The conservation of the historic environment: the void dweller

In the early 1990s, when I was following the techno music scene closely, I came across a track called “Spice” by EON, which I really liked. (It borrowed sound bites, quite liberally, from the movie Dune. I can still hear the phrase, “the spice must flow” in my head.) So how does this relate to the conservation of the historic environment? Well, Ian Loveday, the artist behind EON, released this track on an album titled Void Dweller. And every time I think of historic preservation or heritage conservation, just like that track, Spice, the phrase “void dweller” is like an ear worm that won’t leave me alone.

What triggered my idea for this particular post is a visit to the new College Scorecard web page. I have to give the Obama Administration a hand, as it is really nice to see data on the average cost for a 4-year college degree, graduation rates, average debt load, average earnings of graduates, and diversity measures in one place. It’s now possible to type any college name and compare the numbers that are generated against other colleges. (My particular university looks rather good on graduation rates and alumni earnings, but not so good on some of the other numbers, unfortunately.) Unfortunately, what’s missing from this web site is any useful qualitative data that a student would use in choosing between one college and another including teacher quality, the nature of specific degree programs, and what the campus and surrounding community are like. But, it’s nice to see this information here as a start.

On this web site, you can, sort of, pull up colleges by a degree program. But as with any attempt to categorize the mess of disciplines in the United States, many degree programs are lost in the crowd and just don’t fit the existing categories. College Scorecard presents its users with the following list of degree program areas:

  • Agriculture, Agriculture Operations, and Related Sciences
  • Architecture and Related Services
  • Area, Ethnic, Cultural, Gender, and Group Studies
  • Biological and Biomedical Sciences
  • Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support Services
  • Communication, Journalism, and Related Programs
  • Communications Technologies/Technicians and Support Services
  • Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services
  • Construction Trades
  • Education
  • Engineering
  • Engineering Technologies and Engineering-Related Fields
  • English Language and Literature/Letters
  • Family and Consumer Sciences/Human Sciences
  • Foreign Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics
  • Health Professions and Related Programs
  • History
  • Homeland Security, Law Enforcement, Firefighting and Related Protective Services
  • Legal Professions and Studies
  • Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies and Humanities
  • Library Science
  • Mathematics and Statistics
  • Mechanic and Repair Technologies/Technicians
  • Military Technologies and Applied Sciences
  • Multi/Interdisciplinary Studies
  • Natural Resources and Conservation
  • Parks, Recreation, Leisure, and Fitness Studies
  • Personal and Culinary Services
  • Philosophy and Religious Studies
  • Physical Sciences
  • Precision Production
  • Psychology
  • Public Administration and Social Service Professions
  • Science Technologies/Technicians
  • Social Sciences
  • Theology and Religious Vocations
  • Transportation and Materials Moving
  • Visual and Performing Arts

Looking through this list, you might ask where does any activity that concerns itself with the conservation of the historic environment, which is commonly defined a focus on the conservation of older buildings, structures, places, and landscapes, fit into these categories? Before it is possible to answer this question, we need to know what kind of activities people in the historic environment actually do.

The four areas of practice: the RCIS diagram

In order to help my students understand how the field of historic environment conservation is organized, I mapped all of the career specializations across two dichotomies, arranged in an X and Y axis. These dichotomies are the age-old scrape versus anti-scrape perspective and community versus expert values. I write about this in much more detail in a chapter on student thesis research in the Preservation Education: Sharing Best Practices and Finding Common Ground book that I co-edited with Barry Stiefel.

In sum, the field can be broken down into the following four areas, with a focus on practice in the United States. Other countries are likely to be similar:

The Regulators: Jobs largely driven by regulatory requirements, such as design review and environmental review. These are people who work in local planning departments as staff to historic preservation commissions, staff at state historic preservation offices, and employees at cultural resource management companies engaged in environmental review.

The Conservators: Jobs that address changes to the physical fabric of buildings and places. Preservation/restoration architects and architectural materials conservators are good examples.

The Interpreters: Jobs that focus on understanding the historical facts about a place and then interpreting this information to a public audience. A good example are people who work at historic house museums or state and national parks.

The Stewards: In the United States, the historic preservation movement has long had an advocacy component and there are many jobs where this is a major focus. Examples include staff who work in state historical trusts, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, or other advocacy groups, including Main Street organizations.

Back to the list: can we find a fit?

Now that we have a better understanding of what people who conserve the historic environment do, let’s do some exploring of that College Scorecard list.

First, let’s reduce the list, above, by eliminating categories that clearly are to tangential to attribute to the conservation of the historic environment. We’re left with the following categories:

  • Architecture and Related Services
  • Construction Trades
  • History
  • Legal Professions and Studies
  • Natural Resources and Conservation
  • Parks, Recreation, Leisure, and Fitness Studies
  • Physical Sciences
  • Psychology
  • Social Sciences

Note that I omitted the category, “Multi/Interdisciplinary Studies”, which is akin to saying “other”. For now, we’ll refrain from putting the conservation of the historic environment into the “other” category. I will now address each of these relevant categories to see how well they fit.

Architecture and Related Services

Does the conservation of the historic environment involve architecture? Yes, absolutely. Is it the same as architecture, or architectural design? The clear answer is no. Ignoring, for now, the question of what is meant by “related services”, this category elicits professionals known as architects, but architecture degree programs overwhelmingly teach students how to design new buildings, not conserve old ones.

Students in architecture programs rarely learn about working on historic buildings, much less contextualized design that conserves the historical authenticity of place. In the United States, the National Architecture Accrediting Board (NAAB), which is the most widely accepted accrediting organization of professional architecture degrees, requires surprisingly little education about existing buildings, much less historic preservation. In its most recent “conditions for accreditation” (PDF), which is almost a 9,000-word document, there is exactly one mention of anything to do with older or historic buildings:

Site Design: Ability to respond to site characteristics, including urban context and developmental patterning, historical fabric, soil, topography, ecology, climate, and building orientation, in the development of a project design.

Note that there is no criteria given to judge how an architecture student should “respond” to historical fabric. It’s not even clear what “historical fabric” means; is it literally bricks and mortar or does it actually consider the design of older buildings and landscapes as a whole? Arguably, this criterion should mention that this response ought to include some kind of reference to historical authenticity, conservation guidelines, or international doctrines–in other words something–anything–from the rather large epistemological basis for historic environment conservation. Considering that the majority of full-time architecture professors in the United States are not trained in historic preservation, it’s easy to make your own conclusion about how qualified the average architecture program graduate is to work on historic buildings.

In addition, the guidelines don’t even mention “historic preservation” (the common term for historic environment conservation in the United States). Surprisingly, the word “conservation” in any context (natural or cultural) fails to appear in the guidelines.

For anyone who realizes that 70% of the work of architects who graduate from these degree programs will be on existing buildings, the way NAAB’s accreditation criteria ignores heritage conservation is patently absurd, especially when sustainability ought to be an important consideration (at least given the way it is emphasized in popular material used in architectural publications). (Recycling of buildings is not only sustainable, but is much better for the environment than new construction). Moreover, it clearly indicates that, as a discipline (with some important exceptions notwithstanding), architecture seems to care very little about the conservation of historic buildings and views sustainability rather narrowly in terms of high-tech solutions rather than tried-and-true traditions.

Incredibly, a student can therefore obtain an accredited architecture degree in the United States without knowing anything about legally-mandated design review in historic districts, historic materials and building technologies, and conservation philosophy (e.g., Ruskin, Violet-le-Duc). The sustainability issues notwithstanding, is NAAB really OK with sending architecture graduates out into the world without the ability to present an architectural design idea for infill construction in an historic district to an historic preservation commission? At a minimum, this wastes a client’s time and at the most, could result in ethically irresponsible choices by the architect because of increased legal liabilities.

I want to be clear in my critique that there are professional architecture programs in the United States that do require more education in the conservation of the historic environment than NAAB requires or at least offers students the ability to specialize in heritage conservation. (The latter option is quite common when there are historic preservation degree programs in the same school as the architecture program.) This does not invalidate my claims that 1) most architecture degree programs in the United States fail to provide any meaningful education in the conservation of the historic environment and 2) most full-time architecture faculty in these professional architecture degree programs are not trained, much less qualified, to teach about the conservation of the historic environment.

If you were to ask graduates of most architecture programs in the United States to describe the essential conservation debate between John Ruskin and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, name one international heritage conservation doctrine, or describe the legal requirements for design review in most local historic districts across the country, you would be met with a blank stare.

Conversely, if you were to ask graduates of most historic preservation degree programs in the United States to define system architecture, compare and contrast Kenneth Frampton’s “quiet architecture” theory with Le Corbusier’s machine living, and calculate the static load of a building, you would also be met with a blank stare.

Architecture is not historic environment conservation and historic environment conservation is not architecture; there are related elements, but they are actually quite distant fields in many respects.

As further evidence, the conservation of the historic environment covers much more than buildings, such as cultural landscapes, architectural materials conservation, planning, historic site administration, non-profit management, and many other aspects that would never, ever be covered in an architectural class.

Construction trades

The conservation of historic buildings and landscapes involves many aspects of the construction trades, but as with architecture, most construction management/science programs in the United States also fail to train their students in the conservation of existing buildings. The American Council for Construction Education’s “Standards and Criteria for Accreditation of Post secondary Construction Education Degree Programs” (PDF) fail to mention anything about conservation, existing construction, or historic buildings.

The conclusion, as with architecture, is that the graduates of construction management programs are not qualified to conserve older buildings and landscapes. They simply don’t receive any training on the subject.

The tradespeople, such as masons, carpenters, and plasterers, also receive little or no training on working with traditional methods and materials found in existing construction. This is a significant problem in the rehabilitation and restoration of historic buildings as it is difficult to find trained and qualified tradespeople who understand historical building materials and can properly execute traditional techniques. The Preservation Trades Network was created to help address this problem. In addition, there are less than a handful of vocational educational programs that train tradespeople in traditional materials and methods.


Along with architecture, the conservation of the historic environment is often lumped with history. After all, this does seem to make sense because we’re dealing with old things, right? So history must be a major part of the work of conservation. Well, sort of.

For the most part, the conservation of the historic environment has little use for historiography or the post-modern practices of today’s historian that address feminism, post colonial theory, or post structuralism. Only very narrow aspects of history are used in the conservation of the historic environment: local (or public) history and architectural history.

A rather curious outcome of this difference in emphases is that the graduates of historic preservation programs in the United States are better equipped at conducting local history research in archives than most history graduates.

Legal Professions and Studies

Some people may think it rather odd that I include “legal professions and studies” as a discipline relevant to the conservation of the historic environment. No one would expect someone who works in the conservation field to be a lawyer.

On the other hand, in the United States, the majority of jobs in historic preservation and cultural resource management are driven by the regulatory environment. All those local historic districts need people to staff historic preservation commissions whose entire purview is defined in a local ordinance; state historic preservation offices need people who can understand and implement federal and state preservation laws; and cultural resource management firms do most of work, required by federal and state law, for environmental review.

But clearly, while the conservation of the historic may be driven by law, it is not the same as the discipline of law.

Natural Resources and Conservation

Well, by golly, in that College Scorecard list is a category with the word “conservation”. Surely this must be the home of the conservation of the historic environment. Nope.

In the United States, the natural resource conservation movement has appropriated the word conservation and they own it to the extent that no member of the public would conflate “conservation” with “historic preservation”. They are commonly perceived to be two separate things. Of course, outside the United States, this is not true. In the United Kingdom, for instance, “conservation” is understood to apply to both cultural and natural heritage.

So, conceptually, the conservation of the historic environment ought to be a great fit for this category, but unfortunately, it won’t work because of misunderstanding of what conservation means.

Parks, Recreation, Leisure, and Fitness Studies

Heritage tourism is a massive, billion dollar global industry that is closely association with parks, recreation, and leisure. Historic sites, restored downtowns, historic lodging, and museums bring a lot of money to local economies. Many parks, recreation, and leisure degree programs do focus on heritage conservation, but in a broader context of other activities. So, the conservation of the historic environment is part of parks, recreation, and leisure, but it’s only one area of a much bigger focus.

Physical sciences

Architectural materials conservation is an important area of specialization within heritage conservation that is also a subset of the physical sciences. Instrumental analytical techniques, chemistry, and materials science are all employed to understand how building materials change and decay over time and how this process of entropy can be slowed. As with parks, recreation, and leisure, heritage conservation is a very small part of the field of physical sciences. Moreover, unless a student is enrolled in an architectural or art materials conservation course, there is no physical science degree program that focuses on heritage conservation.

Psychology and the social sciences

The social sciences are a big part of my interest in the conservation of the historic environment–I am very interested in how people value and perceive the historic environment and how this information can be used in heritage management practices. I’ll admit, however, that the social sciences doesn’t really play a significant role in the conservation of the historic environment today, but many people, especially in the critical heritage studies area, are very interested in seeing this change. So, in the future, it may well be possible that the conservation of the historic environment would be understood to be a kind of applied social science, but we’re not there yet.

The result: there is no good fit, but why?

In analyzing the categories in the College Scorecard, it’s clear that none of them work particularly well as a place in which to place historic environment conservation. I used the College Scorecard as a larger example of the failure of many of these lists to incorporate this field and its permutations at all. I distinctly remember, for instance, completing a survey when I finished my doctoral degree that asked me what field area my research was in, and of course, it did not fit in any of the categories. The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t track the conservation of the historic environment (or historic preservation), so it’s hard to even know what the size of the field is. Most high school career counselors have no idea that historic preservation exists as a career in the United States and aptitude tests don’t consider it either. So why do most statisticians simply ignore the field? I’ll present some possible reasons.

The field of historic environment conservation is too small

While no one seems to have good figures on how big the field is, it’s certainly much smaller than say, architecture. On the other hard, the Bureau of Labor Statistics does have a category for “archivists, curators, and museum workers” that is only 29,300 people. The College Scorecard includes librarians as a discrete category, and there’s only 148,000 of these professionals in the United States. This is also a rather small number. I’m therefore not sure if the size of the field is the issue, especially when you consider how many people are involved in heritage tourism.

Problems in naming and positioning what we do

There is no such thing as a job that is called an “historic preservationist” or a “built environment conservator”. Instead, you’re a state historic preservation officer, or a preservation architect, or a building surveyor, or a preservation planner. Other job titles may provide little information that they are, indeed, related to the conservation of the historic environment. The National Park Service, for instance, uses rather non-helpful job titles such as “exhibit specialist”. Matching jobs to a “heritage sector” category is not nearly as simple as tracking architects or librarians.

Is the conservation of the historic environment even a discipline at all?

In the 1970s, the University of Virginia had a debate about whether or not it would create an historic preservation degree program. It decided against doing so because its faculty believed that historic preservation was not a discipline that could stand on its own. Instead, the onus was on architects, planners, and architectural historians to learn about historic preservation and then apply this new knowledge to the historic environment. As a result, even to this day, the University of Virginia does not offer an historic preservation degree; only a certificate is available and only students already enrolled in a degree program can take the certificate.

Denying that the conservation of the historic environment can be a discipline is not necessarily common, but this perspective exists to a large enough extent that when I organized the first international historic preservation education conference in 2012, the attendees believed that this was still, in the 21st century, a significant issue that remains unresolved.

Given the mounting evidence that historic environment practitioners have their own ontological orientation, a unique epistemology, and that hundreds of these degree programs have existed for more than 40 years across the planet, I think it becomes harder to defend the position that historic preservation is not a discipline. Moreover, given the thousands of graduates of historic preservation programs that are now working in the field and who have no degrees in any other field, this perspective is also rather disrespectful by questioning the professional credentials of these individuals and their ability to practice heritage conservation.

In sum

While this post started as a concern about why my discipline was not listed in the College Scorecard web site, it exposed some of the problems inherent to an area of practice that is fundamentally interdisciplinary. Until we–those of use who work and research in the historic environment–can agree what the boundaries and parameters of our field is, how can we expect others to do it for us?

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