8 votes

How we fell for Cheap Old Houses

2 comments

  1. [2]
    patience_limited Link
    There's an astonishing amount of beautiful old architecture lying fallow, ready to be loved again. It's been said that America has no history; it's exceedingly rare for a building to last more...

    There's an astonishing amount of beautiful old architecture lying fallow, ready to be loved again.

    It's been said that America has no history; it's exceedingly rare for a building to last more than a couple of generations here. The wastage from unrestrained consumer capitalism creates not just abandoned employees when industries cease to generate profits, but a waste of entire cities.

    At the same time, as the article mentions, historical preservation is for the brave, energetic and relatively well-off. Even if the house is cheap, once you deal with asbestos, lead paint and pipes, toxic mold, arsenic, and pre-code electrical wiring, you're confronted with high energy costs from uninsulated construction and fire risks from untreated wood framing.

    There's no uniform standard for historical preservation - are you committed to maintain an "octopus" furnace that originally ran on coal? Barred from solar installation? Stuck with a new property tax valuation based on the uncertain historical value?

    As much as I might enjoy the project, not every charming farmhouse or Craftsman bungalow deserves to live again, and the resources to do this on a wide scale would be better spent on modern, smaller, safer, more efficient affordable housing.

    5 votes
    1. cge Link Parent
      I live in, and oversee, a historic 19th century building that is now a condo complex. In the US, the standard for historic properties is a set of standards, the Secretary of the Interior's...

      I live in, and oversee, a historic 19th century building that is now a condo complex.

      There's no uniform standard for historical preservation

      In the US, the standard for historic properties is a set of standards, the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. The different treatment standards cover different goals for historic properties: "preservation" in this field is often used to refer to a narrower goal than what the general public would consider as historic preservation, and, in the interest of a number of concerns around accuracy and long-term preservation, the standards can often recommend or require choices that seem unusual.

      These standards aren't binding on all properties in general, but are binding, to various degrees, on properties with official historic designations, are usually referred to in planning reviews, and are generally binding in cases of funding for historic projects. (In our case, we also wrote them into our governing documents.)

      For the multiple standards, for example, in the case of a building with an era of particular historical importance, especially in the context of museums and public history, historic treatment may include the removal of elements outside that era, even if those elements are historic or are arguably distinguishing features in their own right, and may involve making modern reconstructions of other elements, even if they will no longer be original: this falls under what the SI standards would call "restoration" and "reconstruction." "Preservation," on the other hand, preserves historic elements as they evolved over time.

      Within the context of using historic properties, "rehabilitation" usually involves changes to make the space safe or livable. In those cases, the SI standards often call for the new elements to not be pure interpretations of the significant era's style, as that would be historically dishonest: for example, adding an extra railing of a more modern style that is clearly added on top of an original low railing is generally recommended over raising the original railing: the latter could be mistaken decades later as being the original height.

      This is also the reason why museum complexes usually have new buildings that are clearly different styles than historic properties on the site, though there is considerable disagreement about how different styles should be.

      are you committed to maintain an "octopus" furnace that originally ran on coal?

      No. Utilitarian hardware of that sort would hardly ever be considered a distinguishing feature. Some people will maintain such things for their own reasons, for example, for a museum where the furnace is shown to visitors, but it's generally not considered important to historic preservation of the building.

      In our case, we do consider our single-pipe system steam radiators, part of the original design of the interiors, to be a distinguishing feature. However, the boiler, in the basement, is a comparatively modern boiler, and we would have no historic concerns with replacing it, just as we replace unseen pipes with modern pipes. We do have an older boiler in storage, but while it is of historic significance on its own, it is not of significance in connection with our building and is not part of our era of historical significance: we would be happy to loan it out to museums.

      We also maintain our elevator: it is also significant in its own right, but unlike our boiler, it is part of our era of historical significance, is a distinguishing feature of the building, and is significant in its own right.

      Barred from solar installation?

      Not generally, so long as they fit the guidelines, particularly:

      New additions, exterior alterations or related new construction will not destroy historic materials, features and spatial relationships that characterize the property. The new work will 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.

      and

      New additions and adjacent or related new construction will be undertaken in such a manner that, if removed in the future, the essential form and integrity of the historic property and its environment would be unimpaired.

      We've actually been considering, over the long term, a solar installation, as it may be possible for us to do so without having it be visible except from the air, and it might allow us to avoid much more invasive changes to our electrical system.

      Stuck with a new property tax valuation based on the uncertain historical value?

      I only know about the specifics of property taxes for historic properties in California. As our property tax valuations in general are based on market values at time of sales, there is no uncertainty, and there is no sense of historical value taken into account, beyond what the buyer was willing to pay.

      There is, however, the Mills Act, which, for historic properties, will lower the effective valuation, in exchange for binding agreements regarding the historic treatment of the property. For example, this cuts our property taxes by about 50%: nowhere near enough to cover our costs, but at least a small offset.

      6 votes