Pushing Beyond Our Comfort Zones: Embracing Retrofits and Renewables

Posted on: June 24th, 2010 by Patrice Frey 8 Comments

Lately, I’ve become concerned that those outside the preservation world increasingly don’t seem to understand the importance of our work – that is, why preservation is such an essential part of our communities, and why it should be an important part of a sustainable future. Between President Obama’s slashing of historic preservation funding, and what I hear from environmental, green building and planning folks when I present on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s sustainability program, we have our work cut out for us. While the president has made a commitment to sustainable communities, he doesn’t seem to see preservation as being part of that. And green building enthusiasts are more focused than ever on retrofitting existing buildings, but they don’t seem to think of the work we do as preservationists as being relevant. In fact, in many instances we’re perceived to be the obstacle rather than part of the solution.

What all this adds up to is that we have a communications challenge in front of us. But increasingly, we also have more substantive challenges related to our preservation policies and practice. These policies and practice have served us enormously well in past decades. But times are changing, and in my view, these long-standing practices need re-evaluation.

For example, the National Trust was recently contacted by a homeowner who was very concerned that the state had denied her request to place solar panels on her house. Her home, parts of which date to the 18th century, is a contributing structure in a rural historic district. The state denied her request to place solar panels on the front façade of her home, and her alternate request to locate panels on a 20 year old garage was also rejected. Instead she was informed that she could locate panels on the ground in the rear of her property, where they would not be visible. Unfortunately, this isn’t an efficient location for the panels, as there is lot of vegetation coverage that would block the sun during many parts of the year.

This is just one instance in which the conventional approach to preservation – one in which alterations to the property are denied because they would be insensitive to the historic nature of the district – ought to be re-examined. In the case of solar panels, the units are almost always reversible, meaning they won’t destroy historic fabric (especially when the alternate proposed location is a circa 1990 garage). In denying a homeowner the opportunity to have a renewable energy source installed in an efficient location, preservationists are communicating that our values – in this case a historically sensitive aesthetic – trump reduced dependence on fossil fuels.

Such decisions suggest that while we purport to care about sustainability, we do so only to the extent that it doesn’t challenge our business-as-usual practices. That threatens to undermine the hard work we in the preservation field have done in recent years to help people make the connection between preservation and sustainability. It can make us seem remote and uninterested in the larger challenges associated with environment in which our buildings exist, and it can make it easy for people to dismiss preservation and the vital role of old buildings in livable, vibrant communities.

This isn’t to suggest that we should set aside our high standards, and adopt the position of “anything-in-the-name-of-green-goes.” But it does mean that we as a field have to push ourselves – perhaps beyond our comfort zone – in our considerations of new needs for energy efficiency and reduced dependence on fossil fuels. Our very relevance as a movement may depend on it.

Patrice Frey is the deputy director of the sustainability program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

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8 Responses

  1. George Kramer

    June 25, 2010

    You are exactly right, that “Preservation” needs to expand its willingness to accept reasonable change, especially when it accommodates some other entirely laudable goal such as solar energy generation. Most of the buildings we value changed constantly over time…they were not “perfect” in 1966 when the processes we operate under we codified and expecting them to remain, or revert, to what they were then or before is a non-starter that will not move the larger preservation agenda forward.

    We should be about managing change, to protect the characteristics that make these buildings worth saving. We should not be about stopping reasonable change that will allow these buildings to remain a valuable part of our communities.

  2. Felix Kos

    June 25, 2010

    This issue is such a moving target as to be ridiculous … just recently Interior Secretary Salazar approved a wind farm in Nantucket Sound that is the moral equivalent of putting solar panels on the Statue of Liberty. The approximately 130 windmills that Salazar approved will permanently mar a vista that is sacred to Native Americans and points out the ambivalence that preservationists have about going green … i.e., the offending green policy needs to be on such a grand scale as to offend an entire race of people before it’s recognized as a major threat to cultural heritage. If SHPO officers are considered ‘purists’ in the literal sense of interpreting the Secretary of Interior’s Standards, then we as a movement need to question our priorities to go green in terms of scale first. In the example cited above, it seems to me that the issue of using solar panels generally are inappropriate to achieving energy efficiency and is part of the trade-off to achieve the aesthetic of architectural preservation. I’m sure to many preservationists, the solar panels on the roof are the equivalent of painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa, and once again it’s a matter of scale and the perspective of viewer. That is not to say there may not be ways to better site solar panels in a manner that can achieve the renewable energy efficiencies that all Americans want to achieve, but it is up to preservationists to work with the solar industry to come up with innovative techniques to either design or shield existing solar technologies so that they blend or are hidden from view and don’t yield to a sort of ‘architectural heresy’ that will diminish the preservation ethic in the traditional sense. And isn’t the blending of the old and the new the real challenge here anyway?

  3. George Kramer

    June 26, 2010

    Leaving aside the efficiency of solar panels for the moment, do you really think installing them on a 1990s garage would be that offensive?

  4. Felix Kos

    June 28, 2010

    I assumed the 1990s garage is at the very least a “sympathetic addition” to the structure … otherwise it would have led to the same consequence (the denial of a tax credit) as much an inappropriate solar panel, correct? One is an architectural addition that is presumably compatible with the existing architecture of the structure while the other is an energy-efficiency improvement that has little or no value from an architectural perspective. I think you’re confusing the chronology argument with the aesthetic argument. The the fact that the garage was added in 1990 is irrelevant … what concerns me more is that sustainability has now become the pablum of a movement that has become more marginalized than ever and hopes that it can renew itself by embracing energy-efficiency as its salvation. The truth is, preservation has always been at the forefront of sustainability, but for some reason its advocates feel the need to create a false dichotomy whereby the [preservation] movement must ‘prove itself’ to be worthy of being called sustainable by compromising its core principles at the altar of the energy efficiency rubrik, which ultimately will lead to more new construction, inappropriate additions and teardowns than preservation of existing structures.

  5. George Kramer

    June 30, 2010

    I assume the garage is sustainable as well, but I think I have a differing view on what preservation’s core values are, and whether or not they might be compromised by becoming more flexible when it comes to retrofit to improve energy efficiency. I agree with you that HP has always been at the forefront of sustainability and re-using existing structures for new purposes is likely among the single most sustainable activity that we humans can pursue. I have never subscribed to a uniformly strict architectural-only perspective as preservation at its best. Yes, in some cases, buildings are of such singular architectural merit that they must be preserved in as near pristine condition as possible (subject to life-safety and normal function, etc). But the nasty truth of much of preservation is that we employ standards devised for the preservation of iconic structures to evaluate change on dozens and dozens of buildings that are surely important parts of their community but are far from iconic. When standing back in a historic residential neighborhood, or a historic downtown, we must realistically ask ourselves, as professionals, whether a minor change such as the addition of a solar panel on a non-historic dwelling (whether it is compatible or not) would really so diminish the overall effect as to be shunned. I simply don’t believe that such changes, within reason, are that big of an issue. I don’t think that requires I hand in my membership card in the NTHP either.

    Don’t get me wrong… I think much of the “sustainability” and energy efficiency talk is little more than pablum employed to justify driving an SUV. I question the rash of window replacements not because they “destroy” historic character but because they almost always fail in their stated goal of saving energy. I am all for increasing insulation in historic structures because it makes sense. Solar panels may. And I think preservation does well to avoid saying “No” to people who appreciate their buildings and are trying to invest and improve in them so they they will survive.

  6. George Kramer

    June 30, 2010

    Oops. I meant that I assume the garage is “compatible.” I don’t really see that has having any impact on whether or not the panels could be installed on it. Just as 18th century homes in rural historic districts didn’t have solar panels, neither did they have “garages.” Change happens.

  7. Felix Kos

    July 1, 2010

    I think your points are well taken — particularly in the case of preserving historic windows and using more insulation — all great techniques to make an already sustainable historic structure even more energy efficient. I would point out that those are relatively low-tech and “passive” energy-efficiency steps that can be done without significantly altering a structure’s architectural and structural integrity. Upgrading furnaces, water heaters and boilers is yet another example. But technology often has its own bandwagon effect that must be guarded against. Take the halogen bulb — imminently more efficient (and expense) than incandescent bulbs — but are a second wave technology that is being thrust upon us when a better LED (light-emitting-diode) technology is in the works. Solar technology is in similar space and is still in its relative infancy in terms of scale both in the marketplace and technological sophistication. Historic preservation would do well to employ the more passive weatherization methods to preserve historic character until such time that technology for solar is more in time with the architectural and building methods that preservationists have stood so proudly up for over many years.

  8. George Kramer

    July 1, 2010

    No problem with this, Felix. I agree that as in most things, going slow and making passive change first, before adopting new technology is almost always the course of least resistance. I’ve enjoyed the back and forth in this little eddy of the internet. GK