Building Heritage Specialist  What They Do

Just the Facts


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dotKeeping history intact is the job of building heritage specialists. They are also known as historic preservationists or architectural conservators. They're experts at maintaining a building's historical integrity through restoration, renovation or conversion.

"Sometimes saving a building is pragmatic, like repairing its roof," explains Barbara Campagna. She oversees historic preservation at a New York architectural firm. "Sometimes it's philosophical -- saving a concept."

dotCraig Sims specializes in historic windows and glass. As a building heritage specialist, he starts off most projects by peering into the past through "things like original drawings, documents about the windows when they were constructed and maintenance records."

Next, he says, "you would have to survey the condition, recording, measuring and photographing it. After that begins the process of analyzing what happened and what went wrong and what's the best thing to do about it."

dotCommunication forms an important part of the job. "You have to write a lot," says Sims. "You have to be able to craft a concise technical argument, but clearly enough that a layperson can see the argument you have to make."

"I spend a lot of time 'hand-holding' clients, staff and regulatory review agencies," says Campagna. "I often refer to myself as a 'building doctor.' My position requires great speaking skills, great diplomatic skills, energy, enthusiasm, the ability to think very quickly and to make decisions very quickly."

dotMost building heritage specialists work for public agencies, nonprofit organizations or private consulting firms, says Thomas Visser. He is a professor of historic preservation at the University of Vermont and co-chair of the National Council for Preservation Education.

Public employees, he notes, "enjoy good benefits packages, vacations and regular working hours." Specialists employed in the nonprofit sector must be prepared for "a more flexible schedule with evening meetings and attendance at weekend special events."

The private sector can be even more demanding, as Campagna knows well. She has been on "60-hour weeks, working on weekends, and traveling" for the whole of her career. "I travel a lot for projects, as well as to conferences and seminars," she says.

dotSpecialists working as independent consultants have the "the most freedom, highest risks and least benefits," Visser remarks. "Some individuals thrive in this entrepreneurial environment and find it very rewarding, while others prefer working in situations where there is more predictability."

Sims is one independent who has thrived, even though he had self-employment thrust upon him. "In the 1980s," he explains, "there were architectural firms and engineering firms that would often have a group within them that would do preservation and conservation work. When the economy went into recession, they disbanded these groups because they tended not to be money-makers. That's what happened to me."

Now an independent consultant, he typically works as part of a multidisciplinary team assembled by a contractor. "What tends to happen with the bigger projects is that teams get thrown together," he says. Specialists in masonry, roofing and plaster work alongside historians, archeologists, engineers and architects.

dotContacts made on one project frequently lay the foundation for future projects. "Historic preservation is one of the great networking career fields," says Campagna. "All of my positions have come through people I knew -- people I went to school with, worked with or met at a conference."

dotMany people with special needs work in historic preservation, says Sims. "I have two colleagues who are deaf, for instance." Though on-site mobility may present a challenge, most drafting and planning is done through computer programs.

At a Glance

Save historic structures

  • Communication skills are very important in this career
  • Most work for public agencies, nonprofit organizations or private consulting firms
  • You can get started with a degree in architecture or engineering