Historic Preservation

by the WBDG Historic Preservation Subcommittee

Last updated: 09-15-2014

Overview

Preserving historic buildings is vital to understanding our nation's heritage. In addition, it is an environmentally responsible practice. By reusing existing buildings historic preservation is essentially a recycling program of 'historic' proportions. Existing buildings can often be energy efficient through their use of good ventilation, durable materials, and spatial relationships. An immediate advantage of older buildings is that a building already exists; therefore energy is not necessary to demolish a building or create new building materials and the infrastructure may already be in place. Minor modifications can be made to adapt existing buildings to compatible new uses. Systems can be upgraded to meet modern building requirements and codes. This not only makes good economic sense, but preserves our legacy and is an inherently sustainable practice and an intrinsic component of whole building design. (See also Sustainable and Sustainable Historic Preservation.)

Photo of Tacoma Union Station rotunda in Tacoma, WA

Tacoma Union Station, Tacoma, WA. Designed by the architectural firm of Reed and Stem and constructed in 1911 and renovated in 1987. Tall ceilings, generous daylight, and grand ceremonial spaces give historic buildings enduring investment value and make them attractive for a variety of uses.

Realizing the need to protect America's cultural resources, Congress established the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in 1966, which mandates the active use of historic buildings for public benefit and to preserve our national heritage. Cultural resources, as identified in the National Register for Historic Places, include buildings, archeological sites, structures, objects, and historic districts. The surrounding landscape is often an integral part of a historic property. Not only can significant archaeological remains be destroyed during the course of construction, but the landscape, designed or natural, may be irreparably damaged, and caution is advised whenever major physical intervention is required in an extant building or landscape. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act established the public mandate to protect these resources.

Some practical and/or intangible benefits of historic preservation include:

  • Retention of history and authenticity
    • Commemorates the past
    • Aesthetics: texture, craftsmanship, style
    • Pedestrian/visitor appeal
    • Contextual and human scale
  • Increased commercial value (Economic Benefits)
    • Materials and ornaments that are not affordable or readily available
    • Durable, high quality materials (e.g., old growth wood)
Rehabilitated historic hotel, Cape May, NJ

Rehabilitated historic hotel, Cape May, NJ. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

  • Retention of building materials (refer also to WBDG Sustainable Branch)
    • Less construction and demolition debris
    • Less hazardous material debris
    • Less need for new materials
  • Existing usable space—quicker occupancy
  • Rehabilitation often costs less than new construction
  • Reuse of infrastructure
  • Energy savings
    • No energy used for demolition
    • No energy used for new construction
    • Reuse of embodied energy in building materials and assemblies

Following passage of the NHPA, the Secretary of the Interior established Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties to promote and guide the responsible treatment of historic structures and to protect irreplaceable cultural resources. Today, the Standards are the guiding principles behind sensitive preservation design and practice in America.

  • Apply the Preservation Process Successfully—The preservation process involves five basic steps: Identify, Investigate, Develop, Execute, and Educate. Successful preservation design requires early and frequent consultation with a variety of organizations and close collaboration among technical specialists, architects, owner/occupants, and preservation professionals.

Work on historic properties requires specialized skills. The Secretary of the Interior has identified professional qualification standards for a variety of preservation disciplines.

Four Treatment Approaches

Within the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties there are Standards for four distinct approaches to the treatment of historic properties: preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction.

Preservation focuses on the maintenance stabilization, and repair of existing historic materials and retention of a property's form as it has evolved over time.

Rehabilitation acknowledges the need to alter or add to a historic property to meet continuing or changing uses while retaining the property's historic character.

Photo of Alexander Hamilton Custom House

Alexander Hamilton Custom House, New York. Constructed 1899-1907 and renovated in 1994. Original drawings, photographs, and other archival documents are used to determine the original appearance of missing features to be replicated within restoration zones.

Restoration depicts a property at a particular period of time in its history, while removing evidence of other periods.

Reconstruction re-creates vanished or non-surviving portions of a property for interpretive purposes.

Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes such as landscapes, archaeological and maritime resources, etc. are maintained by the National Park Service.

While each treatment has its own definition, they are interrelated. For example, one could "restore" missing features in a building that is being "rehabilitated." This means that if there is sufficient historical documentation on what was there originally, a decorative lighting fixture may be replicated or an absent front porch rebuilt, but the overall approach to work on the building falls under one specific treatment.

Treatment Plan

Photo of San Francisco Court of Appeals in San Francisco, CA

San Francisco Court of Appeals, San Francisco, CA. Designed by James Knox Taylor in 1905 and rehabilitated in the early 1990's. Onsite surveys identify significant features to be retained as part of a comprehensive preservation plan.

Determine the appropriate treatment for a historic property BEFORE work begins, at project initiation. This includes making sure that the proposed function for the historic property is compatible with the existing conditions in order to minimize destruction of the historic fabric. Generally, the least amount of change to the building's historic design and original architectural fabric is the preferred approach. To develop a treatment plan, site assessments are conducted to identify character-defining features and qualities. These assessments also examine the building or property as a whole to establish a hierarchy of significance, or "preservation zones," corresponding to specific treatments. "Zoning" establishes preservation priorities.

Of concern to preservation and design professionals is the cumulative effect of seemingly minor changes over time, which can greatly diminish the integrity of a historic building. Major preservation design goals include:

  • Update Building Systems Appropriately—Updating building systems in historic structures requires striking a balance between retaining original building features and accommodating new technologies and equipment. Building system updates require creativity to respect the original design and materials while meeting applicable codes and tenant needs.
  • Accommodate Life Safety and Security Needs—The accommodation of new functions, changes in technology, and improved standards of protection provide challenges to the reuse of historic buildings and sites. Designers must address life safety, seismic, and security issues in innovative ways that preserve historic sites, spaces and features.
  • Provide Accessibility for Historic Buildings—Accessibility and historic preservation strategies sometimes conflict with each other. Designers must provide access for persons with disabilities while meeting preservation goals.

Related Issues

Integrating Historic Preservation Concerns with Safety/Security Issues

We live and work in a changed environment: a world in which safety and security concerns have been elevated to their highest level since the founding of our nation. Preservation practitioners must now be concerned with the safety of an historic building's occupants, as well as the security of equipment and data. It is inevitable that the needs of historic preservation as established by the Secretary of the Interior will come into conflict with new federal guidelines and requirements for anti-terrorism force protection. For example, windows and fenestration details may be character-defining aspects intrinsic to an historic structure; however, it has become a universally-accepted fact that the majority of human injuries in an explosion are the direct result of exposure to high-velocity glass shards. Windows and openings in historic buildings that are vulnerable to possible terrorist activity may need to be reinforced to protect life and property. The US Army Corps of Engineers is performing experiments with various solutions to the problem of window glass failure in explosions and other terrorism-related activities. The need to meet safety and security requirements in historic buildings is critical when considering the necessary space between structures and public roads and parking areas. (See also WBDG: Accommodate Life Safety and Security Needs)

Interior of historic Atlantic City Convention HallExterior view of historic Atlantic City Convention Hall

Historic Atlantic City Convention Hall, Atlantic City, NJ. Photos courtesy of the National Park Service.

Emerging Issues

Natural Disasters: Response, Recovery, and Resilience

Photo of a city bus displaying an ad proclaiming New Jersey A State of Resilience

After Hurricane Sandy, bus ads proclaimed New Jersey as "A State of Resilience."
Courtesy: NJ.com

The number and severity of natural disasters-hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, and uncontrolled wild fires—require special planning for historic properties. Many argue that the increase is due to climate change. In response, people are calling for resilience, the ability to withstand and bounce back from damaging effects of natural disasters, and to avoid or minimize them in future disasters. Federal, state, and local governments and private organizations are collaborating on the nation's response to climate change. This planning includes preservation of historic and cultural resources in immediate disaster response, long-term community recovery, and future mitigation efforts is an emerging issue.

Cover of the UN global report Heritage and Resilience Issues and Opportunites for Reducing Disaster Risks

In 2013, the United Nations issued a global report on Heritage and Resilience (PDF 1.4 MB). It noted the connection between physical and social resilience. "The symbolism inherent in heritage is … a powerful means to help victims recover from the psychological impact of disasters. In such situations, people search desperately for identity and self-esteem", and find it in reclaiming their heritage and historic places. It further stated, "Heritage contributes to social cohesion, sustainable development, and psychological well-being. Protecting heritage promotes resilience."

In the United States, the Secretary of the Interior's Standards provide guidance on protecting heritage and the treatment of historic areas and individual historic buildings. Applying the Standards can be a challenge in the rush of disaster response, or in the delicate balancing of life safety, economic and preservation values in long term recovery and planning. However, the result is worth the effort, and in some cases, like qualifying for government assistance, compliance with the Standards may be required. The guiding principle is to retain historic features while sensitively incorporating new features that reduce the risk of future damage from disasters. Sometimes, it's easy, like moving electrical service up out of flood-prone basements. Other times, difficult design challenges arise, like how to substantially elevate an historic house in a floodplain.

In some instances, the conversation about climate change, disaster mitigation, and adaptation includes the possibility of abandoning coastal or flood zones altogether. Human settlement often began and flourished in waterfront areas. Historic preservation concerns need to be considered when planning for the future of coastal and riverfront communities, many of which have extensive historic and prehistoric resources and valued traditional cultural patterns. Having an accurate, up-to-date inventory of historic resources and archeological sites (identified and predicted) in vulnerable areas is key to an informed and quick response when disasters strike, as well as a basis for long term resilience planning.

Working with FEMA after Hurricane Sandy, the New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) quickly surveyed affected neighborhoods to establish which ones were historic and which ones were not, allowing them to concentrate limited capacity and resources on historic areas, while eliminating review of the rest. By entering the data as a layer in the state's GIS (Geographic Information System) database, which contains a variety of environmental and social data, it became both a tool for recovery and for future planning. Computer mapping of future scenarios could visualize impacts to historic properties along with impacts to natural resources and human communities.

Screen shot of the NJ GIS sysem showing the Water Witch Historic District in Sea Bright, NJ

The Water Witch Historic District in Sea Bright, New Jersey, is bordered by red in the center of the image. To the right, is the Fort Hancock and Sandy Hook Proving Ground Historic District. Anyone can consult the NJ GIS system and choose data layers to "turn on", including Historic Districts and Historic Properties.

Using GIS to document cultural resourcesafter a natural disaster

The National Park Service developed a manual on how to use GIS to document damage and plan for recovery, Historic Preservation Response Methodology (PDF 17.5 MB).

Warning sign on the San Francisco waterfront announcing tsunami hazard zonebillboard advertising free hurricane shutters

(Left) New Orleans promoted hurricane shutters after Hurricane Katrina.
(Right) Warning sign on the San Francisco waterfront.
Photos courtesy of HUD

How can historic resources be protected against excessive wind, water, and/or vibration during disaster events? Physical modifications, elevation, seismic reinforcement, restoration, or creation of landscape features and operational procedures can address various threats.

Cover of the publication Elevation Design Guidelines for Historic Homes in the Mississippi Gulf Coast Region

The Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) and Mississippi Department of Archives and History (SHPO) developed guidelines for elevating buildings. (PDF 19.9 MB)

Photo of the exterior of a house damaged by an earthquake

The National Park Service published "Preservation Brief 41: The Seismic Retrofit of Historic Buildings: Keeping Preservation in the Forefront."

chimney with deteriorated mortar joints showing vibration damage after an earthquakehorizontal metal strapping on long expanses of masonry

(Left) A chimney with deteriorated mortar joints suffered vibration damage when an earthquake struck near Washington, D.C.; (Right) Seismic upgrade of a former railroad car facility in Spokane, WA included horizontal metal strapping on long expanses of masonry. The rehabilitation project received historic tax credits.
Photos courtesy of National Park Service.

In flooding scenarios, keeping water out of or moving out of an historic building are primary concerns. Flood gates or barriers help deflect incoming high water from entrances, basement windows, and cellar areaway doors. Sump pumps that operate on water system pressure and not electricity can keep performing when the power goes out. Berms, levees, and dunes can hold back or channel flood waters and/or tidal surges. Measures like relocating electrical service and fuel tanks out of basement areas can protect them from damage during flooding and allow a much quicker recovery after a disaster. And if building materials do get wet, it is important to recognize the inherent flood-resistance of some materials like mahogany trim or cypress flooring, and not unthinkingly rip them out and dispose of them.

Wall showing the water line from Hurricane IreneFloodwater at an A&W drive-in in Cedar Rapids, Iowa

(Left) A roadside record of flooding from Hurricane Irene along the Ausable River in Ausable Forks, New York; (Right) This historic 1966 drive-in restaurant was completely inundated by floodwaters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 2008 and is currently undergoing rehabilitation. Recovering from a disaster can take years.
Photos ourtesy of National Park Service.

Operational measures can also prevent flooding. In Montpelier, Vermont, after winter river ice started to thaw and break into chunks, it formed an ice dam under a bridge downstream and caused extensive water backup and flooding in the historic downtown. To prevent future recurrences, every winter, the city now stations a crane with a wrecking ball next to the bridge to break up the ice if another ice dam begins to form.

Historic Buildings and the National Flood insurance Program (NFIP)

"The NFIP floodplain management requirements contain two provisions that are intended to provide relief for "historic structures" located in Special Flood Hazard Areas:
(1) The definition of "substantial improvement" at 44 CFR 59.1 includes the following exclusion for historic structures,
"Any alteration of a "historic structure", provided that the alteration will not preclude the structure's continued designation as an "historic structure". The same exemption also applies to "historic structures" that have been "substantially damaged".
This provision exempts historic structures from the substantial improvement and substantial damage requirements of the NFIP.
(2) The other provision of the NFIP floodplain management regulations that provides relief for"historic structures" is the variance criteria at 44 CFR 60.6(a). This provision states:
"Variances may be issued for the repair or rehabilitation of historic structures upon a determination that the proposed repair or rehabilitation will not preclude the structure's continued designation as a historic structure and the variance is the minimum necessary to preserve the historic character and design of the structure."
Under the variance criteria, communities can place conditions to make the building more flood resistant and minimize flood damages, but such conditions should not affect the historic character and design of the building. See the section on Minimizing the Impacts of Flooding on Historic Structures for ideas on conditions that could be established to make the building more flood resistant and to minimize flood damages."
From: Floodplain Management Bulletin: Historic Structures, FEMA P-467-2 (PDF 1.2 MB)

Relevant Codes and Standards

Federal Mandates

For a list of other Federal Historic Preservation and cultural resource laws click here

Standards and Guidelines

Major Resources

WBDG

Design Objectives

Aesthetics, Cost-Effective, Functional/Operational, Historic Preservation—Additional Resources, Secure/Safe, Sustainable

Federal Agencies

Organizations/Associations

Publications

Training

Others