Facility Use Policies, Building Design Standards, and Custodial Guidelines for Historic Properties  

by Barry Loveland, Chief, Division of Architecture & Conservation
Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission



Owners and managers of historic buildings, structures, and landscapes have a responsibility of stewardship of the unique resource entrusted to their care. Even the most beautifully restored or preserved building can quickly show wear and tear and loss of historic building fabric if not protected from inappropriate use, lack of proper care, and changes over time. Facility Use Policies, Building Design Standards, and Custodial Guidelines, along with training for implementation, can help ensure that the historic property is being well cared for and will provide good service and enjoyment for its users.

Facility Use Policies are used to ensure that both the long-term and temporary uses of the property are consistent with the long-term stewardship of the historic resource. Building Design Standards address user-requested changes and other proposed renovations to the facility. Custodial Guides provide standards and guidelines for the maintenance and routine care and cleaning of facilities so as not to damage historic materials and features from inappropriate products and treatments. All three types of documents are useful tools in managing the historic property.

This Resource Page will provide some guidance on how to prepare these policies, standards, and guidelines.

Side by side images: left-Exterior aerial view of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building; and right-Interior room Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building with hardwood floors, decorative moldings, arched windows with window coverings, chandeliers, and decorative celiing

The Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building exterior and interior. The General Services Administration commissioned a Maintenance and Occupancy Plan, along with custodial guidelines that help direct facility management and maintenance staff to appropriate use and treatment for the cleaning and care of important interior spaces and finishes.
Photo Credit: Whitehouse.gov and U.S. General Services Administration


Facility Use Policies

Owners and managers of historic buildings, structures, and landscapes should consider developing a Facilities Use Policy (FUP) that takes into consideration the unique needs of historic properties. The FUP should address both long-term or permanent use issues as well as temporary uses for events or exhibits.

Some issues that should be addressed in the FUP include:

  • Capacity/occupancy limits
  • Permitted types of use
  • Tenant or user alterations
  • Posting/affixing/hanging of temporary signs, banners, balloons, decorations, and other materials on walls, from ceilings, or other building features or historic landscape features
  • The introduction of food and beverages into the space or landscape
  • Flowers and plants
  • Catering policy
  • Exhibits
  • Memorial or commemorative plaques
  • Moving of furniture, equipment, and other large/heavy items on historic flooring
  • Use of furniture located in space
  • Protection of building finishes and features or historic landscapes from damage during use
  • Open flame policy for use of candles, fireplaces, chafing dishes, outdoor grilling, and fires, etc.
  • Smoking policy
  • Alcoholic beverage policy
  • Electrical needs, temporary lighting, and appliances
  • Sound amplification and noise
  • Cameras, video, and recording devices
  • Availability and cleaning of restrooms
  • Cleaning after use, trash disposal, and recycling
  • Security
  • Weapons
  • Responsibility for restoration/conservation of building finishes and features or historic landscapes should damage occur
  • Insurance requirements
  • Selling or solicitation
  • Political activity or religious services
  • Children
  • Animals
  • Adhesive backed name tags or stickers
  • Activities involving arts and crafts or related materials, such as use of paints, crayons, inks, glue, glitter, confetti, rice, seeds, flower petals, bubbles, liquids, scissors, knives, etc.
  • Smoke effects, explosives, pyrotechnics
  • Flammable materials
  • Outdoor tents and temporary structures
  • Parking
  • Scheduling
  • Fees
  • Consider graffiti removal best practices

The long-term or permanent use FUP is generally an internal document that advises building employees, users, or tenants, of their responsibilities, requirements, guidelines, or rules governing the use of certain portions of, or the entire building, facility and/or landscape. These policies may vary depending on the type of space. For example, in an office building where there are historically significant and highly finished spaces such as a lobby, meeting room, and other more public spaces, these might be treated with one set of standards in the FUP, while office and support spaces have different standards and policies.

Short-term uses should be addressed in another section of the FUP or in a separate document that may be for both internal and external use (if the facility is available for use by outside groups or organizations). This will include temporary exhibits and special events. If the exhibit or event involves a group or organization external to the building owner or tenant, then it is recommended that you have a written agreement or form that indicates all the responsibilities and requirements of the parties as stipulated in the FUP.

It should be noted that occupancy capacity is generally derived from building codes and is governed by the type of use, square footage, the width of code compliant egress stairs, doors, pathways, etc. However, it is within the owner's discretion to further limit the capacity to a level lower than that permitted by codes if the owner feels that will be of benefit to the long-term stewardship of the building and its historic features and finishes.

Central rotunda staircase in the Pennsylvania State Capitol building

The Pennsylvania State Capitol Building, central rotunda staircase. Important public spaces like this benefit from having facility use policies, building design standards, and custodial guidelines, especially with high demand from the public for use as a venue for press conferences, political rallies, receptions, and other special events.
Photo Credit: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

Building Design Standards and Custodial Guides

The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has developed some model documents called Building Design Standards (BDS) and Custodial Guides. The purpose of these documents is to provide guidance to its building managers and project teams to evaluate and respond to requests from users and tenants for the use, alteration or maintenance of historic facilities owned by GSA in a consistent manager to protect the long term value of the resource. The BDS provides guidelines for use and management of both public spaces and work spaces. The GSA's report Extending the Legacy: GSA Historic Building Stewardship, provides some insight into the use of BDS and Custodial Guides:

"For buildings containing highly ornamental finishes and features, such as the James R. Browning U.S. Court of Appeals Building in San Francisco, California, and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB) in Washington, D.C., the most elaborate building in the inventory, GSA has also commissioned custodial plans detailing the locations of all historic finishes and materials requiring special care, along with procedures for maintaining them and guidance for responding to requests from visitors and tenants that may affect historic materials. In addition to educating maintenance staff to be mindful of the need to protect decorated walls from damage by ladders and equipment, the custodial guides arm service personnel with constructive advice for anticipating and managing common risks, such as inadvertent but costly damage caused by television crews seeking quick solutions for supporting lighting and camera equipment.

"The EEOB Maintenance and Occupancy Plan includes color-coded floor plans and wall elevations for each ornamental space and a key indicating which materials correspond to which colors, such as green for plaster, orange for bronze, blue for canvas, yellow for wood, and pink for stone. Custodial guidance provided for each space includes detail drawings identifying differing materials or components within significant ornamental features, with guidance explaining recommended weekly, monthly, and annual maintenance (dust, vacuum, wipe), including recommended techniques, special cautions, and specialized tools or equipment required to avoid damaging fragile finishes. The plan also includes summary maintenance cards for use as quick reference guides to the care of each ornamental space, including recommended treatment frequencies. Also included is a risk management card keying ornamental surfaces and interventions to be avoided, such as spraying proprietary cleaners, hammering nails into paneled walls, wearing spike high-heel shoes, or dragging furniture across decorative parquet flooring."

BDS can be a useful approach for other organizations managing historic property. Some of the components of a BDS may include:

  • Process for requesting building modifications and approvals of work
  • Standards of materials
  • Standards of finishes (such as historic paint colors, etc.)
  • Standards of execution of work (including any lists of approved contractors or requirements for pre-qualification or qualification of contractors and craftspeople)
  • Standards for building furnishings and fixtures (including sourcing information to match existing furniture and fixtures)
State Museum of Pennsylvania, Auditorium Foyer during a restoration

The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Auditorium Foyer, recently had its finishes restored prior to its 50th anniversary celebration. This mid-century modern building, completed in 1965, was just listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Fifty years of visitors and special events had taken its toll on finishes such as walnut paneling and door casings. New appreciation for this era of architecture has led to designating preservation zones and building design standards for important spaces such as this.
Photo Credit: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

BDS enables the building owner to manage change in an historic property over time in such a way to minimize the impact of changes on the resource, and ensure that the changes are compatible with the historic materials and finishes of the building.

The BDS should reference, or use as its basis, a Historic Structures Report (HSR) if one exists for the property, any material or finishes analysis reports, or other relevant design data that may be available from previous preservation or restoration projects. The building owner may want to have a preservation architect or historic preservation consultant involved in preparing the BDS.


Plans, policies, standards, and guidelines are only useful if they are implemented. A critical part of implementation of an FUP or BDS is training of personnel who must implement and enforce these policies, standards, and guidelines, as well as building users who must comply. It is helpful to build understanding and support from regular building users or tenants early on in the process of developing an FUP or BDS. This will help improve levels of voluntary compliance and reduce likelihood of detrimental effects of non-compliance. Educating users on the special need for stewardship of the historic property, particularly the more architecturally or historically significant spaces, may increase their awareness of the need for sensitivity and care in managing the facility. Transient or temporary users, such as outside groups holding special events, are more of a challenge because the opportunity to educate and build an awareness and appreciation for the need for these policies and standards is not possible. In those situations, having vigilant and trained personnel observing special event uses is very important.

State Museum of Pennsylvania, historic signage over elevator and modern signage for floor directory for visitors

State Museum of Pennsylvania. Left: Showing historic signage over elevator and modern signage for floor directory for visitors. Right: A new signage plan was developed for the Museum based on design standards to match the brushed aluminum trim and a font selected as close as possible to original building signage.
Photo Credit: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

Relevant Codes and Standards

There are no specific codes or standards governing the creation of a FUP, BDS, or Custodial Guidelines. The need to comply with building codes will in many cases affect permitted uses of spaces, occupancy limits, and other restrictions on building use and required maintenance of life safety systems and egress routes.

Additional Resources


Historic Preservation courses in WBDG continuing education