Pertains to specific actions within a historic district or affecting a historic building whereby building elements and strategies are classifiable into one of the four approaches: preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, or reconstruction.

Preserving historic buildings is vital to understanding our nation’s heritage. In addition, it is an environmentally responsible practice. By reusing existing buildings historic preservation is essentially a recycling program of ‘historic’ proportions. Existing buildings can often be energy efficient through their use of good ventilation, durable materials, and spatial relationships. An immediate advantage of older buildings is that a building already exists; therefore energy is not necessary to demolish a building or create new building materials and the infrastructure may already be in place. Minor modifications can be made to adapt existing buildings to compatible new uses. Systems can be upgraded to meet modern building requirements and codes. This not only makes good economic sense, but preserves our legacy and is an inherently sustainable practice and an intrinsic component of whole building design. (See also Sustainable and Sustainable Historic Preservation.)

Realizing the need to protect America’s cultural resources, Congress established the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in 1966, which mandates the active use of historic buildings for public benefit and to preserve our national heritage. Cultural resources, as identified in the National Register for Historic Places, include buildings, archeological sites, structures, objects, and historic districts. The surrounding landscape is often an integral part of a historic property. Not only can significant archaeological remains be destroyed during the course of construction, but the landscape, designed or natural, may be irreparably damaged, and caution is advised whenever major physical intervention is required in an extant building or landscape. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act established the public mandate to protect these resources.

Natural Disasters: Response, Recovery, and Resilience

The number and severity of natural disasters-hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, and uncontrolled wild fires—require special planning for historic properties. Many argue that the increase is due to climate change. In response, people are calling for resilience, the ability to withstand and bounce back from damaging effects of natural disasters, and to avoid or minimize them in future disasters. Federal, state, and local governments and private organizations are collaborating on the nation’s response to climate change. This planning includes preservation of historic and cultural resources in immediate disaster response, long-term community recovery, and future mitigation efforts is an emerging issue.

In 2013, the United Nations issued a global report on Heritage and Resilience. It noted the connection between physical and social resilience. “The symbolism inherent in heritage is  a powerful means to help victims recover from the psychological impact of disasters. In such situations, people search desperately for identity and self-esteem”, and find it in reclaiming their heritage and historic places. It further stated, “Heritage contributes to social cohesion, sustainable development, and psychological well-being. Protecting heritage promotes resilience.”

In the United States, the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards provide guidance on protecting heritage and the treatment of historic areas and individual historic buildings. Applying the Standards can be a challenge in the rush of disaster response, or in the delicate balancing of life safety, economic and preservation values in long term recovery and planning. However, the result is worth the effort, and in some cases, like qualifying for government assistance, compliance with the Standards may be required. The guiding principle is to retain historic features while sensitively incorporating new features that reduce the risk of future damage from disasters. Sometimes, it’s easy, like moving electrical service up out of flood-prone basements. Other times, difficult design challenges arise, like how to substantially elevate an historic house in a floodplain.

In some instances, the conversation about climate change, disaster mitigation, and adaptation includes the possibility of abandoning coastal or flood zones altogether. Human settlement often began and flourished in waterfront areas. Historic preservation concerns need to be considered when planning for the future of coastal and riverfront communities, many of which have extensive historic and prehistoric resources and valued traditional cultural patterns. Having an accurate, up-to-date inventory of historic resources and archeological sites (identified and predicted) in vulnerable areas is key to an informed and quick response when disasters strike, as well as a basis for long term resilience planning.

Working with FEMA after Hurricane Sandy, the New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) quickly surveyed affected neighborhoods to establish which ones were historic and which ones were not, allowing them to concentrate limited capacity and resources on historic areas, while eliminating review of the rest. By entering the data as a layer in the state’s GIS (Geographic Information System) database, which contains a variety of environmental and social data, it became both a tool for recovery and for future planning. Computer mapping of future scenarios could visualize impacts to historic properties along with impacts to natural resources and human communities.