Skip to main content

3 Reasons Municipalities Have Trouble Saving Historic Buildings

You might not guess it from looking at the increasingly dilapidated state of some older city buildings, but these grand old structures are an asset worth saving. That’s because historic buildings such as city halls and county courthouses aren’t just infrastructure —they’re invaluable community landmarks. For citizens, they represent powerful nostalgic touchstones. For visitors and potential new citizens, they serve as crucial calling cards to the community’s character.

While these historic buildings are community treasures, they can also be a drain on resources. Why? Outdated equipment, coupled with decades-old construction practices that rarely meet modern building codes, to name a couple of reasons.

Municipal staffs often lack the expertise needed to modernize these facilities, while protecting their historic nature. As a result, deferred maintenance issues mount to the point that some facilities simply get shut down — or torn down — rather than renovated properly.

In short, valuable as it is, historic building stock represents a particular challenge that many municipalities simply aren’t prepared to address. Here are three reasons why:

1. Maintenance costs mount more quickly for historic buildings. A $10 million modern building requires a $40 million budget to pay for the cost of maintenance and utilities over its lifecycle. Those costs rise significantly as buildings reach historic status — and the older buildings get, the worse the problems become.

Such a dynamic is compounding as many municipalities face mounting infrastructure needs that far surpass existing budgets. Buildings are starved of necessary maintenance, which in turn makes them much more costly to operate, and ultimately may lead to their demise.

2. Old buildings are rarely energy efficient (or up to modern building codes). Historic buildings often compound budget shortfalls because of their outdated infrastructure. Antique lighting, single pane windows, unique architectural designs, and a lack of modern HVAC systems lead to unnecessarily high utility bills, which further strain operating budgets.

Building codes change to adapt to new technology and reflect the best safety information of the day, leaving many historic buildings out of date and not up to code within years of their dedication. For example, in many older buildings open-flame natural gas heaters warmed common areas. But modern builders know that this technology (although once cutting-edge) presents fire and health hazards if collecting dust ignites or CO2 is released into unventilated areas.

3. Modernizing historic buildings and aging infrastructure can be cost prohibitive. The modernization process is similar regardless of a building’s age. But historic buildings often involve a different set of decision makers in the planning process, including government officials, historical societies, concerned citizens and even national preservationists. Additionally, historic buildings often have significant infrastructure issues, which makes modernization projects complex — and costly.

Energy Efficiency Offers a Modern Solution to Aging Infrastructure

Historic renovations can be daunting and costly. Improvements must balance the demands of building codes, functionality, efficiency and architectural aesthetics. These variables create competing priorities and confusion about the best path forward.

Officials in Elmore County found a solution that brings their historic courthouse into the 21st century while helping offset costs with energy savings from a large, municipality-wide capital reinvestment project. Working with a trusted partner with expertise in engineering design, energy efficiency and building operations, as well as using energy performance contracting enabled Elmore County to address all three of the above challenges — allowing historic buildings to shine anew.

To learn more about strategies for modernizing and preserving historic buildings, visit or download our free Guide to Modernizing Historic Buildings.