California's SHBC: Incentives for Using the State Historical Building Code

The State Historical Building Code (SHBC) is state law, occupying Sections 19950-18961 of California's Health and Safety Code. And while the protection and preservation of California's heritage of historic properties are justification enough for its existence, Section 18951 lists among its purposes, "to encourage...a cost-effective approach to preservation". If for no other reason, its potential for tangible rehabilitation cost-savings is a significant incentive for listing an historic property and invoking the SHBC.

The latter may represent an investor's viewpoint, as opposed to a preservationists viewpoint, but the simple fact is that - from either perspective - beyond dealing with genuine issues of safety, the less tinkering with an historic building, the better. Vintage cars are a good illustration: Society acknowledges that, typically, any alteration to a vintage car usually diminishes both its aesthetic and its monetary value. Consequently, one must have an overriding reason to make alterations. The parallel to historic buildings should be obvious. It must be recognized that every alteration to an historic resource diminishes our ability to accurately perceive - and thus to understand - our past. For this reason, ideally, alterations to historic buildings should be generated only by overriding issues of safety. Moreover, it is a disservice to both history and owners - as well as a violation of the spirit of the SHBC - for architects or jurisdictions to attempt to require more.

With that said, it is recognized that there are times when the continuing viability of a building does require major alterations--usually within the building's shell. But it is clearly in the best interest of the building's historic integrity as well as to an owner's financial advantage to tailor the new use so that it can be sensitively integrated into the vintage space with minimum alteration. This is the first of the ten "Standards" published by the federal government for its own historic building rehabilitations and for projects rehabilitated under the federal tax credit incentive program for private investors. The Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation have been adopted by both the State Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) and the State Historical Building Safety Board. State-owned historic resources, as well as resources governed by many local preservation ordinances, require compliance with these Standards, and the SHBC is the tool which can make compliance with these Standards both achievable and cost-effective.

Listed below are some of the issues the SHBC addresses, all of which facilitate sensitive and cost-effective rehabilitation:

  1. Accessibility - Both ADA and the SHBC make provisions for reasonable levels of equivalency for, and - under special circumstances - exemption from, accessibility mandates.
  2. Seismic/Structural - SHBC governs these issues, permitting design based on real values of archaic materials, and solutions based on engineering principles and judgement rather than on prescriptive formulas.
  3. Energy - Qualified historic buildings are exempt from California energy standards, which most vintage structures cannot meet without alteration or loss of historic features.
  4. Triggers - The "triggers" for full upgrading to current standards, with respect to length of vacancy, change of occupancy, or percentage of value of the work proposed, and which exist in other codes, are not recognized by the SHBC, which concentrates instead on the sensitive resolution of genuine safety considerations.