Were Shakespeare alive today, he would likely wrap up his stanza with “Please, historic building owners / Do not fear high efficiency HVAC.”
Preservationists spend a good chunk of their work life dispelling myths about what landmark status really means. I remember touring a home that was completely restored, inside and out, by the current owners. They even used carbon filament light bulbs in common areas. The family had spent a whole lot of time and money on their home—it was obviously a labor of love and it really was just amazing to be in that space. And yet, when I asked them whether they had landmarked their home in all of its curved window and paint-stripped glory, they responded that they would never think of doing that because they would never be able to sell their home due to the restrictions that landmark status would cause. Of course, preservationists out there know that there are barely ANY restrictions that result from giving a building a landmark designation (at least, not with National Register landmarks or local non-profit certifications), and that these homeowners could have saved a whole lot of money with tax incentives during the restoration process if they had designated the bugger. Bummer.
I was recently attacked (ahhh!) by an audience member at a lecture who seemed to think that I was telling the crowd that all new technology is bad. My guess is that he was in the renewable energy business and obviously wasn’t listening to the lecture or anything I had been saying for the last hour (save the part where I mentioned that the rate of return on investment for photovoltaic panels and replacement windows ain’t too good). One thing that I stated—very, very clearly because I realize that there is misinformation floating around out there—was that preservationists really don’t have an issue with changing out mechanical systems. In fact, we almost always encourage it because it will, of course, greatly increase a building’s efficiency. But even if we didn’t, interiors are almost never landmarked and likely modifications to systems wouldn’t be visible from the street, so it honestly wouldn’t matter one iota if we thought that adding ductwork and drop ceilings was a really bad idea. Unless, of course, you are just a sensitive person and became upset when someone told you that your interior modifications weren’t well thought out. Then I suppose it might matter to you personally.
That said, there are thoughtful ways to do things and, well, then there is the “get ‘er done, and cheap!” approach. I advocate for the former for a multitude of reasons, one being the fact that you will have a much easier time selling your building in the future if you don’t cheap out in the present (see earlier paragraph for irony). To address the issue of mechanical upgrades, the National Park Service put out an “Interpreting the Standards Bulletin” in 2008 on Installing New Systems in Historic Buildings. These ITS bulletins help clarify the guidelines set forth by the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation in light of changing technology. These can be seen as recommendations for anyone wanting to maintain the historical character of their building while upgrading it, or as interpretations of requirements for buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places (in the case of mechanical upgrades, this would likely only apply if the interior was landmarked). There are a several of these newer “Interpreting” bulletins that I wanted to highlight in coming posts as they address things like solar panels and other green modifications. This one isn’t terribly thorough, but I think it gives a pretty good idea of what to look for and how one might want to approach a project.