Lessons from the Edge of America: Association for Preservation 2019

Preservation isn’t an end unto itself; it is better understood as a set of tools. Maintaining, restoring and reusing our historic built environment are how communities provide housing, create vibrant commercial districts, minimize waste and pollution, and express their cultural identity.

With that in mind, the organizers of the 2019 Association for Preservation Technology conference, held Nov. 19-23 in Miami, balanced lectures on the evaluation of stone repair methods and emerging technology for building diagnostics with some big-picture panels and case studies on two of the major challenges facing historic cities: gentrification and climate change.

I attended specifically to delve into these pressing topics, carefully selecting sessions from the bewilderingly wide-ranging program, which also heavily featured preservation of mid-century and Latin American architecture.

During the opening plenary, Gustavo Araoz, honorary president of the International Council on Monument and Sites (ICOMOS), encouraged audience members to join the newly formed Caribbean Heritage Network. I recalled the moniker “northernmost city in the Caribbean,” which is often applied to New Orleans in reference to architecture, music and Carnival traditions (and sometimes to our potholed roads). Beyond a common cultural lineage, I began to perceive the shared threats: storms, “overtourism” and economic disparities.

Between talks, I zigzagged through an exhibit hall crammed with costly laser scanners, patented cleaning solutions, custom stone-cutting samples and meticulous wood and stained glass window restorations (in short, a preservation geek’s happy place).

In the sessions, case studies unpacked neighborhood change in Charleston and New York City. I learned about the novel approach San Antonio takes to documenting Latino cultural heritage through map-making workshops for residents. I discovered Bunce Island, Sierra Leone, where once the English held slaves before sending them to North American and today a cadre of preservationists and engineers struggles to stabilize the crumbling fortifications.

Representatives of the U.S. State Department explained natural disaster planning for embassies and consulates around the globe. Staff to the National Park Service detailed how lab testing of historic building materials informed the newly released Guidelines on Flood Adaptation for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings. More case studies examined the energy modeling and retrofitting of a Canadian home and the extent of thermal transfer through masonry walls in Cincinnati.

I fancy myself an intellectual omnivore, but honestly the back and forth between meta issues and micro details was dizzying. Things came together for me in a roundtable sponsored by the Zero Net Carbon Collaboration for Existing and Historic Buildings. This joint initiative includes the Association for Preservation Technology, American Institute of Architects, ICOMOS and Architecture 2030; its focus is using the tools of preservation to shrink the carbon footprints of our cities.

As participants discussed using the software program Tally to conduct life cycle assessments of buildings, the gears began to mesh. As more and more universities, companies and cities commit to carbon reductions through improved building performance, the architectural significance of an existing building may be a secondary consideration when reusing it produces less net pollution that replacing it.

“We can’t get to net zero without existing buildings,” said architect Larry Strain, as 2018 AIA President, Carle Elephante, nodded in agreement. The newly formed Climate Heritage Network, of which the Preservation Resource Center is a member, has plans to partner with the coalition to develop a methodology for avoided carbon accounting from building reuse. This is a technical piece of a larger strategy that includes investing in resilience at cultural heritage sites and using them to educate the public.

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Following the conference, I strolled the sidewalks of Miami (littered with electric scooters rentable by the minute from Uber, Lyft and several competitors). Like New Orleans, it is a city at the water’s edge. Everywhere waves lap the shore of sinewy rivers and widening bays. Gleaming towers rise up to afford better views of the blue expanse of the Atlantic. These modern edifices belie the city’s colonial and pre-Columbian roots, but the polyglot cacophony heard on Miami sidewalks must surely recall the quay in nineteenth-century New Orleans.

Both cities face the perennial risk of Atlantic hurricanes, but Miami does so without levees and floodwalls. Walking the shores of Biscayne Bay, it is apparent that an almost 3-feet rise in sea level by 2100 — the business-as-usual scenario foreseen by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC — will begin to inundate Miami Beach. (The real scary stuff is what happens in the next century if global carbon emissions continue apace.)

Preservation is not a movement to stop time; it is a set of tools to manage change. In places like Bunce Island or our own Fort Macomb – also the subject of a conference presentation – that could mean slowing the inevitable rate of decay. But as the rates of environmental and social change begin to accelerate, tangible reminders of our past accrue new salience. They may remind us what our forebears endured or created. At best these inspire us to endure and create using the tools we have at hand.

Nathan Lott is PRC’s Advocacy Coordinator & Public Policy Research Director. He can be reached at nlott@prcno.org