Friday, April 2, 2010

Change is good….

One of the most difficult issues for the public, and for many historic commissioners, is coming to grips with change. Change in use, change in design, or change in detail all create both an opportunity for quality and, sadly, for conflict. People, despite what you may read, don't like change much, even when it's necessary, or for the best.

The reality is that very few historic buildings survive without change over time. Houses get added to, or upgraded to meet new needs. Commercial buildings change use or have to respond to new code or new technology. Many of projects that I am involved with begin with "de-garbagification" (see my post from July 24, 2009), removing a change that somebody once thought was a good thing. That part's easy. Everyone is excited to get rid of the 1970s and 1980s layers that obscure history. But then come all the issues surrounding taking a structure that almost by definition failed to meet its original purpose in some fashion, and transforming it into something that "works" better and has a future. A future that reflects its past, of course, but still one that likely includes some significant changes to address function, code and a new use.

How those changes are handled, from inserting new systems into historic interiors, modifying a structure to meet new seismic or ADA codes, or even something as simple as converting a house into a business and providing larger restrooms, can cause lots of head-scratching and consternation on the part of the design team. And, of course, once that group comes up with a workable plan, there is multi-level review of local, state, and sometimes even the Feds, that get to weigh in as well. In a perfect world everyone in that chain works together toward a common goal but sometimes, at least from my perspective, unreasonable, or unnecessary, demands arise that complicate the process.

I suppose, having poked and prodded historic structures for the last 25+ years , that I  find them to be a little more resilient than some review boards and appreciate that change is an important part of their story.  These are not museums, but buildings that need a new purpose.  We've all had clients who, with the best intentions,  start out a project with the unrealistic goal of making their building "look just like it did when it was new." First, of course, that is a near impossibility from a technical standpoint and second, and more importantly, why the heck would you want to do that anyway? It is the change, the passage of time, the nicks and dents, and the creative evidence of modification to meet new needs that give a historic building the bulk of its character. Sanitizing that history of change to create something that looks "new" isn't what I think preservation should be about. Sadly, sometimes, I don't think that's the majority viewpoint.

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