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Tackling the Net Zero Challenge in an Old Home

Posted on: June 30th, 2010 by Patrice Frey


Somehow this fantastic resource on totally passed me by during Preservation Month this year – the theme for which was "Old is the New Green."

Check out this video series by Matt Grocoff, a green renovation expert who explains how he and his wife are greening their 110-year-old home in Michigan. These short videos have tons of ideas about how to sensitively incorporate green features in historic homes.

Video 1 - Old is the New Green: Old Homes Can Be the Greenest Homes

Matt Grocoff takes us on a tour of his Folk Victorian in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We get an overview of how Matt integrates green technology with traditional building materials and fixtures.

Video 2 - Windows: Going Green Without Replacement Windows

Can an old window be as energy efficient as a replacement window? Matt Grocoff discusses alternatives to replacing your old wood windows.

Video 3 - Bathrooms: Clean and Green Bathroom Remodel

Matt Grocoff discusses how traditional building materials and green technology combine to create a renovated bathroom with traditional style and modern comfort.

Matt and his wife are endeavoring to make their home net zero, which means their house will produce as much energy as it uses. That's an ambitious goal for any home, but especially for older homes where aggressive energy efficiency improvements often mean invasive measures like ripping out windows.

What’s unique about Matt’s project is that he’s tackling the net zero challenge in a way that is respectful of the historic integrity of his home. For starters, he's keeping the windows. He is planning one more video on installing insulation, and hopefully he'll post another on how he is incorporating solar technology.

This is one of the only historically respectful net zero home retrofits I have ever heard of. Do you know of any? If so, let me know!

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.


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.


A couple of months back, I wrote about how preservationists’ job descriptions have changedand that increasingly we must be active participants in the larger conversation about sustainable buildings and communities. During the last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Green Lab (PGL) has been doing just this – identifying and engaging in policy and research projects that have the potential to transform the way cities and states approach the greening of our existing buildings and communities. In recent posts, I’ve written about  the PGL's innovative work on outcome based codes, which is spearheaded by Consulting Director Liz Dunn, and our groundbreaking research on the value of building reuse. But the PGL has been gaining traction on a number of other fronts as well.

By way of a little background, the PGL’s work generally falls into three categories: pioneering new policy solutions to promote building reuse, neighborhood reinvestment and green retrofits; identifying and promoting existing best policy practices related to sustainability and preservation; and undertaking research to help better understand the value of building reuse, as well as best practices for retrofitting older and historic buildings. We’re in the midst of updating the PGL website to give you a more complete picture of our efforts, but in the meantime, Liz and I want to provide an update on our work on district energy, and the role these systems can play in helping bring down carbon emissions from existing buildings.

Why District Energy?

Wisdom has it that it’s pretty feasible to reduce emissions in existing buildings by around 50% with conventional approaches to energy efficiency -- but anything much beyond that requires the use of renewables. That means that many existing and historic buildings simply cannot achieve substantial energy reduction targets or reach “net zero” without the help of renewable energy sources.

Yet many existing buildings, especially those that make up our “urban villages” (think Main Streets!) are too small in scale or were designed in such a way that they cannot take advantage of all the dramatic energy efficiency measures of on-site renewable energy options available to new buildings. Furthermore, building owners find it challenging enough to pay for essential efficiency measures like insulation, lighting upgrades and better energy management tools -- an investment in a waste heat recovery system or a bio-mass facility is usually well beyond the means of a single building owner.

And only focusing on the individual performance of buildings may not represent a community’s optimal investment in clean, renewable forms of energy. Buildings are part of a community, and resource sharing is a common element to communities, from shared public spaces to water to electricity grids. There is a growing school of thought that cities and building owners increasingly will be compelled to look to district-level solutions to meet their clean energy needs.

That’s why the PGL is interested in district energy systems, which are local neighborhood utilities created to deliver heating, cooling and hot water to a collection of buildings. Such systems have been in use in the U.S. since the last century. Today there are about 6,000 such systems in place in North America, though most are used for institutions such as hospitals and universities. District energy is far more prevalent in Europe and Japan – for example, the entire city of Stockholm, Sweden is served by two district systems.

The PGL is partnering with the University of Oregon's Center for Sustainable Business Practices to develop a white paper that includes case studies and policy and financing recommendations for how district energy systems can be integrated into existing neighborhoods of older and historic buildings with multiple owners. The paper is intended as a primer for communities that are beginning to look at district energy as a possible strategy, and face common barriers, capacity constraints and learning curves, and who need guidance in identifying the policies and programs needed in their own situations to foster district energy system development.

We’re close to having the White Paper complete, and will be sending it out for peer review shortly. Look for the completed paper and more info later this summer on PreservationNation.

In the meantime, check out the work that Main Street Communities  West Union, Iowa and Montpelier, Vermont are doing to make district energy a reality in their respective communities.

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.


When I first started working on sustainability issues at the NTHP three years ago, my boss Emily Wadhams (the VP for public policy) and I made the rounds to various agencies and organizations to talk about our work on sustainability – and especially our efforts to get people thinking about the value of reusing buildings rather than tearing them down and building anew.  We were greeted with polite nodding heads, but quickly realized that the preservation community was just about the only group out there pushing the envelope on the issue of reuse.

Over the years I've had plenty of time to think about why it is that reuse just doesn’t register on most radars. Architects prefer to work with blank canvases, developers often don’t want to deal with the risks of rehabbing existing buildings, and new construction drives much of the American economy. And then underlying it all is our cultural obsession with all things bright, shiny and new.

So what really is lost – in environmental terms – when we tear stuff down and replace it?

Turns out we don’t have a lot of research that helps us understand this question  -- sure, there are lots of studies that explore the merits of constructing new green buildings, but there’s relatively little data available on the economic and environmental benefits of building reuse.  That’s about to change, and not a moment too soon.

Today, the National Trust is announcing a partnership between Portland, Oregon-based Green Building Services and Seattle-based Cascadia Green Building Council. The three groups are joining forces to design and execute a study that will challenge conventional thinking about the built environment.

The study will quantify the value of building reuse for a number of different scenarios. For example, the study will examine the types of environmental impacts avoided when homeowners reuse and retrofit an existing house rather than tear one down and construct a new green home in its place.

This study, which is made possible by a grant from the Summit Foundation, will use Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)  to look at the differences between energy, carbon, water and other environmental impacts in new construction and building reuse. We’ll look at a variety of building types in four regions of the United States with the goal of gaining a sophisticated understanding of when and why building reuse makes the most fiscal and environmental sense.

Look for findings from this study by the beginning of 2011.

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.

Preservation Green Lab Partners on New Energy Code Framework

Posted on: May 19th, 2010 by Patrice Frey


Curious about what we’ve been up to lately in our Seattle-based Preservation Green Lab? Check out this post on the blog Worldchanging by Julia Levitt, who writes about our work with the city of Seattle and New Buildings Institute on outcome-based energy codes.

Most cities and states have prescriptive energy codes, which require certain energy efficiency elements in major renovations or new construction – like insulation or windows with a particular efficiency rating. It turns out these codes do a poor job of encouraging owners to retrofit their commercial buildings; their “one size fits all” approach often doesn’t recognize the inherent strengths and weaknesses of individual buildings, and can create challenges for historic buildings in particular by prescribing changes that can compromise historic character. Prescriptive codes also tend to squelch innovation because they don’t allow for new approaches to energy reduction.

The Preservation Green Lab is partnering with the City of Seattle and the New Buildings Institute to pioneer a new energy code compliance framework (for both new and existing buildings) based on actual post-construction performance outcomes. With outcome-based codes, building owners will have the flexibility to pursue whatever retrofit strategies they deem appropriate for their individual buildings, but in return are required to achieve a pre-negotiated performance target on an ongoing basis.

The ultimate goal of an outcome-based code framework is full accountability for energy performance of all buildings, with complete flexibility in how to achieve it.  What works in Seattle will work in other places – and the goal is to replicate this innovative model code throughout the country. Have a look at Worldchanging for more insight.

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.


So here's a good question get you going on a rainy Tuesday morning (at least it's rainy here in Washington, DC):  What exactly will sustainable cities look like?  And how will those cities incorporate their older and historic buildings?  Thanks to the International Living Building Institute’s (ILBI) recently announced “Living City Design Competition,”  we’re about to have a better idea.

The competition offers $125,000 in prizes to design teams for their vision of sustainable cities based on the Imperatives of the Living Building Challenge 2.0™.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation is thrilled to serve as partner in this competition, and is offering a prize for the entry that offers the best vision for  how older and historic buildings can be part of a sustainable future.

According to ILBI:

The Competition requires participants to select an existing city anywhere in the world and conceptually transform it through photo-realistic three-dimensional modeling and renderings.  Leveraging the Living Building Challenge’s already substantial impact on the green building industry, the competition is expected to draw contributions from multi-disciplinary teams composed of the world’s most talented and daring designers, planners, artists and animators

The competition is designed to elicit compelling renderings of cities capable of meeting all of the requirements of the Living Building Challenge 2.0.  Successful entries will capture the attention and imagination of a broad audience, while offering technical information capable of standing up to expert scrutiny.  These visualizations will offer a corrective to popular assumptions about an inevitable future filled with high-tech, ecologically dislocated cities.  Successful competition entries will be grounded in science and will illustrate a strategy for meeting the requirements of the Living Building Challenge 2.0.  These entries will help reframe public aspirations for the future of urban communities by providing clear visions of true sustainability.

The first place team will receive $75,000, and the second prize is $25,000. The National Trust is offering an additional prize of $25,000, which will be awarded to the best example of a Living City that preserves and respects the historic context of its community and the existing infrastructure of 2010.

All entries must be based explicitly on the tenets of Living Building Challenge Version 2.0, and teams must be comprised of members of the Living Building Challenge community.  Entry fees range from $500 from professional firms to $100 for students and those who are unemployed.

Interested in applying -- or know someone who might be?  Visit for more details.

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.