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Breathing New Life into History: Renovation Solutions for Historic Buildings

News—————3 June 2024

Preserving historic buildings offers architects and designers a rich tapestry of challenges and opportunities that set it apart from other project typologies. Historic preservation holds profound importance to both architects and the communities in which the buildings are located for several reasons.  Historic buildings contribute to the diversity and identity of our cities and communities and often foster community engagement and social cohesion by promoting a sense of pride and ownership among residents. Studio 27 Architecture approaches each historic renovation project with a careful and precise lens to ensure that the needs of future generations are balanced with the history and heritage of the past.

Preserving History

Howard University Miner Building

Historic renovations involve preserving and honoring a place’s history and heritage, contributing a sense of historical significance to the project. Historic buildings are tangible links to the past, reflecting previous generations’ values, lifestyles, and architectural styles. By preserving these structures, we maintain a sense of continuity with our history and ensure that future generations can appreciate and learn from the built environment of the past, fostering a sense of heritage and legacy.

The Myrtilla Miner Building, which sits prominently on the Howard University campus, was constructed 1913 as a teacher training school for African Americans. Now, through careful renovation, it is poised to once again take its place as a vital center of learning and community engagement for the Howard University community. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the redevelopment of the Miner Building is both rooted in reverence for its storied past. It stands as a vision for its vibrant future.

Storytelling Through Design

Chapman Stables

Historic renovations provide a unique and inspiring opportunity to tell the story of a building or place through design, highlighting its evolution over time and capturing the essence of its place in history. Integrating modern design elements into a historic framework allows for a seamless blend of old and new aesthetics, creating a visually striking contrast and sparking the imagination of architects and designers.

The Chapman Coal Company Garage and Stables, once a hub of early 20th-century life, has been thoughtfully reimagined to provide modern, sustainable housing solutions while preserving its historic integrity. The patinaed wrought iron car elevator at the N Street entrance harkens back to its place in history as a car repair garage while contrasting with the modern-day finishes within the lobby. The existing building materials – cast iron beams, brick bearing walls, terrazzo floors – have been carefully exposed throughout the building as relics of the construction methodologies of the early 20th century. The residential addition above the original garage sits in contrast to the 1913 building in form, construction techniques, and materiality, thereby adding to the story of historic evolution.

Sustainability and Adaptive Reuse

Renovating existing historic buildings is inherently sustainable. By reusing existing structures, we reduce the demand for new construction materials and minimize the environmental impact associated with demolition and new construction. Incorporating sustainable design practices such as energy-efficient systems, recycled materials, and low-impact construction methods ensures the buildings continued longevity.

At Chapman Stables, Studio 27 utilized a planted central courtyard for stormwater bioretention and planted the rooftops of the existing building and new addition with intensive green roofs to address modern stormwater management codes and requirements.

Working with existing structures comes with challenges and constraints, such as structural limitations, historic preservation guidelines, and historical considerations that require innovative solutions. Most of these projects require working closely with the local historic preservation governing authorities to ensure that the renovation complies with the preservation standards and respects the building’s authenticity. Considering the right materials and finishes to match the original character of the building or choosing compatible, sustainable materials that blend (or contrast) with the historic fabric is a delicate undertaking.

On the Myrtilla Miner Renovation, Studio 27 Architecture has worked closely with the District of Columbia’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) to identify target spaces within the building deemed highly significant to the historic integrity of the building. These spaces will be restored to their near-original finishes – plaster walls, historic wood trim, detailing, restored windows, and glazing – to preserve the authentic character and architectural features that once existed throughout the building.

By protecting and celebrating our historic architecture through renovation, architects play a crucial role in enriching our communities, promoting sustainable development, and ensuring that future generations inherit a built environment that reflects our shared cultural heritage and values. Overall, historic renovations offer designers a unique blend of artistic, technical, and cultural challenges that make them both exciting and rewarding projects to work on.

Allen Russ Photography, LLC, StudioHDP copyright all photos.

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