All too often building and fire codes are referred to as obstacles to the goals of historic preservation. Instead, I would suggest that preservationists have been impeded by an inability to integrate successfully two discrete sets of goals and concerns. My intent in this commentary is to argue that these goals are compatible. Information and a commitment to communication can erase the adversarial lines. After all, do not both the preservation and code or safety fields share the objective of property protection? We have all seen the results of unsuccessful relationships between the preservationist and code official. [For brevity, I use this latter term in its broadest sense--this may in fact be a building code official or fire marshal.] These are the historic buildings that have had their significant architectural features and spaces removed or obliterated for safety reasons. Stairways, corridors, timber construction, wood and tin ceilings, wainscot, panel doors and glass transoms: all are examples of significant architectural elements and features that pose problems to the code official concerned with minimizing fire spread should a fire arise, providing safe means of evacuation for the building`s occupants and safe entry and support for those charged with fighting the fire. That these architectural elements continue to be lost, and that buildings officially determined to be historically significant buildings are destroyed by fire or otherwise not afforded the highest degree of protection available, points not only to the failure of the codes and their administrators, but also to the failure of the preservation community. We have not taken the time to understand fully either the general premises or the specific requirements of our fire and safety codes. We have not ensured that code officials have the legal and informational tools necessary to deal with our specialized building types or to understand the legal bases of our concerns. We have not emphatically demanded that historic properties receive the best expertise available, that of architects, engineers and contractors with specific experience in preservation. We have not made wide use of appeal and variance procedures available to help resolve conflicts that arise between the codes and preservation goals. And, until recently, we have not been successful in demanding that the codes--documents written primarily by government and model code organizations to describe construction techniques and materials acceptable for new construction--seriously consider the specialized nuances and needs of historic buildings. Fortunately, these aims are slowly being realized, evidenced by the recent flourish of special codes and provisions for existing and historic buildings.
DEVELOPING SOLUTIONS Most of the above statements explain why difficulties exist in the marrying of preservation and code concerns, but they also point to the direction necessary for the development of sensitive and safe solutions. In many cases, successful solutions require little more than a better understanding of the goals and concerns of the various involved parties and a commitment to an increase in the quality of communications. These elements are crucial:
Some codes include separate provisions, chapters, or entire documents for rehabilitation of existing or historic buildings. These typically take one of the following forms:
It is of course impossible to suggest that following the above steps will ensure easy resolution of the conflicts that will arise between historic preservation and building and fire codes. However, I do believe that they will remove the sting and improve the quality of the finished product. The notion that historic buildings are hurt by the involvement of building code officials or fire marshals is incorrect, and we instead should take steps to ensure that our buildings receive the best attention possible by safety and fire protection experts. This requires that we work with and not against the code official, remembering that historic buildings are only one special category of buildings he or she must work with, and perhaps the building type for which the least amount of training and technical resource materials are available. After all, do we not want historic buildings to be at least as well protected as new ones? Publication Date: Spring 1988#ForumJournal#buildingcodes
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