Over the last few weeks, I’ve been sorting through some of the major questions raised by George Musser in his blog post Are Old Homes Doomed, such as what are reasonable energy targets for historic homes? And what’s the role of renewables in helping get homes to a reduced carbon impact? For my final musings on this topic – fittingly enough on Earth Day– I’ve been pondering one last question: what does the imperative for more energy efficient buildings really mean for the field of preservation?
A well-respected colleague recently told me bluntly that preservationist’s “job descriptions have changed.” And she wasn’t sure we preservationists really understood that. What she means is that the context in which we work has changed – and is going to continue to evolve – in a profound way. The world is waking up to the realization that our built environment has a huge impact on the health of the planet. And all those buildings we love are part of that equation.
In fact, in the case of homes, we know that the older the house, the more energy it typically uses (the exact opposite is true for commercial buildings, incidentally.) In my view, that means that we as preservationists have an obligation to do our part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from older homes. I’m confident we can do this in ways that respect the heritage of these places – but it will absolutely require flexibility in our thinking on some issues, such as whether to allow visible on-site renewables.
I suspect it’s no longer enough for preservationists to be experts on architectural history, on the science of how buildings deteriorate, and on how we can remedy this deterioration in a sensitive way. It’s not sufficient to be specialists in cobbling together various financing to make projects pencil, or to be thoughtful, articulate advocates on behalf of our heritage as it is expressed through the built environment.
No, to all of this, we must now add at least two more items to our job descriptions.
We need to see ourselves as part of the larger sustainability dialogue, and be active participants in that conversation. Across the country, cities and states are grappling with how to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and what role buildings will play in these reductions targets. Preservationists must be part of this dialogue, showing up to be a voice for the value of reusing these buildings. But it also means encouraging – and facilitating– the evolution of these buildings to become better energy performers.
To do that, we must become retrofit experts. We need to substantially improve our knowledge about how to retrofit our historic buildings – and especially homes – to help meet the growing need for more sustainable communities. As I’ve noted in a previous blog, we don’t currently have the data about how older homes and buildings really perform, and what retrofit strategies make the most sense. We need to work – and work fast – to remedy that.
In the end, I think we have precisely two options: we can sit down at the table with our fellow do-gooders in the green building and environmental community and our policy makers to help shape sustainability efforts in a proactive way that helps reach energy targets and protects our values. Or we can be confined to the sidelines, hoping for the best.
This Earth Day, I vote for pulling a chair up to the table.
Read the entire series:
- Old Homes in a Sustainable World: Taking the Long View on Renewable Energy
- Old Homes in a Sustainable World: How Efficient is Efficient Enough?
- Old Homes in a Sustainable World
Patrice Frey is the deputy director of the sustainability program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.