Back to School for Green Preservationists

Posted on: September 21st, 2007 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 1 Comment

Walk into any super-mart today, and you'll find a "green" option for every item on your list, from energy-efficient light bulbs to seeded stationary to Low-E windows. Green is on everyone's mind these days. As green building and historic preservation overlap, university students across the country are forging new majors that reflect the times, which could mean revolutionary changes for both fields.

"The first day of class, out of the 11 people who introduced themselves, I think five people identified sustainability as a reason why they chose to go into historic preservation," says Jennifer Flathman, who is pursuing her master's degree in historic preservation at the University of Oregon in Portland.

"Students, because of their age and generation, are very much in tune with these issues [the connection between green building and preservation]," says Ken Guzowski, former professor of historic preservation at the University of Oregon and the current senior planner for the city of Eugene.

According to the 2007 Princeton Review Guide to College Majors, less than four percent of American universities offer courses, undergraduate or graduate, in historic preservation. The U.S. News & World Report 2007 Ultimate College Guide lists just nine universities with historic-preservation programs and 28 universities with environmental design programs. Only one university, Rhode Island's Roger Williams, has a joint environmental-and-historic-preservation program.

Despite the lack of schools that offer courses in both the environment and preservation, there are students out there who are seeking out the two.

"There is absolutely discussion among my peers about the connection between green building and preservation," says Kathleen Mertz, also a graduate student of historic preservation at Oregon. "We have a really diverse class and a really diverse field of interest within preservation, but when it comes to sustainability we are all like, 'Why are people missing the connection?' It just seems so obvious to us."

Students of historic preservation today aren't necessarily looking to practice preservation in the same way as their predecessors.

"All of the people in my program are cutting-edge, smart people," says Mertz' classmate, Angela Blaser. "Most of us didn't get into the program for the old fashioned, this-is-how-we-repair-a-log-cabin' appeal. Most of us got into it for more modern reasons."

Flathman, who works as a cultural-resource specialist at the Seattle-based environmental consulting firm of Entrix, Inc., asserts that once students like her graduate, there is a lot of work for them. "One of the really key skills we learn in school is how to evaluate building materials, which is one of the key pieces of sustainable design and green building."

Blaser, who received a minor in preservation at Oregon before going on to get her master's degree, says, "Historic preservation would draw in a lot more undergrads if we had a more environmental- or sustainability-focused approach. A lot of undergrads are scared away from the program because they think it will be very technical—how to preserve buildings with a hammer and nail—but they are more interested in the theory."

Flathman says this generation may be able to change the field. "Green builders and preservationists are both talking amongst themselves a lot, but not necessarily talking to each other at the right time. If students can take classes in both preservation and planning, they can figure out how to make green goals fit into preservation goals and vice versa; they can be more prepared for working outside of school, where they can prevent things from happening, like the passing of laws that work against each other."

Perhaps part of the problem in combining the two fields at a university level is that few professors specialize in the overlap. Blaser mentioned that when she came up with her thesis subject and took it to her professors for help, "a lot of the faculty didn't know where to direct me because their focus was either in preservation or environment, not both."

This is perhaps a trend that is found at many schools that have either preservation or green programs—while the intersection is often discussed in classes, there are not always classes that target it.

At the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment, "there are students learning about green building and site design and at the same time they learn that preservation is intimately linked with sustainability practices," says Robert Grese, associate professor of landscape architecture.

As architect and preservationist Carl Elefante writes in The Greenest Building Is … One That is Already Built, "We cannot build our way to sustainability; we must conserve our way to it … we may also need to accept that preservation will transform as well."

It's a concept that students like Flathman, Blaser, and Mertz are catching onto. "The future for historic preservation is in attaching it to the sustainable-development movement," Blaser says. "We are a very small program, and hardly anyone at this school even knows we are here … I think good things are happening, but we need to get into the mainstream." - Tovah Pentelovitch

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

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One Response

  1. Aaron Marcavitch

    September 22, 2007

    How incredibly important. I was just reading about the rise in sea levels of the next geneation and what that will do for places like Jamestown, Cape Kennedy, Nantucket, New Orleans, and up and down the west coast. If we cannot educate our students about the needs to preserve, but be sustainable and ecologically aware, we cannot prepare them effectively for the future.

    I challenge each and every historic preservation program in the United States to develop at least one class in Presevation and Environmentalism. Roger Williams (my alma mater) does have programs in both types of programs, but it there needs to be cross pollenization.

    I also challenge the National Trust to take up the banner (perhaps with other organizations) of a dual preservation and environmentalism. We share so many aspects – lets find a way to share our goals. There needs to be a new initative in this area beyond simply championing green materials in renovation. There needs to be a broader awareness of our shared community.