Old Homes in a Sustainable World: A New Job Description for Preservationists

Posted on: April 22nd, 2010 by Patrice Frey 5 Comments

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:

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.


5 Responses

  1. Amanda

    April 22, 2010

    My old home is only 900 square feet, and lacks central heat and air conditioning. My energy costs hover around $200/month. I live in an old city, where I put around 3000 miles a year on my car. My house needs insulating, but I’m still way ahead, carbon-footprint wise, of anyone living in a suburban area (assuming they drive).

  2. Gina

    April 22, 2010

    My 3300 sq. ft. 1840’s home is more energy efficient than the 1970’s ranch we owned before we purchased this home. We pay 1/2 the cost of heating the 1840’s home than the 70’s home. While modern improvements, like insulation in the attic space and inconspicuous storm windows, help overall – the home was built to maximize heat/cooling with a 19th century eye. It is situated with a south facing exposure and sunlight pours into that side of the house, creating a solar passive heat source during the winter. Doors on every room, including the hallways, two front parlors, kitchen, bath and bedrooms, help to regulate the flow of hot/cold air. The south-facing sunporch creates an air space that warms the house. Even on a -0 degree day, it can get as warm as 60 in this unheated space. In the summer, the huge maples shade the house from the sun, holding in the coolness. It is always 10 to 15 degrees cooler inside the house and we have never once turned on an AC in the summer. If a home is used with an understanding of the needs of when it was built, I think owners will find they can reduce their fuel costs and become more energy efficient.

  3. Jon

    April 25, 2010

    This article seems out of touch. People across the United States are broke and jobless, and here is someone with a beautiful restored Victorian (the type of house one would fittingly call the American Dream to own). Yet instead of realizing the beauty of his home the way it is, writer thinks it may be necessary to TEAR IT DOWN to make it more green? Let’s just throw common sense out the window. Green = reuse, not destroy and contribute to landfills.

  4. Jon

    April 25, 2010

    Furthermore, most older houses are much smaller than their newer suburban counterparts, thus contributing to energy efficiency by having less space to heat and/or cool. But the energy required to tear down a historic home and replace it goes far beyond the energy used to maintain the older home. This reminds me of the thinking of some politicians. You have to consider the unintended consequences.

  5. What the heck is a Green Historic Preservationist? I hope I get this right, because I made it up and put it on my business cards. « the green preservationist

    April 29, 2010

    […] and the environment, and I stumbled upon a particularly relevant one written by Patrice Frey called “Old Homes in a Sustainable World: A New Job Description for Preservationists” that sums up how rapidly the field of preservation has changed over the past few years. Basically, […]