Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Historic Preservation Myths: It Cost Too Much

Town of Westport Town Hall courtesy Press-RepublicanThis is the last a four part series. You can find the first part here.

Historic preservation has a set of myths. Some originate from a grain of truth, many are outright wrong, and still others require a more nuanced understanding. We run across these myths all the time in our work and constantly push back against them through education, persuasion, and the wisdom of our own experiences. In this series, we take on the four most persistent and sometimes damaging myths in our field.

MYTH #4: It will cost way too much to restore an older building, or historic preservation is more expensive than new construction.

This is certainly true about the restoration and rehabilitation of some historic buildings, where the neglect and deterioration is extreme or where a particularly high level of craftsmanship (for stained glass, ornamental plaster, or highly decorative woodwork) is required. But, in the vast majority of cases, the preservation and reuse of existing historic buildings is more cost effective than new construction. Why?

To start with, the cost of an existing building is typically 25-30% lower than the cost of a comparably sized new building. This is primarily driven by market conditions where buyers still prefer new over old. When the condition of an existing building is substandard, the cost differential is even greater.

This lower entry cost makes existing buildings more affordable and is especially attractive to first time home buyers, especially those willing to roll up their sleeves and do some of the work themselves. With enough good advice, planning, the right skills, and a lot of hard work, a great deal of the work to rehabilitate an old house can be done oneself. By using your own “sweat equity,” one can save a huge amount of money and have the personal satisfaction of creating your own home.

Whether you are doing it yourself or contracting all or some of the work, rehabilitating an older building can often also be done in stages, as one can afford them. It is also sometimes practical to complete a small section of the house, move in, and then complete other rooms as time and resources allow. But do-it-yourself projects in historic homes do require extra planning and research and mistakes can be costly. Not only do you want the final product to look professional, but building codes, health, and safety concerns need to be taken into consideration. Before you jump into a historic home renovation, take time to consider what’s involved. Even small scale projects on an old house can deliver surprises. It is a good idea to seek professional advice for developing the scope of the project, including its design, the materials used, and how to phase it.

But the great news is that you don’t have to go it alone. There are many valuable resources, materials, and people are to help, from numerous books, online resources, the plethora of information from the National Park Service, the occasional AARCH workshop, and technical assistance help from the AARCH staff.

Developers of commercial buildings realize similar financial benefits. According to Fred Burkhardt, writing in 2017 for Trade & Industry Development, “From a cost perspective, a complete building rehabilitation costs about 16 percent less in construction costs and 18 percent less in construction time than new construction.” It is anticipated that this will drive 90% of new development over the next decade into the renovation and adaptive reuse of existing buildings.

So for many adaptive reuse and commercial projects, historic preservation make sense from a financial standpoint, based on lower initial real estate investment and the lower cost of renovating versus building new. Add to this that historic preservation results in bigger job creation, boosts community vitality in a variety of ways, and also offers something almost intangible — the opportunity to save and nourish the heart of a community, too.

For more information about caring for an historic building, click here.

Christine Bush and Nolan Cool contributed to this essay.

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Steven Engelhart is the Executive Director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH), the regional historic preservation organization of the Adirondack Park. AARCH's mission is to promote better public understanding, appreciation and stewardship of the region's built environment.

Among AARCH's many activities are: sponsoring a series of tours of historic places; offering workshops; giving slide presentations; publishing a newsletter; managing Camp Santanoni, advocating on behalf of threatened historic sites; and providing technical assistance to individuals, organizations and local governments.

Steven is a native of the region and has a BA from SUNY Plattsburgh and a MS in historic preservation from the University of Vermont. He is the author of Crossing the River: Historic Bridges of the AuSable River, a small book about bridges and local history of the AuSable Valley. He resides in Wadhams and loves to hike, canoe, read, play the banjo, explore the region, and spend time with family and friends.

One Response

  1. It’s great that you talked about the importance of restoring old historic buildings. Recently, my wife and I found out something is going on with our local tower clock. We think someone wants to tear it down since the clock stopped working a few months ago, and we’re totally against that, so we’ll be sure to share your article with our community. Thanks for the information on preserving local buildings.

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