What is Already Green About Historic Buildings

For decades, there has been an underlying tension between historic preservation and environmental design: the former seeking to protect our history and culture, typically by applying traditional methods of construction and conservation to familiar buildings from the past; the latter trying to protect human health and natural habitat and promote alternative sources of energy, often through the application of innovative technologies and construction methods to more unique and creative forms.

But, within the past decade these two groups have started to recognize that their goals may not be so different. Keeping historic buildings well-maintained and in use is one of the best ways to ensure sustainability of the built environment. New construction uses additional resources (some sustainable, some not so sustainable) and uses fossil fuels in transportation costs, adds waste to landfills, and generally takes a toll on the environment.

Green About Historic Buildings

America’s existing building inventory is much too large to attempt to replace all, or even a significant fraction, of the buildings with new green construction. It is just not practical or sustainable. However, by recognizing what is already green with historic buildings new technologies and improvements can be added to enhance and improve sustainability while still maintaining the historic character.

First, it is important to acknowledge the green aspects of historic buildings that already work well. Historic buildings were not constructed with the possible impacts to the environment in mind but they were built to provide the best possible indoor environmental quality given the specific climate and the technologies available at the time.

Historic Buildings

Buildings were designed to use natural ventilation and daylight to provide a comfortable building. But, often in the remodeling process of historic buildings the interior is changed and partitioned in such a way as to inhibit the natural air flow.

Similarly, eaves, porches, and landscaping all contribute to reducing the effects of direct sunlight and radiant heat. A simple way to help energy efficiency of historic buildings is to include landscape design into any historic building retrofit. Incorporating trees or a water garden into the design can greatly enhance the energy conservation required for cooling and help reduce rainfall runoff damage, respectively.

Old and historic buildings are often environmentally friendly, and they contain opportunities for becoming greener but environmentalists and preservationists must be able to work together and find shared opportunities. The greatest enemy to both green and historic buildings is short-term thinking in which buildings are designed and built for the moment without thought to the long-term consequences of design choices. -KATHY FAIRCHILD

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