historic

It's been a while since I have posted here, and I'm missing it a bit... I enjoy taking a look at what is going on in the city around me and looking for connections, possibilities, and opportunities for improvement. So I'm going to try a new format for a while - the Tuesday Morning roundup: Each Tuesday morning, stop in for development and urbanism-related news snippets, photos of interesting projects, and maybe a few bits of insight and/or snarkiness (depending on whether or not I have had my morning coffee).

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An incredible amount of work went into creating this report - it documents the historic contexts under which the neighborhood developed as well as the architectural significance of the buildings throughout the neighborhood.

Calling all history buffs: You can download a copy of the final report on the project website! (full disclosure, I developed the website/database and was a co-project manager on this awesome undertaking)

The research project utilized a comprehensive approach that sought to document all buildings within the survey area. Consequently an all-building permit database and a historical photo set that included 700-1,000 photos was amassed. The building permit data was used to separate out the many overlapping house-based historical contexts. This separation involved distinguishing pre-Drake University residences, early Drake-induced residences (many of which started out in a lesser scale, but were then enlarged over time), and modified residences (as apartments or Greek social system residences).

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There are two primary types of historic districts: National Register historic districts and local historic districts.

Historic Home, 1940'sHistoric Home, 1940'sLocal historic districts like Owl's Head and Sherman Hill in Des Moines require that exterior improvements meet certain standards, as interpreted by the Historic Preservation Commission. In a local historic district, for example, a property owner cannot alter fencing, siding, windows, or porches without a "Certificate of Appropriateness" being issued.

National Register historic districts are essentially all "carrot" and no "stick". The myth that the government will restrict what property owners can do to their privately held buildings in a National Register historic district is as persistent as it is false. In a National Register District, one can install vinyl siding, add an ugly porch, even demolish their house if so desired!

The "carrot" is Historic Tax Credits. Qualifying renovation work on buildings that contribute to the historic district is eligible for a refundable state income tax credit of up to 25% (and in some cases an additional Federal tax credit of up to 20%)! In my experience, there is no development tool more effective for spurring sustainable neighborhood reinvestment. Not only does renovation have the direct benefit of returning vacant and underutilized properties back to use, but it also has the associated benefits of raising property values, directing investment back to developing neighborhoods, paying of local wages and material purchase among others.

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Historic buildings are more than just piles of sticks and bricks. Over time, buildings become a part of our community narrative: the stories we create through our daily lives all have place. The spaces that enclose memorable events become inseparable from the events that happen within them and the people that pass through their doors. This effect is all the more profound when the buildings themselves are inspirational.

Despite the proliferation of crappy buildings created in the past 50 years, I think most people actually recognize this phenomenon to some degree. We do continue to recognize beauty in fine craftsmanship, thoughtful design, and artful space.

Des Moines Rehabbers Club meeting at Trinity ChurchDes Moines Rehabbers Club meeting at Trinity ChurchA perfect example of this is Trinity United Methodist Church in Des Moines' River Bend neighborhood. Trinity Church has embarked on a fabulous and difficult journey to restore their sanctuary and update the rest of the building to serve the congregation and the community for another 100 years.

Trinity Church has become more than just a building to house a congregation, though that is certainly a contributing factor. Through the development of a variety of service programs, the organization has evolved into a true pillar of support to the Des Moines community: breakfast and dinner are provided to hundreds of people daily in the basement; fifty children take part in before- and after-school care programs; teens and community members can use the computer labs to study; the doors are open from early morning to evening for anyone who needs a place to be. The building itself represents stability in a neighborhood that needs more constants.

With not a whole lot of internal capacity for funding the restoration project, Trinity Church has initiated an ambitious capital drive (with a lot left to go). Some of the work is being done with volunteer labor.

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Sustainability has become a core component of modern-day historic preservation activism. Indeed, we now recognize that the two are integrally related: there is no building greener than the one not built. By finding ways to creatively reuse and adapt existing structures to modern-day activities, we not only “save” our history, but also reduce the need for new construction.

Green and Main Pilot Project: Green and Main Pilot Project building before renovation.Green and Main Pilot Project: Green and Main Pilot Project building before renovation.As a designer, I often lament that the loss of historic building craft has had a negative impact on both the character and longevity of the structures we build today. It also has a negative impact on communities in terms of employment and multi-generational tradition. Renovation in general, and preservation in particular, are labor-dependent. That is, a greater percentage of the project cost in a renovation project is paid as wages rather than materials. Since wages equal jobs, preservation can be a great economic development tool. The Green and Main Pilot Project promotes socioeconomic sustainability by utilizing a broad range of skilled labor and specialized technical expertise. Even deconstruction of the interior is being performed in an intensively conscientious manner.

On a broad scale, preservation and renovation of existing buildings (particularly in urban areas) allow us to better utilize existing infrastructure and provide services more effectively to more people. Green and Main Pilot Project is reutilizing a building in a connected and walkable urban neighborhood, that is accessible by a variety of transportation modes. Because many older neighborhoods were developed in a time before widespread automobile use, they tend to be more compact and connected. In addition, an already-developed site allows for reuse of existing roads, sewers, and utilities.

At the individual building level, extending the useful life of a structure through renovation allows us to improve energy efficiency while also minimizing use of new-source construction materials. Preservation encourages adaptive reuse of existing buildings even as our needs and technologies change over time. The Green and Main building will be retrofit to a high level of energy efficiency while respecting the historic character-defining elements. For example, the historic storefront windows will be painstakingly recreated, though insulated glass will be utilized in place of the original single panes.

It is critically important for us to regain an understanding of how sustainable communities operate at both the individual building level and the broader urban scale. As a pilot project, Green and Main will serve as a brilliant case study. However, most of the projects I work on do not overtly address “sustainability” as part of their stated goals. Most of the people I work with simply love their homes and want to invest in the continued success of their neighborhoods. Sustainability is inherent in and inseparable from the act of renovating!

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Victorian Home in Danger of DemolitionVictorian Home in Danger of DemolitionIs there an abandoned home in your neighborhood that you would like to see saved? Perhaps a unique vacant storefront or even a cool gas station? Here is your chance to get some publicity for a building you think we all should know about: the Des Moines Rehabbers Club is seeking nominations for the 3rd Annual "Most Endangered Buildings" list!

An old railroad depot, a one-room schoolhouse, and a decaying Victorian home are all finalists from past years' lists.

There are two ways to nominate a building:

  1. Register (for free) at http://RenovateDSM.com and fill out the online nomination form - you must be logged in to view this form.
  2. Print a nomination form, fill it out, and mail it back.

Nominations are DUE by October 8, 2010. More information about the Most Endangered Buildings list can be found on the Des Moines Rehabbers Club website at http://renovatedsm.com/node/593.

Individuals and organizations are encouraged to nominate endangered buildings that they would like to see saved.

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Shell Sweet Shell

23 Aug 2010

Historic Ruan House in River BendHistoric Ruan House in River BendI stirred up a little discussion a couple days ago when I posted the following on the reNew Design Studio Facebook page about a historic tax credit project I am working on:

Historic Ruan House historic tax credit application draft is complete. Trying to get the River Bend neighborhood some money back for their FABULOUS renovation of a burned-out shell!

A couple of my friends thought I was being a bit too harsh in describing the pre-renovation building as a "burned-out shell". I admit to descending into a bit of hyperbole, perhaps inspired by my excitement, with this message. Indeed, the words "burned-out shell" may conjure up an image of charred wood studs poking out from beneath a pile of rubble - the pre-renovation Ruan House was not at that level of destruction.

Yet there can be legitimate debate about the terms "burned-out" and "shell". What is the point at which a fire-damaged house becomes burned-out? 25%? 50%? I don't know. My sense is that it relates more to a general feeling about whether or not the interior character of the house remains intact or has been damaged beyond recognition.

I apply the term "shell" to buildings that are substantially intact on the outside, yet can no longer server their intended purpose due to neglect or physical damage on the inside.

When is a Building Too Far Gone

Ruan House (before renovation)Ruan House (before renovation)The pejorative label "burned-out shell" begs the question, is a building ever too far gone to repair?

Prior to its complete rehabilitation by the River Bend Neighborhood Association, there is little doubt that this historic home had serious issues. There had been a fire in the attic. The roof damage and ensuing water infiltration damaged much of the interior plaster. The rear addition was structurally deficient, building systems and fixtures were missing or inoperable, the entry stoops were crumbling or missing.

Clearly this structure was uninhabitable at the time in terms of both local ordinance and basic human decency. Only those with a healthy understanding of and respect for architectural history would have noted any particular redeeming quality in the physical structure, though it was at one time the residence of a prominent local businessman.

In general I have a pretty low threshold for "save-ability" - that is, I know from experience that older buildings (masonry in particular) are relatively resilient when it comes to water infiltration, fire damage, and general neglect. The Ruan house is a prime example of how a building that many people would assume should be demolished can in fact be rehabilitated into a crowning jewel, a prominent entry market into a National Register historic district!

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Drake Neighborhood StreetscapeDrake Neighborhood StreetscapeI will be presenting a talk at the upcoming State of Iowa Historic Preservation Conference in Red Oak. My topic, also the subject of my talk at a Terrace Hill Tea, is "Why Old Buildings Matter".

I am not a strict preservationist. My basic approach to renovation design is to identify those elements I feel are "character defining" about a building and open everything else up to reinterpretation. My personal threshold is somewhat less than the State Historic Preservation Office. Of course, when I am working on a historic tax credit project, I conform to their requirements. The exterior is of particular importance in most historic buildings because the relationship between buildings is often a character defining element of a neighborhood. Consistency of character across a neighborhood or sub-neighborhood enhances the value of all the homes.

So why do old buildings matter? Here's a little preview:

  • Context - The shape and size of homes, and their pattern of arrangement into neighborhoods, both influence and are influenced by broader social, economic, and technical forces.
  • Narrative - To people who know what to look for, old buildings can weave just as complex a narrative as the greatest storyteller. These narratives give us a connection to the past.
  • Craft - Most of the materials and methods we use to construct our buildings today are designed to be replaced rather than repaired when damaged (and they tend to damage more easily).
  • Sustainability - At the individual level, extending the useful life of a structure through renovation allows us to improve energy efficiency while minimizing use of new-source construction materials. On a larger scale, renovation and preservation allow us to better utilize existing infrastructure and provide services more effectively to more people.

Come to Red Oak to see the whole presentation - hope to see you there!

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One of the things I find fascinating about urban environments is the way they develop over time: layering the new over the worn, the advanced over the archaic, the contemporary over the dated. These layers build a rich history that can be read and understood by interpreting the physical environment.

6th Avenue Resurfacing - Brick Pavers6th Avenue Resurfacing - Brick Pavers

Sometimes we get to see these layers, like the rings of an old-growth tree or an onion sliced in half.

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Victorian Home in Danger of Demolition: This home is on the City's "Public Nuisance" list and may be demolished if deficiencies are not corrected in a timely manner.Victorian Home in Danger of Demolition: This home is on the City's "Public Nuisance" list and may be demolished if deficiencies are not corrected in a timely manner.The Iowa legislature recently passed a bill more than doubling the Iowa historic rehabilitation tax credit. The program had previously been capped at $20 million; it is now capped at $50 million - 10% of which is dedicated specifically to "small" projects of under $500,000.

As a revitalization stimulus and economic engine, historic tax credits are an excellent investment. Not only do they leverage significant private capitalized investment, but they also encourage preservation of historic buildings. Because the tax credits are not issued until the project is complete and put "in use", the economic return to the state actually precedes the tax credit payout.

Historic tax credits can be used throughout the state in both urban and rural areas. In urban areas, qualifying buildings can be located in a designated historic district, individually nominated, or eligible for nomination. In rural areas and small towns, bridges, barns, and other potentially eligible properties may qualify for the credits.

While large rehabilitation projects often steal the limelight, even a privately owned single family home can qualify. With the expanded credit, I look forward to a new professional infrastructure developing to help shepard projects of all sizes through the process: architects, engineers, tax credit consultants, and accountants.

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