would have a problem with the phrase beyond repair if it was used to accurately describe the situation, but that is not the case. Using it as a cop out so you don’t have to be a responsible property owner and steward of the piece of history you own is no excuse.
Bottom line for me is that if you don’t want to fix it, then have the guts to tell us that’s why you want it replaced/demoed/razed, but stop lying to the rest of us that the reason you’re choosing to NOT restore is because it’s “beyond repair.” Put on your big boy pants and tell the truth, that’s what adults do. If you own a piece of architectural history whether it’s a house or a high rise, have the guts to tell it like it is and let the cards fall where they may.