Historic Rehabilitation

By Chris Jahn, AIA

Modernizing historic buildings present unique challenges – often with competing interests. But when a treasured building is successfully repurposed for a new generation, the results can be spectacular.

The value of historic structures can not be understated. Buildings from a bygone era embody craftmanship and design aesthetic difficult, if not impossible, to replicate. Unfortunately, buildings age. Maintenance and operations costs coupled with system obsolescence present challenges that can seem financially infeasible to overcome.

Perhaps the biggest challenges to the continued use of an older building include:

  1. Code compliance
  2. Modern program requirements
  3. Integrating modern systems to achieve a high degree of comfort, safety, and energy efficiency

Dignified Accessibility
Historic buildings were designed in an era predating accessibility standards. As a result, the use of stairs to define and link spaces creates fundamental accessibility compliance issues. These conditions are most often encountered at a building’s main entrance – where the most significant character-defining features reside. This is usually ground-zero. Preservationists seek to preserve the dignity of the building while accessibility advocates seek to defend the dignity of all building’s users by enabling front door access. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution here – each case has unique opportunities and challenges.

Effective Use of Space
Fitting new program elements into an existing structure pits efficient building use against ideal spatial layouts. It’s no accident that a fundamental aspect of the National Park Service Guidelines stresses the importance of aligning a building’s proposed program with its historic use. However, this alignment is often impractical, if not impossible, to achieve in a college campus setting.
Instead, prioritizing high-value interior spaces – creating special “moments”, can preserve the historic essence while allowing the rest of the building to be liberally repurposed.

Modern Systems
Modern buildings require a high degree of climate control, energy efficiency, and safety. Increased space between floors is very common to accommodate a myriad of system requirements. Successful integration requires forethought and innovative thinking. Strategies focused on decoupling space conditioning from ventilation air requirements can significantly reduce the amount of space needed above ceilings – allowing for more spacious interior environments. Vertical distribution of fire protection piping is another strategy for mitigating low clearances. Above all, careful planning of the interior environment to work in harmony with main distribution is key.

The desire for energy efficiency often pressures designers to achieve insulation values that existing wall assemblies were never meant to achieve. Efforts to control the flow of heat, air, and moisture in existing walls pose a risk of detrimental effects. Modern computer modeling techniques allow designers to evaluate moisture conditions seasonally, avoiding the potential for unintended damage – particularly for masonry exposed to the weather.

Successful building repurposing can be essential to the longevity of a campus’ legacy and an important connection to it’s past.

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