House-shaped clock, 2018.
history pragmatic historian

Domicology and Historic Preservation

House-shaped clock, 2018.
House-shaped clock, 2018.

As I sit down to write this post, a number of thoughts related to the historic preservation of structures are flitting through my mind. I’ll try to focus on one of them here and perhaps tackle others in later posts.

I read an article the other day on The Conversation that introduced me to a new word: Domicology.

Domicology was coined by the Center for Community and Economic Development at Michigan State University. It “is the study of the economic, social, and environmental characteristics relating to the life cycle of the built environment.” Domicologists, those who study and practice domicology, are concerned with the entire life cycle of structures, from the point of construction through the point at which structures are no longer usable. They believe structures ought to be built with the thought that the materials used in them should be recycled and reused at the end of the structures’ lives. That means designing structures so that they can easily be dismantled and creating systems within society to move those materials along to their next use.

To this I say, “Amen! Hallelujah!” and “Why did it take so long for someone to put serious effort into this?”

We have long needed to shift away from our mass consumerism and planned obsolescence. Too many things, including large structures like houses, department stores, bridges, and warehouses, are built NOT to last and we don’t reclaim the materials within them. We just demolish them and bury them in a landfill somewhere. What a complete waste of human effort and natural resources.

Working in the history field, where preservation is the prime directive, the wholesale destruction of reclaimable materials is antithetical to preservation. If we can’t save a structure “as is,” then we ought to save the materials used in its construction.

But, the idea of domicology, if it takes hold as a policy and is successfully implemented in society, begs a question: Will any structure, built as it is to be recycled, be considered worthy of saving due to its history or aesthetics? Or will it merely be evaluated on the economic value of its materials?

We already have a heck of a time trying to preserve historic structures that no longer have a use and it’s a shame to see them dumped in a landfill, but if we introduce a potential profit motive into the reclamation of the materials in a historic structure, what’s to keep demolition experts insensitive to history from dismantling everything they can get their hands on and selling the bits and bobs off to the highest-paying reuse company? And offering part of their take to communities in order to encourage letting them dismantle structures, perhaps before they are old enough to become historic? (50 years is the minimum age for most structures to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.)

At this point, we don’t have a society or construction process based on domicology, so these may seem to be moot points. However, all systems that seem good on the surface … and reclaiming materials from structures is definitely a good thing … will have some negative aspects lurking around. It pays to start asking these questions prior to a wholesale shift in methodology so we can anticipate and mitigate the negative possibilities.


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