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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 ilbi.org/livingcity 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.

 

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.

 

A Short Series Exploring Tough Questions about Old Houses and Energy Efficiency

Evolving with the times.  Historic home with solar panels, Evanston, Illinois.

Evolving with the times. Historic home with solar panels, Evanston, Illinois.

A couple of weeks ago, I began a short blog series in response to the many issues raised by Scientific American's George Musser in his blog post Are Old Houses Doomed? Musser raises some important questions about the future of old homes in a green world. While he highlights some of the technical and financial challenges of greening old homes, he also focuses on another obstacle in the path to reducing the carbon emissions of our old homes: preservationists.

In particular, he cites the inflexibility of some preservation commissions when it comes to allowing the use of solar panels on historic homes.

"Friends of ours wanted to install solar panels on their roof, but our town's historic preservation commission blocked them, saying the panels ... would have been visible from the street. I admire the impulse: so much of our country's architectural heritage has been lost already. But if old houses can't be brought up to modern standards, their very survival is at stake. Saving them may mean bending preservation standards."

Musser suggests that preservationists should “take the long view” when considering the use of renewable energy sources – such as solar and wind power – on historic homes. And I think he’s absolutely right.

But before I go into too much detail about how right I think he is, I need to raise one important point – and that is that as alluring as renewable energy may be, the fact remains it makes very little sense to slap solar panels or a wind turbine on a home or building that has not been first retrofitted for improved energy performance. That’s basically like cranking up your super-efficient heating system and keeping all the windows open in the dead of winter – you’re missing out on the real emissions reductions. But assuming reasonable steps have been taken to improve efficiencies, renewables can – and will increasingly– make a lot of sense.

... Read More →

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 Short Series Exploring Tough Questions about Old Houses and Energy Efficiency

Last week I began a short blog series in response to the many issues raised by Scientific American’s George Musser in his blog  Are Old Houses Doomed? George raises some important questions about the future of old homes in a green world, since the expense often associated with achieving significant energy improvements can be prohibitive. Given his recent experience insulating and sealing his home – and a $68,000 estimate for a geothermal system for his house – he expresses doubts about whether his home has much of a future in a low carbon world.

All of that leads me to the question, just what are appropriate shorter and longer term energy targets for existing buildings generally, and homes in particular?

To shed some light on the issue, I turned to Lane Burt, who manages building energy policy for the National Resources Defense Council. According to Lane, we need to reduce our overall carbon emissions by 20% by 2020, and 80% (or more) by 2050. Buildings will bear the brunt of the burden in achieving these targets, especially homes. A couple of years ago, a report by McKinsey Consulting found that while there are ample opportunities to reduce energy usage in the US, "the biggest potential...lies in the US residential sector, the single largest energy consumer in the world."

So what does a 20% reduction in overall emissions look like for buildings in 2020? It means that all new buildings must be extremely efficient – much more efficient than the average new building today. For existing buildings, and specifically homes, Lane believes that that by 2020 we will need to have done substantial retrofits amounting to energy savings of 20-50% for the vast majority of homes (though he thinks realistically we won’t have gotten to all homes until closer to 2030).

The good news is that these energy savings are readily achievable in old homes, but it’s going to mean more than plugging leaks and beefing up insulation in the attic. Getting to 20-50% efficiency means a more comprehensive, whole-building approach that is likely to include more expensive upgrades—for example highly efficient new heating/cooling systems. That’s why the National Trust has been supportive of the HOME STAR legislation making its way through Congress, which would provide substantial incentives to home owners to improve the efficiency of their dwellings.

There are two paths under HOME STAR, silver and gold. While the silver path allows home owners to cherry-pick preferred products, the gold path entails a home energy audit that provides homeowners with the info needed to make the most energy and cost effective retrofits possible. Under the HOME STAR gold path, homeowners can get between $3,000-$8,000 for their retrofits.

HOME STAR isn’t going to help George Musser pay for much of his $68K geothermal system, though. The program is focused on energy efficiency rather than renewable energy sources. But it’s a significant step in the right direction because providing incentives for efficiency is good public policy – better, in fact, that further incentives for renewable sources. (There’s a saying in the green building world: have your efficiency vegetables before your renewable desert. Integrating renewable sources into a home that leaks like a sieve is a plain waste.)

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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.

Old Homes in a Sustainable World

Posted on: April 2nd, 2010 by Patrice Frey 5 Comments

 

A Short Series Exploring Tough Questions about Old Houses and Energy Efficiency

As a general rule of thumb, when 11 people forward me the same link to blog, it’s a safe bet it’s worth a read – and a response. The most recent thing to land in my inbox in multiples was this from Scientific American -- "Are old houses doomed? The conflict between historic preservation and energy efficiency."

Turns out this isn’t a posting from some over-zealous green builder who has gone off the deep end insisting that old buildings can’t compete in a green world. To the contrary, George Musser has been thoughtfully documenting his adventure greening his old Victorian home in as cost effective of a way possible. And he’s run into some real limitations.

His most recent post highlights the reality that it can be difficult to squeeze significant energy savings out of low-cost retrofit measures in homes. America may need to eventually cut our greenhouse emissions by as much as 80%, but for his part, Mr. Musser is skeptical about whether his old home can ever meet those targets. This leaves him wondering whether “old houses like ours [will] be part of the low-carbon future? Or do they ultimately need to be torn down, leaving deep scars in our cities and towns?"

Though he’s poured dollars and time into extensive insulation and leak-sealing efforts, his work has produced a disappointing reduction in air leakage of just over 10% . “Even our energy auditor says he's running out of ideas for easyish steps we could take,” he laments. “Air-sealing the house to modern standards would mean ripping off the siding and wrapping the house from the outside. Replacing the gas boiler and steam radiators with a geothermal heat pump and forced air would run $68,800, of which state subsidies would cover about half… And the sticker price wasn't the real shock. Rather, it was the fact that the system would lower our heating bill by only about a third.”

Yikes. So what really is the future of the old home in a green world?

First things first. Let’s put to bed the notion that we’re going to fix climate change – which is the result of over-consumption – with more consumption of resource-intense building materials. A study from the Existing Homes Alliance in the UK finds that it takes between 35-50 years for a new, energy efficient home to recover the carbon expended during the construction process. Three decades is an awfully long time to start racking up carbon savings – time that we don’t have. Mr. Musser points out as much himself, noting that widespread demolition is both impractical and has undesirable energy and resource impacts itself.

But once we get past the issue of whether we should just scrap all old buildings, Mr. Musser’s musings raise a lot of really important questions – questions that I believe are a call to our movement to, well, get moving. In fact there are so many issues raised by Musser’s query “Are Old Houses Doomed?” that I’m not going to try to list, much less share my thoughts on them, here.

So over the next three weeks – between now and Earth Day on April 22nd – I’ll be highlighting what I see as some of the major concerns around the future of old homes in a more sustainable world.

Early  next week I’ll start with one of the most obvious questions: What are appropriate shorter and longer term energy targets for existing buildings generally, and old homes in particular? The answer – or lack thereof – may surprise you.

Patrice Frey is the director of sustainability research for 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.