Last updated: 04-16-2015
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Preserving historic buildings is vital to understanding our nation's heritage. In addition, it is an environmentally responsible practice. By reusing existing buildings historic preservation is essentially a recycling program of 'historic' proportions. Existing buildings can often be energy efficient through their use of good ventilation, durable materials, and spatial relationships. An immediate advantage of older buildings is that a building already exists; therefore energy is not necessary to demolish a building or create new building materials and the infrastructure may already be in place. Minor modifications can be made to adapt existing buildings to compatible new uses. Systems can be upgraded to meet modern building requirements and codes. This not only makes good economic sense, but preserves our legacy and is an inherently sustainable practice and an intrinsic component of whole building design. (See also Sustainable and Sustainable Historic Preservation.)
U.S. Courthouse at Union Station, Tacoma, WA. Designed by the architectural firm of Reed and Stem and constructed in 1911 and renovated in 1987. Tall ceilings, generous daylight, and grand ceremonial spaces give historic buildings enduring investment value and make them attractive for a variety of uses. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. General Services Administration)
Realizing the need to protect America's cultural resources, Congress established the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in 1966, which mandates the active use of historic buildings for public benefit and to preserve our national heritage. Cultural resources, as identified in the National Register for Historic Places, include buildings, archeological sites, structures, objects, and historic districts. The surrounding landscape is often an integral part of a historic property. Not only can significant archaeological remains be destroyed during the course of construction, but the landscape, designed or natural, may be irreparably damaged, and caution is advised whenever major physical intervention is required in an extant building or landscape. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act established the public mandate to protect these resources.
Some practical and/or intangible benefits of historic preservation include:
- Retention of history and authenticity
- Commemorates the past
- Aesthetics: texture, craftsmanship, style
- Pedestrian/visitor appeal
- Contextual and human scale
- Increased commercial value (Economic Benefits)
- Materials and ornaments that are not affordable or readily available
- Durable, high quality materials (e.g., old growth wood)
Rehabilitated historic hotel, Cape May, NJ. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service
- Retention of building materials (refer also to WBDG Sustainable Branch)
- Less construction and demolition debris
- Less hazardous material debris
- Less need for new materials
- Existing usable space—quicker occupancy
- Rehabilitation often costs less than new construction
- Reuse of infrastructure
- Energy savings
- No energy used for demolition
- No energy used for new construction
- Reuse of embodied energy in building materials and assemblies
Following passage of the NHPA, the Secretary of the Interior established Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties to promote and guide the responsible treatment of historic structures and to protect irreplaceable cultural resources. Today, the Standards are the guiding principles behind sensitive preservation design and practice in America.
- Apply the Preservation Process Successfully—The preservation process involves five basic steps: Identify, Investigate, Develop, Execute, and Educate. Successful preservation design requires early and frequent consultation with a variety of organizations and close collaboration among technical specialists, architects, owner/occupants, and preservation professionals.
Work on historic properties requires specialized skills. The Secretary of the Interior has identified professional qualification standards for a variety of preservation disciplines.
Four Treatment Approaches
Within the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties there are Standards for four distinct approaches to the treatment of historic properties: preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction.
Preservation focuses on the maintenance stabilization, and repair of existing historic materials and retention of a property's form as it has evolved over time.
Rehabilitation acknowledges the need to alter or add to a historic property to meet continuing or changing uses while retaining the property's historic character.
Alexander Hamilton Custom House, New York. Constructed 1899-1907 and renovated in 1994. Original drawings, photographs, and other archival documents are used to determine the original appearance of missing features to be replicated within restoration zones. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. General Services Administration)
Restoration depicts a property at a particular period of time in its history, while removing evidence of other periods.
Reconstruction re-creates vanished or non-surviving portions of a property for interpretive purposes.
Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes such as landscapes, archaeological and maritime resources, etc. are maintained by the National Park Service.
While each treatment has its own definition, they are interrelated. For example, one could "restore" missing features in a building that is being "rehabilitated." This means that if there is sufficient historical documentation on what was there originally, a decorative lighting fixture may be replicated or an absent front porch rebuilt, but the overall approach to work on the building falls under one specific treatment.
James R. Browning U.S. Court of Appeals Building, San Francisco, CA. Designed by James Knox Taylor in 1905 and rehabilitated in the early 1990's. Onsite surveys identify significant features to be retained as part of a comprehensive preservation plan. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. General Services Administration)
Determine the appropriate treatment for a historic property BEFORE work begins, at project initiation. This includes making sure that the proposed function for the historic property is compatible with the existing conditions in order to minimize destruction of the historic fabric. Generally, the least amount of change to the building's historic design and original architectural fabric is the preferred approach. To develop a treatment plan, site assessments are conducted to identify character-defining features and qualities. These assessments also examine the building or property as a whole to establish a hierarchy of significance, or "preservation zones," corresponding to specific treatments. "Zoning" establishes preservation priorities.
Of concern to preservation and design professionals is the cumulative effect of seemingly minor changes over time, which can greatly diminish the integrity of a historic building. Major preservation design goals include:
- Update Building Systems Appropriately—Updating building systems in historic structures requires striking a balance between retaining original building features and accommodating new technologies and equipment. Building system updates require creativity to respect the original design and materials while meeting applicable codes and tenant needs.
- Accommodate Life Safety and Security Needs—The accommodation of new functions, changes in technology, and improved standards of protection provide challenges to the reuse of historic buildings and sites. Designers must address life safety, seismic, and security issues in innovative ways that preserve historic sites, spaces and features.
- Provide Accessibility for Historic Buildings—Accessibility and historic preservation strategies sometimes conflict with each other. Designers must provide access for persons with disabilities while meeting preservation goals.
Integrating Historic Preservation Concerns with Safety/Security Issues
We live and work in a changed environment: a world in which safety and security concerns have been elevated to their highest level since the founding of our nation. Preservation practitioners must now be concerned with the safety of an historic building's occupants, as well as the security of equipment and data. It is inevitable that the needs of historic preservation as established by the Secretary of the Interior will come into conflict with new federal guidelines and requirements for anti-terrorism force protection. For example, windows and fenestration details may be character-defining aspects intrinsic to an historic structure; however, it has become a universally-accepted fact that the majority of human injuries in an explosion are the direct result of exposure to high-velocity glass shards. Windows and openings in historic buildings that are vulnerable to possible terrorist activity may need to be reinforced to protect life and property. The US Army Corps of Engineers is performing experiments with various solutions to the problem of window glass failure in explosions and other terrorism-related activities. The need to meet safety and security requirements in historic buildings is critical when considering the necessary space between structures and public roads and parking areas. (See also WBDG: Accommodate Life Safety and Security Needs)
Historic Atlantic City Convention Hall, Atlantic City, NJ. Photos courtesy of the National Park Service.
Natural Disasters: Response, Recovery, and Resilience
After Hurricane Sandy, bus ads proclaimed New Jersey as "A State of Resilience."
The number and severity of natural disasters-hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, and uncontrolled wild fires—require special planning for historic properties. Many argue that the increase is due to climate change. In response, people are calling for resilience, the ability to withstand and bounce back from damaging effects of natural disasters, and to avoid or minimize them in future disasters. Federal, state, and local governments and private organizations are collaborating on the nation's response to climate change. This planning includes preservation of historic and cultural resources in immediate disaster response, long-term community recovery, and future mitigation efforts is an emerging issue.
In 2013, the United Nations issued a global report on Heritage and Resilience (PDF 1.4 MB). It noted the connection between physical and social resilience. "The symbolism inherent in heritage is a powerful means to help victims recover from the psychological impact of disasters. In such situations, people search desperately for identity and self-esteem", and find it in reclaiming their heritage and historic places. It further stated, "Heritage contributes to social cohesion, sustainable development, and psychological well-being. Protecting heritage promotes resilience."
In the United States, the Secretary of the Interior's Standards provide guidance on protecting heritage and the treatment of historic areas and individual historic buildings. Applying the Standards can be a challenge in the rush of disaster response, or in the delicate balancing of life safety, economic and preservation values in long term recovery and planning. However, the result is worth the effort, and in some cases, like qualifying for government assistance, compliance with the Standards may be required. The guiding principle is to retain historic features while sensitively incorporating new features that reduce the risk of future damage from disasters. Sometimes, it's easy, like moving electrical service up out of flood-prone basements. Other times, difficult design challenges arise, like how to substantially elevate an historic house in a floodplain.
In some instances, the conversation about climate change, disaster mitigation, and adaptation includes the possibility of abandoning coastal or flood zones altogether. Human settlement often began and flourished in waterfront areas. Historic preservation concerns need to be considered when planning for the future of coastal and riverfront communities, many of which have extensive historic and prehistoric resources and valued traditional cultural patterns. Having an accurate, up-to-date inventory of historic resources and archeological sites (identified and predicted) in vulnerable areas is key to an informed and quick response when disasters strike, as well as a basis for long term resilience planning.
Working with FEMA after Hurricane Sandy, the New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) quickly surveyed affected neighborhoods to establish which ones were historic and which ones were not, allowing them to concentrate limited capacity and resources on historic areas, while eliminating review of the rest. By entering the data as a layer in the state's GIS (Geographic Information System) database, which contains a variety of environmental and social data, it became both a tool for recovery and for future planning. Computer mapping of future scenarios could visualize impacts to historic properties along with impacts to natural resources and human communities.
The Water Witch Historic District in Sea Bright, New Jersey, is bordered by red in the center of the image. To the right, is the Fort Hancock and Sandy Hook Proving Ground Historic District. Anyone can consult the NJ GIS system and choose data layers to "turn on", including Historic Districts and Historic Properties.
The National Park Service developed a manual on how to use GIS to document damage and plan for recovery, Historic Preservation Response Methodology (PDF 17.5 MB).
(Left) New Orleans promoted hurricane shutters after Hurricane Katrina.
(Right) Warning sign on the San Francisco waterfront.
Photos courtesy of HUD
How can historic resources be protected against excessive wind, water, and/or vibration during disaster events? Physical modifications, elevation, seismic reinforcement, restoration, or creation of landscape features and operational procedures can address various threats.
The Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) and Mississippi Department of Archives and History (SHPO) developed guidelines for elevating buildings. (PDF 19.9 MB)
The National Park Service published "Preservation Brief 41: The Seismic Retrofit of Historic Buildings: Keeping Preservation in the Forefront."
(Left) A chimney with deteriorated mortar joints suffered vibration damage when an earthquake struck near Washington, D.C.; (Right) Seismic upgrade of a former railroad car facility in Spokane, WA included horizontal metal strapping on long expanses of masonry. The rehabilitation project received historic tax credits.
Photos courtesy of National Park Service.
In flooding scenarios, keeping water out of or moving out of an historic building are primary concerns. Flood gates or barriers help deflect incoming high water from entrances, basement windows, and cellar areaway doors. Sump pumps that operate on water system pressure and not electricity can keep performing when the power goes out. Berms, levees, and dunes can hold back or channel flood waters and/or tidal surges. Measures like relocating electrical service and fuel tanks out of basement areas can protect them from damage during flooding and allow a much quicker recovery after a disaster. And if building materials do get wet, it is important to recognize the inherent flood-resistance of some materials like mahogany trim or cypress flooring, and not unthinkingly rip them out and dispose of them.
(Left) A roadside record of flooding from Hurricane Irene along the Ausable River in Ausable Forks, New York; (Right) This historic 1966 drive-in restaurant was completely inundated by floodwaters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 2008 and is currently undergoing rehabilitation. Recovering from a disaster can take years.
Photos ourtesy of National Park Service.
Operational measures can also prevent flooding. In Montpelier, Vermont, after winter river ice started to thaw and break into chunks, it formed an ice dam under a bridge downstream and caused extensive water backup and flooding in the historic downtown. To prevent future recurrences, every winter, the city now stations a crane with a wrecking ball next to the bridge to break up the ice if another ice dam begins to form.
Historic Buildings and the National Flood insurance Program (NFIP)
"The NFIP floodplain management requirements contain two provisions that are intended to provide relief for "historic structures" located in Special Flood Hazard Areas:
Relevant Codes and Standards
- 36 CFR 67, The Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation
- 36 CFR 68, The Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties
- 36 CFR 61, Professional Qualifications for Historic Projects
- 48 FR 22716, The Secretary of the Interior's Professional Qualification Standards, Sep 1983
- Executive Order 11593, Protection and Enhancement of the Cultural Environment (1971)
- Executive Order 13006, Locating Federal Agencies in Historic Buildings in Historic Districts in Our Central Cities
- Executive Order 13287, Preserve America
- Executive Order 13693, Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade
- National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966, as amended through 1992
- National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act: of 2000
For a list of other Federal Historic Preservation and cultural resource laws click here
Standards and Guidelines
- Cultural Resource Management Guideline, NPS-28
- Guidelines for Federal Agency Responsibilities, Under Section 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act
- International Code Council, International Building Code, Chapter 10
- NFPA 914 Code for Fire Protection of Historic Structures, particularly Chapter 15
- The Secretary of the Interior's Standards and Guidelines for Archeology and Historic Preservation (As amended and annotated by the National Park Service)
- Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP)
- Sustainability and Historic Federal Buildings (PDF 1.5 MB)
- Department of Defense (DoD)
- DENIX Environmental Webpage
- Department of the Army
- AR 200-4 Cultural Resources Management (Oct 98) (PDF 70 KB)
- Center of Expertise for the Preservation of Historic Structures and Buildings
- U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—Tribal Nations Program
- U.S. Army Environmental Command—Cultural Resources Management
- Department of the Navy
- Naval Facilities Engineering Command
- Historic and Archaeological Resources Protection Planning Guidelines, January 1997.
- Operational Navy Instruction (OPNAVINST) 5090.1C, Chapter 27—Cultural Resources (PDF 3.2 MB)
- SECNAV 4000.35A Department of the Navy Cultural Resources Program (9 Apr 01) (PDF 702 KB)
- Environmental Protection Agency
- U.S. Air Force
- Department of Homeland Security
- FEMA Environmental Planning and Historic Preservation Program (EHP): The EHP program integrates the protection and enhancement of environmental, historic, and cultural resources into FEMA's mission, programs and activities; ensures that FEMA's activities and programs related to disaster response and recovery, hazard mitigation, and emergency preparedness comply with federal environmental and historic preservation laws and executive orders; and provides environmental and historic preservation technical assistance to FEMA staff, local, State and Federal partners, and grantees and sub-grantees.
- Department of Housing and Urban Development
- Guidance and technical assistance on historic preservation in HUD programs
- HUD Healthy Homes Initiative: Environmental hazards in the home harm millions of children each year. In 1999, in response to a Congressional Directive over concerns about child environmental health, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched its Healthy Homes Initiative (HHI) to protect children and their families from housing-related health and safety hazards.
- Department of the Interior—National Park Service
- Heritage Preservation Services: helps our nation's citizens and communities identify, evaluate, protect, and preserve historic properties for future generations of Americans. Located in Washington, DC, the Division provides a broad range of products and services, financial assistance and incentives, educational guidance, and technical information in support of this mission. Its diverse partners include State Historic Preservation Offices, local governments, tribes, federal agencies, colleges, and nonprofit organizations.
- National Register of Historic Places: The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation's historic places worthy of preservation. The National Register is administered by the National Park Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
- Federal Preservation Institute (FPI)—Preservation Portal: (FPI) provides historic preservation news and information, with particular emphasis on information and training opportunities for Federal agency preservation officers, their staff, and contractors.
- Technical Preservation Services: The Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives program encourages private sector rehabilitation of historic buildings and is one of the nation's most successful and cost-effective community revitalization programs. It generates jobs and creates moderate and low-income housing in historic buildings.
- National Center for Preservation Technology and Training: NCPTT advances the application of science and technology to historic preservation. Working in the fields of archeology, architecture, landscape architecture and materials conservation, the Center accomplishes its mission through training, education, research, technology transfer and partnerships.
- National NAGPRA Program: The National NAGPRA program assists the Secretary of the Interior with some of the Secretary's responsibilities under NAGPRA. Among its chief activities, National NAGPRA develops regulations and guidance for implementing NAGPRA; provides administrative and staff support for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Review Committee; assists Indian tribes, Native Alaskan villages and corporations, Native Hawaiian organizations, museums, and Federal agencies with the NAGPRA process; maintains the Native American Consultation Database (NACD) and other online databases; provides training; manages a grants program; investigates allegations of failure to comply; and makes program documents and publications available on the Web.
- The Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation and Illustrated Guidelines on Sustainability for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings (PDF 53.19 MB)
- Department of Transportation—Historic Preservation: The FHWA Historic Preservation and Archeology Program provides guidance and technical assistance to Federal, State, and local government staff regarding these Federal laws, as well as regulations, executive orders, policy, procedures, and training on topics related to historic preservation and cultural resources. This website provides information geared to the Federal-aid highway program and its related projects. Information contained on this website offers guidance, recommendations, and successful practices to help address historic preservation/cultural resource issues during the transportation project planning and development process. The Resources section of this website is designed to provide other useful information including, partner agencies, professional organizations, relevant legislation, publications, and conferences and meetings.
- Department of Veterans Affairs—Historic Preservation: The Office of Construction & Facilities Management (CFM) provides design, major construction, and lease project management, design and construction standards, and historic preservation services and expertise to the Department of Veterans Affairs to deliver high quality and cost effective facilities in support of our Nation's veterans.
- U.S. General Services Administration (GSA)—Historic Preservation: GSA's historic preservation program provides technical and strategic expertise to promote the viability, reuse, and integrity of historic buildings GSA owns, leases, and has the opportunity to acquire.
- "Restoring a Treasure: U.S. Custom House, New Orleans"—GSA Film on New Orleans Custom House/response to flood
- Historic Buildings Preservation Technical Resources
- Technical Preservation Guidelines
- U.S. Marine Corps
- Association for Preservation Technology International (APTI)
- National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers (NCSHPO)
- National Trust for Historic Preservation
- National Preservation Institute
- Smithsonian Institution—Architectural History and Historic Preservation Division
- Federal Historic Preservation Laws National Park Service
- WBDG13 Strategies for Sustainable Historic Preservation
- EPA "Climate Adaptation 101" training course: Designed to strengthen the understanding of adaptation and why it's critical to the mission
- Building Research Information Knowledgebase (BRIK)—an interactive portal offering online access to peer-reviewed research projects and case studies in all facets of building, from predesign, design, and construction through occupancy and reuse.
- Building Technology Heritage Library
- PreservationDirectory.com—an online resource for historic preservation, building restoration and cultural resource management in the United States & Canada.