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Historic preservation is a logical component of sustainability, since it basically amounts to recycling entire buildings.



A Natural Pairing

Historic preservation and sustainability go hand in hand.

By Marilyn Casto

Sustainability is now a hot topic in the fields of architecture and building, and rightfully so. It is widely understood that new construction should be created using environmentally responsible materials and techniques. Less recognized are the ways in which sustainability can be partnered with historic preservation.

Sustainability refers to the use of building materials and techniques in a responsible manner that minimizes environmental impact for both present and future generations. The concept involves a holistic approach that addresses the chain of how building products are made and transported to a building site, how they perform in the structure and the ways in which old materials are disposed. This might involve selecting materials because their manufacture does not produce undesirable byproducts or it might mean specifying products that are biodegradable. Materials that do not give off VOCs or other dangerous emissions are a part of sustainability. Buildings that do not consume excessive energy are also part of the concept. Sustainability in design is an essential part of efforts to save the environment from damaging exploitation.

Historic preservation is a logical component of sustainability, since it basically amounts to recycling entire buildings. In fact, the word "preservation" is applicable to both sustainability and historic buildings, since in both cases the object is to save the environment for the future. Every time existing structures and their materials are reused, rather than demolished and discarded, an enormous amount of energy is saved. Extant buildings represent all of the resources that originally went into their production. The loss of historic buildings constitutes a waste of materials, a waste of the energy that went into the original production of those materials and a waste of the energy used to construct the building. Furthermore, demolition of an historic structure in order to replace it with a new building requires environmental resources for the demolition plus the expenditure of energy to create the new structure.

On the surface, sustainability sounds as though it would not involve difficult choices as long as the designer chooses only materials designated by the manufacturer as sustainable. Actually, the decisions on use of materials can be complex. Since there is no federal regulation of the term "sustainable" or "green" as applied to products, reading sales literature is not a reliable way of determining the nature of materials. Sustainability involves the production, use and ultimate disposal of materials. Making things requires energy and may produce undesirable byproducts (this is one of the reasons that historic preservation, which recycles rather than disposes of building materials, is a natural part of environmentally sensible design). Even items that are manufactured with as little energy as possible and that involve no dangerous components may be problematic – they often end up in landfills because they cannot be recycled.

People who work with sustainability use the term "embodied energy" to refer to the production, transport, insertion into a building, use and recycling costs of materials. These can add up quickly, with the result that reusing historic materials can make much more sense than replacing them. Historic buildings tend to be full of sustainable materials. Many old homes, for example, contain details in wood or plaster, both of which are natural materials. Linoleum is essentially made of linseed oil, which is obtained from the flax seeds; by comparison, vinyl flooring is a petroleum product. Ceramic tile, which was so popular in the late-19th century (and is now enjoying a resurgence of popularity), is basically made of earth. If replacement is necessary, good selection of new materials in an historic building requires careful investigation of how they are made and exactly why they have been labeled as green or sustainable.

In addition to the sustainability of materials, the sustainability of architectural features should be considered. Many historic houses were erected before the age of artificial climate control and, consequently, were designed to utilize natural ventilation and light. Features such as awnings that shelter windows and reduce the need for air conditioning were historic attributes of some buildings and work just as well today to reduce energy consumption. Historic preservation projects that retain these features reduce energy consumption.

However, not all recommendations for sustainability work well in restoration projects. Generally speaking, solar panels should not be placed in conspicuous areas of historic buildings since they may take away from their historic character.

Working toward both historic preservation and sustainability goals can involve potential conflict. While the goal of maximum energy efficiency might dictate replacing windows, preservation goals require retaining them if at all possible. Maximum energy savings might involve insulation types that can damage historic houses. Working successfully toward both goals requires carefully reading structures and creatively adapting sustainability concepts to fit particular structures. Simply following the recommendations of the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a rating system that outlines green-building standards, without analyzing the idiosyncrasies of a particular historic building could result in loss of historic character. (At present, the LEED for Homes program is being developed.) However, it is possible to resolve differences. The city of Boulder, CO, for example, has sought to join the efforts of the Historic Preservation Program and the Office of Environmental Affairs to make it easier for homeowners to meet the goals of both preservation and sustainability.

Repairing rather than replacing not only saves embodied energy; it also reduces the amount of rejected features dumped in landfills. In addition to use of non-toxic materials, the restoration of an historic house in the Presidio in San Francisco, CA, included the use of renewable resources and salvaged materials. The Florence Griswold House Museum in Old Lyme, CT, incorporated geothermal heating and cooling into its restoration. (See Period Homes, November 2006, page 16.)

The ever-contentious Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation of Historic Structures can be adhered to while still incorporating sustainability into projects. It will, however, require effort to reconcile sometimes conflicting recommendations. Among the Department of the Interior's Preservation Briefs are "Conserving Energy in Historic Buildings" (Brief number 3) and "Heating, Ventilating and Cooling Historic Buildings" (Brief number 24).

LEED has been criticized for stressing new technologies with insufficient attention to historic buildings. But the intersection of historic preservation and sustainability is increasingly attracting attention. Two years ago, The Association for Preservation Technology established its Technical Committee on Sustainable Preservation. Boulder's Historic Preservation/Environmental Sustainability Integration Project seeks to resolve conflicts between historic preservation and energy efficiency. The American Institute of Architects' 2006 conference of its Historic Resources Committee chose to focus on sustainability.

Those are all steps in the right direction, but, at present, most of the focus on sustainability is centered on new homes. This largely ignores the vast environmental possibilities offered by saving the buildings that already exist.  


Dr. Marilyn Casto is an Associate Professor of Interior Design in the School of Architecture + Design at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, VA, where she teaches courses in design history. She is a past president of the Southeast Society of Architectural Historians and is currently the Book Review Editor of the newsletter published by the Vernacular Architecture Forum. Her book, Historic Theaters of Kentucky, won the Southeast Society of Architectural Historians' Annual Book Award in 2000.
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