Traditional Building Portfolio
Traditional Building August 2008

The reuse of 95 percent of a building's exterior envelope (excluding window assemblies and non-structural roof material) and maintenance of 50 percent of the interior non-structural elements will gain you three points toward a LEED certification, just two more points than adding a bike rack and a shower will get you.




Finding Common Ground

By Mark Thaler, AIA

Sustainable design advocates and preservationists alike are engaged in the problem of how to adapt our building practices to better protect our environment. We are united in our goal to create or maintain an environment that will provide for the physical and spiritual needs of future generations; to maintain our architectural patrimony while not being a burden on this planet we share.

Despite our common goal, we differ in our ideas about how best to achieve it. While a healthy debate about how best to manage our built environment generates valuable discussion and ideas, our preferences and prejudices can also prevent us from developing a shared vision of how best to achieve our goals.

While we will continue to debate, the necessity for changing our current building practices has never been greater. Few people now doubt the possibility that catastrophic environmental consequences will result if we do not severely limit our use of fossil fuels and follow more sustainable lifestyles. How does maintaining a 200-year old home or a 19th-century office building fit into this model if we take no additional steps to conserve the energy they consume?

If we are to make the changes required of us, we must each be willing to learn from one another and to challenge our own prejudices. Michael Lykoudis' call in the June 2008 edition of The Forum for the development of an institute or consortium to provide solid research on the complex issues that confront us is a necessary step in this process. However, there is much we can do now.

For example, sustainable design advocates should recognize that the reuse of an existing building can provide a far more "green" solution than building a new building. The U.S. Green Building Council's LEED system, which has become the standard by which sustainable projects are judged, does not adequately recognize the benefits of renovating our existing buildings. One outrageous example in my town – a local restaurant will soon be demolished to make way for a 30 percent larger building with a grass-covered roof and cork floors. They are looking to receive a Silver or Gold LEED rating. This should not be possible.

But it is. The reuse of 95 percent of a building's exterior envelope (excluding window assemblies and non-structural roof material) and maintenance of 50 percent of the interior non-structural elements will gain you three points toward a LEED certification, just two more points than adding a bike rack and a shower will get you. Similarly, this year's AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) Ten Most Green Building Awards did not include a single renovated building project. The architectural profession continues to value new design over the renovation and reuse of our existing building stock. By embracing adaptive reuse, the LEED system could provide incentives for the reuse of existing buildings, which would in turn provide an incentive for sustainable approaches, techniques and innovations to be developed that focus on the unique challenges posed by reuse and renewal projects, especially the need for increased energy efficiency.

Many historic buildings have sustainable attributes such as natural ventilation, daylighting and thermal mass and are solidly constructed of quality materials that can last for hundreds of years. Fortunately, The National Trust for Historic Preservation is working with the U.S. Green Building Council to help craft future versions of the LEED rating criteria which will address these issues more fairly. However, preservationists must still take a hard look at how they can reduce the energy consumption of the buildings they care for. Maintaining the status quo is no longer an option. They must embrace principles of sustainable design and be willing to critically evaluate what energy performance upgrades can be made to their buildings while maintaining the historic character that makes them unique. While each building must be analyzed independently, much of what is learned can be applied to other structures.

There are many areas that can be investigated. Energy modeling, using specialized computer software, is a good way to understand what the impacts of various energy upgrades might have in a building. Insulating exterior walls; upgrading windows with storm panels and weather stripping; and commissioning building systems to ensure that they are working at top efficiencies; are all approaches that should be considered.

If the building site has a reasonable land area surrounding it, a geothermal heat pump system could be considered. Adding a grey water system to reduce water consumption should be explored. The rehabilitation of the Washington State Legislative Building (see Traditional Building, June 2006, page 19) included the addition of a photovoltaic array in an inconspicuous area of the roof to provide lighting of its dome for several hours at night.

All of us must strive to find new ways to make our existing building stock more energy efficient. Sustainable design advocates must ask themselves whether there is good cause to build anew when there are so many vacant buildings that can be made viable once again. The transformation of these buildings could be quite dramatic and the result every bit as creative, beautiful and energy efficient as a new building.

Similarly, preservationists must learn to embrace adaptive reuse. Many fight change and, though they pay lip service to adaptive reuse, do not want to allow changes that make re-development attractive to the development community.

The embodied energy that is inherent in historic buildings is also embodied in buildings that some preservation advocates would just as happily see torn down. A mindset of reuse and renewal should carry through to buildings of the Modernist and Post-Modernist period as well, even, perhaps, to the local suburban shopping mall!

The reuse of existing buildings must become a priority for our society. Targeted tax incentives should be utilized, including an increase in the Federal Tax Credit for Historic Preservation. Such an increase would make investment in our downtowns more desirable and encourage the transformation of our suburbs into viable mixed-use communities.

These tax credits and other incentives should require compliance with both the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation and an established standard level of energy efficiency. If the building cannot be modified without compromising its historic character, the purchase of carbon offsets should be required.

These changes in attitudes, for those of us who already believe ourselves to be good stewards of our built environment, are necessary for us to truly succeed in the fight against global warming. Each of us has the capacity to make a difference. Working together we can create great livable communities that respect the environment and maintain our sense of history and place in the world.  


Mark Thaler, AIA, is a principal with Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering, PC (EYP). For more than 20 years he has dedicated his career to the renovation and restoration of historic buildings and finding sensitive solutions to complex design problems. A two-time Palladio Award winner, his recent projects have included work at Ellis Island, the Washington State Capitol and Princeton University.
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