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why preserve historic structures?

"Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably imposssible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.  By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation - although these make fine ingredients - but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some run-down old buildings"

--Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities



Historic buildings and districts are essential components of San Mateo's identity. They enhance quality of life, economic vitality, and environmental sustainability. Investment in these assets ensures that the social, cultural, and economic attraction of the city is maintained and enhanced.


Livability and Quality of Life

The distinct character of each historic district contributes to the city’s quality of life. When numerous historic structures are located on a block, they create a street scene that is pedestrian-friendly, which encourages walking and neighborly interaction. Decorative stylistic exteriors also contribute to a sense of identity that is distinct from newer and redeveloped areas of the city. This sense of place reinforces desirable community social patterns and contributes to a sense of security and community pride, making historic neighborhoods desirable places to live and work.


Value Added Economic Benefits

The economic benefits of investing in historic structures and preserving historic districts is well-documented through numerous state and nationwide studies. Because historic structures are finite and cannot be replaced, they can be precious commodities, especially in historic districts. Preservation, therefore, can add value to property.


Rehabilitation projects are more labor intensive, with up to 70% of the total project budget being spent on labor, compared to 50% for new construction. This means that more of the money invested in the project will stay in the local economy, rather than be used for materials sourced outside the community. Many cities benefit from the economic effects of heritage tourism, which the National Trust for Historic Preservation defines as “people traveling to experience the places, artifacts, and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past.”

Environmental Sustainability

Sustainable development and the conservation of historic resources are central principles of historic preservation. Sensitive stewardship of historic building stock reduces environmental impact, and thus, preserving and adapting a historic building is sound environmental policy. Re-using a building preserves the energy and resources invested in its construction, keeps materials out of landfills, and reduces the need to produce new construction materials.


Preserving a historic building retains embodied energy, which is the amount of energy expended to create the original building and its components. Studies confirm that the loss of embodied energy associated with the replacement of an existing building would take three decades or more to recoup from the reduced operating energy costs in a new building. If a historic building is demolished, the embodied energy is lost and significant amounts of new energy are required to replace it.


In addition, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, building debris constitutes around a third of all waste generated in the United States. This can be reduced significantly if historic structures are retained, rather than demolished.


Furthermore, historic buildings can save energy, although some people may intuitively think otherwise. The most cost-effective energy savings are not usually achieved by replacing original building fabric with contemporary alternatives, but by the repair, weatherstripping, and insulation of original elements. For instance, properly caulking windows and doors, as well as adding insulation to attic spaces of historic buildings will save energy at a higher rate than replacing single-pane windows. Also, materials used to build historic houses (such as old-growth lumber) are more durable than materials available today. A 100-year-old window is made of stronger wood than a new wood window, and vinyl is a plastic, petroleum-based product and not as recyclable as wood.



"One of the great, but often unmentioned, causes of both happiness and misery is the quality of our environment: the kind of walls, chairs, buildings, and streets we're surrounded by."

- Alain de Botton, philosoper, The Architecture of Happiness

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