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Myth Busters | Why You Shouldn’t be Afraid of Purchasing a Historic Building

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There are a few common myths about historic preservation:

“Historic buildings take too much work to maintain.”
“Buildings that are designated as landmarks cannot be altered.”
“New construction in a historic district requires a design that appears old or traditional.”
“It’d be more sustainable if we tear down this old building and construct a modern building with contemporary systems.”

But the reality is there are many facts that support why you shouldn’t fear purchasing a historic property and knowing these basics will dispel these common myths. Here are some things you should know if you are considering purchasing a historic space:

How to Determine if a Property is a Designated Historic Structure

Historic buildings can be designated either locally, at the state level or nationally. Seems like a national landmark would have the most restrictions, right? – Wrong! Properties listed on the State or National Historic Registers can be modified or even demolished by the owner at any time. The only time the design review process is triggered for a building designated on the State or National Registers is if the owner is using Federal funding towards the project. Local designation, however, typically has the most restrictions because cities and counties require historic renovations to undergo a design review process with their planning department or landmark preservation commission.

To find out if a property is designated locally, visit your city or county website; it’s typically located under the Planning and Development or Landmark Preservation heading. To find out if a property is designated on the State Register, consult your State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). Finally, to find out if a property is designated on the National Register of Historic Places, visit the National Park Service website.

You Must Obtain Approval Before Modifying a Historic Building

Inherently, when you purchase an existing building, it’s likely you will need to make some changes in order to meet your space needs. As a result, it’s important to know that changes to a historic building are required to go through a design review process. The National Park Service’s Department of the Interior established a set of standards and guidelines for the treatment of historic properties. These standards are recognized as the basis for reviewing modifications to historic buildings across the nation, however, local jurisdictions may adopt additional guidelines that give further direction on how their landmark preservation department interprets these standards. If you want to renovate a locally designated historic building, the proposed design must meet the guidelines adopted by your city or county.

What does this mean? Essentially, modifications must be sensitive to the historic significance of the structure to maintain its integrity and if work that does not meet the guidelines is performed, you may incur fines until it is corrected.

Another important thing to know is that preservation trumps zoning. For example, if you purchase a two-story historic structure that sits on a lot zoned to allow an eight-story building, there is no guarantee that you’ll be approved to construct an eight-story building or addition. In fact, it’s extremely unlikely because infill construction and additions should be designed to be subordinate to the historic structure.

The Standards Are Not Black or White

Preservation is not about freezing a building or a neighborhood in time, it’s not about disallowing change, but rather managing change to maintain integrity. It’s not IF change can occur, but HOW. There is no magic formula that says if you do X, Y and Z then your design will be approved. The standards and guidelines are intentionally broad and subjective because not all historic buildings are alike so what works for one may not work for another, and vice versa. The key concepts that need to be met when undergoing a rehabilitation project are:

  • Preserve and maintain character-defining features; if deterioration is beyond repair then the feature should be replaced in-kind
  • Minimize demolition of historic materials; new construction should be designed to be reversible
  • New construction must be compatible in design to the historic building, not detract or obscure character-defining features
  • New construction should be clearly identifiable as new and not convey a false sense of history
  • When designing a new building in a historic district or an addition to a historic building, it must be subordinate

The beauty of the standards is that they can be addressed in a variety of ways which allows more flexibility for the owner. It’s best to consult an architect with preservation experience to help you identify how to achieve your goals while meeting the Secretary of Interior’s Standards. An experienced professional can help you plan how much time should be allotted in the project schedule to complete the design review process. They will also be familiar with the exceptions in the building code for existing and historic buildings that can benefit the project and mitigate issues during the permitting.

The Benefits of Historic Preservation

Frequently we hear complaints about preservation due to the additional regulations and entitlement processes, but let’s remember why we have preservation. The built environment helps create a sense of place. Certain buildings have become so important in telling the story of places, people, events and development that losing them would alter what makes a community special. There are buildings that are iconic and others that are not as significant on their own but stronger as a group. This is the primary benefit of preservation – maintaining the character, aesthetic and feeling of a place that’s significant to a community – and it is achieved through the design review process.

Economic Vitality
As a result of aesthetic benefits, preservation can yield economic benefits for a community. Studies show that historic districts often lead to higher property values. This is not a new concept; Jane Jacobs wrote about the importance of old buildings to the economy back in 1961 in her book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Right here in Denver, we have some great examples of historic districts whose property values increased, and spaces became more vibrant after designation, including Larimer Square and the Lower Downtown Historic Districts.

“The greenest building is the one that is already built,” Architect Carl Elefante famously stated. Existing buildings have embodied “energy” in them, that is the energy consumed by all the processes associated with the production of a building from mining, manufacturing and transporting materials to the site. A study was done to compare the environmental benefits between a new construction building and reusing an existing building; their findings are in a report titled, The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse. The research of this study yielded that “building reuse almost always offers environmental savings over demolition and new construction” and “it can take between 10 and 80 years for a new, energy-efficient building to overcome, through more efficient operations, the negative climate change impacts that were created during the construction process.”

That’s not to say that if you have an existing building, it’s energy efficient. Improvements should still be considered. Alterations to historic buildings that can improve energy efficiency include:

  • Insulating the foundations or attic to improve the thermal envelope
  • Installing interior storm windows to improve thermal performance of single-pane windows
  • Maintaining historic doors & windows by installing new weather-stripping
  • Installing solar panels on the roof where they’re not visible from the public vantage points
  • Upgrading HVAC systems
  • Installing more energy efficient LED lighting

Financial Incentives
Yes, preserving a historic building takes a great deal of care and initial rehabilitation costs can be high. However, traditional materials are typically of a higher quality. Instead of using brick or stone veneer, they used standard bricks and real stone; instead of using fiber cement board, they used old-growth wood; instead of using vinyl windows, they used wood or steel. The result is a longer-lasting building and if the building is maintained properly, then the materials will last much longer than many contemporary materials.

Which brings me to my last point (I saved the best for last), the greatest benefit of designation for a building owner is that you will qualify for historic preservation tax credits. There are State and Federal Historic Preservation Tax Credits available. To qualify for the state tax credit your building must be either locally designated or on the State Register. To qualify for the federal tax credit, you must either be designated on the National Register or in the process of designation.

Many state agencies will also offer grants for historic preservation work. Contact your SHPO to find out more about the grants available to you. It is important to note that grants will often come with an easement on your property. This means that all future work will need to be approved by the party that holds your easement. Typically work will be granted approval if it follows the Secretary of Interior’s Standards and/or your local jurisdiction’s adopted guidelines.

There’s risk in purchasing any property and in that sense, historic buildings are no different, but remember there’s also an opportunity for a high reward. Learn to look beyond the myths and understand the facts when considering whether a historic property may be the right fit for you.

*For more information, please visit the preservation resources on our website.

Kelly Wemple, AIA
Senior Project Architect

Kelly Wemple is a Senior Project Architect who specializes in Historic Preservation, Learning and Civic projects. Kelly works out of the Denver, CO office. In her free time, Kelly enjoys trying new recipes and skiing.

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