'Green' Preservation

The greenest building is the one that already exists

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

By Michael Stanton
Preservation Association of Central New York

Efforts to preserve our nation's historic architecture have traditionally been based on cultural, aesthetic and more recently economic concerns. But in this age of climate change and natural resource depletion, that may soon change. Important new partnerships are being forged between historic preservationists and the green building movement.

The earliest preservation efforts were to protect sites important to the nation's history shrines to our forefathers and sites where events important in our nation's history took place. Following World War II, highway construction and "urban renewal" leveled great swaths through the nation's cities and neighborhoods. The national preservation movement arose in the 1960s in response to these events, culminating with the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act.

More recently, economic motivations have come to the fore. Across the country, restored historic districts, like Armory Square and Franklin Square in Syracuse, are serving as engines of downtown revitalization. Franklin Square developer Douglas Sutherland explained to the Thursday Morning Roundtable last year that a developer restoring an existing building can save 20 percent or more, compared to new construction. Sutherland says existing buildings are the "low-hanging fruit" of redevelopment. His advice: "Stop destroying your assets."

The city's new comprehensive plan calls for the restoration of our traditional, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. The plan recognizes that the restoration of downtown and neighborhood business districts requires the traditional density and mixed uses that allow these places to work.

Urban planner Andres Duany, who oversaw development of the county's new Settlement Plan, is internationally known for his traditional New Urbanist developments. When people ask him how they can move to one of these new communities, Duany and his wife suggest they consider one of the older towns that inspired their work.

Then there is the "cool" factor. Economic development guru Richard Florida says the long-term financial prosperity of any region depends on its ability to attract and retain creative people. What draws them? Florida says historic architecture is an important factor. It provides "the authenticity, the credibility, the sense of community, the sense of history that bind people in a fast-moving, 24/7, ever-changing world."

So why is the green building movement emerging as a major partner in historic preservation? The answer becomes apparent when you take into account that constructing a new building typically requires 15 to 30 times the new building's annual energy use. Thus, the most intrinsically "green" buildings are those that already exist.

Another important factor is solid waste: 40 percent of all the material going into the nation's landfills is construction debris. Twenty-five percent comes from demolition alone, but the percentage must be much higher in Syracuse where we average 300 demolition permits per year, five times as many as building permits.

Then there is the embodied energy in new construction materials. For example, new high-tech windows are more energy efficient than older windows. But when you take into account the energy required to extract raw materials, manufacture replacement windows and ship them to where they are needed, it is often more energy efficient to repair existing windows.

Historic preservation encourages the use of local labor, typically pays higher wages and provides a stable supply of work, compared with the ups and downs of new construction.

Award-winning local architect David Ashley has been called the "godfather of green design" in Central New York. His firm, Ashley McGraw, is designing the new Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems downtown. Ashley says, "The idea of being 'green' implies . . . relying on public transportation and reducing sprawl, and tearing down buildings is exactly the opposite."

One of the first official gatherings of historic preservation and green building professionals took place in Philadelphia last October. Called "A National Summit on the Greening of Historic Properties," the main order of business was to start developing ways to reconcile green building criteria with standards for the rehabilitation of historic properties.

Differences did arise. For instance, historically accurate roof colors tend to be dark, while light-colored roofs are better for reflecting heat. The issue was resolved by acknowledging that the most important historic properties must remain true to their original character, while others might yield to energy efficiency measures like reflective roofs, photovoltaic panels and even green grass roofs.

A white paper produced at the close of the conference concluded "that the intersection of these two initiatives has the potential to generate a nearly endless array of positive results for all parties involved."

Michael Stanton of Syracuse is with the Preservation Association of Central New York.

2007 The Post-Standard.