How important are your historic places? And why should we care?

Thriving activity, economic vitality, and historic "stuff" play well together.

We often get this question about historic places:

How do you grow downtown as the focus of commercial and social life, while honoring and sustaining its historic character?

Take Anytown, USA (or Canada/India/France). The downtown area is filled with historic commercial and residential buildings.

In Anytown, there is a passionate group of people who are convinced that their community’s historic properties are more than just relics.

The physical features of historic places are key components of its historic, economic, and cultural fabric.
The physical features of a place are an integral part of its historic,  cultural, and economic fabric.

They’re smart folks. They get it. They’re civic leaders, economic development people, architects, planners, Main Street Managers, merchants, and tourism folks.

Every day they are busy working to make their town or neighborhood thrive.

They want growth, investment, and high occupancy. They want lots of business, lots of appeal, lots of people bustling about, and tons of creative ideas. They believe that somehow they can grow without becoming “Generictown.”

The best “preservation treatment” is approaching historic buildings as tools for economic development.

Thriving activity, economic vitality, and historic places play well together.
Thriving activity, economic vitality, and historic “stuff” play well together.

We’re not talking about hardcore, “don’t-touch-historic-stuff-at-any-cost” thinking. Typically that approach isn’t successful.

Communities aren’t static. They’re like coral reefs, where evolution and change are part of the story. We’ll gain some and we’ll lose some, but we’ll always build on what we have and we can be smart about it.

Indeed, we’ve seen how historic properties are able to “play nice” with modern redevelopment activities. Think Charleston, Santa Fe, New Orleans, Lawrence, Portland, Miami, plus thousands of towns, villages, and neighborhoods. Places with identifiable character where much of it is tangible and  architectural.  Not to mention unique, humble, impressive, plain, ornate, interesting, and filled with story.

Historic places are where you start.

The smart money says historic properties and districts are more than just physical expressions of shared heritage; they are the basis of a community’s future aspirations. They’re where you start.

Historic places represent sustained investments over long periods. Investments that residents and city leadership have agreed are worth protecting (even when they weren’t “preservationists”). Places that somehow had enough of the right stuff to last a long time. Historic downtowns and neighborhoods shape the stage where generations of business owners, residents, civic leaders, professionals, and visitors have lived, met, done business, socialized, banked, worshiped, and engaged in the myriad of everyday activities that form the basis of every vital community.

So, how do you build a future on the unique character of place? How do you save the baby without tossing out the bathwater? What’s the best way to integrate all the stuff that’s been there a long time into all the stuff that is to come?

1. Know what you have.

RuskinARC makes it easy to record historic places on iPads, tablets, and mobile devices.
RuskinARC works on iPads, tablets, etc.

Do the inventory. First step in any endeavor. You can’t plan if you don’t know what you’ve got. Every business, grocery store, and boot palace knows what it’s got “in house” and plans accordingly.

The architectural survey is designed to look at historic properties and tell you what you’ve got, when they got there, what shape they’re in, and where they are. Without this information, it’s tough to make good decisions.

But for years the field survey has been too hard to do. Too wrapped up in esoteric terms or expensive and closed systems. Too detached from the planning process, and thus detached from the economic development process.

We created RuskinARC to make architectural survey and inventory work easy and fast, without sacrificing any power or control. It works on mobile devices, in the field, at the office, wherever you are. We are impressed at what some places have done just in the past months.

2. Make your survey information usable.

Historic places mapped and managed with RuskinARC.
Exports to GIS.

Hate to say this, but preservationists need to get out of the newspapers. If you’ve got a good handle on your historic assets and flexible data, you’re ahead of the game instead of behind it. And the information should be easy to export, manage, and use. Your planners are going to need it. The GIS people are going to need it. The economic development folks need it, as well as analysts, real estate folks, project managers, property owners, researchers, architects, and others.

Point and click architectural surveys for easy recording of historic places.
Point and click architectural surveys.

RuskinARC is a fabulous front end for collecting information about historic properties, but the back end is just as important. RuskinARC exports in seconds to GIS, Google Earth, Excel, plaintext, and more. Data, photos, attached files — the whole shebang. All keyed and nicely named for you. You can get a sense of this by trying it yourself. Get out with an iPad or tablet and give it a shot.

3. Put your historic places where people can find them!

Top: Uninteresting map of historic places in my home town. Bottom: map in RuskinARC.
Top: Uninteresting map of a historic district in my home town! Bottom: interactive map with photos, in RuskinARC.

Online, please, where we can engage.  And make it interactive. Lots of survey information is sitting around on shelves, in file cabinets, locked up in offices or in single computer systems, in PDFs or somebody’s Excel or Access database. You might have to drive down and ask the GIS guy for a map.

Argh. I have looked at far too many lists of addresses with no map, no photos, no story. And half the time, there’s no accessibility at all. I live in Lexington, Kentucky where we have fourteen historic districts. Try to find some information about them online.

RuskinARC makes interactive maps, sortable lists, and image galleries. It lets you search by architect, construction date, function, eligibility, street, and more. It lets you manage boundaries for districts, zones, or overlays. It lets you attach files, plans, drawings, photos, narratives, or whatever you’ve got.

The last college group I talked to didn’t even blink:

“If we can’t find your historic buildings online, they must not be important!”

I hope that’s not the message we’re sending.

So, why should we care about something if it either doesn’t exist or is not important? How do we attract creative planning and stewardship ideas? How do we broaden our audience, appeal to the public, show off our assets, AND satisfy planners, researchers, and GIS folks?

We created RuskinARC to be that solution. RuskinARC makes it simple to put your historic buildings online where people can find them. It’s an easy, powerful, inexpensive way to do the fundamental inventory work, while making information about your historic buildings and districts accessible and interactive.

Feel free to call or email if you have questions.



Architectural Survey Work in the Field

We think that one of the biggest pluses in using RuskinARC™ for architectural survey work is its ability to work in the field on an iPad or Android device.

Field work has always been somewhat of a Holy Grail for architectural survey work. At first, it was a film camera with a notebook, walking building to building taking notes and hoping you brought enough film to finish the job. Next came the digital camera and a notebook, no more worrying about film but still stuck writing notes that you take back to the office and hope you can read well enough to put into the survey forms. And then… we stagnated. Most jobs are still done with paper and a digital camera.

But while architectural survey work might have stagnated, the rest of the world didn’t. Why carry around a notebook and camera when you could take a tablet computer that is a notebook and camera and GPS device and… anything else you want it to be!

Architectural Survey Work in RuskinARC™

Do your architectural survey on an iPad
RuskinARC works on iPads, tablets, and mobile devices.

Along those lines and in our growing effort to make architectural survey work easier, RuskinARC™ was designed to work on tablets of all kinds. With RuskinARC™ and an iPad, you can fill in the forms while standing in front of the building, take a picture with the camera and upload it all from within the application. Have an older survey in RuskinARC™? Pull up that information, while you’re there in front of the building, and update the information and upload a new picture. Also, if you have volunteers or interns doing the survey work, you can be on your computer in the office and see their updates and additions in real time. It’s all going to the same account in RuskinARC™, so you can keep track of exactly what’s going on. Not getting the kinds of pictures you need to do your work? Just call them up while they’re still in the field and let them know.

In fact, Miami Beach is already doing this, and capturing some amazingly detailed photographs in the process. With RuskinARC™, they’re able to know what they have and keep that up to date so they always know what they’re working with.

Are you?

Your Historic Buildings are More Accessible than Ever

We are happy to announce that RuskinARC just got much faster, smoother, and more reliable! Due to recent demand, we moved RuskinARC to “bigger iron” — a better cloud infrastructure that can easily support all of you, your historic buildings, and historic districts.

Not to mention all those great photos!

What does that mean for you? Here are some points to know about:

  • RuskinARC was only unavailable for a few hours but we did lots of prep. We’ve got a lot of your great information and wonderful pictures to move and didn’t want to rush that process.
  • All data migration and set up was done by us. Hey, that’s the beauty of our cloud service model; no servers for you to pay for or configure. Just leave it to us.
  • You didn’t have to do anything special (that’s what you pay us for!) Prices aren’t going up, services aren’t changing. In fact, after we went live, you didn’t even know anything changed, except it was much faster and smoother.

So just sit back and relax. Your historic resource information is safe, secure, and super accessible. Your experience of RuskinARC just got a whole lot better.

Downtown Revitalization Features in RuskinARC™

We recently added some features in RuskinARC™ that we like to call our downtown revitalization fields. We’ve expanded RuskinARC’s traditional historic preservation focus to also look at other areas of city planning, including giving you the tools you need to understand the businesses in your downtown.

Fields for extra location information.
Save extra location information to identify businesses in this building.

RuskinARC now gives you the ability to quickly record and search for properties in your historic downtown that are open for business, for sale, rent or lease and contact information for the owners of those properties. This will let you quickly plan special downtown events, get all the properties currently available for prospective business owners, and keep track of your downtown revitalization efforts in the same easy to use interface that you track all of your historic downtown buildings in.

Fields to describe if the property is open or for sale. A big plus for downtown revitalization.
Also set if the historic building is open to the public and what its hours are as well as whether the property is for sale, rent or lease.

RuskinARC also lets you search and map this information too, giving you and visitors to your project an easy way to see what’s open and what’s available.

The key to your downtown revitalization efforts is going to be whether you have a grasp on what’s going on with the buildings and businesses in your downtown area. Just like it does for your historic district areas, RuskinARC™ can give you the information you need to make the right decision when you need to.

We’re integrating more features like this into RuskinARC™ so please let us know what you’d like to see to make your job easier. You can contact us here. And sign up for the newsletter on the right to keep up with what else we have in store.

RuskinARC Newsletter: Meeting in Frankfort, KY and See You at NTHP Conference (Indianapolis)

Boy, what an August it’s been for us! We had a meeting with a lot of great communities in Kentucky, released a couple of fixes for RuskinARC and had one of our best months yet in getting people on board and improving their management and outreach efforts. We’ve got a lot to celebrate, so let’s get started.

Thank you to Frankfort, KY

We want to thank Frankfort, KY for hosting a meeting with us and many of the movers and shakers in the Kentucky preservation scene including profrssionals from Frankfort, Bardstown, Lexington, Middlesboro and the Kentucky SHPO, just to name a few. We also ate dinner at Darlin’ Jean’s Apple Cobbler Cafe in Midway, KY, which was quite an experience in and of itself.

We’re always excited to talk directly to the people that we’re trying to help and have them excited about what we’re trying to bring to the community. We can’t thank you all enough for coming out and validating that what we’re doing is actually helping.

We also had a fruitful talk about funding options for RuskinARC. There are a lot of good ideas here and we added that what we’ve been seeing is that once RuskinARC is in place, the community is usually the driving force in continued funding of the product because the people that care about the historic resources the most in the community finally have access to the information and stories concerning their historic resources and they won’t give that up again without a fight and will happily advocate on your behalf.

But initial funding can still be a problem. If you have ideas around this, feel free to reply to this email and let us know. We’d be very interested in what you think and we’ll read every reply.

See us at the National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference

We’ll be getting a booth at the National Preservation Conference this year so if you’re going, be sure to stop by and say hello. We’d love to see you and talk about how RuskinARC could help you or take suggestions on making it better. Let us know if you’re going too and we’ll be sure to look out for you.

RuskinARC keeps getting better

We’ve made some improvements lately in RuskinARC to make your life a little better, including adding the ability to reorder your images (so you get to decide which images should be first) and added improvements for when you want to embed RuskinARC into your own site. We have a client working on this right now and our main goal is to let you showcase your historic resources, not the RuskinARC application. The better we can make your community look, the better we’ll feel. We’ll have a “how to” soon once they go live with their implementation.

Until next time.

Why Digital Archives Beat Paper Every Time

As we’ve talked about RuskinARC to various communities across the country, there are a couple of themes that keep popping up as reasons for not going digital and keeping architecture surveys and preservation reporting on paper. We firmly believe that all of that thinking is hogwash and will set you up poorly if you follow that advice. As a community service, we will use this article to dispel these ruinous myths.

Myth 1: Paper is Permanent

One common misconception is that paper is somehow more permanent than an ephemeral digital document that lives in something called “the cloud”. Paper is solid, real and we have paper documents dating back a very long time. Paper is how it’s always been done, so it must be more permanent than digital.

Go tell it to the librarian at Alexandria.

The simple fact is, neither paper nor the media that digital documents are stored on (hard drives, disk drives, etc.) are permanent but digital documents have one advantage paper can’t touch; it’s easily duplicated. You can make 20 copies of a digital document without loss of fidelity and store it in 20 different places on the globe. Lose one, lose ten and it doesn’t matter, you still have it. It’s also no longer very expensive to store all those copies. We back up RuskinARC’s complete database including all images and documents to a redundant backup service that keeps the multiple copies for you every night. Monthly cost for us for all projects on RuskinARC: about $3.00.

Copy a paper document 20 times and you eventually get an unreadable document. Find 20 places on earth to store it? Very expensive and not likely in any case. Most of your important documents are currently in one place and if you lose them, they’re gone forever. Scan them in, make them digital and then back them up online.

Myth 2: Digital file formats go out of date

This one has some truth to it; ever hear of Lotus 1-2-3? It was a spreadsheet program back in the very early days of computers but has since been discontinued. But old file formats never really die, they just retire. Files in that format are easy to open in the latest LibreOffice or Microsoft Excel. It’s very hard to find a file format that would be impossible to open today.

Not only that, there are a few formats that are designed to always be available until the end of time, sort of the archival quality version of digital documents. For text, it’s Unicode, a format designed around binary itself, the computer’s most basic language, and able to store characters from over 100 different languages. For images, TIFF is the langua-franca, a format that is open to any basic program to interpret with very high quality.

More importantly, when you have digital, you can have paper any time you need it in any format you’d like it. Just print it out and there it is. When you have paper, you have only paper, in that format and that’s it. This is why Google and Project Gutenberg is working so hard to get out of print books into a digital format and why the US Government is working so hard to digitize public data.

Now what’s out of date?

Myth 3: Accessing digital archives are harder than accessing paper archives

Many people feel very comfortable and safe knowing that all of their paper documents are filed away in a cabinet or shelf somewhere, alphabetized and sorted with a nice card catalog that will tell you exactly where everything is. Your computer files are probably all over the place, some in a Documents folder, some in a Projects folder, most all over the Desktop. Finding that document you were looking at yesterday usually involves opening Word and hoping it’s still in the Recent Documents menu. So paper obviously wins, right?

Well, in this instance, it probably does but only because when it comes to paper, you already have a system. More than likely, it’s a system that you inherited that was already running and you just needed to learn the rules. When it comes to your computer, you have to organize it all yourself and, let’s face it, many of us don’t.

But the key isn’t the medium, it’s the system. If you have a good system in place to store all of your digital information (and we’ll point to RuskinARC here for obvious reasons), digital beats paper every time. If you’ve ever misplaced a paper document and then wished there was a search engine that could tell you where it is, you understand the power of having it all on the computer. Once it’s on the computer, it’s also always on the computer. Any good system will have an easy way to export your information and documents at the click of a button into a format that will be easy to import into any other computer program. That system will also have powerful reports and insight into that information that you could never easily get from a stack of papers.

Hopefully this clears up why we at RuskinARC think digital archives are the way to go. I didn’t even touch on the ability to password protect your archives, setting up a public website, and other benefits of having your information at your command on a computer. But once you have a good system, safe backups and the ability to change your information into any format you need, it’s clear that moving to RuskinARC from static paper forms will save time and money over the long term for you.

RuskinARC Newsletter: Newest Video and Miami Beach

Using Pivot Tables to Study Your Historic Community

We’re really cooking on bringing you technology information you can use in your preservation and planning work. Our latest tip is a video about using Pivot Tables to get a feel for the composition of your historic resources. Take a look over at YouTube and while you’re there, see what else we’ve got in the kitchen.

Miami Beach Mania

On RuskinARC, the Miami Design Preservation League’s historic Art Deco districts now account for about 45% of all our traffic! We have quite a few other clients but Judith Frankel and the team at MDPL have been doing a great job at public outreach lately and it really shows. They’re also using their current work to galvanize the public to get out and survey more of the area using RuskinARC as the central hub for data collection and display. We couldn’t be more proud to be a part of it.

Be one of the 45%ers and check out all that Miami Beach has done on RuskinARC.

Grant for Crowdfunding Platform, the crowdfunding platform for civic projects, has just received a $175,000 grant from the Knight Foundation. Why should you care, you may ask? Because we think this could be a great vehicle to fund restoration and preservation projects in the near future and something you should definitely keep an eye on. In fact, they already have some interesting restoration projects on the site.

If you’ve never heard of crowdfunding or wonder how it applies to you, we hope to have a series on our blog about it soon and how it can apply to historic restoration or preservation projects, so stay tuned!

Major Infrastructure Upgrades Coming

Due to the success of RuskinARC, we’ll be planning some major upgrades in the near future to our server and intrastructure. What that means for you is RuskinARC will be getting faster and more reliable. We haven’t reached our limit on our current set up yet, but we also don’t want to wait and potentially cause problems for our clients and are looking to be proactive in serving you.

This will mean that some time in July, we’ll need to lock RuskinARC up for a weekend or so to make the switch. Our hope is that we can get everything in place to make the switch with as little downtime as possible. The public view side of RuskinARC will actually be impacted far less and might not have any downtime at all.

Keep an eye open for the email detailing what will happen if you’re a current RuskinARC customer.

RuskinARC Newsletter: Maps and More Maps

Wisconsin Historic Maps Digitized

The Wisconsin Historical Society recently scanned and posted more than 3,000 of its rare maps and atlases online. There are some really interesting maps, including a map of Milwaukee in 1836 and a map of America from 1596! See them all here.

Getting Your Maps Online

We here at RuskinARC™ are interested to helping you with technology, whether you’re a customer or not. In that regard, we’ve put together a little screencast on how to get a Google Map of your endangered places or other location data quickly and easily on your website. Take a look:

Have something you’d like to see explained? Let us know

What’s New with RuskinARC™

This week, we did a little rework of some of the auto-generated description due to customer feedback around things like the built date and the roof description. Now the date text changes based on what is selected for the certainty field. If certainty is ‘approximate’, we say “built ca.1900”. If it’s ‘later than’, we say “built after 1900”, etc. It was also pointed out to us that the roof description wasn’t a complete sentence, so we also fixed that to make sure we don’t have any sentence fragments floating around. We also added a couple of more options for building type to fill in some holes customers were running into. It looks like the list from the National Park Service isn’t quite complete after all!

If you have any suggestions on how to make RuskinARC™ better for you, we want to know! Email us at

How RuskinARC™ Will Save You Money

One thing we hear often is that people think RuskinARC is just too expensive. This always surprises us since our clients see RuskinARC as extremely cheap compared to the current practice of doing repeated architectural surveys. In order to find some common ground, we’d like to explain a little better.

The Traditional Architectural Survey

Let’s talk about costs for architectural survey work and how our clients have used RuskinARC to save money while providing a better long-term base for preservation planning. Long story short: RuskinARC dramatically cuts the time it takes for reporting, mapping, analysis, and other survey work, resulting in huge cost savings.

For example, let’s say your organization needs a historic architectural survey done of 200 buildings in your downtown. Average costs for survey work are hard to pin down, but our professional experience has shown that in Kentucky you can expect it to cost up to $50 per site. In Kansas, Illinois, and Tennessee we’ve worked at $90-$100 per site.  In other places, $68-75 per site. It varies based on the project scope and geographic area you are working in.

So let’s say it’s $70 per site. For bid or estimating purposes, that means a whole project to survey, map, analyze, and report on those 200 downtown buildings will cost about $14,000. You send out your bid, hire a firm, and architectural surveyors hit the field. In the end, you receive a nice report, photos, and a binder of survey forms.

But now what? You get a paper report and a stack of survey forms and paper maps. You might also get a spreadsheet or database file and a DVD of photos. Armed with this material you will know where you stand for about a year before the catalog is out of date and stops being useful. Eventually the information, survey forms, and report get filed away in a closet or basement or other “archival location” and itself becomes a historical artifact.

For $14,000, you have produced something that is inaccessible to most people and very rigid in its potential to be used for any other purpose.

Rinse and repeat when you need to do another survey.

The Same Project with RuskinARC

Let’s do the same project with RuskinARC. A RuskinARC account is $2,988 a year for the Premium version or $1,788 for the Pro version. Let’s say you’re a small team and don’t need features like unlimited images and just go with the Pro version at $1,788.

A rule of thumb for survey work is that about half the cost of the job is field work, and the other half is reporting and analysis. RuskinARC has powerful reporting and mapping built in that will generate all the text descriptions and survey forms and map data for you. At the same time, it also creates spreadsheet data that can be exported for GIS purposes or imported into any other computer system you might need to use.

In other words, RuskinARC does half the work for you. No need to pay someone else.

RuskinARC works wherever you are; field or office or even home. This makes RuskinARC accessible to everyone so as the project director, you can enlist knowledgeable volunteers or students to do the initial field work and research, the way Miami Beach has done for its Art Deco District.

“RuskinARC makes [surveys] much easier.  We have [members of our preservation league] take field notes and photos with their own equipment and then they upload the info at home.  I don’t have to find limited office space.  I have had residents ask if they can just survey their own home or building. Without RuskinARC, it would not be cost or time efficient to train someone to do just one site.”
— Judith Frankel, Miami Design Preservation League

This is great experience for college students learning their way into preservation and planning practice and they’re savvy enough to know how to do it all with an iPad. Then, mix in a professional for review the way Oak Park has. In some cases, you can get the field survey for free (although, you might want to buy the volunteers lunch). You can even let the folks at the historical society put information in, as well as information from city planning or local experts.

And local volunteers and experts often do a better job because they’re more familiar with the area and able to add their special local knowledge as they do the work.

Depending on the project, you can get professional results using RuskinARC without having to hire professionals. RuskinARC has built-in oversight tools that ensure accurate information and consistency while capitalizing on non-professional sources of labor.

The Clear Advantage

Remember, you paid $1,788 for a RuskinARC account. The survey data flows in. Your survey can be reviewed by you or a professional and you can organize it, direct it, and watch all of the information grow from your office. As we’ve shown, RuskinARC can reduce costs by as much as 50% and probably more. Now your estimated $14,000 survey project has been reduced to less than $7,000. And once the information is in RuskinARC it doesn’t get less valuable over time, it gets more valuable as information is added, updated, and kept current with the changing environment.

You could do just one survey job this way and at $1,788 a year, RuskinARC won’t cost what the traditional survey job costs for several years.

With RuskinARC, you’ll be able to do this with all your surveys and correlate them to learn even more about your community and its resources. Growing your inventory, surveying larger areas, building a secure inventory, easily managing all of your information and producing sharp output on demand for less than what you’re paying now.

How many surveys would you normally do over three, four, or more years? How many do you wish you could do?

We think you’ll agree; RuskinARC is a less expensive way to do surveys. Instead of spending your budget on expensive survey work, spend it on activities that will actually save historic buildings and on preservation projects in your community.

Sign up today to start saving your community.