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.