Reusing Historic Buildings

The Ultimate in Sustainable Development

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Kerry Davis is principal and architectural historian with Preservation Solutions, LLC.

Peggy Brooker is a volunteer with the Casper, Wyo., Historic Preservation Commission.

Posted: Wednesday, August 5, 2015 10:45 am

To some, the term “historic preservation” summons an image of old-timers sitting around a dusty museum basement, trying to find a way to save drafty old houses that remind everyone of the good ol’ days.

In reality, “historic preservation” means finding ways to both honor the heritage of a place, and capitalize on its existing resources in order to revitalize a community.

That’s according to Boise, Idaho-based Kerry Davis, principal and architectural historian with Preservation Solutions, LLC. She is a qualified historic preservation consultant with the State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPO) in Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa and Oklahoma. Her experience includes documentation and eligibility assessments for more than 22,000 buildings and structures, as communities try to determine which economic tools are available to help them with funding.

Historic preservation is a way to “capitalize on existing resources,” Davis said, which means surveying properties to determine whether they are eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, a program managed by the National Park Service. If they are eligible, there are funds and other incentives to give these structures an even longer life and facilitate rehabilitation project financing. Even if a place is not deemed historic, that is still good to know since structures as young as 50 years might be eligible for certain incentives.

Structures built long ago are still standing for a reason, Davis said.

“They were often built to last this long and with superior materials such as old growth timber, which has a much tighter grain profile and is thus much more water resistant than woods being used today. Additionally, buildings depreciate at a faster rate than in the early 20th century, so there is little incentive now for builders to use high quality construction materials,” she said.

“From a sustainability standpoint, historic preservation is the ultimate in re-use,” Davis said. “Instead of land filling and then extracting and processing and shipping new construction materials, we look at embodied energy in an existing structure, thus capitalizing on the time and energy already spent. In the long run it is more efficient and goes back to concept of repair rather than replace; we don’t need to buy new all the time.”

One community that hired Davis’ company is Casper, Wyo. The city of about 55,000 has long been a hub for oil and gas production, an industry notorious for boom and bust cycles. In the 1980s, the city’s historical society noticed that some of Casper’s old structures were being torn down and replaced with little thought to the cultural loss the community was experiencing as a result. So they arranged for a survey to determine whether any of their buildings would be eligible for listing on the National Historic Register. They knew such a listing could be a powerful tool to maintain and rejuvenate their town through grant funds and various state and federal incentives. Unfortunately, that survey found that the downtown wasn’t historic enough to be listed on the National Register.

“Fast forward 30 years,” Davis said. “Now those building that were 20 years old are now 50 years old.”

That’s enough to be considered eligible for the National Register and thus a number of financial incentives, she said. Davis was able to document more than 200 buildings in the city’s central area between December 2013 and June 2015. As a result of her work, Casper will have a database their city and county assessors can utilize. If someone is looking at a property for redevelopment, they can pull up all the information about when it was built, who the architect was, what uses the property has seen and how its appearance has changed through the years.

“Finding out if a building is historic or not is a great planning tool for cities,” Davis said. “Knowing which incentives and/or tools are available can guide city activities. Whether it be revitalization or wholesale redevelopment, determining National Register eligibility can help target limited city resources, as well as enable property owners to leverage private investments toward revitalization.”

In addition to helping a city determine what might be eligible for listing in the National Register, conducting a survey helps them understand and plan for what is known as a federal undertaking. According to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 requires federal agencies to take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties, and afford the ACHP, as well as any local interested parties a reasonable opportunity to comment. That means that any federal action – licensing, funding or permitting – that has an impact on cultural and natural resources must be reviewed. For example, if the U.S. Forest Service wants to permit a ski area to expand, they have to take into account its impact on cultural and natural resources, Davis said. Even if a project simply uses federal money, such as a block grant, “they are required to take into account the potential impact, and mitigate any adverse effects.”

A third benefit of conducting a survey is that it frees time and money for cities like Casper. “Instead of running every building up the flagpole to check eligibility, now they’re all done,” Davis said. “They just look in the database to find out what the building is eligible for. Knowing what they have is an effective planning tool for all kinds of decisions.”

Davis recognizes the strong emotional impulse that might motivate a community to honor its heritage. When looking at the built environment, the sense of a past place and time that makes a place unique is very real, she said. All shopping malls might look alike to many eyes, but every downtown is different in its size, scale, texture and massing.

Historical society members often express their desire to preserve important places and will then communicate that desire to their planning department, community development department, city council or other relevant body. Davis has several suggestions for cities that want to do the sort of planning Casper has done.

“All these groups need to remember that preservation is more than an emotional mechanism. It is an economic development tool,” she said.

Peggy Brooker of Casper is one individual who approached the notion of preserving local heritage with a strong emotional motivation, yet she understands the economics of it, too. She noted that around the time of the 1980s survey, Wyoming’s SHPO approached communities around the state about becoming a Certified Local Government (CLG.) This is a partnership of local municipalities with their SHPO and the National Park Service, in which communities become certified as CLGs and eligible for funding and technical assistance. The Casper Historic Preservation Commission went through the process, and now Brooker is its part-time staff member, managing its administrative functions. The commission recently increased from seven to 11 volunteers, appointed by the city council.

“So many people are interested in being on the commission,” Brooker said. “A lot of people have seen buildings torn down and the way Casper is changing. They want to preserve what we have left and save it, even repurpose it for another use. They just don’t want to see it torn down.”

Brooker has come to realize that a passion for local heritage is not enough in this age of tear it down and build it again. It takes professional preparation and training in the languages of government officials, architects, developers and private property owners. Brooker recalls a recent Wyoming SHPO workshop on how to survey buildings, which was attended by CLG members from around the state. They were all interested in the buildings, but when it was time to prepare a building survey they realized they didn’t have the skill set.

“We had no background in how to identify or describe buildings or architectural features. We came to realize we didn’t have the expertise to do it and that we needed to go for a grant and have it done professionally,” Brooker said.

Even during the time that Davis’ work was ongoing, Brooker said, some buildings in a section of Casper known as the Yellowstone District were demolished. This was disappointing since some of the buildings that could have supported the historic district application were destroyed before they had a chance to be included.

“That was enlightening,” she said. “We caution anyone, if you have any area where the buildings aren’t in really good shape, get them surveyed. If they are in a historic district or contributing to a historic district, get them surveyed.”

Other parts of the Casper story have more satisfying conclusions, Brooker said. After Davis’ survey, a developer came to town to renovate an empty building and convert it into apartments. The developer contacted the Wyoming SHPO because the building had previously been a low-income housing project for which federal HUD funds had been used. That meant that the new developer had to have approval by the state for the project. Brooker said the Wyoming SHPO had documentation that the building was eligible for the National Register and indicated they’d like to see more detailed plans.

“SHPO worked with the developer, and all parties involved had the information they needed to review the project and make the project better,” she said.

The project is still ongoing, and it appears the historic fabric of the building – the façade, some of the stairway and some of the walls – will be preserved to make it still eligible for the National Register.

Communities that aren’t yet CLGs or that want to know about historic preservation as an economic development tool should contact their state’s Historic Preservation Office, said Davis. “Just say, ‘Here’s where we’re at, here’s our size, we’re not sure what our approach to development should be,’ and so on. Also call neighboring communities and ask what they did and if they have any helpful advice or insight.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has a conference each fall that Davis also recommends. Sessions include everything from survey techniques, city planning and fundraising to how to repair wood windows. There also are statewide SHPO conferences.

“Even if you don’t plan to do any historic preservation, it is good to become familiar with the planning elements,” she said. “Being conversant in the issues and funding tools would be helpful for any city manager.”

Finally, being knowledgeable about historic preservation can help even when a community’s emphasis is on green building.

“The U.S. Green Building Council is often focused on new construction; however, LEED certifications and tax incentives for green work in older existing buildings is getting better,” Davis said. “Instead of investing in infrastructure on unplowed ground, we should try to use what is there. LEED and historic rehab can work together to make this happen.“

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