Points of Departure: A Recap from the 50th APT Conference

by Becca Pheasant-Reis

From September 22nd through the 27th I had the pleasure of attending the 50th-anniversary conference of the Association for Preservation International (APT). APT supports the technical side of Preservation and Conservation so that everyone from Architects and Engineers to Conservators and Craftspeople has access to the best traditional and new technologies in the field. The national conference brings together professionals from across the world to exchange triumphs, failures, and best practices. This year’s conference focused on the future of the Preservation profession for the next 50 years.

Perhaps you are wondering how there can be anything new to know when it comes to taking care of old buildings. Haven’t we been doing this for centuries? This is partially true. We have been taking care of old buildings for centuries, but three major changes have taken place over the past 50 years. First, how we expect our old buildings to perform has changed. Second, we have realized that preservation has tended to under-represent certain groups within our communities. Third, the buildings built after 1920 have drastically different construction from those built before.

Before jumping into what is changing, let’s take a quick look at what is not:

  • Historic buildings are crucial to understanding the history of our world on a deeper level. It is one thing to read about history, and it is another thing entirely to interact with history daily. This view of historic buildings has gained traction in the past fifty years and does not appear to be going anywhere.
  • We continue to search for compatible new uses for old buildings that have outlived their original intent.
  • Our understanding of pre-1920s building construction and materials is quite robust and well documented.
  • Reversibility is key for interventions into historic buildings. This is particularly true for newer untested techniques. Excitement over the latest new miracle material is tempered by past experience where ten years later we are tasked with removing the same materials.
  • Maintenance remains critical! A good routine maintenance schedule can save a fortune over time.

Now to look towards the future. What expectations do we have from our old buildings and neighborhoods today? The level of energy efficiency and thermal comfort expected from buildings today is often difficult to achieve from older building stock. Better seismic performance is critical to protecting occupants and an owner’s investment. With a changing environment, more and more attention is paid to resilience and “passive survivability”. When disasters hit, buildings that can keep us warm, dry, and safe when cut off from utilities and other services are extremely important. Engineers and architects are constantly pushing the envelope to find new and practical ways to meet these demands. At CLARK | BARNES we take the time to develop relationships with engineers we trust to create projects that respond to the historic context but are also seismically safe.

Along with planning for environmental uncertainty, cities are also adapting to new realities of the population. For cities such as Seattle, finding respectful ways to increase densities without losing the character provided by existing buildings is difficult, but not impossible. In other legacy cities such as Detroit, the issue is a population well below what the existing infrastructure was built to support. Communities are looking at holistic approaches to address these issues.

There is a changing awareness that preservation has tended to reinforce a very narrow view of history at the expense of marginalized groups. Great architecture was often only accessible to the wealthy. Finding ways to protect the buildings relevant to the working class, poor, immigrants, and minorities will be important to provide the whole picture of history instead of just the easy picture. Sites of traumatic heritage, such as the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, are often problematic but must be addressed by preservationists thoughtfully over the next 50 years.

Finally, addressing the post-1920s building stock provides an exciting frontier for preservationists. Expressionism, Constructivism, Deconstructivism, Brutalism, Minimalism and the International Style are just a few of the styles that dramatically changed building technology in the past century. Expertise in brick and terra cotta restoration means nothing when the task is to breathe life into a building of concrete and glass. Preservationists of the future must understand thin-stone veneers, early curtain wall systems, and high-rise construction. In 50 years, the buildings we construct today will be eligible for designation as historic landmarks. It’s exciting to see how the profession is changing and preparing for the next generation of historic buildings and at CLARK | BARNES we are excited to roll up our sleeves and dive right in!