Remodel or Preserve?

What’s the difference between preservation and remodeling and why should you care?

By Bob Graham, Motley Design Group

There are good reasons to save almost any building. But some buildings deserve not only to be reused, but to be preserved.  The difference between preservation and simple reuse may not be obvious, but it’s worth thinking about.

I hate to see a building demolished, if for no other reason, just because of the waste. Having been involved in many construction projects, I have a keen appreciation for all of the thinking, planning, logistics, fabricating, inspecting, construction materials, and plain old labor and sweat that goes in to building anything. It seems like a marvel that anything can get built. The quality of construction has also deteriorated in modern days.  It is generally true that they don’t build them like they used to, because labor was cheap and people expected buildings to last.  So when a building is taken down, I can feel, in my gut, all of that effort being broken up and hauled off to the landfill.

I am also sentimental about my surroundings. When you live long enough in one place, the buildings around you become the settings for your memories. When the movie theater where you had your first date is torn down, a little piece of you is taken with it. It’s almost as bad when a major remodel changes the look of a place, or even reshapes it so the spaces you remember can barely be recognized. Phoenix’s Encanto Park, which was ruined in about 1990, comes to mind. Just enough of the original character remains to make me a little sad (and mad) every time I walk through it.

Old buildings are our connection to those who were here before us. As an architect, I am always curious about the work of the earlier architects who designed my city. They had design inspirations and motives that were very different from mine, while at the same time some things never change.  It makes me feel like I am walking in their footsteps, and I like to think they might appreciate my own work.

When a building crosses the line from being just another inhabited box to being a container for the community’s memories or a connection to something in the past that was important, it becomes a candidate for preservation.  Identifying these places used to be by consensus. But the feeling of worthiness was not always felt by everyone, which led to arguments. Since the preservation movement took off in the 1960s our society has developed criteria for fairly identifying what should be preserved, which is where we get institutions like the National Register of Historic Places and the various city and state registers.

So when we say that we want to preserve a building, we are essentially saying that we want to make sure that those features that define our perception of it are not removed or changed (jargon: “character-defining elements” or “CDE’s”). This is what makes a historic preservation project different from a conventional remodel project.  We can “rehabilitate” a historic building by making selective changes to it to adapt it to modern standards and needs, but we need to do it in such a way that those CDE’s are preserved. CDE’s can include anything from the stucco texture to the overall building form, depending on the context.  It’s recognizing which elements are important that’s the trick; you have to have a good understanding about what is significant about the building (which is not always obvious without some level of historic research) before you can formulate a preservation approach.

It is unfortunate that this is so poorly understood, because many well-meaning property owners and their architects think they are doing historic preservation when in fact they are eroding or destroying the very values that make their building valuable in the first place. So by all means, remodel instead of demolish! It’s the green thing to do. But be sure to check the importance of your building to the community, and try to avoid taking away someone else’s memories.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *