Designing to Preserve a Legacy

Historic preservation and adaptive reuse projects breathe new life not only into old buildings, but the communities they serve.

by Robert J. Verrier, FAIA, NCARB

If a community is a wheel, the hub is usually a place, a built structure. For many towns in the northeastern U.S., factories and mills provided a centerpiece for hundreds of employees, their families, and communities going back decades—sometimes centuries. Mill owners and employers would often provide space for meetings and celebrations in the same way that schools and churches do. And, of course, the work floor itself was a regular (if informal) meeting place at least five days a week.

Then, when the mills closed and the jobs disappeared bitterly, workers and their families lost these crucial hubs. The factory no longer served this secondary, yet hugely important, purpose.

The same is true for churches, schools, or any building serving a community in this way. A shuttered structure palpably impacts those who had for so long organized their lives around it. An iconic building that has gone quite literally dark, standing derelict and looming over the community it once served, only reminds the public of its deficit.

This loss often feels like a crime, as these historic landmarks represent our history, culture, and significant past events, evoking memories of some of our most fundamental cultural touchstones: the industrial revolution, the labor movement, and mass immigration. Because of the legacy it carries, a mill, factory, school, or church is not so easily replaced. Preserving the architectural heritage of exemplary structures and adapting them to new uses can be a powerful, meaningful expression of a community’s ties to its past and an important catalyst for the future.

This work engages designers in the task of restoring lost civic pride by preserving, restoring, and readapting the hub of the “wheel.” What follows is a portion of the construction techniques and design strategies The Architectural Team has applied to over 250 historic adaptive reuse developments over the past 43 years, with several ongoing projects serving as illustrations of how to put these principles into practice.

first things first: the historic tax credit
The first and most important step in the historic preservation/adaptive reuse process is to acquire designation of the proposed structure on the National Register of Historic Landmarks, a registry curated by the National Parks Service (NPS). As the most crucial requirement for the Federal Historic Tax Credit (HTC) eligibility, landmark status makes adaptive reuse economically competitive, even advantageous, when compared to new construction. The Architectural Team has successfully adapted more than 250 iconic buildings to new uses to date, thanks to the HTC, which covers 20 percent of qualifying rehabilitation expenses and makes our track record possible. (Visit for more information.)

As such, we’re often shocked to find that the HTC is the least bit politically controversial. Having worked on so many preservation projects, we know that adaptive reuse housing projects create jobs across 20 different trades and sub-trades, and inject economic vitality into the surrounding communities. Slashing the HTC for deficit reduction makes little sense, since the program actually generates return on investment for federal dollars spent.

Further, consider the fact that it requires roughly a million bricks and 700 trees to build 60 to 70 new residential units—precious materials (and dollars) which could almost all be spared by adapting an existing structure. This makes adaptive reuse one of the most sustainable design solutions in the building sector.

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