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This week’s guest blogger is the ever-philosophical Aaron Lubeck, housing consultant and author of Green Restorations: Sustainable Building in Historic Homes. He is currently adjunct faculty at Duke University’s Nicholas School for the Environment. Aaron is an advocate for preserving whenever possible, but discusses what many in the preservation field now wrestle with–just because an older building may be worth preserving for environmental reasons, is it necessarily landmark-worthy? Do mass-produced buildings actually contradict popular preservation philosophy? This is where historic preservation gets pretty sticky.

The Case Against Levittown’s Inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places
by Aaron Lubeck

When William Levitt completed his first assembly-line house in 1947 no one knew how much the man would forever alter the face of America. At the height of his reign his company completed a house every 16 minutes. The average builder built 3-4 homes every year; he finished 30-40 every day. Some decry him for creating sprawl and the suburb. I don’t mind that charge so much, as a fast-growing country we were somewhat bound to stretch. For me, it’s the inadvertent consequences resulting from his work that continues to disappoint. Leavitt’s long term effect on the country, as it altered our physical face to the world, I find his work overwhelmingly a net negative.

While all his business achievements are impressive and undeniably transformative, there are cases to be made that Levittown(s) should not be on the National Register. Here are three: First, Levittown is the antitheses of early 20th century design, arguably American architecture’s heyday, where individual homeowners’ identities were efficaciously linked to their homes. Levitt’s methods, then, endangered this freshly-minted cornerstone of American individualism. Richard Lacayo of Time described the contrast well: “The home was an ancient possession, a thing too intimate to be mass-produced without offending notions of Yankee individuality that were already under intense pressure from modernity”. Pre-1940, even in working class homes, individuality or local character is ever-present. But the cookie-cutter tract home craze Levitt pioneered represented conformity, central planned. Isn’t it ironic that the Levittowns were built at the height of the Cold War, when you’d expect objection to this method to be more present? Pent-up demand from a lost decade and expansive federal financing from GI bills (the first no down-payment loans) primed the pump for his growth, so arguably Uncle Sam was the more guilty party and Levitt was just following orders. After all, who had the time to build custom with all that cash-soaked demand about?

Levittown, New York. Photo from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention http://www.cdc.gov

Second, Levittown represented the first major conflicts of interest disconnect between the housing decision maker (designer|builder) and ultimate beneficiary (the homeowner) in what Energy Secretary Stephen Chu habitually refers to as ‘principle agent’ and ‘split incentives’ issues, phenomenons that ultimately put a downward pressure on quality.

Third, when low-cost production methods arrived, authenticity departed. Customization is a crucial component of the National Register. To be historic things must first be unique. That’s a fairly low bar to jump over, but Levittown’s houses fails to do it. In his book Why Architecture Matters, Paul Goldberger writes “architecture is the ultimate representation of a culture, even more so than its flag”, a statement that holds true in all eras, for better or worse: If Louis Sullivan’s ambitious art nouveau vine patterns say ‘We are unique; simultaneously in touch with industry and nature, powerful and innovative”, what do today’s faux grain vinyl siding and false-front Mcmansions say about what it means to be an American? What do the harmonizing boxes on a concrete and treeless landscape say about the US at mid-century?

I accept that one can simultaneously dislike something while appreciating its historic importance. I’ve never quite gravitated to Mies Van Der Rohe’s glass boxes, or the whole modernist movement, which sort of bore me. And I recognize the important business practices of production building that Levitt effectively created or mastered. Perhaps his work is better placed on a list of historic civil engineering landmarks, or in a business school hall of fame. Artistically, it’s a leading example of what happens when you take the pen out of an artist’s hand and let management do the creative.

Levittown, NY, 1948. Photo from http://www.affordablehousinginstitute.org

Levittown’s emphasis on quantity over quality has overtones with housing today. Like many other Americans in tract-build homes, his namesake company Levitt & Sons filed bankruptcy, interestingly, in 2007. The analogy goes further. Perhaps not coincidentally Levitt, too, overextended himself and died broke, saddled with dumb investments.

His factory process, which he described as Detroit-running-in-reverse, signaled the beginning of the end of American architecture; we’ve been building with his methods for seven decades now. The practice of expressing person through personal architecture hasn’t really been practiced since, and the assassination happened that day in New York, 1947. To put his work on the national register is akin to honoring John Wilkes Booth in the Lincoln Memorial. Change history, Mr. Levitt did. Just not for the better. It’s for that reason William Levitt’s contributions do not belong on our National Register of Historic Places.

Lately I’ve been thinking about my mortality. A lot. In fact, I am pretty much always thinking about my mortality—it’s just a sweet, charming little thing I do. To exacerbate this, I spend most of my time trying to save buildings and the environment from being utterly destroyed. I think this is especially traumatizing for me with buildings, because we all hold onto the idea that like a paper cut, the environment can heal and regenerate itself. Buildings just die, either in a particularly public, violent way, or over an excruciatingly long period of decay. So, while I realize that buildings don’t have a central nervous system, I still feel utterly compelled to save them, even when I know that they will eventually die by bulldozer, fire, water, whatever. And so I’m compelled to explore this today, mostly because it’s interesting to me and because I understand that if a preservationist doesn’t understand their own preservation philosophy, whatever remains of it will be utterly compromised because, well, it’s easier to compromise when you don’t know why you believe what you say you believe.

Hi, I'm moisture infiltration. I will eventually kill every building that government officials and wars happen to miss.

So I’m going a little deep here today, folks. I’m thinking about the phenomenon of “death anxiety” and how it relates to preserving structures and also, by extension, the environment. Back to the question of “why do we preserve buildings when we know that they will eventually die anyway?” Well, why do we fight to preserve our own lives when we know that while that ginseng may help us remember who we are a little longer, our body is in a constant state of decay? We can stave things off for a bit—slap on a new coat of paint and do a little repointing when we break down or look a little old—but really, well, you get the point. We’re going to die. In fact, we’re probably going to die sooner than the brick two-flat we live in.

So this brings me to culture because decay logic just confuses me more. I don’t think we should ever think about preservation without thinking about culture. Sure, it is also important environmentally to reuse, repair, keep stuff out of landfills and stop using crazy amount of energy to create replaceable, throw away items or entirely new buildings when a viable structure already exists. But once we realize that everything eventually decays, we look to culture and symbols to immortalize us. Culture gives us a sense of place and meaning. We have flags, religious beliefs, social mores, clothing, language, and yes, architecture that will represent a big part of who we are long after we are gone.

Maybe you don't know why I matter, but you totally know I matter. Weather done taken its tole on me, but clearly everyone will be sad when I'm totally gone and people will be SUPER PISSED if anyone tries to obliterate me. Also, I apparently know how to talk!

These symbols are a part of who we are, they externalize our collective believe system, and that’s why they are so important to us. And while this may seem simplistic—to hold onto icons as a physical manifestation of our belief systems—I think it’s incredibly important. These objects remind us that we are part of something larger, a kind of family. Our culture, and, by extension, our value system, gives us a road map for acceptable behavior, a system by which we can measure right and wrong and act accordingly. This is a large part of why I prefer to landmark districts over single properties—it’s an easier way to preserve cultural values and hence, actions. When you know your neighbors, you feel more responsible for them and act more in accordance with a more general system of values, i.e. you don’t let your property fall into disrepair or sell it to a developer who just realized that they can build a 3 story box on your lot that will break up your entire street line. A cultural value system also gives us a way to excel. A system of values that is shared by a group allows an individual to rise in the ranks, i.e. to have the greenest or best-restored house on the block. It fosters a healthy competition and holds up a system of pride and respect.

Now I know it’s easy to be all “but the mob mentality leads to extremism” and yadda yadda. I know. I get it. But this is the other side of the coin, and I think that is sheds some light on why, why oh why, many of us spend so much of our time fighting to save our physical environment. I mean, right? Symbolism? Values? Discuss.

So I’m finally back in the saddle again—my apologies for abandoning the blog for 5,000 years. I’m likely going to ramble a bit while my head is still spinning with all that I’ve been up to, so bear with me. Bottom line: I firmly believe that the best way to keep up one’s enthusiasm and energy is to do cool stuff outside of your routine and comfort zone (i.e. volunteer on all those projects that will never pay you) and travel whenever possible. Chicago is a huge city with a zillion things happening, but it’s damned difficult to have perspective on what’s really happening in the rest of the country when I’m here in my big, urban bubble with my big, urban ideas. During the month of August, I spent a couple of weeks traveling down south again, and then way up to northern Idaho looking at different initiatives and talking with people who were doing all kinds of green and/or preservation work. Perhaps the coolest thing is that many of the people engaged in these activities probably wouldn’t necessarily describe it that way (and/or don’t WANT to describe it that way)—a good sign, in my opinion, as it makes me think that preservation and environmental upgrades are less and less becoming unusual projects.

Where I stayed in Idaho. Is this a little out of my comfort zone? Well, let's just say when I see a stuffed animal laying face down, I instinctively flip it over in case it secretly needs to breathe. That said, I loved staying here and love and understand the people who live here. Spending time in more rural areas of the country over the past few years has opened my mind in countless ways, and this trip proved to be no different. Kind of amazing stuff.

As I’ve discussed at (mind numbing) length, part of the problem with both historic preservation and green initiatives is they often seem inaccessible to people. Either the work or products are too expensive or there is some stigma attached to them. I remember reading about Greensburg, Kansas, a town that was completely flattened by a tornado that decided to go green when it rebuilt. Some residents left and others had ethical qualms with the change as they worried it was promoting some kind of radical tree-hugger agenda. Yes, my eyes want to roll, too, but hey, life is different there. The resident of Greensburg who lead the green charge instead pitched his idea as “good old-fashioned thrift and independence.” Yeah, he basically Palin-ed it, but it totally worked, so good for him. In fact, the more I think about it, this man is a damned genius.

So we can't save everything. Greensburg, KS was totally wiped out after a tornado blasted it to bits. Because one local had the foresight to rebuild green and used rhetoric and reasoning that other locals would respond to, the new town is now a environmental model, despite a general distrust of the environmental movement. Brilliant and awesome.

Idaho is another place that doesn’t exactly take kindly to outside advice and ideas about how one should live their life. Property rights are a huge issue and people don’t like to be told what to do. Period. Barns and properties crumble constantly, there is no visible application of building safety codes, and there seems to be little concern from neighbors or government regarding this. It’s just part of the culture, and obviously rural areas don’t need as much regulation as densely populated ones because if that building falls, fewer people will be smooshed by it. At least that’s why I assume there is more regulation in larger cities. At any rate, I was fortunate to stay with a couple I know from doing restoration work a few years back with the University of Oregon—Kathryn does preservation work just over the Washington state boarder, and Ron manages three state parks in northern Idaho. They both do amazing preservation work, and the state parks that Ron manages are also incorporating all kinds of useful green measures, though unlike many green initiatives, they aren’t advertising it to the world and patting themselves on the back in a public way. Not all state parks do this kind of work, believe me, but Ron’s smart enough to understand the benefits and is respected enough locally to make them happen—a golden combo. I’ll talk more at length about those initiatives in another blog, but wanted to make the point that it matters what kind of language you speak to people.

From what I could gleen, if you own property in Idaho, you may do with it whatever you wish. The result is amazingly beautiful crumbling structures that I love to photograph but very little historic preservation. On the other hand, this is part of the rural culture, so would saving these buildings be saving the cultural history or destroying it? Just some off-topic food for thought.

I’m still sorting out everything I’ve seen over the past weeks, but it seems to me that the only way to make headway in communities is to understand your audience, speak a language that is comfortable to them, and then show them the benefits in a way that matters. Governmental regulation is scorned by so much of our country–a more local and sensitive approach just makes a heck of a lot more sense and progress. Some places want to hear about job creation, but aren’t interested in the idea that they are using less oil. Some places might think it’s tacky to discuss saving money and would rather discuss environmental benefits. Some states have more severe water shortages, so focus on how various strategies will result in water saving measures. Whatever. Just make whatever needs to be done make sense to those who live there. I’m an urbanite, through and through. I like jargon and I like being “right,” but I tell you what, I also like results and expanding my understanding of the world. And seriously, people who think they know everything are rigid, annoying, (and wrong), so they are wasting their breath and everyone else’s time. So let’s check our egos or comfort zones at the door and get it done. Time’s a-wastin’.

In the fall, Preservation Chicago will be having what will no doubt be an incredible fundraiser at the Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center (aka the old Sears Power Plant that underwent a $40 million dollar restoration and rehabilitation). The building originally supplied heat and electricity to the massive Sears, Roebuck and Co. campus on the city’s West Side, and is one of four main buildings of the George C. Nimmons designed Sears, Roebuck and Co. complex and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. I’m on the Preservation Chicago board and pretended that it was necessary to tag along and scope out the venue because it’s something I have been wanting to do for quite some time now.

Historic view of what is now the large entry room and dining hall of the charter school. There was a whole lot of giant, heavy equipment that had to be removed for this project. A whole lot.

The 1905 structure in North Lawndale was originally 30,000 square feet (now expanded even further), and is a creative example of adaptive reuse that resulted from a partnership with Chicago Public Schools’ Renaissance 2010 project and the Henry Ford Learning Institute. The Power House was slated to become an energy efficient charter high school in what has been a terribly under-served area. I guess if you’re going to spend $40 mil, that’s a good place to spend it. Because of the unusual space and the way that classrooms were carved into the existing structure, the setup of each room is, well, atypical. I thought this was especially cool in that it helps break the hierarchy and traditional layout of classrooms and only reinforces the mission of the school and it’s progressive curriculum. For some reason, this analogy came to mind: if Stevie Nicks wasn’t spiritual on the inside, her lyrics wouldn’t seem as magical, right? Be kind, it’s Friday at 3:30 and I still have much work to do today.

The main room after the restoration with some Preservation Chicago people digging the tour. The strip of flooring that is clay colored is restored flooring from the original room. The dining hall area is actually in the far background behind the large piece of equipment, which acts as a kind of wall. Yes, this room is massive.

While the website says that the building is aiming to achieve LEED Gold status, I was told on the tour that they may actually end up achieving LEED Platinum. While I love to raise a suspicious (let’s be honest, even condescending) eyebrow at the LEED rating system, the fact that this structure is used by thousands of people, and the fact that it is an adaptive reuse project makes me glad to see it is getting such recognition. The project architects were from Chicago–based Farr & Associates, who began the assessments in 2005. Work was completed in time for the 2009 school year. For more incredible historical, before, and after photos of the powerhouse, look here.

Windows were beautifully restored and the glass was replaced with more energy efficient glazing. Tons of natural light in this building!

Here are some highlights of the building that I pulled from the website:

• Geothermal Heating and Cooling – The HVAC system capitalizes on a half-acre geothermal well field of 84, 350′-deep vertical ground loops circulating water with glycol to reject heat in summer and extract heat in winter. Coupled with an integrated DDC controls system and 42 individual water-to-air heat pumps the system will allow greater temperature control and reduced energy consumption.

• Energy Efficient Historic Windows – The historically regulated windows on the west and north facades are retrofitted with insulated glass, thus retaining the historic character of true divided lite windows, while simultaneously enhancing the energy performance.

• Movement and Control of Conditioned and Ventilation Air – Mechanical systems employ heat recovery and demand-based ventilation. Two energy recovery units on the roof will temper outside air intake with exhaust air utilizing an enthalpy wheel.

• Preservation – The walls of the Great Hall are lined with white glazed brick. Original terra cotta floor tiles were lifted and reinstalled as part of the new floor plan. The original 40-ton gantry crane and rail system remain in place and the skylights spanning the space were refitted with an energy-efficient, natural daylighting system. Large pieces of heating, cooling, and power generation equipment from throughout the building’s lifespan have been left in place, including sections of the original coal conveyor system, coal hoppers, a diesel generator and other “mementos” of the building’s history.

The history of the building is honored in many ways, like the above enlarged photographs of what the spaces lookedl like before the rehab. Many of these hang in the main room of the building. There is original equipment and painted coal shoots all around the building as well, which give it a cool, industrial feel and add to the magic of the spaces.


A hallway with a built in classroom wall on the right.


Super awesome interior stairwell.


Apparently, I didn't take any pictures that do these classroom spaces justice, but trust me, they are considerably more interesting than any classrooms that you or I have ever spent time in. There are painted coal chutes and I-beams along the ceilings, giant, arched windows that bring in light, and a giant, preserved coal chute in an exterior light well that students can look at up close and personal. Table configurations are generally non-traditional so that teachers walk around the room instead of stand in front the entire time, allowing for more interaction with students and less of a traditional, heirarchical way of teaching.

In a recent meeting, we were discussing the advantages of having your home certified “green”—advantages that now include an eco nod in MLS listings (some kind of acknowlegement of whatever rating system the building is certified under), a 3-5% premium in real estate sales due to projected energy savings, and a shorter sale time. Now thems some real perks. But then I got to mulling.

When you did a little deeper, you might just ask yourself, well, what the hell does that green certification mean? Sure, in 2009 a homeowner puts in a high efficiency furnace and some insulation, but what does that actually mean when you want to sell the house in 10 years? What if you buy a house with a tankless water heater and then replace it with the cheapest piece of junk you can afford years down the line—does the building lose its green certification? What if changes are made to the home like additions with south-facing sun rooms that bring in so much solar gain that they could cook a future owner’s cat and throw him/her into foreclosure because the central air bills are more than the mortgage and cat funerals are extremely expensive in the coming years? Yeah, bet you didn’t think of that.

Pulled from http://www.listedgreen.com, a website that lists properties with various green certifications.

Well, some green rating systems are better at tracking these things than others, but I’m guessing none of them will audit a home until the end of its life—if LEED has some plan to do this, please by all means let me know as so much changed with LEED 3.0 and I still haven’t gotten off my laurels and learned it all.

Basically, any kind of quality control would require something like every green home being audited on a regular basis, as most changes that are made to homes to make them green don’t require permits, so there is no way to flag a review for quality control.

Now to be fair, the same can be said for a building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Once you’re on the list, you’re on the list unless you are Soldier Field or Federal funding is somehow monkeying with your property—like someone wants to build a highway through your collection of Charlton Heston paraphernalia in the extra bedroom. Why anyone complains about property owner’s rights in terms of being listed on the National Register is completely beyond me because you can only stand to benefit as nobody will EVER ring your doorbell and make you explain why you used Type N instead of Type O mortar on your wingwalls. Seriously, I promise you this.

That said, local landmarking is a different story. Each municipality is different of course, but if your building is a local landmark in Chicago and you do work that requires permitting it will flag a special landmarks permit review. Which I, of course, think is completely appropriate, especially if you have benefited from tax incentives from your landmark status. These reviews are pretty basic, as they focus on materials or changes in the building massing—your building no longer looks historic if you add a giant metal-clad addition to it. Of course others will get all “cowboy” about property rights and whine after they have a) often bought the house for the very reason that it looks so charmingly historic, and b) have used the tax breaks to fund repairs to their home. But I digress.

Lathrop House, a local Chicago landmark. If the owner wanted to do any work that required a permit, the City Landmarks Department would be notified and do a review to make sure the project didn't compromise the hisotric look of the building. These guidelines don't change and because there is a system in place, the integrity of the building isn't in question so the designation actually has meaning.

So we know how to determine if a building is historic. The whole point is that it doesn’t change too much and we just look at a bunch of pictures and/or plans to determine that. But how do we know if a green building is still green, even if it’s listed that way on the MLS? How can changes to mechanical systems or insulation be flagged for review as they are so totally crucial to energy efficiency? Should these certifications only be good for 5 years? What happens when what was green one year is not green the next, like all these green materials that are now being outed as toxic? As basic building code continues to change and today’s green measures becomes tomorrow’s baseline standard, what will these rating systems mean anyway when you’re prowling the MLS listings? I would love some feedback on this one because honestly, I have no idea how to answer most of these except to say that, er, I’m a preservationist.

Last night, on the 13th floor of the lovely brick beast that is the Monadnock building, I met with historic architects, preservationists from various organizations, the EPA, and the Chicago Green Homes rating system staff. It was, without a doubt, the most civil and productive 90 minute meeting that I have ever attended. For real. I’m still all warm and fuzzy about it.

An interior shot of Tim's house a couple of years ago. He took a lot out then put most of it back in. Historic preservation? No. A lot of hard work and a great way to prevent wasting all of the embodied energy of the home, as well as a way to avoid all of the energy that would be used to replace materials? You betcha.

The goal of the meeting was to see how it might be possible to integrate preservation measures into Chicago’s green building rating system–something that is unprecedented in the U.S. Tim Heppner, who heads up the Chicago Green Home program, had not restored his old farm house, but had completely disassembled it and reused as much of the material as possible, only to realize that no green rating system would recognize this effort unless he sold the materials and bought them back. Obviously, this is ridiculous, especially because Tim can literally head his entire home in the colder months simply by using incandescent light bulbs. Yeah, it’s that crazy efficient.

The labor and thoughtfulness that went into reusing so much of the original material vs. buying new “green” crap simply had no recognition in our systems. Ironic considering that Tim would have been rewarded had he bought materials that were shipped here from China after using 1000x the embodied energy of the product just to create the thing. And that would likely have to be replaced in 10 years. Anyone with half a brain in their skull would recognize how backwards this system of reward is.

And so…there is now hope. How to make this all work has yet to be determined. Part of what I like about the Chicago Green Homes program is that there are plenty of options for homeowners, and I guess I feel like preservation measures can be added to those options as line items that are (ideally) given more points for reuse vs. replacing. The kinks need to be worked out, but this kind of a system would be groundbreaking! The ideal, from a preservation standard, would be to look to England’s Breeam environmental assessment model, which not only rewards a building owner for retaining the majority of the materials, it actually really kind of makes you feel like a jerk if you don’t. With the exception of their oil drilling policies (oh, New Orleans, I will do all I can for you!), those Brits sure do seem to see the bigger picture.

So alas, this was just the first meeting, but we are all hoping for a whole lot more. For the love of god, we were even agreeing about windows!

A couple of months ago I blogged about how a turn-of-the-century wrecking company used the wood salvaged from World’s Fairs to create a stock of building materials to accompany the architectural plans that they sold. These were some of the earliest kit homes, and many still survive because the materials, while recycled, consisted of tight-grain, old growth wood or brick. Basically, these kickass materials had a whole lot of strength and as a result were much more sustainable than the engineered products we tend to build with today.

One of a zillion awesome Sears kit homes, still in incredible shape. There are countless pre-fab homes like this from the early 1900s-1940s around the country in every shape and size. They are remarkably durable. Image from an article in Cottage Living, 2008.

But, these are different times. Because we cut down all of the aforementioned kickass trees over the past 150 years, we have to be more innovative than we once were. Enter the 30-something couple who wants to buy a house. In particular, a “sleek modular home like the ones they’d been obsessing over in Dwell magazine,” like the couple featured in a recent Chicago Tribune article. I’m in my 30s. I like to think that my friends and I are smart enough to never buy super crappy new construction or homes that are insanely inefficient non-sustainable energy suckers, so I appreciate that this couple wants an energy efficient home that isn’t jammed full of “luxury items” and marked up to some ridiculous amount as a result. But honestly, I’m still a little leery of modular housing today.

Mithun and HyBrid Architects, based in the Northwest, have designed pre-fab modular homes like this one as an affordable alternative. Such models are always described as being sustainable, but usually because they decrease waste, not because they are necessarily built to last. Only time will tell and in case it wasn't obviously, I'm not terribly hopeful that many of these will age well. Photo copyright Mithun, Juan Hernandez

The author of the Tribune article compares Sears mail order homes to double-wide trailers–which is ridiculous as Sears homes could stop a tank–but she does touch on my concerns about sustainability. Sure, fill those walls up with insulation and slap some solar panels on the roof, but will these new, boxy-chic, affordable modular homes last more than 10 years? What is the structure made of? I’ve watched a modular home in Chicago fall apart after only a couple of winters, and it ain’t pretty. In fact, the last time I was in it I was literally trapped inside because the doors wouldn’t open due to shifting. Fortunately, I have the ability to push hard, suck in my stomach to rib level, and wiggle with great focus when threatened.

The article also points, out that “modular home construction leaves behind 50 percent to 75 percent less waste than traditional building, causes less impact on neighborhoods, costs less and is safer for builders.” Well, I would say this all depends. Is it a better alternative to most typical new construction? Absolutely. Are you tearing down an existing home to build a modular home? Most likely, considering how dense this city is. If you are building new, will a new infrastructure (plumbing, electrical lines, driveway, road, etc. etc.) need to be built for this new, modular building? Likely yes.

I really don’t mean to be a Negative Nancy, but I can’t help but get a wee bit irritated when I see too many dramatic statistics in an article because they are always skewed. Yes, if you have to build new, you should build smaller and smarter than the way we’ve been building for the past 50 years, but you’ll just never convince me that it’s a better alternative to simply improving what already exists, provided it was built back when homes were built well.

Think about it.

In conclusion, I guarantee you that if the Big Bad Wolf came into the neighborhood and wanted to huff and puff, I’d run into the Sears home, open the windows wide, and like a child at a parade watch the Dwell-icious modules blow apart and down the street like brightly colored bowling pins. Sustainability–and by “sustainable,” I mean homes that will LAST, not just homes that use less raw materials–is still where it’s at. Clearly there is a faction of people who fetishize kit homes that are a century old, so, why not just caulk around the edges and upgrade the furnace? And if you’re still on the fence, take your time. They’ll still be there when you’re ready to buy.

Every time I turn on the radio, I hear about the importance of creating more green jobs. People in political positions that historically could care less about where we are getting our energy are now hollering for wind power (or whatever alternative energy source), not necessarily to help the environment, but to create more work for people. Either way, it is generally a win-win, with the exception of some greenwashing and the Nantucket situation I mention in the below caption. It is also a reminder of how building anything green is seen as the hope to get through this recession. Of course, we don’t always have to create jobs through building…there are a whole lot of other options for people in the building (noun, not adjective) trades, we just tend to forget about them because we’ve spent decades of bulldozing and building new because it was cheap, easy, and profitable.

Cape Wind, Inc. has won a long-time battle to build 130 wind turbines that would be 440 feet tall, taller than the Statue of Liberty. The turbines would be illuminated and spread over a 25-square mile area in the federal waters that lie in the middle of Nantucket Sound, the seascape that is mostly enclosed between Nantucket Island, Martha’s Vineyard, and Cape Cod. While I am naturally a proponent of alternative energy, surely this didn't have to be such a smack in the face of the 12th generation Native Americans, local residents and hertitage conservationists that have been clogging up meeting halls in protest of this for years. There are sooo many ways to skin this cat. For more on this issue, check out the Preservation Nation blog.

So this got me thinking about how we got through tough times in the past, namely a little known event called the Great Depression. While I survived my own great depression in high school by falling in love (aww, I AM pretty!) and finally chucking my Pearl Jam tape out the window, the U.S. Government had to be a little more creative. Enter the Historic American Building Survey (HABS).

In 1933, the National Park Service established HABS as a way to kill 2 birds with one stone: to mitigate the negative effects on U.S. history and culture caused by rapidly vanishing architectural resources, and to create desperately needed jobs for architects, draftsmen, and photographers at the same time. If you work in any kind of building field, you realize just how relevant this is today. An archive of historic architecture was created as a result of this initiative, and we now have a database of primary source material. Needless to say, many of these buildings—many of the earliest buildings that were built during a time when we were just trying to figure out who we were as a new nation—no longer exist outside of these records. The loss is devastating of course, but the way I see it, if I can’t still have my grandma around, I’ll at least be glad to have her photo at my fingertips.

I just wanted to take this opportunity to show off one of the drawings that my grad school class did for the Stephen Douglas monument in 2007, now in the HABS collection in the Library of Congress. You are welcome, SAIC HPRES class of 2008. You can search these archives online, and should!

Obviously many of these documents collected by architects and draftsmen in the 1930s were hand drafted plans of these structures, which is not something that we would likely do today due to time and materials needed. HABS now accepts (and actually encourages) CAD drawings, however, which, while not as romantic and fun to frame and hang in the living room, makes more sense as architecture firms want people who can work on computer drafting programs now. And what’s even cooler is that the National Park Service is also now using technology that can measure structures in unprecedented detail. Currently, Mount Rushmore is in the process of being scanned by ground-breaking 3-D laser scanning technology that can capture sub-centimeter details. Wow. This is part of a project called the Scottish 10 by Historic Scotland and the Glasgow School of art to scan a total of ten world heritage sites around the world. Let’s train more people on how to use this kind of technology and create another boom in heritage conservation in the U.S. while also creating more jobs.

Maureen Young from Historic Scotland preps one of the laser scanning stations to begin scanning Borglum's model in the Sculptor's Studio. Image and caption taken from the NPS website, photo by Amy Bracewell.

There is not only work in building new. Let’s move into the future by looking more closely than ever at the past.

Over the past year, the Region 5 U.S. EPA (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin) has taken up the cause of green preservation. I was lucky to be a loud and productive part of a symposium planning committee that culminated in the first ever EPA Green Preservation Symposium early this year. The event brought together people across the country from a variety of building disciplines to describe their unique experiences and roadblocks, and to ultimately create meaningful dialogue in terms of what was hindering projects that were or could be both environmentally and historically sensitive. Fortunately, the symposium received a good deal of notoriety and has turned into a national agenda! As a result, two other regions in the US are on board—one in the west and one in the east—and Region 5 has created a “Green Preservation Implementation Task Force” to help realize some of the changes that were suggested by symposium participants, and to keep this dialogue going.

The new task force is made up of around 30 of us from a variety of organizations, including the EPA regional and headquarters offices, other Federal agencies such as GSA, National Park Service, and ACHP. It also includes some architects from various parts of the country, the National Trust and the USGBC. The group is divided into subcommittees that are targeting the Energy Star green building rating system, the new Lead Paint Initiative, Research, Pilot Projects, Rating Standards, Green Historic Preservation Symposiums, and Job Training. The subcommittee members are tasked with working on ways to build more synergy between preservation and green building techniques in these areas. I’m part of the Pilot Projects committee, driven largely by the fact that we desperately need more projects as examples to show contractors, architects, engineers, etc. how energy efficiency and preservation can work together. Without such examples to draw on, we will surely all tear out clumps of hair and regress to thumb sucking due to repeated trauma during the planning portions and implementation of such projects.

Of course, having a massive, national organization like the EPA on board and bringing people together from other national policy-making organizations is pretty huge. Because of these kinds of efforts and conversations across disciplines, some serious work is actually getting done this year, including the following nuggets of goodness:

1. ENERGY STAR is considering devoting part of the site to older homes. To earn the ENERGY STAR rating, a home must meet strict guidelines for energy efficiency set by the U.S. EPA. These homes are at least 15% more energy efficient than homes built to the 2004 International Residential Code (IRC), and include additional energy-saving features that typically make them 20–30% more efficient than standard homes. Currently, a home needs to be gutted to the studs to get this certification, but that might be changing—here’s hoping!

2. The EPA is working with the office that handles the lead paint rule regarding their communications as it relates to older building and training of
contractors—to see why this is crucial, read this.

3. The National Park Service is going to update the Secretary of Interior Standards to include more information on sustainability. For real, and I don’t just mean via bulletins that nobody reads. Yeah, HUGE. The NPS is working on these changes as we speak and hopes to release them in the next 1-2 years.

4. The National Park Service is also going to launch a website in the near future that features properties that have undergone energy efficient retrofits, complete with data gathered on those projects.

This is pretty big stuff, folks!

I started this blog to stay relevant. All of the green rating systems and new data about climate change and crazy building material lab experiments change daily. I finished my MS in Historic Preservation in 2008, while simultaneously interning with the Department of Environment, where I was a spokesperson on innovative green technology. Er, within about 2 months of graduating, I started to feel obsolete. I wanted something that would essentially force me to write a short paper at least once or twice a week so that I had to do research on the latest and greatest trends and data, but also, I needed to continually reevaluate why I am a preservationist and how I am a preservationist. Really, it can all be very confusing. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to explain what, exactly, it is that I do for a living.

On Earth Day, the National Trust published a few stories about the intersection of preservation and the environment, and I stumbled upon a particularly relevant one written by Patrice Frey called “Old Homes in a Sustainable World: A New Job Description for Preservationists” that sums up how rapidly the field of preservation has changed over the past few years. Basically, she explains that to be a preservationist today, one needs to expand the original scope and also understand how preservation fits into puzzle of climate change. While I feel this is crucial for myself and have been harping on this point to the rest of the preservation world for a couple of years now, I also think that there is room for different kinds of preservation work. Some days I wake up and think about how I spend so much damned time trying to keep my finger on the newest green trends that I hardly get to focus on any true blue preservation anymore. And to be perfectly honest, I miss that. It is why I changed careers in the first place.

So here is the question: as a preservationist, is the goal to save as many homes possible (retrofit existing buildings that may or may not be historic), or is the goal to sensitively restore homes that are already saved? Of course, both are crucial. While it seems silly to ignore the obvious signs of global warming, the billions of dollars in retrofit funding, and the overwhelming popularity of green building and materials, we still need some traditional preservationists to keep the older mission–the mission to accurately preserve history, not just embodied energy–alive. And these goals are not contradictory–the mission of the Trust has certainly expanded tenfold over the last two decades. It’s just about staying relevant. Diversifying and being sure that preservation has a voice in the Brave New World of glass-infused wood and LEED, but also not always compromising for some hybrid of old and new. In my mind being a “green preservationist” and being an “historic preservationist” are almost two completely separate careers, though there is certainly overlap and a need to combine their goals for increased success.

In summary, a green historic preservationist is a pragmatist who loves and appreciates historic architecture but also fears the wrath of climate change and is, most likely, just a touch schizofrenic.