Why Fix It If It's Broke?

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Back in 2002 I was invited to attend the Quinque Forum, where those in attendance were asked to address this question: “What are the problems facing preservation over the next 25 years?” It was mentioned to me that I had been considered for the keynote address, which instead was given by an architect who discussed the challenges of preserving modern and post-modern architecture. To me, at the time, it seemed like a topic that was over focused. In retrospect, I have to admit that today I find the problem of preserving manufactured buildings to be even less relevant than I did then.

I have had this argument, both heated and not, with many of my friends over the years, and the one thing I have noticed is that people who actually work on buildings with their hands are more prone to draw the line at the point where we stopped using traditional building methods to create buildings worth preserving. I’m not saying those buildings were built better than the manufactured ones that have replaced them, but that they were built to be repairable, which makes preserving them more straight forward and enjoyable.

I'm old enough to have owned cars that when you opened the hood not only could you see the pavement under the car past the engine, you could identify everything you were looking at and, with a little bit of knowledge and some mechanic's tools, repair or replace anything there. As a young man, I took great pleasure in maintaining my car, and even greater pleasure in knowing I could “soup it up” if I wanted to. Today, you’re better off not messing with most of what’s under the hood of a new car, and some car manufacturers make servicing your own car so user unfriendly they don’t even have dipsticks to check the oil!

If you have been following my blog, you already know that I don’t have much use for the term “preservation trades.” I think the term itself is self serving and was created by people who were hoping to somehow elevate tradespeople who worked on old, broken buildings above “regular” tradespeople. But what I do find interesting is that tradespeople who work in preservation get a great deal of pleasure out of fixing old, broken buildings, much like the pleasure that comes from fixing an old, broken car.

My friend Ken Follett spends a lot of his time making holes in buildings and other structures so that other people, like myself, can look through the hole to see what’s inside. He calls them “probes,” but I know a hole when I see one. The point is that part and parcel of working on old buildings is being a detective. Before we can fix something , we have to try to understand what is really wrong with it and how it got that way. If we don’t, likely as not our repair, which probably covered up the real problem, will fail.

When I broke the cycle of lifetime employment with General Motors, for which I would have been the third generation, I really didn’t know why I had to do something else. I just had to. Today, I realize that my primary motivation was that I wanted to have a job that I enjoyed. I had fun doing odds-and-ends remodeling jobs. I didn’t have fun working in a factory. As luck would have it, I eventually graduated from remodeling to restoring old buildings. It turns out that’s even more fun.

But there is a line. From time to time, I get calls from people who want us to work on pole buildings, and I tell them we don’t do that kind of work. And the same would be true of being asked to work on most modern buildings. It’s not that it's work I’m unwilling to do on principle; it’s because there isn’t any joy in it. How much pleasure can you get from realizing the reason a building is broke is that it wasn’t built to be sustainable in the first place? If it wasn’t built to last, how can you tell when it’s broke? Isn’t it just at the end of its temporary life cycle?

Obviously, there are a lot of problems facing preservation, including the need for building stewards who care, the need for qualified tradespeople, and the need for cultural change that places a value on the past. But a bigger challenge is figuring out where to draw the line. Does the fact that a building is 50 years old make it worth preserving or restoring? Did it last 50 years by accident? Was it built to be repairable? If not, why should we try? So the question of “Why fix it if it’s broke?” may have more to do with how much joy there is in fixing it than deciding if it has historic value.