In with the Old: Vintage Buildings, Worth Preserving

Preservation and restoring are on our minds lately. This great post comes from Matt Cole who work in Neighborhood restoration in the Chicago area. Originally appeared on Remodeling.

Guest post by Matt Cole, Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago

(Editor’s note: Michael is recovering from the Yukon 1000 Canoe and Kayak Race and has asked Matt to blog in his absence.)

I am sometimes skeptical about the green building movement’s commitment to our existing built environment. There’s too much talk about LEED, too much focus on new green buildings and products, and too many competitions aimed at “totally re-imagining” something rather than working with what we already have. I was happy, then, to find that Jason McLennan, CEO of the Cascadia Green Building Council and author of the Living Building Challenge, had included a discussion about the value of historic preservation and existing buildings in a recent essay on the emerging “Third Age of Green Building.”

McLennan’s piece acknowledged what many of us with working in the historic preservation sphere have being saying for years:

  • There are ample opportunities to preserve and adapt existing buildings while enhancing their performance and livability.
  • These buildings represent a significant investment in environmental capital.
  • These buildings make up “real” places with a cultural and historic richness that enhances the vibrancy of our cities.

The real issue, for me anyway, is not the value of our existing buildings, but whether we are up to the task of delivering sustainable retrofits tailored to the needs and modest incomes of the average homeowner. By sustainable, I am referring to energy efficiency, health, safety, affordability, proper repairs, and a respect for cultural heritage. While I am generally optimistic that we will figure out how to achieve these goals in the long term, I believe that there are a handful of things we need to start addressing now to make this outcome more likely.

Get in Touch with the “Old Ways” of Repairing Vintage Buildings

Very few of us understand how to properly repair or maintain traditional building assemblies. Widespread familiarity with these practices went the way of the dodo over time as the home industry shifted to modern, mass-produced building techniques after World War II. As a result, it’s possible today to hire an otherwise excellent masonry contractor to repoint your vintage home, only to discover later that your brick or stone is failing because he filled your walls with a standard off-the-shelf mortar that was harder and more moisture-impermeable than the historic original.

Sadly, the few contractors who continue to practice the “old way” of doing things often charge boutique prices that most homeowners cannot afford. Ultimately, we need to get more contractors trained in these traditional building practices to lower their cost and expand their use.

Ensure That Energy Efficiency “Best Practices” Help — Not Damage — Vintage Buildings

For example, we need much better information on if, when, and how to insulate solid masonry walls due to the risk of freeze-thaw damage from condensation and other moisture-loading during cold weather.

Why does any of this matter? Because is there is nothing sustainable about repairing an old home in such a way that it downcycles its materials and needlessly contributes to its demolition.

Expand Homeowner Awareness

We can champion the merits of sustainable building retrofits until we are blue in the face, but none of this matters if cannot get homeowners to make and maintain these improvements.

On the front end, we need to find creative ways to help homeowners incorporate practical green and historic preservation practices into their rehab plans. Classes or lectures are probably not enough. Better options might include design guidelines, city-approved model specs, DIY guides, and/or free home consultations – any way to enable homeowners to readily apply the information directly to their projects.

If I had my way, every neighborhood would have a one-stop shop where residents – and their contractors – could easily access this type of information and these types of resources.

On the back end, we also need to make sure that we leave homeowners with a better understanding of how to operate and maintain their buildings. At a minimum, this should include such nuts-and-bolts basics as how to properly maintain key building systems and important (and expensive to repair) historic details.

In reality, achieving this goal must involve a more complex discussion aimed at helping homeowners understand the links between their behavior and their home’s performance. They should know, for example, that their energy costs won’t decrease with a new energy-efficient furnace if they dramatically raise the temperature of their thermostat.

I am willing to wager that a lack of this type of back-end education will likely undermine any chance for long-term efficiency gains from the Recovery Act-funded weatherization programs or the pending Home Star legislation.

Think in Shades of Green

Though we talk as though it can happen quickly, the retrofitting of most vintage homes will happen in stages over time. Yes, some percentage of these buildings will be brought up to modern code each year (i.e., gutted), but most others will only be modestly rehabbed to address a particular set of issues and fit a limited budget.

Therefore, we need to start identifying practical strategies for affordably greening whatever improvements homeowners ultimately make.

  • If they’re just going to do basic maintenance, how can this work enhance their home’s energy efficiency, mitigate minor indoor air-quality problems, or reduce water use?
  • If they’re going to redo their kitchen and baths, how this can be linked with a broader retrofit of their mechanical systems?

The debate should never be over whether an improvement is green or not – I’m not talking greenwashing – but how green it can be, given a project’s particular set of limitations.

Start Seeing the Forest, and Not Just the Trees

Here is the ugly reality: None of our efforts to preserve and retrofit vintage buildings will be sustainable if we don’t find ways to stop working on an ad-hoc, building-by-building basis We need to move upscale and start focusing on blocks of homes, distinct districts, or even entire neighborhoods. This is likely the only way we will lower project costs, develop affordable financing mechanisms, broaden resident outreach, and encourage better contractor training, etc. Depending on the scale of the focus area, such projects might also offer opportunities to facilitate green infrastructure improvements or pilot renewable energy projects.

While scaling-up will not be easy, several projects underway around the country may serve as promising models:

  • In Portland, Ore., the city government is establishing five Eco Districts to help develop and promote neighborhood-level sustainability initiatives.
  • In Denver, Living City Block is working to transform a historic, mixed-use block in lower downtown into a net energy producer over the next six years through a combination of deep energy retrofits and shared renewable energy systems.
  • In New Orleans, Historic Green is using a mix of historic preservation and sustainable building practices to help rebuild homes in the Holy Cross neighborhood, which was battered by Hurricane Katrina.

Guest blogger Matt Cole is a project manager at Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago. His background is in community development, historic preservation, and green building. Follow him on Twitter: @urbanmatt.

Michael Anschel is the owner and principal of Otogawa-Anschel Design-Build, a nationally recognized and award-winning design and build firm and a committed leader to the Green building movement in Minnesota. He blogs for REMODELING on Tuesdays. Michael also serves on the board of Minnesota GreenStar and is CEO of Verified Green, Inc., which consults with builders, remodelers, architects, and state and city officials on Green building. To read Michael’s other posts on Green remodeling, click on the link to the right, at the bottom of “about the blogger.”

Follow Michael on Twitter

This entry was published on July 31, 2010 at 10:02 am. It’s filed under Historic Building, Remodeling, Restoration and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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