From Preservation Architecture: Historic Preservation and Green Architecture

In this month’s issue of Preservation Magazine, Author Blair Kamin writes about two movements, historic preservation and green architecture, in the article Historic Preservation and Green Architecture: Friends or Foes?

Whenever I hear people talking about tension between historic preservation and green architecture, I am taken aback. What tension? Choosing between preservation and conservation, it would seem, is like choosing between a Volvo and a Saab. They have more similarities than differences.

He brings up critical questions designers must face with each historic resource, balancing architectural integrity and conservation with larger environmental concerns.

Should preservationists place a new and unremitting emphasis on saving energy, or should retaining the integrity of architectural masterworks remain paramount? To what extent, if at all, should preservationists be guided by the U.S. Green Building Council’s standards for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification?

In other words, should the green movement and the threat of climate change prompt a rethinking of what it means to be a historic preservationist at the dawn of the 21st century?

He brings up a case study of the Seth Peterson Cottage. Local activists thought renting it out as getaway would help fund the restoration. However, when architect John Eifler’s mechanical engineer determined that the house would need double glazing, SHPO originally denied the change. The decision was eventually reversed and the author writes,

When work on the Seth Peterson Cottage concluded in 1992, the clock had not been turned back. It had been turned forward, anticipating today’s energy concerns.

This isn’t just good for the environment, it’s good for preservation. Because the Seth Peterson Cottage Conservancy isn’t spending thousands of dollars heating the property, it has sufficient funds to maintain it.

The broader lesson is that a restoration should not only reinstate the past, it should also prepare a building for the future. If a building cannot meet tomorrow’s standards, in Eifler’s view, it is doomed to become obsolete. And that will lead the public and policymakers to wonder why they should devote precious resources to the very cause preservationists hold dear. Eifler’s radical mantra: Preservationists have to reinvent themselves—or they will become dinosaurs.

Kamin follows with other case studies, each citing a different tactic and challenges met with preservation and sustainable design. At Crown Hall, he feels that the team had different balance than the aforementioned Seth Peterson case, where “retaining the authenticity of the original outweighed concerns about energy… To [preservation architect] Gunny Harboe, the essence of sustainability is cultural, not simply scientific.”

In another case of a Chicago power plant, he explains a more hybrid approach of the place now named the Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center. Instead of adding finish to walls with faux patterns of the original to add insulation, the designers utilized exhaust fans and a concealed plenum. Kamin feels, “by carefully picking opportunities for preservation and conservation, the architects achieved both aims in the same historic structure.”

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