Abrams Design Build  |  202-437-8583  |  

Historic Preservation policy needs to look to the future as well as the past

This photo is from "The Repair of Historic Wooden Windows" by John H Myers, from the Department of the Interior's series, "Preservation Briefs."

This photo is from “The Repair of Historic Wooden Windows” by John H Myers, from the Department of the Interior’s series, “Preservation Briefs.”

A list-serve colleague sought advice on selecting an affordable line of wood windows, for a project regulated by local historic preservation mandates.  I replied as follows:

I hope Yogi Berra will forgive me if I say that the best and most affordable wood windows today are made of fiberglass.

Here’s where I’m coming from. I’ve been designing and building in my local historic district for over 30 years. Won two major awards for preservation, and served on the board local preservation society.

But I am no longer a preservationist, if it means making dumb decisions about the future. Every time I go by a house I built back in the eighties, even the nineties, I see the wood windows and wood trim starting to go. Some houses have had the windows torn out and replaced already. I’ve seen unprotected wood doors go in five years.

“Wood” is not “wood” any more. Even Henry Mather Greene saw that coming, 110 years ago, and predicted we’d be using man made materials, when the fine-grained, old-growth stuff was gone.

What’s more, wood window manufacturers pump their wood full of toxic preservatives–your hands reek from it, if you’ve been handling them. And as we build tighter houses, we wonder why our kids have asthma, and why so many young women get breast cancer.

We preserve what is the best of its era. We preserve what had the capacity and qualities to endure in the first place.

But the HPC compels us to use what is not the best of our own time, ensuring that what we build will not endure. To be relevant, preservationist need to look into the future, as much as they look to the past.