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Historic Buildings Are Too Important to Be Considered Disposable

Feb. 29, 2020

Renovating and reusing older buildings preserve history, encourage sustainability and present opportunities for innovation. Read more.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: historic renovation and adaptive reuse are my favorite types of projects. I love them because they are inherently sustainable. There’s nothing greener than extending a building’s lifecycle by preserving rather than razing it, which reduces the need for new building materials and the energy it takes to manufacture and transport them.

I also love old buildings for their character. When thoughtfully and lovingly restored, a building’s age can be among its greatest assets.

More importantly, the decision to preserve architectural history is a vital one that shapes our cultural values for the better and demands innovative thinking from design practitioners.

[Related: Considerations For Renovating Historic Buildings]

As contributors John Blake and Patrizio M. Martinelli from Miami University’s department of Architecture+Interior Design note in this IDEC column: “One of the most important topics in the contemporary debate on design culture is that of urban and architectural regeneration. […] In this critical moment, the designer’s thinking, sensitivity, imagination and culture must find expression, along with their ability to start from the objective facts and profound knowledge (of the building and its interiors, the urban fabric, the environment). They must move toward new, previously unthought perspectives that enhance the nature and the character of the object of the work, looking for a dynamic balance between memory and invention.”

It's in this intersection between the past and the future that The Architectural Team’s (TAT) Bob Verrier has carved out a distinguished career spanning nearly 50 years. Since founding his firm in 1971, Verrier has designed more than 50 award-winning historic buildings and preserved the architectural heritage of hundreds of historic structures across the country.

“Historic buildings are of too great importance to our identity and national diversity to be considered disposable,” he observes. The industry veteran still holds to the conviction that historic preservation not only benefits the environment but also revitalizes entire communities.

For example, Verrier recalls when Baker Chocolate Factory in Dorchester, MA, shut down, the whole community was abandoned. “Five mill buildings were closed, people moved out, churches were empty, and there were no stores,” he says. “We did one building at a time, and now it’s a brand new community.”

[On Topic: Historic Renovations Adaptive Reuse]

I urge you to read Verrier’s story and take a look at several examples of his work, which includes the adaptive reuse of several mill and manufacturing facilities for which TAT is well known.

You can also find examples of other beautiful historic renovation projects in the ASID column, which highlights Perkins and Will’s new office in downtown Minneapolis—a project that demonstrates the design team’s concerted efforts to reuse and repurpose materials from its previous space. Likewise, IIDA’s contribution features the repositioning of the Old Chicago Main Post Office, among others. Led by New York-based 601W Cos. and overseen by Gensler, the Old Chicago post office is currently the largest example of adaptive reuse in the nation.

Scores of other renovation and adaptive reuse are popping up around the country, a number of which are hospitality projects. Hotels across the U.S. are opening in restored and renovated historic buildings that give properties a tie to the past, four of which we explore in this piece.

[On Topic: Working With Historical Commissions]

“An existing building, especially one that has historical relevance and importance, has a history of memory and, therefore, emotion,” says McLean T. Wilson, principal, Kemmons Wilson Company and owner of The Central Station Hotel in Memphis, TN, which opened in October in the city’s 105-year-old transportation hub. “Adapting an old building for a new use enables us to tap into those memories and that emotion for our new use.”

I challenge you to not just peruse this issue but to pause and consider what these old buildings offer us. What do we stand to lose by demolishing historic structures? At the very least, we lose a part of our identity when they’re gone along with the opportunity to breathe new life into the past with innovative ideas and tools at our disposal today. By preserving them, on the other hand, we can literally revitalize not only edifices, but entire communities that have long-since been forgotten.

Call me sentimental, but I’m a believer in the power of restoration.

Read Next: I Hear Design Episode 4: Salvaging Architecture

About the Author

Robert Nieminen | Chief Content Director

Robert Nieminen is the Chief Content Director of Architectural Products, BUILDINGS and i+s, sister publications of Smart Buildings Technology. He is an award-winning writer with more than 20 years of experience reporting on the architecture and design industry.

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