Seeing Clearly, Working Honestly

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Taking its design cues from the Georgian architecture that stands out at Ohio University, the new Baker University Student Center in Athens, OH, houses student services and meeting rooms, as well as a ballroom and auditorium, while serving as a bridge between the upper and lower campus.

This depot near Shelburne, VT, is a good example of a building that was built to last and be appreciated. It found a new use as a construction company’s office after it was no longer useful as a depot.

The PTN Board of Directors election was held recently, and several board members have decided to step down, each of whom has been an important part of making our organization what it is today. Scary times when people you have counted on to lead make way for new leaders with new ideas. Important times, too, for any community when its future leadership comes from within.

One of the seemingly less challenging tasks facing the new board is coming up with a theme for the 2010 IPTW to be held in Kentucky’s capital city, Frankfort, on October 21-23. Putting together a few words that quickly and simply tell people what our conference is about actually has become an interesting introspective, particularly because we are part of the world of “preservation” which, as Donovan Rypkema reminded us at the 2009 National Preservation Conference in Nashville, should actually be called “conservation,” something I pointed out in my first blog.

As it turns out, the process of wordsmithing a theme is kind of like walking through a field of land mines. All of the buzz words like “sustainable” or “green” seem to magically morph into scary words for some, dirty words for others and, in many cases, clearly overused and worn-out words that hardly mean anything at all anymore. There’s no question that the quickest way to ruin a perfectly good conversation about saving historic buildings is to start spouting off about “green preservation.” With a lot of folks I know, it’s probably a really good way to clear the room.

So just how do we see our way clearly through this murky haze of misused words, abused terms and far too many word-heavy agendas? Camille Bowman, a dear friend, long-time PTN member and currently the easement technical advisor at the Department of Historic Resources in Virginia, sent an email with her thoughts about the subject. She wrote (in part): “I am convinced that 'conservation' is what we all do, professionally, as well as personally as we strive to take care of our bodies, our water, our air, our natural resources, and, thus, our cultural resources. The problem is that we cultural resource folks have never successfully aligned with the natural resource folks,” something I pointed out in my last blog.

She went on to say: “I prefer 'maintenance' and teaching about 'taking care of what we have' and how it makes sense to learn what we have, what's good about what we have, how to take care of what's good about what we have, and gathering folks together that know about taking care of what's good about what we have…people that know traditional trades, when it comes to historic materials and historic building systems. This includes conservators, tradespeople, yes, and even architects and engineers.” Seems pretty logical, basic and to the point and yet we seem to be driven to complicate it.

The core truth is that we have a choice: Use what we build, or manufacture, until it either breaks, becomes worn or we just don’t want it anymore and then throw it away. Or we can take care of the things we build or manufacture with good maintenance to prolong their useful life as long as possible. As part of that core truth, we have to know what the choice is before we build or manufacture something in the first place. If we’re going to throw it away, why bother building it to last? If we are going to maintain and continue using it as long as possible, then building it to last, be appreciated and even cherished makes sense.

There’s no question that the cultural heritage we have inherited was built to last, in most cases. Whether or not that was a conscious decision on the part of builders or the result of the knowledge they were given during their apprenticeship that was oriented toward honest work and striving to attain high standards of quality is a discussion we can have some time over cocktails. And I hope to God some wacko eco-preservationist doesn’t bring up “green preservation"! But the fact that it can last if we maintain it properly is without question.

If we chose to build those kind of buildings today, then they too will have an opportunity to survive; but if we spend all our time fumbling over which new buzz word is going to be the magic train that takes us into that perfect “sustainable” world, a lot of other folks are going to be busily manufacturing stuff they hope we will throw away so they can sell us another one.

I promise you that if you come meet my friends, including Camille, at the Frankfort IPTW, you will meet a lot of folks who clearly see the value in building well, taking care of what we already have and working honestly. Maybe the theme for the conference should be “Maintaining Honest Work.” Stay tuned to the PTN website to see what we decide.