When Old is as Good as New

Adaptive reuse and historic preservation are crucial aspects of sustainable architecture and urban planning. Repurposing existing structures for new functions retains their historic and cultural significance. Working with old buildings presents a unique set of challenges for architects due to their historical significance, structural uniqueness, and often deteriorated condition.

The term “historic preservation” typically implies the conservation and protection of buildings with significant historical, cultural, architectural, or social value. However, the distinction between “old” and “historic” can be somewhat subjective and context-dependent.

In general, a building may be considered historic if it possesses some level of significance beyond mere age. This significance could be derived from its association with important historical events or figures, its architectural style or craftsmanship, its role in shaping the identity of a community, or its representation of a particular era or period in history.

Some buildings are listed in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), the official list of historic properties recognized by the United States government for their significance at the national, state, or local level. Buildings listed in the National Register may include landmarks, districts, sites, structures, and objects that exemplify various aspects of American history and heritage.

Listing a building in the National Register signifies its importance and contributes to its preservation and recognition. While listing in the National Register does not impose strict regulatory restrictions on private property owners, it can provide eligibility for certain incentives, such as federal tax credits for rehabilitation projects and grant opportunities for preservation efforts.

The process of listing a building in the National Register typically involves extensive research, documentation, and evaluation of its historical significance, architectural integrity, and cultural value. Nominations for listing are submitted by state historic preservation offices or other authorized entities and reviewed by the National Park Service, which oversees the National Register program. Being listed in the National Register of Historic Places can be a source of pride for communities and property owners, as it recognizes and celebrates the significance of these buildings in American history and culture.

A significant older building might not meet the criteria for historic preservation in the traditional sense. The Cable House was originally built in the 1870s as a power house and car barn for the cable cars of the Walnut Hills & Cincinnati Street Railway (above).¬† Care was taken to preserve its contribution to the character of Walnut Hills when Childress & Cunningham helped to repurpose the building for office tenants. Efforts to preserve and adapt such buildings might fall under the broader umbrella of “heritage conservation” or “adaptive reuse.” Even buildings that are not considered “historic” can still hold value as part of a community’s built heritage. They establish the character and identity of a neighborhood, offer insights into local building traditions, and provide a tangible link to the past.

Excerpt from an advertisement for the Cable House. From Cincinnati Magazine, November, 1984, as found on http://www.cable-car-guy.com/html/ccohio.html

In practice, architects and preservationists may apply principles of historic preservation to a wide range of old buildings, regardless of their formal designation as historic landmarks. The goal is to respect and enhance the inherent value of these structures while adapting them to meet contemporary needs and standards.

Renovating an old building for its charm is a compelling choice for many individuals, as these buildings often possess unique architectural features and high-quality craftsmanship that are difficult to replicate with modern construction techniques. This allows individuals to preserve and celebrate the building’s historical character, providing a tangible connection to the past and honoring the history and heritage of the community while creating a one-of-a-kind space with a distinct sense of place. Moreover, renovation can be more sustainable than building anew, as it reduces the demand for new materials, conserves energy, and minimizes construction waste, contributing to environmental conservation efforts in architecture and urban development.

The trade-off, though, is that it may be as expensive as new construction, on a cost-per-square-foot basis, to renovate an existing building to meet modern building codes and comfort expectations. In addition to the services of an architect, consultation from a historic preservation specialist may be needed. Even without historic preservation concerns, old buildings can present unexpected challenges such as structural deficiencies, outdated mechanical systems, hazardous materials, or hidden damage that may require significant design changes or customized architectural details to address effectively.

A historic preservation specialist is experienced in the preservation, conservation, and restoration of historic buildings and sites, possessing in-depth knowledge of historic architecture, regulatory requirements, conservation philosophy, and community engagement. They prioritize retaining the original fabric and character of historic structures through sensitive interventions, extensive historical research, and collaboration with stakeholders. The specialist will work together with the architect, who brings a broad base of experience and integrates the design influences of multiple consultants for the project.

By creating accurate measured drawings and details, Childress & Cunningham¬† contributes to the preservation process by capturing the building’s historical significance, architectural elements, and unique craftsmanship. This documentation provides a foundation for future restoration, renovation, and adaptive reuse projects, ensuring that the historic integrity of the building is preserved and respected. Additionally, these drawings can aid in regulatory approvals, support grant applications, and serve as educational tools for students, researchers, and preservationists interested in studying historic architecture.

Older buildings often feature construction techniques and materials that may be difficult to replicate or source. Architects must consider the compatibility of new materials with the existing fabric of the building and find suitable replacements when original materials are no longer available. These traditional methods and materials reflect the craftsmanship, technology, and available resources of their respective eras. Examples include timber framing, stone masonry, handcrafted brickwork, lime mortar, and decorative plasterwork, among others. Careful documentation of the surviving elements can produce a template for custom production of replacement parts, or serve to judge compatibility of character if the budget precludes custom fabrication.

Contractors who specialize in historic preservation or restoration typically have experience working with traditional building materials and techniques. They understand the unique challenges associated with historic buildings, such as the need to preserve original features, match historic materials, and adhere to preservation guidelines and regulations. These contractors may collaborate closely with architects, preservation specialists, and conservation experts to ensure that the integrity and authenticity of historic structures are preserved throughout the construction process.

Brick building renovations

Adaptive reuse of an older building often poses challenges for the architect, as they contend with the requirements of current building codes and standards for accessibility, while adapting spaces for a new use. Architects working on adaptive reuse projects often collaborate closely with structural engineers, accessibility consultants, preservation specialists, and regulatory authorities to develop solutions that meet both functional and regulatory requirements. Setting a new use within an old shell, as when Childress & Cunningham was chosen to help convert this former metal works factory (above), brings the opportunity to contrast old with new, even as necessary repairs are undertaken.

Historic preservation and adaptive reuse of old buildings offers numerous rewards, including the preservation of cultural and historical significance, unique architectural character, and aesthetics that cannot be replicated in new construction. These efforts contribute to sustainability by conserving resources and reducing environmental impact, while also stimulating economic revitalization, fostering community engagement and pride, and providing educational and cultural resources for residents and visitors. Legal and financial incentives can further encourage investment in historic properties, offsetting the costs associated with rehabilitation and promoting the long-term stewardship of our architectural heritage for future generations.

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