Design Matters

When confronted with the challenge of modifying historic buildings, particularly when constructing new additions, Historic District Commissions regularly reference the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards to help delineate the new and the existing. Specifically, Standard #9 reads: “…The new work shall be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment.”

Clearly, a masonry building and a glass addition are easily distinguished. However, a more nuanced approach promotes additions that resemble the original but can still be differentiated. Admittedly, more careful judgment is required. Minor offsets in the wall plane, slight changes of finish materials, or even construction techniques – which are eventually concealed – can be discerned by a trained practitioner, though they may remain hidden to the inexperienced. Preservation experts can identify a building’s history and growth using clues not obvious to the untrained.

However, preservationists are not designers - a fact demonstrated recently when two capable preservation colleagues provided design advice to a building’s owner. Following past examples, they recommended design solutions that had been successfully employed on other buildings. Unfortunately, these solutions were simplistic and not appropriate for the subject building. These ideas were, in turn, communicated to the architect, and the resulting design was clumsy and inelegant.

Construction managers are similarly presumptuous when they engage in the inaptly named ‘value engineering.’ Design modifications that are driven by cost-savings often disregard the value inherent in good design and may jeopardize the impact of the design. The architect, in the role of designer, is in a unique position to determine the most appropriate changes, balancing the decision’s impact on the design and the budget. Inexperienced consultants simply cannot comprehend the overall impact of their design decisions, particularly when other factors, such as historic purity or cost savings, are the driving influence.

In my experience, individuals without design training generally offer one of two design ‘solutions’: either conceal the new work by locating it at the rear of the building, or make it so glaringly different that new work and existing work are unrelated. In the former case, good design is sacrificed for something safe but inoffensive. In the latter, the resolution is offensive and incongruous. For my own work, I see it as my responsibility to assimilate the owners’ desires and the neighborhood context into a workable solution. This is not always an easy task, but my training and experience as an architect are essential in exploring the many avenues before determining the best course.

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