Four misconceptions about historic preservation

Minneapolis residential project - James Hardie

This residential project in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was completed with James Hardie products such as HardiePlank and HardieTrim.

In this story from AIA partner James Hardie, find out why their products are a solution for historic preservation projects

Do the words “historic preservation” conjure up visions of streets lined with brick Williamsburg-style buildings in your clients’ minds? You’re not alone.

Architects today are pros at repurposing buildings and re-envisioning spaces, but clients may need help understanding the vision and goals of the project. Below, architects who work in the field each day share misconceptions about historic preservation projects.

Preservation is all about the past.

There’s a misconception that preservationists are strident devotees of the past who resist any and all change, says Matthew Jarosz, director of the Historic Preservation Institute at the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an architect in private practice.

“I think that’s actually the opposite of what our program is,” says Jarosz, who adds that preservation is quite future-oriented. He is pondering a name change of the institute he directs to the Adaptive Reuse Institute to better reflect what students actually learn to do: modify buildings for future use. “With smart and intelligent decisions, existing buildings are quite adaptable,” he says.

While true restoration projects like Colonial Williamsburg are important, only a small percentage of graduates ever do this work. But almost all of today’s architects, Jarosz says, will be asked to repurpose existing buildings.

Preservation freezes something in time.

Many post-World War II buildings relied on experimental technologies, some of which are no longer considered desirable, says Ashley R. Wilson, AIA, Graham Gund Architect for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“Preservation is not just about protecting the beautiful but also culturally important places where events occurred that shaped our shared history.” - Ashley R. Wilson, AIA

Preservation projects are flexible, allowing architects to preserve what is unique and irreplaceable while bringing a building up to modern safety or accessibility standards. It only makes sense, for example, to add modern earthquake protections to buildings on the West Coast or to provide buffers against flooding in high-risk areas.

Not all eras produced architecture that’s worth preserving.

Someone who bashes “all homes built during the 1980s” or professes genuine hate for architecture of the 1970s may simply be too close to the time period to appreciate it.

“Age makes buildings more loved,” says Wilson. “Buildings go through an ugly cycle of around 30 to 60 years before they become loved again.”

What’s more, recognizing cultural importance goes beyond popularity or momentary beauty, says Jean Carroon, FAIA, who leads the preservation practice for Boston-based architecture firm Goody Clancy.

“There was a moment in time when people thought certain things were the right solution,” she says. Preservation is “a recognition that these things are all part of a sequence.”

Old buildings are built better.

Thick walls. Solid construction. Charles Darwin’s theory is sometimes applied to buildings, with people assuming that the “best” buildings have staying power.

“There is a certain ‘survival of the fittest’ inherent in preservation,” Wilson says. “Preservation is not just about protecting the beautiful but also culturally important places where events occurred that shaped our shared history.”

Williams remembers wondering about a plaque attached to an ordinary-looking row house in her home city of Washington, DC. Turns out it was the site of the city’s first African-American physician’s office.

“The most ordinary places,” Wilson says, “can be extraordinary.”

James Hardie fiber cement building products are a solution for historic preservation projects and meet the requirements of both modern building codes and historic review boards.

The AIA does not sponsor or endorse any enterprise, whether public or private, operated for profit. Further, no AIA officer, director, committee member, or employee, or any of its component organizations in his or her official capacity, is permitted to approve, sponsor, endorse, or do anything that may be deemed or construed to be an approval, sponsorship, or endorsement of any material of construction or any method or manner of handling, using, distributing, or dealing in any material or product.

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Minneapolis residential project - James Hardie

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