Historic Preservation Network—Changing the Ontology of Practice
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By Jeremy Wells, Ph.D.

EDRA Historic Preservation Network Chair

I helped found the EDRA Historic Preservation Network in 2008, seeing a gap in the topic areas addressed by other networks. It is one of the newest EDRA networks, and as such is continuing to grow. The goal of this network is to explore the integration of environmental design and behavior research into historic preservation practice.


Before explaining what the EDRA Historic Preservation Network has been addressing, some background on the field and its professionals is necessary as it arguably the newest addition to the spectrum of built environment professionals, having arisen in the 1970s as a bona fide discipline.[1]  Without understanding the nature of “practice” within the field, it is difficult, if not impossible, to explore ways of improving practice.


First, what is “historic preservation”? This is perhaps not as self evident as the name would seem, as the field is very broad, encompassing specializations from material science to the social sciences and environments microscopic to the scale of landscapes. As I struggled with representing the field to the students in my professional practice in historic preservation course, I came across a basic way to define the field through two value dichotomies that have existed for more than half a century (figure 1). The first dichotomy is a tension between community values and the values of preservation experts; the second dichotomy is a tension between the retention of the evidence of age in the historic environment (age value) and a desire to make aesthetic improvements to the historic environment (design value).


Using these two dichotomies, it is possible to map the different historic preservation specializations into four logical categories: the regulators, the conservators, the interpreters, and the stewards based on the values espoused by professionals working within these four categories. The final values framework, which I refer to by the acronym of “RCIS”, is represented in figure 2, below.


RCIS diagram (2011).emf


If the broad areas of specialization can be represented by what may be very different value dichotomies, then what exactly is a professional historic preservationist? Certainly, such an individual would unlikely be representative of all four areas, but rather would be more likely to represent only one specialization. Indeed, unlike other built environment professionals, such as architects or interior designers, one is not likely to find job announcements or professionals with the official job title of an “historic preservationist.” The terms, “historic preservation,” and its associated people, “historic preservationists,” derive from a social movement and were never intended to describe professionals. Arguably, the first professional historic preservationist was Charles Peterson, an architect who is credited with the creation of the profession of the “preservation architect” in the 1950s and 1960s.[2] Since then, a number of job titles have been created from “cultural resource manager” to “preservation planner.” A list of common job titles associated with historic preservationists is in table 1.


Table 1. Preservation jobs by RCIS specialization category.


Environmental Planner

Cultural Resources Specialist

Compliance Manager

Compliance Specialist

NEPA and Historic Preservation Specialist

Architectural Historian

Historic Preservation Specialist

Environmental Protection Specialist

Historic Preservation Planner

Cultural Resources Group Leader

Environmental Protection Specialist

Environmental Resources Specialist

Senior Scientist

Historic Preservation Officer

Tribal Historic Preservation Officer


Preservation Architect

Landscape Architect

Historic Preservation Associate

Historic Architect

Architectural Materials Conservator

Exhibit Specialist



Cultural Resources Program Manager

Natural and Historical Resources Instructor

History/Museum Program Coordinator

Historic Site Director

Project Director

Tour Director


Community Development Specialist

Downtown Manager

Main Street Director/Manager

Executive Director (of non-profit)

Program Manager

Field Advocate

Heritage Tourism Specialist

What makes historic preservation a bona fide discipline is that it addresses a common object—the historic environment—and has a unique ontological perspective and epistemology; in the latter category, witness the large body of knowledge on materials conservation, historic structures reports, and preservation planning that are not found in other disciplines. It is this ontological perspective, however, that the EDRA Historic Preservation Network addresses: the way in which preservationists ascribe value and significance to the historic environment as it is unique among all of the other built environment professions. Traditional, and still dominant preservation doctrine, such as the National Register of Historic Places, assumes an empiricist-positivist paradigm on value and significance associated with objects in the historic environment. The valuation of buildings and places is based only on what can be perceived with the senses and that, as Tainter and Lucas describe, “empirical reality must be either direct reports of experience or observation, or statements that can be derived from such reports.”[3] Thus, historical significance is based on the accumulation of historical facts, semi-quantitative measures (e.g., rarity), and visual evidence of past building techniques and architectural designs. This paradigm is required, by doctrine and sometimes law, to be used by preservation experts, but there is no room for what other built environment professionals have long taken for granted: social, cultural, and individual, experiential values. In large measure, this characteristic alone may go a long way in explaining the difficulty that preservationists have in working with other built environment professionals and vice versa as each argues from an entirely different ontological perspective and, ultimately, there is a failure to achieve stasis.


In the past decade, however, there has been an increasing call to change the ontological perspective of historic preservation so that it can incorporate sociocultural and experiential values; the aim is not to supplant the empiricist-positivist paradigm, but rather compliment it with a more holistic, integrative, constructivist paradigm. Researchers who have been advocating for this kind of change include Randall Mason, Setha Low, Laurajane Smith, and John Pendlebury, among many others. While these individuals have readily exposed the problems with the empiricist-positivist paradigm, there is still a lack of pragmatic frameworks to assess social, cultural, and experiential values associated with the historic environment. A far greater task is to create a reliable method to integrate these community values with the traditional empiricist-positivist values of preservation experts. This gap is what the EDRA Historic Preservation Network is attempting to address: ways in which professionals can use environmental design and behavior research to efficiently and rapidly assess sociocultural and experiential values associated with the historic environment.


Why is all this important? Perhaps the best answer is that, among all the built environment professions, historic preservationists are legally required to value place. Whether it is the National Register of Historic Places criteria used for environmental review processes (e.g., Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and the associated federal administrative law of 36 CFR Part 800) or the thousands of local preservation ordinances across the country, embedded in law is a requirement to value historic places as a prelude to planning and protection. These laws have all been written from an empiricist-positivist paradigm, and as such, are increasingly out of sync with a world that seeks to both understand and incorporate the values of stakeholders into planning processes.


To date, the EDRA Historic Preservation Network has drafted a set of principles addressing the integration of environmental design and behavior research (EDBR) into preservation practice. Areas that are addressed include assumptions, concepts, and goals associated with integrating and using EDBR into preservation practice and responsibilities that such practitioners have in terms of education and collaboration with other built environment professionals.


If you will be at EDRA44, please consider attending the “Principles for Integrating Environmental Design and Behavior Research into Built Heritage Conservation Practice” professional development tutorial on Saturday, June 1 at 2:30 pm, where these concepts will be explored. We will also be holding an open network meeting at the conference. I invite all interested built environment researchers and practitioners to join us as we explore better ways to value the historic environment and how this change in ontological perspective should impact preservation practice.

[1] For more info, see Michael Tomlan, “Historic Preservation Education: Alongside Architecture in Academia,” Journal of Architectural Education, 47, no. 4 (1994), 187-196.


[2] APT Bulletin 37, no. 1 (2006) dedicated an entire issue to Charles Peterson.


[3] Joseph Tainter and John Lucas, “Epistemology of the Significance Concept,” American Antiquity, 48, no. 4 (1983), 712.


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