ground shot of beige concrete building
Rehabilitation and conservation

Conservation of buildings and their restoration: this is how the 21st century preserves history

12 of September of 2023

The Beti-Jai pediment was built in 1893, declared an Asset of Cultural Interest in 2011, and restored in 2016. It is a perfect example of how the 21st century can maintain a spirit of caring for infrastructure that came before, restoring their aesthetics – if not their functionality – to our heritage. What if the style of the 21st century is to preserve what we already have, optimizing it for maximum durability and minimum impact?

For various cultural and economic reasons, cities all over the world are taking a look inside their heritage and trying to give it a new life. In some cases, this is purely as a sample of culture and preservation. In others, as was the case of the roofs and facades of the Plaza Mayor, the conservation of useful areas and comfort inside the buildings also comes into play.

Why renovate or restore an existing building?

Reduce, reuse, recycle: these are the three Rs of ecology, in order. What Rs should be added in building when we’re talking about reuse? Probably restoring, reconditioning, rehabilitating, renovating, remodeling, and so on, concepts that are more different from each other than is usually thought:

  • Remodeling involves adding changes with respect to the original structure, perhaps providing a solution to new needs. An example is when the old Central Eléctrica del Mediodía power station was transformed into the CaixaForum Madrid cultural center.
  • Renovating requires some change in the infrastructure but not necessarily in the function. In construction, this is understood as an improvement, often functional or aesthetic, such as swapping out old cast iron pipes for PVC. Same function, new quality.
  • Reconditioning is tied to restoring certain minimum conditions to the space, perhaps in terms of habitability, lighting, or monumentality. Polishing wooden floors, leveling steps, or sealing cracks in windows are a few examples.

  • Restoring primarily but not exclusively has to do with returning the structure to a certain original state. This is the case with Madrid’s Plaza Mayor and its shutters, which were dismantled, serialized, restored, and reassembled in their original position.
  • Rehabilitating is perhaps the most thorough way of reusing a building. It consists not only of the facelift one might imagine to add visual splendor, but also working with the functionality and the ability to make use of that space thoroughly. This is the case of the aforementioned Beti Jai pediment.

Though often applied to movable property or objects, the truth is, many real estate properties benefit from restoration that extends their useful life and prevents certain environmental impacts. Any ‘object,’ infrastructure and building included, that is used for as long as possible reduces its total environmental footprint. This is something that the 21st century has at the fore when considering preserving historical spaces and resurrecting heritage.

In fact, rehabilitation plans have  low global warming potential compared to other alternatives. This is even recognized by institutions, so looking to the future, urban environments should take advantage of what’s already built and restore and rehabilitate as many buildings as possible.

This is the enormous positive impact of caring for buildings

In 2014 in Portland (United States), the iconic postmodern Portland Building  was about to be demolished. It had water leakage issues and some structural problems. Instead, a renovation was carried out; calculated in retrospect, that saved 1,062,692 kg CO2eq in materials alone, not considering other impacts like the machinery that would have been necessary to demolish the building, excavate the ground, and build new foundations and a new building.

In Bogotá, Colombia, the campus of the National University is home to buildings like the 406: its useful surface area was doubled through renovations, expansions, and improvements while reducing the consumption and greenhouse gas emissions associated with the infrastructure. Another research center, this one on the outskirts of Berlin, has renovated an old factory in a multi-purpose building. Through this transformation, the study specializes in giving second lives to buildings.

Buildings that last for… millennia? Preservation of cultural heritage

“If we really want to slow down global warming, then we should focus on renovating the existing housing stock,” says architect Dami Lee on giving infrastructure a second life. And that’s what they’ve been doing at the Japanese hotel Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, which opened as long ago as 705 CE.

There are still buildings from later centuries, such as the wooden houses of Kirkjubøur in the Faroe Islands; the Truefitt & Hill hair salon (London), the oldest in Europe; and the Het Houten Huys hotel in Amsterdam. All these sites share the fact that they have been rehabilitated over multiple generations, preserving common heritage.

Obviously, preserving cultural heritage will always be well received. Without that conservation, today we wouldn’t have the Beti Jai pediment, one of the patrimonial jewels of the 19th century, or the CaixaForum Madrid, the floating building that dates back to 1902. Caring for what we already have is a historical  imperative.

Repurposing existing buildings and infrastructures is not only more sustainable with lower carbon emissions and less water usage, it also allows the cities we live in to retain part of their history and personality. In fact, many cities are known for that legacy.

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