[Preservation Tips & Tools] Eight Strategies for Building a Sustainable Preservation Movement

Posted on: April 2nd, 2014 by Emily Potter 1 Comment

Older and historic buildings are the heart and soul of our communities. They provide character, history, and authenticity, making our main streets and neighborhoods places that we love, not just places to live. (That’s a big reason why we’re preservationists, right?)

What’s more, many older buildings are inherently just as sustainable, if not more so, than new ones. The National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab (PGL) is focused on helping historic communities maximize their energy efficiency potential and vitality. And in the end, we believe our main streets will outlive the chain stores and franchises.

There are 1.5 million commercial buildings more than 50 years old in America, so we have opportunities at every turn to make sure the places we love are sustainable, high-performing, and vibrant for years to come. Here are eight strategies to help you build a sustainable preservation movement in your community.

1. Use the building’s original design. Before the advent of technology, older buildings were often constructed with certain features to increase their natural energy efficiency. Brick and concrete structures frequently have lower heating and cooling costs/demands because they are naturally insulated; big windows and high ceilings allow for more natural daylight, reducing the need for artificial lighting; and double-hung windows were originally designed to maximize airflow. Make sure to fully utilize original sustainable features like these first.

2. Fix the weak areas. A key element to any sustainability strategy is to shore up the liabilities. For old buildings, this means fixing leaky walls, ceilings, and windows, topping off un- or under-insulated roofs and/or basements, and replacing inefficient equipment and lighting. Minimizing these issues makes new technology and design more effective, plus it costs far less than installing sophisticated building systems and equipment, while achieving comparable results.

blog_photo_Green Roof_Arlington County
One way of increasing the sustainability and energy efficiency of a historic building is to install a green roof, which is a layer of vegetation planted over a waterproofing system. First, though, make sure a green roof is an appropriate solution.

3. Adapt older buildings. Take advantage of the fact that older structures can be adapted in creative ways that promote more efficient living. Look for new technologies that can be incorporated into a historic space, such as a window air conditioner that connects to the Internet and learns your habits to save you money on your energy bills, or a new app that helps you crowdsource the temperature and comfort level of the room. But don’t forget the importance of respecting both historic preservation and green building standards when adapting any older structure.

4. Choose your DIY projects thoughtfully. There are many energy-saving tips out there that, in the end, don’t have much real physical impact. Take the time to consider which ones make the most sense for your historic building. As TreeHugger notes, some of the best energy-saving advice you might find is to simply put on a sweater. You’ll save yourself time and money, while also increasing energy efficiency.

5. Know that one size does not fit all. When thinking about achieving greater sustainability throughout your community, consider each historic building based on its own unique characteristics. You’re likely to waste resources if you try to use the same strategies on every building regardless of their size, shape, or history.

6. Look at former industrial sites. These often underused and overlooked sites offer vast amounts of space and nearly unlimited opportunities for reuse. When repurposed, they are also environmental assets, since new materials do not have to be produced to create new square footage.

blog_photo_Industrial Space_Bertrand Monney, Flickr
Large spaces like this one (The Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle) offer nearly unlimited opportunities for reuse, with reduced environment impact.

7. Use available resources to help make decisions. You don’t have to come up with new strategies on your own. There are many reports, guidelines, and case studies already published that you can learn from and share. Here are a few to get you started:

8. Spread the word. Talk to your neighbors, friends, family, city officials, and others about your ideas for achieving a sustainable preservation movement in your community. The more people who join the cause for preserving our historic buildings and neighborhoods, the greater chance we have of making a difference and saving the places we care about.

Are you involved in preservation efforts in your local community? What strategies have you used to maximize energy efficiency and help historic buildings be more green?

Learn more about the Preservation Green Lab and their work to help historic communities and main streets thrive. Also, be sure to sign up for the Green Lab’s weekly Sustainability Round-Up.

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.

Emily Potter

Emily Potter is a copywriter at the National Trust. She enjoys writing about places of all kinds, the stories that make them special, and the people who love them enough to save them.

Green, Preservation Tips & Tools

One Response

  1. Lisa Swickard

    April 3, 2014

    Two years ago, Tiffin, Ohio, lost an architectural treasure when two county commissioners voted to raze the 1884 Seneca County Courthouse (see the upcoming book “DECOMMISSIONED: Final Days of the 1884 Seneca County Courthouse). Now we are in the midst of convincing the commissioners to consider the stately 1893 East Jr. High school building as a suitable replacement, even though they are leaning toward new construction for a justice center. We need your help. Any advice you could give us would be appreciated. The Jr. High building is privately owned by a preservation-minded individual. Please go to my blog at virginalleypress.com to learn more. We need you in our corner. Thanks.