Preservation Round-Up: Going Solar Edition

Posted on: January 20th, 2011 by Jason Clement 2 Comments

Are we ready to go solar? (Note: This is not New Orleans. Rather, it is a representative solar photo.)

Good afternoon, Nation, and welcome to the Thursday edition of our Preservation Round-Up, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s twice-weekly digest of preservation news and notes from around the country.

Today we kick things off in the Crescent City, where in addition to eating king cake and fais do-do-ing (it's basically Mardi Gras, right?), New Orleanians are debating a topic that is bubbling up in preservation circles around the country -- solar panels.

Really, it should come as no surprise that this has become a hot-topic issue that, for lack of a better metaphor, is only getting hotter; the call to cut Mother Nature some slack by downsizing our carbon footprint is everywhere. Factor in a host of local and federal incentives that make going off the grid actually attainable, and even more pieces fall snugly into the puzzle.

So what happens when the building in question is a 19th-century home in one of the country's oldest historic neighborhoods? Ask Glade Bilby, who was recently denied permission to install photovoltaic panels on a part of his roof that slopes away from the street. The project was supposed to be another in a string of green improvements Bilby has made to his property. Instead, it resulted in an split verdict (5-3 for you numbers people) among preservation commission members that illustrates what so many preservationists are grappling with -- increasing energy efficiency versus protecting aesthetics and historic integrity.

On the issue, the National Trust's recently-released guidelines have this to say:

The primary objective of preservation ordinances is to preserve historic properties, so a preservation board should encourage project outcomes that meet solar access requirements while maintaining the integrity of historic resources. Consideration should always be given to solutions that protect historic features, materials, and spatial relationships with the visibility of all solar energy installations -- including solar panels -- minimized to the greatest extent possible.

"The greatest extent possible:" Sounds pretty easy, right? Not if you ask preservationists in Portland, Ore., where city officials have struggled to define when and to what degree reviews should be required for residents of conservation and historic districts seeking to install solar panels. One missive exploring the issue puts a pretty fine point on things:

Property owners in conservation and historic districts enjoy a high degree of livability and increased property values by agreeing to be mutually bound by these reciprocal design limitations. Photovoltaic solar arrays are highly reflective, sit above the roof line and are so much larger than other types of utility installations that they could easily undermine district quality as a whole. Property owners should be protected rather than forced to accept solar arrays that visually compromise the district.

We're obviously not going to solve this debate right here, right now (especially since it is 5:00 pm where this post is being penned). However, as one preservation planner adds in the New Orleans piece, the technology behind solar energy is improving rapidly -- and perhaps becoming more old-building friendly. In addition to the panels we all know, solar enthusiasts are now experimenting with shingles and adhesive strips that can also get the job done. Here's his zinger:

You can put solar panels now in places where five years ago they just wouldn't work, because if there was just a little bit of shade the whole thing would turn off. And that's helped a lot. It's aided in the ability to be flexible on both sides.

We think that sounds promising, but what about you? Are you a yes, a no, or a somewhere in between when it comes to solar technology on historic homes and structures?

With that, let's motor through some other preservation headlines that nabbed our attention this week. First we start with a mixed bag of news for two past 11 Most Endangered listings. In Palo Alto, demolition of Hangar 1 is proceeding, while funding to preserve bits and pieces of the treasure and its artifacts evaporates. On the other hand, things are looking up at Miami's Marine Stadium, where Friends of Miami Marine Stadium have raised $3 million out of the estimated $8.5 million required for a stunning restoration. (Those renderings make me giddy with excitement.)

In other news, millennials say "No maam!" to McMansions; Seattle reflects on the value of its industrial buildings (I think they rule, too); New Yorkers continue to show some love for their state parks; and St. Louis laments the loss of its Western Union Building. Meanwhile, the Farnsworth House is getting a super-sustainable neighbor (good job, Hokies!), a New York town tries to answer a really huge question, Abilene tries to save a historic school, historic Milwaukee opens its doors, and Preservation in Pink professes a love of winter.

And before we go, a look at how some buildings -- including historic ones -- "tweet" (or something).

Jason Lloyd Clement is an online content provider for He is currently trying to figure out what his historic home would tweet had it the opportunity.

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.

Jason Clement

Jason Clement

Jason Lloyd Clement is the director of community outreach at the National Trust, which is really just a fancy way of saying he’s a professional place lover. For him, any day that involves a bike, a camera, and a gritty historic neighborhood is basically the best day ever.

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2 Responses

  1. Kaitlin

    January 20, 2011

    Thanks for the mention! I like this collection of links for the round-up. Nice job!

  2. Teresa Cook

    January 21, 2011

    I have a hugh roof project ahead of me on the Mansion. My thought on the subject is, when done in good tast solar is the way to go. I take school children, girl scouts, boy scouts on tours. They are told about the history and how the building was heated, cooled ect. My goal is to teach them how our world has changed, and we must combine old with new.