Top of Corinthian column, Post Office, Little Falls, MN, Mary Warner, 2014.
design ideas thought fodder

The 500-Year Building

Top of Corinthian column, Post Office, Little Falls, MN, Mary Warner, 2014.
Top of Corinthian column, Post Office, Little Falls, MN, Mary Warner, 2014.

Historic preservation is an ever-changing field. Twenty-some years ago, people in the field concerned themselves with trying to save as many “old” buildings as they could, “old” meaning primarily Victorian-era, with the goal being to bring these buildings (or, at the very least, their facades) back to how they were originally conceived.

In many cases, that meant stripping off any modern skins that had been applied during the 1940s to 1970s, removing insensitive architectural features that had replaced the originals, and restoring brick or other facade treatments.

As the field evolved, preservationists began to more fully appreciate mid-century buildings, even those mid-century skins that had been removed in their zeal for originality. Because  there are so many mid-century buildings and they often have a utilitarian air about them, preservationists haven’t been as keen to save them until recently. As these mid-century buildings reach the magic age of 50, they become old enough to be considered for the National Register of Historic Places and are now deemed worthy enough to protect. Even (or perhaps especially) the “ugly” Brutalist ones.

Preservationists have also expanded their thinking to include structures other than buildings. Bridges, water towers, shipwrecks (!), and even lowly culverts do not deserve unthinking demolition in a preservationist’s world. Landscapes, such as those presented within parks, are also included in their purview.

Unfortunately, the general public hasn’t kept up with this evolution in historic preservation. Most people are pretty cool with keeping Victorian-era (or older) buildings, but a mid-century culvert or convenience store? You have got to be kidding.

Thing is, it isn’t just the history of a structure that’s important to preservationists anymore. They have made the leap to full-on sustainability. They want to save the materials, time and energy put into the built environment, along with the history and the visual streetscape. Structures ought to be used for as long as possible, even if they need some modification, because “the greenest building is the one already built.” (Quote attributed to architect Carl Elefante)

Nonprofit organizations focused on history or preservation often get requests from the public regarding pet preservation projects. Some beautiful, Victorian mansion is threatened with demolition and, by golly, why doesn’t the organization rush in to save it? While it’s flattering to be considered strong and brave enough to stand in front of a wrecking ball, nonprofit history and preservation organizations do not have the authority to halt demolition. It is a great frustration within the field. Their only weapon is public opinion and they don’t often have enough time to mount an effective anti-demolition campaign.

Instead, they keep working to share how notions of preservation have expanded. They also host classes on preservation techniques. Some have even gone so far as to jump into the real estate market, buying and renovating structures in order to save them.

These are noble efforts, to be sure, but I can’t help but think that we need to get further ahead of the issue, such that we build the idea of preservation into a structure from the beginning. For decades in the United States, we have lived with the thought that buildings are supposed to be disposable. Why don’t we flip that thought on its head? Why not design a building that is meant to last 500 years?

Sounds implausible, eh? There are manor houses in England that are over 600 years old. Do I need to mention the pyramids? We can do this, make this a challenge for architects and engineers. Surely, they would like to have their creations last longer than a century.

Generations of the public could serve to ensure the 500-year building indeed lasts 500 years. Give the building a noticeable cornerstone and under the date inscribe an explanation of the goal for the building to exist for 500 years (or more!). Ask the public to protect the building from the beginning. That’s getting well ahead of the wrecking ball.

What sort of features would a building have to have in order to last 500 years?

I have been thinking about this from the standpoint of an historian, futurist and novice home renovator, not as an architect or engineer. Here are the qualities I think a 500-year building would have to have:

  • Sturdy fireproof construction with long-lasting  exterior and structural materials (stone, brick, metal, concrete)
  • Has to accommodate many types of uses over time (housing, business, etc.)
  • Has to be easy to modify in order to accommodate a variety of uses and technological advances (not just walls, but electrical, plumbing & HVAC systems)
  • Durable flooring
  • Careful siting of the structure (This building probably should not be placed on a coast that is due to experience flooding, unless flooding is factored into the structure.) – needs to be situated to take advantage of natural resources, like sunlight, shade & etc.
  • Designed to accommodate a variety of disabilities  (If the building has multiple floors, how is an elevator going to remain operational for 500 years?)
  • Designed for minimal maintenance (There are too many stories about deferred maintenance being the ruin of historic buildings. The 500-year building needs to be able to withstand periods of non-use.)
  • Do not make the building over-sized (Owners of large, centuries-old, manor houses in England are now having difficulty raising the money necessary to keep up their homes. Giant abandoned industrial complexes and department stores are difficult for communities to fill when a business moves out or goes bankrupt.)
  • Design an attractive or distinctive building so that the public grows to love it, thus giving them pause during conversations about demolition

What other qualities should a 500-year building have? Please weigh in in the comments.

In thinking about designing a structure to last well beyond our lifetime, consider the design challenges of creating signage for nuclear waste facilities, which have to warn people of their dangers for 10,000 years. Compared to that, designing a 500-year building ought to be a snap.



1 thought on “The 500-Year Building”

  1. And this article from the Star Tribune is why, in designing a 500-year building, architects must take into consideration the overall aesthetics.

    Streetscapes: No tears for teardown of forgettable TCF Bank building –

    The subheading on the article says, “A forgettable 1970s building is slated to be replaced with a 50-story, mixed-use tower unlike any other downtown.”

    While the TCF Bank building may be forgettable, the teardown still means we’re wasting resources. If the building had been designed to be appealing, we’d have a lot more trouble demolishing it.

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