The Case for Preservation of Historically Significant Buildings

 May 02, 2014

The Northeast is home to many historically significant structures that have outlived their original purpose, but are now finding a second life as apartments, office space and retail centers. The mill towns such as Lowell and Lawrence in Massachusetts have seen many of their former industrial buildings transformed from blighted eyesores into housing units and the Seaport District has become one of Boston’s hottest office destinations as tech firms flock to the brick and beam buildings with large floor plates – ideal for the new collaborative work environment sought after by the millennial workforce.

Universal Window and Door has been privileged to be a part of many of these historic renovation projects, including over 75 projects listed on the National Park Service National Register of Historic Places. Our handiwork can be found at 110 Canal St. in Lowell, where a former textile manufacturing plant was transformed into 55,000 square feet of first-class office space; the former Ames Shovel Works complex (constructed between 1852 and 1885) that was converted into 113 market rate apartments; the Museum of Natural History in Boston that was transformed into high-end Back Bay retail (and now housing Restoration Hardware); and the Old Norfolk County Jail in Dedham that was converted into 24 luxury units now known as Stoneleigh Condominiums.

The reasons for converting these older buildings into new uses extend far past the nostalgia of seeing older buildings preserved. In addition to maintaining the history and culture of the building (and often the surrounding neighborhood), the aesthetic value of the buildings is nearly incalculable. The costs of replicating the architectural design and craftsmanship of many of these structures or to develop comparably aesthetically pleasing and structurally sound buildings would be astronomical. In addition, because many of these properties were built before the massive highway system was in place, they are well-located near centers of government and commerce, near rail and public transportation lines, and this makes them prime candidates for new Smart Growth initiatives.

With an increased focus on sustainable building practices in the current construction environment, there are few more sustainable practices than reusing and retrofitting buildings rather than demolishing an existing structure and erecting a new one. The reduced environmental, labor and disposal costs that come from re-use of historic buildings are substantial, and the economic benefits are well documented. The Preservation Green Lab, an affiliate of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, conducted a study that concludes that building reuse almost always offers environmental savings over demolition and new construction. Moreover, 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.

The energy inefficiency of the older buildings versus the new sustainably constructed buildings is also something of a myth, as data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) demonstrates that “commercial buildings constructed before 1920 use less energy, per square foot, than buildings from any subsequent decade of construction. The comparative advantage of some older buildings can be explained by the original building design, form, massing, and materials, as well as the window-to-wall ratio, limited installed equipment, or occupant density.”

Increased energy efficiency can also be achieved through the use of high performance roof insulation and thermally broken windows, such as the historically accurate, energy efficient aluminum windows that Universal Window and Door produces.

As John Sawhill wrote in his 1980 essay, ‘Preserving History and Saving Energy: Two Sides of the Same Coin’:  “The case for preservation no longer rests solely on aesthetics. Business people and homeowners alike are coming to recognize that rehabilitating old buildings for new uses is often less costly than new construction, and retailers know that a historically or architecturally interesting environment is an irresistible attraction to tourists and shoppers.”