Preservation Engineering

I credit Meghan Elliott with introducing me to the field of preservation engineering. While I was finishing up a degree in civil engineering at the University of Minnesota, I took an elective course on historic building conservation, co-instructed by Meghan Elliott and Todd Grover. Prior to taking the class, I had a strong interest in preservation and knew that engineers were involved in the field, but I did not have a good understanding of their role in it or how to pursue their path. Meghan has pointed me towards several articles published on this topic in the Association for Preservation Technology’s journal APT Bulletin, as well as an essay she wrote on the subject. As I learned more about it, I knew that it was where I wanted to go with my future career, because it combines my passion for historic preservation and, my educational background in engineering. When I talk about preservation engineering to others, its relatively unknown status necessitates an explanation of what it is.

In the article “The Role of the Engineer in Preservation,” Stephen J. Kelley put it succinctly:

“… it is the preservation engineer who possesses the knowledge and skills necessary to solve many of the special problems associated with historic structures.”

The majority of engineers (but not all) involved in preservation practice within a specialized field of structural engineering. As Meghan wrote in an essay of her thoughts on the subject:

“We all share the same overarching goal: to protect the safety and welfare of the public. We also share the same general tool box of engineering education and analytical methods. However, preservation engineering is unique in terms of the givens and unknowns, process, guiding principles, and business model.”

In the article “Should Preservation Engineering Require Certification?,” Richard I. Ortega quotes what I consider to be one of the primary guiding principles of preservation engineers:

“The goal of the preservation engineer is to stabilize the structure with a minimum of intervention."

Unlike conventional (new construction) structural engineering, where a project typically begins from the ground up, the starting point for a preservation engineer is an existing building. This requires a process that differs from the design approach typically used by structural engineers. Stephen J. Kelley and David W. Look use a medical analogy to explain a philosophical framework for the practice of preservation engineering in the article “A Philosophy for Preservation Engineers.” They draw an analogy of preservation engineers acting as “building doctors” who follow a four-part process: anamnesis, diagnosis, therapy, and control. In their analogy, anamnesis is the research done to acquire information on the history of the building prior to assessment. Diagnosis is the process of assessing and identifying causes of damage and decay. Treatment is the process through which the issues found during the diagnoses are addressed, such as preservation, restoration or strengthening. Control is the process for monitoring the results and long term impact of the treatment. I think that Kelley and Look draw an apt analogy that helps to differentiate preservation engineering from engineering for new construction.

Preservation engineering in North America has developed formally into a discipline only in the past few decades. As Derek Trelstad and Robert Silman discuss in their article “Preservation Engineering: Past, Present and Future,” preservation engineering in North America developed largely around the forum offered by the APT. They note that although engineers were contributing to the APT Bulletin beginning in the mid-1970s and through the 1980s, in 1990 the start of a formal engineering presence emerged within APT when a small group of engineers held a forum on conservation engineering at the organization’s annual conference. The following year, a special conservation-engineering issue of the APT bulletin was published, which contained summaries of the discussions of the forum along with original articles. Since then, many more preservation engineering articles have been published. In 2003, a group of engineers within APT established the APT preservation engineering technical committee, which has worked to advance the field of preservation engineering through workshops, publications, and cooperation with other professional organizations.

So where is the field of preservation engineering headed, and what needs to happen for it to continue to grow? David C. Fischetti brings up several important areas in which progress needs to be made in “The Current State of Historic Preservation Engineering: One Engineer’s Point of View.” One of the areas that he points out is that academic training for engineers in North America is insufficient in several important areas of preservation technology, such as history, masonry, timber design and preservation. Engaging and educating new engineers in this field is critical in ensuring its continued growth to satisfy demand. As the complexity of the systems used in aging buildings increases, the demand for engineers knowledgeable in antiquated systems will increase as well. I share the optimism that Donald Friedman expresses in “Preservation Engineering: The Future”: “As time passes and we become involved with conserving newer and newer buildings, preservation engineering can only grow.”


David C. Fischetti, “The Current State of Historic Preservation Engineering: One Engineer’s Point of View” APT Bulletin 29 No. 3/4 (1998), 55-58.

Donald Friedman, “Preservation Engineering: The Future” APT Bulletin 36 No. 1 (2005), 3-4.

Stephen J. Kelley, “The Role of the Engineer in Preservation” APT Bulletin 23 No. 1 (1991), 6-17.

Stephen J. Kelley and David W. Look, “A Philosophy for Preservation Engineers” APT Bulletin 36 No. 1 (2005), 8-11.

Richard I. Ortega, “Should Preservation Engineering Require Certification?” APT Bulletin 36 No. 1 (2005), 5-7.

Derek Trelstad and Robert Silman, “Preservation Engineering: Past, Present and Future” APT Bulletin 40 No. 3/4 (2009), 27-32.

EngineeringPVN Staff