There are many attributes of future-proofing that are inherent in aspects of historic preservation and heritage conservation theory and philosophy. Here, cultural heritage, while including the built environment referred to by the term “historic preservation,” is also understood to include a broader realm of artifacts and intangible characteristics of a society, including artwork, sculptures, dance, clothing, and other expressions of our unique identities. In the context of historic buildings, the writings of Georg Morsch, James Marston Fitch, and Bernard Feilden are examples of how the concepts of future-proofing are embedded in preservation theory. The writings of Cesare Brandi, Paul Philippot, and Ernst Van de Wetering also address aspects of future-proofing and resilience in cultural heritage, advocating careful consideration of our heritage that is the goal of future-proofing. Each of these more nuanced approaches to conservation demonstrates some of the characteristics of future-proofing, but these characteristics have not been brought together as a single system of principles until now.
Georg Morsch’s concept of conservation, outlined in 1980, includes two major goals: “first, that historical evidence and vestiges must be decipherable; and, second, that evidence and vestiges must be decipherable by a broad public which requests flexible approaches on certain conservation concepts” (Burman 1997, 278). This concept of interventions in historic buildings points out the need for flexibility while retaining a clear understanding of the historic fabric of the building.
James Marston Fitch argues that obsolescence of buildings is often determined on the basis of “superficial examination and inadequate data” (Fitch 1990, 63). Fitch goes on to suggest that there are important new techniques available that make the rehabilitation of historic buildings much more feasible, alluding to extending the service life, fortifying, and increasing the durability and redundancy of historic buildings. Modern preservation technologies make it possible to “reclaim even seriously damaged building fabrics and extend their effective life for decades into the future” (Fitch 1990, 105). Fitch also argues that “interventions for adaptive use will ordinarily be more conservative externally than internally,” allowing for flexibility and adaptability to accommodate the new uses within the building (Fitch 1990, 169). Last, Fitch argues that the “reworking of extant structures to adapt them to new uses is as old as civilization itself” and has significant lifecycle benefits as the “characteristic mode of energy conservation” (Fitch 1990, 165).
Bernard Feilden calls conservation “primarily a process that leads to the prolongation of the life of cultural property for its utilization now and in the future” (Feilden 2003, x). Feilden advocates evaluation of all practical alternatives in a rehabilitation “to find the ‘least bad’ solution” (Feilden 2003, xi). Despite the awkward phrasing, the intent is derived from the Hippocratic approach of “do no harm,” which he obliquely references and which is the basis of the future-proof concept of preventing decay. Feilden also advocates rehabilitation by keeping buildings “in use–a practice which may involve what the French call ‘mise en valeur,’ or modernization with or without adaptive alteration” (Feilden 2003, 10), another goal of future-proofing.
The concept of different approaches to conservation and rehabilitation is captured in the variety of heritage conservation policy documents used across the globe. From the four different Standards developed by the National Park Service in the United States to the multitude of documents available to members of the World Heritage Convention, general and specialized guidelines are available. Flexibility and adaptability of treatment and use, maintaining authenticity, differentiation of additions, and implied support for the extension of the service life of historic buildings are all characteristics of these documents. In the words of Burman, we should “treat a historic monument in such a way that it could serve as an example for other cases, not as a straightjacket” (Burman 1997, 286).