Posts Tagged ‘Texas Historical Commission’

A New LEED for Preservation?

December 6, 2011

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.



Hotel Cortez, El Paso, and its THC plaque

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.


Every year thousands pay $90 to stand in long lines at Wright Plus, so why not?

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).


Altgelt, King William District, San Antonio. And its THC plaque.

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.

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Marfa, Texas

October 28, 2010

Marfa, Texas is a town with one stop light named after a character in a Dostoevsky novel and a far drive from just about everywhere else in the world. But its isolation hasn’t prevented it from becoming a destination and famous place for longer than I have been on earth. You can begin with the lovely Second Empire Presidio County Courthouse in the center of town, preserved as part of the great courthouse preservation program of the Texas Historical Commission.

The courthouse square seems unfinished, with most of the buildings on one end of it, closer to the intersection two blocks away with the road that matters, the one that connects to Alpine, at 5700 people nearly thrice as large, and El Paso, 3 hours distant. Marfa has some great buildings from the early 20th century, most notably the Hotel Paisano, with plaques aplenty describing its architectural landmark status and shops dedicated to the Marfa’s first great film, James Dean, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Burton’s GIANT (Dennis Hopper also appeared).



Marfa Bank and part of the 1931 Brite Building

Marfa also hosts an inexplicable meterological phenomena called the Marfa Lights and they have even built a viewing platform outside of town where you can see these floating, colorful lights that appear and disappear like mirages in the early evening.

Marfa got its next burst of fame in the 1970s when the minimalist artist Donald Judd began transforming an old military base into a massive exhibit of his own and other guys (heavy emphasis on the male gender) modern art the Chinati Foundation, which still attracts carloads of artsters and hip types to see what is an impressive place on the edge of town and several buildings in town as well. Judd’s aluminum and concrete boxes and Dan Flavin‘s flourescent light installations are the highlight on the old military base, while John Chamberlain’s crushed car sculptures fill the downtown gallery.



Marfa still attracts artists and the Chinati Foundation has sponsored a great range of new and diverse work. A few years ago, Marfa became home to a public radio station, thanks to the efforts of my brother Tom Michael, who runs KRTS. The establishment of the radio station provides a cultural anchor for this unexpected cultural mecca – I know my brother meets more artists and musicians in Marfa than I do in Chicago

Marfa has more than its share of artists and entrepreneurs, and it needs them because it is out in the desert. Yet the town has a lot – the Marfa Book Company has an astonishing selection of literature and book and there is even a fabulous restaurant Cochineal with a massive wine list (5 different kinds of Grüner Veltliner! – I NEVER find Grüner Veltliner in towns 20 times as big!!) and lots of other interesting shops and venues, like Katherine Shaughnessy’s Wool & Hoop and the Ballroom.


And then there is the adobe, because while Marfa lies in Far West Texas, the Trans-Pecos and Big Bend, it is southwestern and adobe is found a lot.

this is an adobe wall at Judd’s town complex

In this regard, I spoke on Marfa Public Radio about the preservation of the Hunter Gymnasium, which may well be the only Art Deco, WPA-built adobe gymnasium in the United States of America.

I met with Mike Green, the architect completing the Historic Structures Report on the gym, which is remarkably intact with its earthen buttresses and subtle streamlining. It needs work, thanks to rising damp and water infiltration that has been made much worse by the application of elastomeric paint on the interior.

The gym also had a pitched roof installed to replace the original flat one, but it has very solid bones and I would love to see this one-of-a-kind treasure restored.

A National Trust for Historic Preservation motto is “This Place Matters” and Marfa is a place that really matters.