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Old World and New World Historic Preservation (Part 1)

Updated: Jun 19

All of the apartment buildings we manage in Richmond, VA are historic preservation buildings.  You can read more about historic preservation principles and Richmond’s approach to historic preservation here:

The core objective of historic preservation is to keep properties and places of historic and cultural value actively used, permitting appropriate improvements to sustain their viability while maintaining the character-defining features which contribute to their significance as cultural resources.  And guess what: when re-developed properly these spaces are fun places to live, rich with character and history.  But they also present design, construction and safety challenges, some of which can be dealt with during redevelopment and some of which must be actively managed while these buildings continue to be used.

Former Brewery Converted to Apartments Richmond
Former brewery, now Cornish Brewery Apartments in Richmond

The City of Richmond is far from alone as a place that seeks to merge modernity with history through historic preservation.  Think of Charleston, New Orleans, and Savannah.  And there are other U.S. cities that you may not immediately think of:(

The Old World, due to culture and practicality, has been practicing historic preservation for centuries.  Think of some of the great cities of Europe: London, Paris, Rome, Madrid.  The similarities with Richmond and the New World are fascinating.

In this blog we’ll focus on some structural and space adaption challenges to historic preservation common to both worlds.

First, a central challenge of redeveloping historic spaces into modern, livable new spaces relates to fitting new functional space into the original building framework, or envelope.  Converting industrial spaces such as a factory or warehouse into residential space is a common example.  Historic industrial spaces tend to have higher ceilings than necessary for residential spaces and are also frequently footprint constrained.  The design answer to create more usable space is to “design up” to utilize height when “designing out” is not possible.  This creates an opportunity for attractive, custom, interior staircases to better utilize loft space or to create a full second floor. 

Below are Old World, (Venice) and New World, (Richmond) comparisons:

And sometimes designing up means using the roof:

A second major challenge when redeveloping historic spaces is working with the existing building material.  Whereas elaborate marble and stonework comes to mind when we think of Old World cities, the reality is that most construction (depending on the time period) utilized some combination of wood and masonry, frequently brick.  It could be produced locally and was much cheaper to procure compared to transporting building material from a quarry.  Brick was abundant and inexpensive in Richmond for much of Richmond’s history, which is evidenced by the many brick sidewalks, brick sewer lines and buildings (often covered by stucco).  In order to enhance the foundations of these old wood and brick buildings, make them fit for purpose, and satisfy safety standards, developers often introduce metal beams, typically iron or steel, alongside the historic wood beams and brick. 

Below is another interesting comparison of Old World (Venice, 1st image) and New World (Richmond, 2nd and 3rd images) applications:

Enhancements of this kind improve a building’s structural integrity and safety, while also reducing or eliminating strain on the historic wood, brick and other masonry.  This is especially important when additional vertical weight is being added, such as via modern roofing along with roof-top HVAC equipment.

We’ll continue with this theme in Part 2.

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Victoria Horrocks
Victoria Horrocks
Jun 20


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