Historic Preservation's Response to Climate Change

Disaster repair is a $27 billion dollar business. And it's making us all anxious.
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Watching TV news of hurricane Dorian’s destruction in the Bahamas reminded us all, again, that extreme weather and climate change is a real and constant threat to people, buildings and to historic structures—many of which stand on coastal waterways and major rivers. These waterways were the major highways of the 18 and 19th centuries serving new settlements which later became our biggest cities and population centers.

When we see flattened buildings in the wake of a weather disaster, we vow to build more resilient buildings in their place. But then the bad memory fades and we go back to building disposable buildings that step on Mother Nature’s toes, buildings located more for modern recreation than for transportation necessity, as in centuries past.

Increasingly, we are restoring and repairing historic buildings that sit in harm’s way. Disaster repair is now a $27 billion business, double what it was twenty years ago. Repair, while preserving historic fabric, is of course required for historic tax credit projects. “Resiliency” for traditional buildings is a very important topic in the historic preservation community and the subject of continuing education seminars at the Traditional Building Conference Series, most recently in July, held at historic Boscobel on the edge of the mighty Hudson River.

Resiliency and disaster restoration/repair command the conference curriculum at the upcoming Association of Preservation Technology International’s annual event in Miami, November 19-23, 2019. The themes for APTI’s seminars and tours include:

  • “Effects of Climate Change in Warm Weather Coastal Regions”
  • “Building Resiliency in Pre-Colonial Maritime and Post-Colonial Heritage Sites Affected by Climate Change”
  • “Assessing Vulnerabilities and Building Resiliency in Coastal Areas”
  • “Educating and Training for the Next Generation of Preservation Professionals”

According to new research, the next generation of preservation professionals is very concerned about climate change. A Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll finds that a strong majority of Americans, 8 in 10, believe “human activity is fueling climate change.” About half of Americans surveyed believe “action is urgently needed within the next decade if humanity is to avert its worst effects.” Nearly 4 in 10 now say “climate change is a ’crisis’,” up from less than a quarter five years ago.

The Post/ KFF poll also reveals a mixture of optimism about innovation, and anxiety about climate change. Many young people wonder if they should bring children into the warming world. But 7 in 10 Americans say it is very likely that technology will save the day. Six in ten surveyed do not think they’ll have to make major sacrifices to combat climate change. Either way, the survey underscores a sense of urgency among many people. Forty percent of respondents say “action to combat climate change must come in the next decade to head off the worst consequences”; 12 percent of people say “it’s already too late.”

Historic preservationists did not need either hurricane Dorian or recent polls to convince them that climate change is real or that it is caused by human activity. The recycling and adaptive use of traditional buildings is what we do, not just because our buildings are historically significant, or architecturally iconic, but because “the greenest building is the one that’s already built.” The energy that is expended to build new buildings, or to demolish old ones, contributes to human-induced climate change. Whereas the preservation of embodied energy in traditional buildings reduces our carbon footprint.

Recreation Pier

The Sagamore Pendry luxury hotel was adapted from a historic port of call for immigrants.

APTI’s conference theme is topical, especially in tropical Miami, on the heels of hurricane Dorian and now, a new survey of American opinion on climate change.

The historic restoration and renovation work performed by members of APTI is made possible by the durability and repairability of the buildings they treat. This is truer of traditional buildings than of midcentury modern ones but that’s another topic. Durability is synonymous with sustainability, a fact which is often lost on building owners and developers and even green building advocates.

But with help from APTI and the preservation education they provide, we’ll be better able to steward our historic buildings and to convince builders and developers that quality construction and durable materials, followed by responsible maintenance, can help preserve the planet.

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