Traditional Building Portfolio
Traditional Building August 2008

The purpose is not to rewrite the undergraduate school curriculum. Rather, the intent is to better integrate preservation values into existing courses.




Teaching Preservation Values

By Joseph K. Oppermann, FAIA

The American construction market in recent years has seen a gradual but pronounced increase in the amount of construction dollars spent on existing buildings as opposed to new construction. Accordingly, architectural firms are now reporting that about 40 percent of their fees come from this expanding market.

Some of the affected buildings, undoubtedly, are viewed as landmarks in their communities and perhaps beyond. Some are landmarks of the recent past. Some are landmarks of the not-so-recent past. A number in both categories are likely to be designated historic buildings. Such designation, or in some regards even the potential for designation, can bring restrictions or financial opportunities, and frequently, both.

Architects who specialize in older architecture know the realities of dealing with recognized historic buildings. They are accustomed to dealing with a myriad of issues not confronted by their colleagues who focus on the design of new buildings. Some of the issues for historic architecture are matters of administration and compliance, such as certain redevelopment incentives, building codes and zoning, and the many shades of interpretation for each. Many of the issues for historic architecture deal with the inherent performance characteristics of buildings that were created by an earlier construction technology and design approach. That is not to say that the buildings of one period are necessarily better or worse than those of another, only that the buildings can be fundamentally different; and, that mixing the new with the old, especially in regards to construction materials, can have unintended and even disastrous results. But, most importantly, the values in the practice of historic architecture, of historic preservation, are the values of good design, valid to every period.

Like it or not, a sizable share of today's construction market is dealing with existing buildings. Many of these buildings are historic. This new reality begs the question, "Are the architects and engineers ready?" The formal process of becoming an architect in this country is steeped in the notion that architects design new buildings. Architectural schools place a significant amount of emphasis on design studios largely focused on new building design. The accrediting process for architectural schools likewise places major emphasis on design education weighted toward the new construction model.

Indeed, our society as a whole has been slow to embrace the concept of longevity of use and adaptation in many parts of life. Americans are an independent lot, born of fighting for our freedom. From the mobility to go and to be where we want, to property rights, we are accustomed to doing pretty much as we please. Abundant natural resources and ample space, coupled with the individual financial wealth that comes from such abundance, has made this independence relatively easy. And, we are a disposable society. As you read this article, many of our cohorts are sipping morning coffee from a Styrofoam cup, eating a croissant off a paper plate with a plastic fork and wiping their hands with a paper napkin. When the coffee and dessert are gone, so is everything else. In all likelihood, their shoes have not been resoled and never will be.

It is easier, if not currently less expensive, to discard and start anew. So also is this tendency when dealing with our existing buildings. The wood windows need maintenance, we replace. The wood siding needs painting, we cover. The siding installer's truck reads, "Vinyl is final!" It's not.

As architects and engineers who focus their practice on historic architecture know only too well, misconceptions abound concerning the technology that produced those buildings and how to sustain their function through applying appropriate repair. Most disturbingly, an increasingly larger portion of those practices are directed towards addressing recent well-meaning but damaging repairs. Too often, the repairs are more harmful than the problems they were intended to address.

In 2003 the Historic Resources Committee of the American Institute of Architects formed a Preservation Education Task Group to promote a greater awareness of the issues that the older building and especially the historic building present. Among the members are architects in public and private practice, educators, architectural school administrators, as well as representatives from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA), the National Architectural Accreditation Board (NAAB), the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) and the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT).

At the very first meeting there was unanimous agreement that this is a serious problem which will take effort at all levels of the educational and licensing process. It was also agreed that while there are graduate programs for those wishing to specialize in this type of work, all architectural students seeking their first professional degree should have a basic exposure to the most fundamental concepts.

The purpose is not to rewrite the undergraduate school curriculum. Rather, the intent is to better integrate preservation values into existing courses. Some examples of values integral to historic preservation are the careful recording of as-found conditions; thoughtful assessment prior to action; respect for the interplay of site and building; respect for the context of community; respect for inherent qualities and characteristics of the existing building's design; material conservation; the preference for repair instead of replacement; and compatibility with the critical performance characteristics of the established building design.

The Task Group has since grown to become a permanent entity of the Historic Resources Committee and has made progress on all fronts. For example, in 2003 the Task Group made recommendations on behalf of the AIA for adjustment to the architectural school accreditation performance standards; some favorable adjustments were subsequently made. Members of the Historic Resources Committee have become frequent members of the accreditation teams. The 2006 Cranbrook Summer Institute for architectural school faculty dedicated its entire program to the development of preservation-focused course outlines applicable to the professional design curriculum. Sponsorship of an ACSA/AIA HRC student competition in 2007 focused on the daunting task of adding new space to the iconic Saarinen Gallery and Library at Cranbrook, and attracted international interest from students and faculty alike. A second competition is in the works for 2009, as is the development of model coursework, rich with preservation ideals under the auspices of the AIA Best Practices program.

The American Institute of Architects has identified sustainable design as a major platform for its 2008-2010 Strategic Plan. And it is no accident that the Historic Resources Committee has long espoused the views that not only can one learn from the design of historic buildings and their wise use of materials and response to issues of site and climate, but that the reuse of an existing building is "sustainable design" by definition! The academy is listening to this message and, as usual, it is often students who capture the excitement and challenge of working with the past to make a sustainable future while retaining valued heritage.

When one looks at these traditional values of historic preservation, it is clear that they are the timeless values of good design, sustainability and the responsible stewardship of resources. As Americans face a new economic reality precipitated by globalization and energy costs, the importance of these values become clearer than ever. When these values are embraced and celebrated, the future of our past as embodied in our buildings looks promising indeed.  


Joseph K. Oppermann, FAIA, is a past chairman of the AIA Historic Resources Committee and a founding member of the Preservation Education Task Group. He is president of Joseph K. Oppermann – Architect, P.A., in Winston-Salem, NC, a firm that specializes in historic architecture.
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