A Common Myth: old buildings are less safe

Sometimes a social norm is considered the truth and the mindset of so many people in the 50’s and 60’s in Newburyport was that “old” meant structurally unfit, to be hastily discarded for new architectural technology.     The disdain for our historic architecture became such an accepted fact that a major leader in our community proclaimed, “If you don’t tear them down, they will fall down”.    One of our junior members of the Zoning Board fell recently into that trap when he saw one of our historic homes this last year in terrible condition.    He proclaimed, “This building aught to be torn down!”  What all too happens is a superficial confusion when a building is in terrible condition and is deemed unsafe to attribute it to how it was built.       What really is the situation is the dereliction of responsibility in maintaining the structure.    


Although historic buildings do sometimes require structural retrofits or the addition of fire sprinklers to enhance their safety, historic buildings typically perform better than newer ones in earthquakes and other natural disasters.  In fact, though it is not a major concern here, in Newburyport, we have a large collection of earthquake-resistant buildings because we have so many with post and beam construction.      The building technique is designed to literally absorb and bend to ground vibrations.      Though the superficial adornments may come tumbling down, the frame will largely remain standing.


What determines the true safety of buildings is the quality of construction, not age, and, in many ways,“they just don’t build‘em like they used to.” is a very valid statement.     For example, Los Angeles’ signature historic structures have survived every major trembler of the past eight decades. Yet, in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the most catastrophic damage occurred not to historic buildings but to newer construction such as parking garages,

concrete tilt-up buildings and newer apartments with “tuck-under”parking.


The fact that older structures were built and designed to last are found in the fact that homes in Newburyport in the 18th and 19th century were not demolished.     They were moved.       Built to last, they were commonly moved from place to place.     Where I live is a good example.     A 17th century structure was moved to my place and a Greek Revival was built around it.    If the owners thought the earlier architecture was unsafe, they wouldn’t have gone to the trouble!


Newer homes are often built to last for only a few decades.     Compressed flake board, water-absorbing drywall, light structural timber and building components with only 20 to 30 year warranties are common in new construction.    It is not uncommon to see 60’s homes demolished and a newer building put in its place even here within our city limits.     


Therefore, it is well worth the trouble to bring an historic home up to code.     It is well worth it to practice adaptive re-use so 20th to 21st century features are added such as indoor plumbing and kitchens attached to the home!     The property value of such a home is irreplaceable.      That is why so many insurance companies don’t want to insure buildings inside the Newburyport Historic District.      Not because they are fire hazards but because if the home is insured at replacement-value, the cost to match the quality of the buildings will put added pressure on their profits.      The insurance standard is that a replacement home for older buildings need only go back to the standards of 1925.       But insuring a home in the NHD demands replacing quality unmatched by recent buildings*.


-P. Preservationist


* It is for this reason that an historic homeowner needs to carry policies selected by our local insurance agents.     These specialists know our city and have scoured the country for companies that will do the proper coverage and replacement values before 1925.      This is where ‘Buying Local’ is not a matter of being just contentious; it’s a matter of life and death financially!


About P. Preservationist

Dedicated to the Enrichment & Preservation of Newburyport
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