Four years ago the National Trust for Historic Preservation jumped firmly into the sustainability fray with then-President Dick Moe’s speech at the National Building Museum. (Here is my blog from that time.)
The Trust will continue its leadership in this arena next month under Stephanie Meeks when it reveals the Life Cycle Analysis of historic buildings undertaken by the Preservation Green Lab in Seattle. This provides a perfect complement to the Life Cycle Analysis of new buildings recently undertaken by the American Institute of Architects, and one of my own initiatives of late is to try to bring the AIA and National Trust together on these complementary initiatives.
Life cycle analysis takes us into REAL sustainability because it asks the straightforward question: how long does an investment in a building last? My classic replacement window conundrum is a good example. If a restored wood window costs 3 times as much as a cheap plastic replacement window but last 5 times as long, it is cheaper over the life cycle of the building.
The same is often true of other elements from historic buildings, like tight-grained old growth wood, high clay content bricks, real terra cotta, dimension stone, and wall construction with natural thermal properties.
On the face of it, sustainability in preservation is obvious: what could be more sustainable than keeping a building in place rather than dumping it in a landfill and hauling a new one in from the forest? The greenest building is the one already built, as we say.
Shedd Park fieldhouse, William Drummond
But there is a problem in that historic preservation (more properly called heritage conservation) has long been defined in a regulatory way. Trust President Stephanie Meeks has been outspoken in trying to move historic preservation out of the “those who say no” category and I have previously blogged about this issue here and here.
A new angle has emerged, however, courtesy of my longtime friend Mike Jackson, Chief Architect for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which is our State Historic Preservation Office. Mike has also been a leader in talking about sustainability in preservation.
old bank building, Savanna, Illinois
So I lectured to Mike’s class at University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana a few weeks ago and afterwards we talked about Mike’s latest idea. He said I could blog about it, but it is his idea (I like to pretend that there are still viable protections regarding intellectual property or privacy or any of those things. I know! How quaint!)
Mike’s sustainability lectures go on at great length about LEED and the US Green Building Council. But this time he focused on an interesting aspect of LEED. It is not regulatory. USGBC is a private organization. Yet everyone but everyone HAS to be LEED certified and every new building has to get its LEED ratings. This thing has appeared and become dominant in less than 12 years, which is like iPods or iPads or zoning. And none of its is regulatory.
Mike suggested the Trust adopt a voluntary listing program for owners of historic buildings. As precedent, he cited the Texas Historical Commission plaque program, whereby owners voluntarily complete detailed nomination forms for their properties, get certified, and then purchase and display a THC plaque on their building. The cost of the plaque funds the program. There is little protection beyond a 90-day demolition delay, but it is popular and successful.
This is basically how LEED works: building owners and their architects complete a nomination form, get LEED certified, and then put a USGBC plaque on their buildings. It is a private organization (like the Trust) but everyone wants in on the action. It is a marketing challenge – to create a cachet that everyone wants to buy into – but so is every aspect of the preservation/conservation field.
The smart thing about this idea is that it allows a non-profit preservation/conservation organization to do what it is supposed to do – save buildings – without mistakenly being seen as a regulator, as often happens with both the Trust and statewide groups like Landmarks Illinois (where I am also on the Board).
Because we aren’t the ones who say no. We are the ones who offer creative solutions. We are the ones who offer more sustainability than is possible in a new buildings. We are the ones who help communities retain their identity and attractiveness, which leads to reinvestment and thus economic sustainability.