Monday, May 11, 2009

Preservation and Sustainability

Memorial Hall under renovation

May is National Preservation Month, and the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia held its annual Preservation Achievement Awards luncheon today at the beautiful (and historic) Park Hyatt at the Bellevue. Mayor Michael Nutter gave a brief speech, in which he proclaimed that the greenest buildings are the ones that are already built. He noted that this is a common theme of his sustainability coordinator Mark Allan Hughes (and I note it is also a theme of the National Trust for Historic Preservation).

At the luncheon, the Please Touch Museum was honored for its $88 million restoration of Memorial Hall, the monumental historic structure remaining from the 1876 Centennial Exhibition – America’s first true world’s fair. However, the children’s museum’s President and CEO, Nancy Kolb, noted that the museum is currently fighting to achieve LEED certification. How could the reuse of an existing building have any trouble getting certified as a green building? It seems counter intuitive, and yet this is a very real issue.

Ironically, the cities most associated with sustainability, like Portland and Seattle, have mostly new construction. It is possible that cities like Philadelphia with a largely historic building stock have the potential for a more sustainable built environment. However, too often we do not make the link between historic preservation and sustainability. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Position on Sustainability:

“Many historic and older buildings are remarkably energy efficient because of their site sensitivity, quality of construction, and use of passive heating and cooling, while other buildings require improvements to reduce their environmental footprint. Historic buildings can go green without compromising historic character.”

There are plenty of folks out there already making the nexus between historic preservation and green building. It is a natural and obvious connection, and one that I hope will grow as we begin to realize that many of our older cities are actually our most sustainable.

Of course, the best of both worlds is having a historic structure additionally outfitted for maximizing energy efficiency. Good news! There is legislation before the U.S. Congress, as we speak, that would provide funds to tackle this very issue.

The Retrofit for Energy and Environmental Performance Program Act (H.R. 1778), sponsored by Rep. Peter Walsh (D–VT), would provide $2.5 billion to states to support retrofitting existing homes and commercial buildings for energy efficiency. The bill is not just for historic structures, funding up to 50% of the cost of retrofitting any home or commercial building.

However, properties that are listed on or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places qualify for 120% of the standard benefits. This act would create significant new funding for retrofitting newer homes for energy efficiency, and also for retrofitting historic structures – making possible a true nexus between historic preservation and energy efficiency.

This act would be a step forward in tackling the impact of buildings on our nation’s energy usage. As the bill notes, “Buildings are responsible for 39 percent of all energy consumption, 72 percent of all electricity consumption, and 55 percent of natural gas use in the United States.” In addition, it is a very real acknowledgement of the benefits of historic preservation, providing resources to make our sustainable historic properties even more so.

So go out there and appreciate the historic resources that we have in our communities. They create our nation’s beloved places and reflect the events, people, and ideas that shaped our past. In addition, remember that a commitment to historic preservation is also a commitment to an energy efficient and sustainable future. By saving our past, we win in the future.

Happy National Preservation Month 2009!

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