Securing Historic Architecture for the Future
Posted on November 8, 2021
What is historic preservation? Preservation is often used as a broad term for saving old buildings. It is preserving and protecting structures and landscapes that embody elements of a time or place in history.
What makes a building historic and why do we care?
Typically, buildings need to be at least 50 years old to be considered “historic.” Buildings can also be considered historic if they are tied to significant events of the past. Old buildings embody history, a glimpse at a previous generation. This is why preserving these buildings is important. Old buildings can be physically experienced, which is more effective than reading about or looking at pictures in a book. You can touch, walk around, and view the structure from multiple angles. Buildings are meant to be experienced at human scale, which is often hard to consider when looking at building sections or elevations. Not only does this allow people to learn about the physical building, but also learn the ways the building was used by the people who inhabited it.
It is impressive to see a building still standing and functioning after 100 years. There is also an inherent beauty in that strength. “Any building older than 100 years will be considered beautiful, no matter what.” Nostalgia also plays a factor into why people like historic architecture. Nostalgia is the “sentimental longing for the past.” When we see old building, we often have these grand romantic notions of a time we weren’t even around to experience. We’re calling back on memories that we haven’t even experienced.
When it comes to the act of ‘preserving,’ there are several schools of thought on how to treat historic architecture. There are many different terms thrown out like restoration and rehabilitation that seem like they mean the same thing. While these terms all place an importance on keeping historic buildings, the methods in treating these structures are all different.
Historic Preservation is preserving what is existing and not letting it deteriorate any further. In preservation work, no improvements or additions are made. It is all about preserving what is there, as a snapshot of a moment in time.
Restoration is recreating and completing a building to what it may have originally looked like. This may include removing portions of a building that are not original. Historic details are repaired rather than replaced.
Reconstruction is replicating building features using new materials to recreate architectural features and styles that no longer exist. Additions that are designed in a way that would be historically accurate would be allowable.
Rehabilitation is altering a building so it can be used in a new way, while preserving its architecturally significant features. This is the least constrictive, and allows a building to be altered in many ways. Additions are permitted.
Preservation vs. Renovation
Different schools of thought may say that no improvements should be made, just preserve what is there, while others think that repair work is ok, as long as you are not trying to recreate or duplicate existing fixtures, keeping the building’s authenticity. To some people, authenticity is more important than anything. To recreate historic elements is fake.
Most people would agree that it is better to repair what is existing, rather than replace it with something new. Some people think that historic buildings should be restored to how they originally looked, with everything period correct, while others think that modern updates should be done as they would have been over time to make them still usable in the twenty-first century.
When creating additions to a historic building, it is best practice to use similar materials and proportions as the existing structure but do not copy. According to the Secretary of the Interior’s Guide for Rehabilitation any additions to a historic building “must be compatible with the massing, size, scale, and design of the historic building while differentiated from the historic building. It should also be designed and constructed so that the essential form and integrity of the historic building would remain if the addition were to be removed in the future.”
Historic preservation and adaptive reuse go hand in hand. The best way to preserve a building is to use it. While an old house may still work as a house, other buildings many no longer have a use as originally intended. This could be because the original function no longer exists, or the size/shape of rooms do not work for modern space standards. When historic buildings have lost their original use, there are many ways the structure can be reused to serve a new purpose.
It is more energy efficient and cheaper to reuse an old building than it is to tear down and build a new structure in its place. Restoration of an old building may be expensive, but can be less than new construction, all while avoiding the mess, cost and environmental impact of demolition.
When embarking on any type of renovations to a historic building, there are many factors to consider when determining which path to take. An important step would be to check with the local municipality. Many cities have ordinances, design standards or Historic District Commissions that outline what type of work can be done. If any of the methodologies are permitted, it is next up to the owner of what path they want to take. For a public building, the architects and/or the owners may want to meet with the community to gauge how they feel about proposed changes and get input of what they would like to see. Making appropriate material choices, attention to scale and detail, and knowledge of past and current construction methods are all things that make architects an important piece of a historic renovation.
As of December 30th, 2020, Michigan once again has a historic preservation tax credit, with Public Act No. 343. This could be a great benefit to communities with historic buildings, and perhaps encourage other to take on a restoration project.
 Brand, Stewart. How Buildings Learn.
 Viollet’le’duc, Eugene-Emmanuel. On Restoration London 1875.
I’m Brandy Chirco, a graduate architect here at AEW. I have a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Architecture from Lawrence Technological University. At Anderson, Eckstein and Westrick, I am involved in many municipal, commercial, and modular design projects. I also have a strong passion for historic preservation. Outside the office, I am on a local Historic District Commission and serve on the board of a local historical society. No matter where I am, I love to create. Whether that’s designing buildings, digital graphics, scroll saw art, or painting – I’m all about it.