Sustainability, LEED, and Preservation

I am at the Preservation and Sustainability conference at Goucher College today, where I presented a paper on the Greening of the Prairie School, which I joked was like saying “Gilding the Lily” since my biggest point was that much of the 100-year old Prairie School included design features we would now consider green, such as local sourcing, unfinished materials, climate-sensitive siting, overhanging eaves, natural ventilation systems, and compact design. I also talked about ways in which the Prairie School was not sustainable, including the sprawling anti-urban bias of Frank Lloyd Wright himself, and I concluded with the example of the former River Forest Women’s Club, which went from the 2005 Illinois’ 10 Most Endangered List to the 2008 Illinois Preservation Project of the Year, thanks to Ellen and Paul Coffey, who rehabbed the building using the latest in green technology.
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I presented the project as an example of using contemporary geothermal and solar technology while meeting all of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, but much of the discussion here has been about the conflicts between preservation and LEED, which has become the standard – through marketing of a trade association, USGBC – for sustainability. A recurring theme has been the need to create an independent rating system for green design. We also learned about impending improvements to LEED which will allot more points for rehabilitating historic buildings – in the original you got the same point for NOT demolishing a building as you did for putting in a bike rack.
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Bruce Judd, FAIA of San Francisco has done lots of LEED certified rehabilitations of historic buildings and argued that the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards do not need to be changed and are working well. Another speaker, archaeologist Tom King, got us going by suggesting an abolition of the National Register. I countered with the point that preservation is in fact a site of negotiation between various communities and various experts and not the purview of one or the other. Moreover, while LEED is prescriptive – you get points for specific things you do – in contrast, the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, which “govern” preservation, are interpretive, and have been interpreted differently over time. The importance as far as I am concerned is not lists or surveys or standards but a PROCESS whereby various values are considered. We will get back to values soon.
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One of the problems with both LEED and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards is that they tend to focus on the time architects are involved: design and construction. If you are concerned about global warming, you have to look at building operations over time. The costs of operating a building for 30 years are 3 times the design and construction phase. Most people ignore the embodied energy of a building whose carbon footprint predates television; they also ignore the lifespan of materials. I blog a lot about my 110-year old windows because they are already there: no replacement can’t out-environment that and few can outperform them in terms of operation. Audrey Tepper did a nice job of making the window argument, which EVERYONE in this crowd understood all to well.
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Tom Liebel, AIA of Baltimore has a wonderful motto: Long Life; Loose Fit. This is true of buildings as a construction and it is useful for thinking about the operation of buildings, which is a larger contributor to greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation. You might balk at spending $1000 on a door, but that door might be CHEAPER over the life of the product and operate MORE EFFICIENTLY. There was discussion of some laboratory spaces that could be retrofitted with German compressors that used a lot less energy and lasted longer, even though they were more expensive. Most people also focus only on design and construction, not operations. Most corporations and institutions also separate these functions, so someone makes a budget decision about installation or rehabilitation based only on the design and construction cost, not the operation cost. That is wrong.

Almost every speaker used a Venn diagram with three bubbles: Economic, Environmental and Social/Cultural. LEED was designed only for Environmental. The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and other preservation practices were initially designed only for Social/Cultural. A generation ago preservation started getting heavily involved in the Economic. Now is the time to solve all three, because ONLY the intersection of Economic, Environmental and Social/Cultural values is TRUE sustainability.
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Cindy Steinhauser from Dubuque also made an excellent economic point which I have aluded to in my recent posts on the Obama stimulus package: preservation – which is green building – creates more jobs. And Green jobs CAN’T BE EXPORTED. She talked about revitalizing a mill district in Dubuque which thrived for generations on manufacturing. That changed and the jobs went elsewhere. But rehabilitating our environment; our buildings and our communities is a job that CAN NOT go anywhere else.

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2 Responses to “Sustainability, LEED, and Preservation”

  1. hikebikemike Says:

    This was an interesting post. I’m just getting my feet wet in preservation studies as a returning student at Tulane in New Orleans. I’d love to get some info from your presentation, or view it, for a paper I’m writing for a class. Let me know if you’re interested in sharing. Thanks!

    • vmichael Says:

      The paper was pre-published in the conference proceedings and will be coming out in a book from the various conference papers.

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