Preservation by Prevention Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation

This Massachusetts house's lapped siding was in need of attention

This Massachusetts house’s lapped siding was in need of attention

In my role as Director of Operations and Stewardship at the Trust for Architectural Easements, one of the most common questions I am asked is what standards or guidelines the staff uses for review when an owner requests to alter his/her easement-protected property. The answer to that question is the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. But, that answer likely does not have much meaning unless you work in the preservation world.

Lapped siding was replaced with wood shingles after shingles found on an original exterior wall hidden in the attic prompted historical research and a review guided by the Secretary's Standards.

Lapped siding was replaced with wood shingles after shingles found on an original exterior wall hidden in the attic prompted historical research and a review guided by the Secretary’s Standards.

The Secretary’s Standards, as they are generally known, are a set of federal guidelines developed by the National Park Service to guide their own decision-making processes with respect to historic buildings. The Secretary’s Standards have been widely adopted by preservation organizations and commissions across the country because they establish an effective philosophical context for all decision-making when undertaking work on a historic property. They are not technical guidelines, and they are not intended to be directive. Rather, they remind us that as building stewards we must approach projects as physicians do patients, “First, do no harm.”

The Secretary’s Standards are comprised of four treatment options – rehabilitation, preservation, restoration, and reconstruction. The Trust uses the rehabilitation standards for review. They are also used by the National Park Service for tax credit rehabilitation projects and are intended to allow leeway for changes in building use that might require alterations. The other treatment approaches are sometimes used by staff for additional guidance.

There are ten Standards for Rehabilitation, which can be accessed with limited discussion of their history and the meaning of rehabilitation on the National Park Service website.

  1. A property will be used as it was historically or be given a new use that requires minimal change to its distinctive materials, features, spaces, and spatial relationships.
  2. The historic character of a property will be retained and preserved. The removal of distinctive materials or alteration of features, spaces, and spatial relationships that characterize a property will be avoided.
  3. Each property will be recognized as a physical record of its time, place, and use. Changes that create a false sense of historical development, such as adding conjectural features or elements from other historic properties, will not be undertaken.
  4. Changes to a property that have acquired historic significance in their own right will be retained and preserved.
  5. Distinctive materials, features, finishes, and construction techniques or examples of craftsmanship that characterize a property will be preserved.
  6. Deteriorated historic features will be repaired rather than replaced. Where the severity of deterioration requires replacement of a distinctive feature, the new feature will match the old in design, color, texture, and, where possible, materials. Replacement of missing features will be substantiated by documentary and physical evidence.
  7. Chemical or physical treatments, if appropriate, will be undertaken using the gentlest means possible. Treatments that cause damage to historic materials will not be used.
  8. Archeological resources will be protected and preserved in place. If such resources must be disturbed, mitigation measures will be undertaken.
  9. New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction will not destroy historic materials, features, and spatial relationships that characterize the property. The new work shall be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment.
  10. New additions and adjacent or related new construction will be undertaken in a such a manner that, if removed in the future, the essential form and integrity of the historic property and its environment would be unimpaired.

The Standards are accompanied by guidelines that give situation-specific advice in the form of recommended and not-recommended actions. For example, it is not recommended to paint or otherwise coat masonry that historically has been unpainted/uncoated to make it appear new. It is recommended to retain distinctive features of the masonry, such as the mortar tooling and bonding pattern.

While the Standards do not provide the Trust with a pass on thoughtful decisions – there is no easy “yes, the Standards say door replacement is allowed” – they do encourage us to approach requests with the proper preservation goals in mind. If you want to do repair work, is there a demonstrable need for repair? Are you retaining as much of the historic fabric as possible? Are you repairing the building in a way that avoids causing harm to neighboring materials and features? Will your repair maintain the appearance of the original work? If we can answer yes to all of these questions, it is likely that the Trust will find that the repair is consistent with the Standards.

If you own an easement-protected property and have questions about work you might want to undertake, or need advice, do not hesitate to call or email us for assistance. If we don’t have an immediate answer to your question, we will do our best to help you find one. Our goal is to help you take the best care possible of your historic property so that it can be enjoyed by generations to come.