Friday, July 16, 2010


I am occasionally asked for design input on entirely new projects that are located in sensitive, historic, portions of a community.  Often this is work on vacant land but sometimes it involves the demolition of a structure, usually one that isn’t historic.

There are three ways to approach “infill” as this sort of work is termed.  The first is a knee-jerk reaction is to build something that is visually similar (or identical) to the existing historic character, matching the volume, materials, and exterior treatments.  These imitative buildings “fit in,”.  At their worst, such projects try copy history and, of course, they fail in most ways.  More frequently they are designed so that they don’t draw much attention one way or the other.  We call such structures “background buildings,” since the whole point is that they won’t compete or overshadow the historic structures.  That is fine, and often appropriate, but isn’t exactly an opportunity to make a statement or explore exciting design.

A better approach to an infill project is a hybrid, perhaps matching the historic scale, rhythm and mass of the historic character, but utilizing new materials that clearly differentiate it from its surroundings.  This approach can be lots of fun, visually, but there is a fine line between cloying imitation and creative expression and it hard to do well so only a few try.

And finally, because the site is perhaps discrete though adjacent to the historic core, there is an opportunity to truly be creative and create what might well become a future landmark.  Good design is timeless, of course, and adds significantly to the character of a city.  When you get the opportunity to work on what could be a future landmark, and you have a client and team that approaches the project from the standpoint, you get to take a risk.  When the risk pays off, everyone wins but, since it’s a risk, everyone (usually the regulators) get really nervous, which is why most clients end up in less visionary scenarios.

For the past year or so I have been working on what could be a future landmark, to be built near but not entirely within the core of a historic business district.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Let's Mitigate

When a project, under the Section 106 evaluation process, results in a loss of historic character, it is termed Adverse.  An adverse effect can occur when otherwise well-intentioned actions such as changing out windows to increase energy efficiency changes the window type, or it can be the result of some other agency goal, such as the need for a larger or different building on the site, or it can be simply silly, as in an agency that just doesn't want an old building because it wants a new one instead.  All such actions are "Adverse" and "adverse," like significance (or pregnancy) either is or it isn't.  There is not really any standard for "more adverse" and when that is the Finding (a process term) you have to "mitigate."  Think of mitigation as Section 106 penance for damaging our collective heritage.

While every adverse effect has to be mitigated, there is no hard and fast rule as to what sort of mitigation is required, or how extensive it has to be, or even if it has to be directly related to the project. “Off-site” mitigation, meaning something that isn’t actually part of the project, is the new vogue and oft-times it makes sense. The Portland Bridge MPS project that I am working is such an “off-site” form of mitigation, for while it 's certainly related to the adverse effect of pending work on the Morrison Bridge, it’s not like we’re just putting up a plaque or taking some pictures (both of which, BTW, are pretty typical mitigation responses).

I’ve done mitigation that added to the scholarly record, writing a history of a project or the forces that created it, as a form of penance for the fact that it will no longer survive. I like to think that might make it easier to save some similar resource down the road, which I suppose is the point. Sometimes mitigation is HABS/HAER documentation, elaborate graphic and written studies of a resource that is going to change or disappear. HABS/HAER can be quite useful, if you are working on something similar too. But while documentation is beneficial, I try to find a public avenue for mitigation, something people can see, and hopefully appreciate.

While every situation is different, and not all options ever exist or even make sense for all projects, my personal favorite is to somehow tie the loss of a resource or historic character to an improvement in what replaces it, either through restoration of some other part of the project that can be accomplished or, more simply, through insisting that the new work, the one that necessitated the Adverse Effect, is something that people like me will find significant fifty years from now. Losing a historic resource is never fun. Losing it for a parking lot, or something hideous and without soul, is outright painful.