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It's time for historic preservationists to unite with the green building community, earn their respect for our culture and draw upon their expertise to figure out together how to save our
historic building stock.




United We Stand

By Ralph DiNola, Associate AIA, LEED AP

Dramatic change is taking place across the country. The leadership in Washington, the economic downturn, stimulus and a new urgency regarding climate change has produced a seismic shift in the way we view our world. Despite the challenges, examples of these cycles of struggle and hope can be found throughout history and have always resulted in positive change, hope and resilience. I believe a groundswell of optimism and unity is taking hold throughout the world.

People are beginning to reach out to each other across the aisle, which provides an ideal cue for preservationists and the green building community. Often, preservationists feel like those in the sustainable realm don't understand issues fundamental to historic preservation, and this has led to an "us" versus "them" mentality. I've worked on both sides of this issue and can say with certainty that it's not only possible to work together to create better historic buildings, it's our collective responsibility.

In the wrong hands, achieving the current requirements for sustainability can destroy the historic value of a building. Many preservationists haven't forgotten how, in the name of new urbanism in the 1950s or energy efficiency in the 1970s, many historic buildings were decimated or their character was forever altered. Skepticism and concern seem natural given this legacy. But historic buildings have been afforded generous leeway in terms of energy performance for too long. We now have numerous examples of how applied advances in design and construction technology can result in sensitive change. With the climate change imperative, it's time to work together to develop mutually satisfying solutions and create win-win results.

While the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system was not designed with historic buildings in mind, several criteria give historic buildings a leg-up in the process. For example, a project can instantly gain up to three points for building reuse. Previously undeveloped sites that are below the 100-year flood plain can still earn a point for meeting sustainable site criteria, while a new project on an undeveloped site in a flood plain cannot. Existing buildings also get more points for the same level of optimizing energy performance compared to new buildings, in recognition of the challenges associated with upgrading existing buildings. In addition, new buildings have to use an ASHRAE 90.1 building envelope as their baseline for energy improvements while historic structures can use the existing building envelope, providing potentially more opportunities to earn points for improvements.

Other points are readily available just by being located in an urban area. In LEED-NC 2009, for instance, 12 points are awarded for a sustainable site with development density and community connectivity, and good proximity to transit. In addition, a project can receive a point if it does not add new parking capacity, and an existing landscaped site may earn a point for reducing the heat island effect by having shaded impervious site area.

LEED does pose some hard questions about design and construction practices that often are not raised in typical rehabilitation projects. It requires that the owner examine the energy performance of the building and take steps to improve on it. But many jump to the conclusion that, in order to get energy optimization points, they have to follow prescriptive measures, such as the most feared of all preservation "no-nos" – window replacement!

While LEED allows for a prescriptive approach, it's not the approach I recommend to meet the criteria. Project teams can run a computer simulation to determine the potential impacts and benefits of various energy efficiency measures, then evaluate and choose what works best for the building while meeting historic preservation criteria and maintaining character-defining features.

The biggest benefit of the LEED rating system is that it provides tools and strategies to arrive at valid solutions. The people who developed the rating systems may not have had a deep understanding of the application of historic preservation theory and practices in building rehabilitations, which places the onus on those in the historic preservation community to impart that knowledge. Rather than facing these issues with skepticism and fear, we have the opportunity before us to help shape these standards and further make the case for what is green about historic preservation and existing building rehabilitation. We fundamentally understand that there are inherent green features in historic buildings that can inform the sustainable community on good design practices such as approaches to daylighting, natural ventilation and durability.

National Trust President Richard Moe best summarized the issue in a lecture presented at the Gerding Theater in the Portland Armory February 27, 2008 entitled "Sustainable Stewardship: Historic Preservation's Essential Role in Fighting Climate Change:"

"It all comes down to this simple fact: We can't build our way out of the global warming crisis. We have to conserve our way out. That means we have to make better, wiser use of what we've already built."

As preservation professionals, we need to examine successful examples of projects that met the Secretary of Interior's Standards for Historic Preservation and achieved green building goals along with LEED certification to determine how to best adapt these strategies. I have had the unique honor of being involved in the rehabilitation of a dozen historic buildings that are either seeking LEED certification or have already been certified, while maintaining their historic character and status. Two projects in Portland, OR – the Mercy Corps headquarters and the rehabilitation of the Balfour Guthrie building – illustrate the range of what can be accomplished in sustainable preservation projects, from the very practical to the dramatically advanced, while respecting and honoring the architectural heritage of the original buildings.

The historic Balfour Guthrie building was rehabilitated six years ago, when the market for green building products and technologies was just beginning to emerge and LEED criteria was still evolving. A transformation of a vacant two-story poured-in-place concrete building with limestone veneer into contemporary offices, the project earned a LEED Silver certification on a modest rehabilitation budget of $83 per square foot. Using many simple off-the-shelf technologies and materials, the building reduces energy use by 40 percent compared to code, while providing a beautiful day-lit workspace for the owners and tenants.

The Mercy Corps headquarters project is one-half historic rehabilitation and one-half new construction. Because the charitable organization's mission is built around emergency relief, the administration saw the project as a personal way of dealing with the environmental issues they face on the worldwide stage. As a result, they decided to demonstrate many of the leading strategies and technologies in green building both to demonstrate their effectiveness and to reduce their environmental footprint, while seeking a LEED Platinum certification.

Nationwide, there are dozens of historic projects that are taking this integrated approach to sustainable preservation. Moving forward, the story to be told is not "us" versus "them," but what can we learn from each other? It's time for historic preservationists to unite with the green building community, earn their respect for our culture and draw upon their expertise to figure out together how to save our historic building stock and find new ways to evaluate and recognize the value of old, existing and historic buildings.  


Ralph DiNola is a principal who specializes in greening historic projects at Green Building Services Inc., Portland, OR, one of the most comprehensive green building consulting firms in the nation. His experience includes the first LEED Gold historic project in the United States, and he assisted in the transformation of the Portland Armory into a LEED Platinum project on the National Register. DiNola can be reached at 866.743.4277 or
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