What Is an Architectural Historian?

Architectural History is the study of buildings in their historical context -technical (researching building methods), conservation and preservation, for education or entertainment purposes.

What Does an Architectural Historian Do?

Architectural History is a sub-discipline of architecture concerned with buildings that have a historic context. A person who works in this area can have one of several approaches and specialties. Typically, they work in an advisory service to owners and stewards about preserving the historic fabric of a building. They may work in research, trying to understand the building methods and materials, or the impact on the cultural landscape. Sometimes, a building is as much about its urban landscape as it is about the individual building to place it into its historic context.

They may attempt to map the evolution of the building in order to define or recreate its architectural history; this is especially true for buildings with a complex past. Finally, there are several education options open to architectural historians but many would prefer to work in practice, examining and researching our built heritage.

Where Does an Architectural Historian Work?

You may be surprised to learn at some of the options open to Architectural Historians. It is a diverse subject that meshes several subjects: history, art history, archaeology, building design and engineering, and sustainability (in building design and materials).

They may work for civic authorities, particularly those with a duty to preserving built heritage within their boundaries. This can include public or private buildings, those listed as important for the state or nationally, right up to those that are World Heritage Listed. Therefore, they may work in policy-making and advisory roles for government bodies that have a mandate to preserve and repair historic buildings. Historically important buildings that are in private ownership may hire Architectural Historians to recreate the building's original fabric or to advise or direct repairs to restore part of the structure to its original state. Some of these people work on a freelance basis.

There is also a wide range of education roles. Typically, the Federal government would be the first thing that comes to mind. They may work as teachers or more typically in lecturing roles at colleges and universities. As people love to see historic buildings, public engagement roles are also open to Architectural Historians - they may work as tour guides, in living history museums or at our National Parks.

Finally, do not discount the entertainment sector. Period dramas are very popular movies and on television. Studios sometimes hire Architectural Historians to ensure that their set looks as authentic as possible where actual historic buildings are not available.

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What Is the Average Architectural Historian's Salary?

Salaries for an architectural historians vary depending on whether their role is in conservation or heritage or in research or building examination. The median salary for these professionals is $82,320.*

Architectural Historian Jobs & Job Description

Architectural historians are individuals who have a keen knowledge for both history and the architectural trends and structures of past eras. While jobs do vary greatly from project to project, an architectural historian will be required to perform the following tasks at some point during their role:

  • Knowledge of 16th - 20th century commercial and residential architecture in various regions of North America
  • Conduct historic resources surveys, archival research, historic building assessments, and architectural view-shed studies
  • Prepare historic context statements that include cultural, social and economic elements
  • Evaluate local and state registers for documentation
  • Assess adverse effects and significant impacts to historic properties
  • Consult Historic American Building Survey (HABS) and Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) documentation
  • Integrate cultural resources management plans and mitigation measures for buildings
  • Prepare and review reports for cultural resource and environmental compliance
  • Schedule and oversee data collection and field studies of historic structures
  • Plan, prepare, and oversee deliverables related to permitting, due diligence surveys, mitigation plans, project monitoring
  • Use topographic maps, aerial photographs, GPS units, and other maps and tools to carry out surveys
  • Attend and/or present at local, regional, and national conferences and forums with a variety of community and national stakeholders
  • Collaborate in pursuing project opportunities and new business
  • Manage large projects and clients
  • Supervise and mentoring staff
  • Lead external workshops on legal/regulatory changes related to architectural history
  • Use mapping and 3D modelling software such as CAD, ArcGIS, and Sketchup

Architectural historians with 10+ years' experience will often be considered eligible for an expanded or senior role that has more expectations, given the breadth of their professional and managerial experience. While each project is different, senior architectural historians may find themselves performing the following sets of duties as part of their scope of work:

  • Manage cultural resources personnel and peripheral teams and groups
  • Develop and implement budgets, schedules, scopes of work and deliverables
  • Facilitate benchmarks from pre-field tasks to final report preparation
  • Liaise with federal, state, and local reviewing agencies that control cultural resource management
  • Author reports on architectural history and accompanying cultural resources
  • Consult on a broad scope of project types and sizes, regions, and for a variety of agencies
  • Lead multiple crews for recording and assessing architectural resources across a variety of projects, often simultaneously
  • Evaluate and approve state specific architectural inventory forms
  • Prepare National Register nomination forms
  • Publish work relevant to the field and community interests
  • Promote a culture of occupational and situational health and safety practice, especially in the field, but also in the office
  • Engage in additional activities and research that will facilitate growth and positive reputation of the individual and the architectural field
  • Mentor staff
  • Support field work and workgroups in a technical, interpersonal, and administrative capacity

What Is the Job Demand for Architectural Historians?

Like the wage data stated above, job demand varies wildly depending on how the graduate wishes to apply his or her qualifications. Demand for heritage jobs has been historically competitive and subject to high demand - too few jobs for too many graduates. Heritage is a calling though, and graduates with these technical skills are advised to seek work with National Parks or in public engagement and education. Demand is expected to rise 3% between 2020 and 2030.*

What Are the Education Requirements to Become an Architectural Historian?

There are multiple avenues of approach and in most cases, a Bachelor's Degree will be required. Students may study Art History, Urban Studies (or a variation on it), Architecture, Archaeology or History. It is strongly advisable that students seek minors in architecture and / or CADD (Computer Aided Design and Drafting) should they choose History or Art History degrees. To work in architecture, 2/3 of US states require a formal degree in Architecture.

Master's Degrees will not necessarily be expected for entry-level roles, but they are advisable should the prospective student seek teaching roles at a college or university. They will be essential for research-based jobs although other options include advanced degrees in technical subjects such as digital surveying.

Architectural History - Related Degrees

What Kind Of Societies and Professional Organizations Do Architectural Historians Have?

As it is a niche area, there are few dedicated organizations for the study of Architectural History, but several dedicated to architecture in general.

  • Society of Architectural Historians (SAH): Founded in 1940, they are the global umbrella group under which all national SAH (most countries have their own) organizations exist. They promote conservation of the built environment - buildings and urban fabric - and provide support for those who research, interpret or otherwise work with historic architecture.
  • The American Institute of Architects: They are the premier body for architects based in the US. Although not dedicated to architectural history, those who wish to pursue a career more towards conventional architecture roles may wish to examine the scope of this group.

*2020 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures and job growth projections for architects reflect national data not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed September 2021.

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