Posts Tagged ‘Green Building’

So the LEED rating system is pretty much constantly being rethought and revamped, but the latest and greatest version is currently up for public comment, and as of January 14th, the first comment period will be closed.

As someone who spends a crazy amount of time trying to keep up with all of the green progress and initiatives—often more than I’d like because I never get to just look at a pretty historic building anymore and like it for being pretty—I get that it’s a lot to ask preservationists to care about all of these green building initiatives. On the other hand, if you don’t, you’re pretty much signing the death warrant for a whole lot of historic buildings and neighborhoods because these green initiatives directly impact whether older buildings will be valued and saved. Federal, state and local jurisdictions across the country are now using LEED as a requirement or model for zoning laws and building codes, so to influence it is to influence standard building practice in a very meaningful way.

The preservation community is the primary voice in the struggle to have existing buildings and materials valued (in-situ, or at least to value them as being more than chipped down and recycled into something unrecognizable and of lesser value) as an important part of the environmental puzzle. Seriously, all of this stuff is new and everyone is fumbling through it and constantly changing things. We can actually have a major impact if we don’t sit back and twiddle our thumbs.

Here are some links to learn more about what’s up, compiled by Barbara Campagna, FAIA:

Top Ten List of LEED Credits related to Preservation

Technical summary of the proposed LEED credits

Format changes to the LEED scoring system

1865 building in New York that achieved LEED Platinum. Of course, it took a zillion dollars and a lot of green bling to get there, but it's something. If you comment on the changes in the system and LEED begins to recognize existing and restored materials as being environmentally-friendly, this kind of designation can be a hell of a lot more attainable for historic buildings. And it should be.

Also interesting are some comments from Mike Jackson, FAIA, Chief Architect of the Preservation Services Division of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency regarding changes to be made:

Material Credit 1 (Pilot Credit # 19) – Whole Building Re-use
Discussion: The proposed credit is the first time the LEED building rating system will recognize historic buildings and cultural landscapes. (LEED for Neighborhood Development was the first LEED product to include historic resource identification.) This is a much needed recognition for the LEED system. Let the USGBC know you approve. Comments don’t have to be limited to items that you feel need to be changed. This credit also has language about the retention of historic windows, which is another item worthy of positive reinforcement. This credit has not been specifically targeted towards residential buildings, and it should be applied to the LEED for Homes rating system as well as all others.

This credit also includes language about blighted buildings. The intent of providing special incentives for historic and blighted properties is good, but it would be better if these were separate items. Historic buildings have a working definition that includes listed and eligible properties and a strong constituency that can apply these definitions. The social benefits of investing in blighted areas as well as buildings is a good value system, but is not really that related to historic buildings.

Proposed Comment: The recognition of historic buildings is a welcome addition to the LEED criteria.

Proposed Recommendation: The category of “blighted buildings” should be given a separate category from “historic building.”

Material Reuse Credits # 2 and 3

Discussion: These two credits have been used to provide a material value to building re-use. The preservation community has long concluded that green building rating systems have undervalued building re-use. Keep in mind that this comment period is NOT about the allocation of points, which will be handled at a later stage. For now, it is important to comment on the need for a more equitable method of allocating the value of “in-situ” materials re-use other than the simplified two-part formula. For example, the BREEAM Ecohome rating system from England divides a house into seven major components and allows all materials credits to be claimed when 80% of the existing materials are retained in each category. As stated in BREEAM, “the environmental impact of replacing an element is far greater than reusing the element already in place.” The expanded use of Life Cycle Assessment tools would also provide a more equitable comparison of in-situ, recycled content, re-used or new materials.

Proposed Comment: The two-part credit allocation for materials reuse is too narrow and should have a stronger Life Cycle Assessment protocol to provide a better measure of building reuse.

Proposed Recommendation: The BREEAM Ecohomes rating system should be investigated as a better model of building re-use scoring. It divides a building into a larger number of major components/systems and allocates the full material credit for each component when 80% of that component is retained “in situ.” This system is much fairer in providing a positive benefit to in-situ material re-use. . As stated in BREEAM, “the environmental impact of replacing an element is far greater than reusing the element already in place.”

LEED for Homes

Discussion: The LEED for Homes system is primarily designed for new construction but it can also apply to renovation. The system does not include the category of building re-use or any materials credits for in-site materials use. There is some credit available for using reclaimed materials. This system is so biased towards new construction, that one gets the feeling that it should only be allowed for new construction. Having said that, it would be worth commenting on the building re-use and materials credits.

LEED for Homes: Location and Transportation Credit: Preferred Locations

Proposed Comment: The site location criteria should include the identification of historic area and those with the longest pattern of development. The use of historic and age criteria would provide a positive reinforcement of traditional patterns of development.

Proposed Recommendation: The retention and re-use of historic buildings should be encouraged just as brownfield development is encouraged. The retention of historic buildings should be a pre-requisite unless their demolition has been approved by the preservation authority having jurisdiction, as is stated in LEED for Neighborhood Development.

The redevelopment of existing locations could have an expanded value based upon the age of the settlement, with the most credit provided to the oldest settlement areas.

LEED for Homes: MR Credit: Environmental Preferable Products
Discussion: (See proposed comment)

Proposed Comment: This credit has been written from the perspective of a new building and is devoid of any environmental benefit from the in-site use of materials when buildings are renovated. The in-situ use of materials in renovated buildings needs to be added to this LEED for Homes rating system.

Proposed Recommendation: The BREEAM Ecohomes rating system should be investigated as a better model of building re-use scoring. It divides a building into a larger number of major components/systems and allocates the full material credit for each component when 80% of that component is retained “in situ.” This system is much fairer in providing a positive benefit to in-situ material re-use. . As stated in BREEAM, “the environmental impact of replacing an element is far greater than reusing the element already in place.”

LEED for Neighborhood Development
GIB Credit: Existing Building Reuse

Proposed Comment: The retention and re-use of existing buildings is a very important strategy for the long-term environmental benefit. The overall percentage of building retention in this category is extremely low. Retaining just 20% of the buildings except for 50% of the structure means that only 10% of the existing building stock needs to be retained for this credit. These means that 90% of the materials could be demolished as a green approved project.

Proposed Recommendation: The retention of existing building stock should be at least 80% and the retention of materials within buildings should be based upon an LCA approach such as the English BREEAM Ecohomes. The BREEAM Ecohomes rating system divides a building into a larger number of major components/systems and allocates the full material credit for each component when 80% of that component is retained “in situ.” This system is much fairer in providing a positive benefit to in-situ material re-use. As stated in BREEAM, “the environmental impact of replacing an element is far greater than reusing the element already in place.” The building retention test should also be subject to mitigation for when much higher density of re-use is proposed, except for the case of historic buildings.

GIB Credit: Historic Resource Preservation and Adaptive Reuse

Discussion: This is a credit that is allocated for the preservation of historic buildings and landscapes.

Proposed Comment: The recognition and credit for the retention and historic rehabilitation of historic buildings is an important addition to the LEED system. Retain and strengthen this credit.

Proposed Recommendation: This credit should be a prerequisite. The demolition of historic buildings should not be a permitted action approved through the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating except for the currently approved exceptions.

How to make comments: (This will require you to have a USGBC log-in.)

1. Click on the following link: http://www.usgbc.org/LEED/LEEDDrafts/RatingSystemVersions.aspx?CMSPageID=1458

2. Click on the Expand button next to “LEED Rating System Draft: BD&C, ID&C, and EB:O&M”

3. Open the “BD&C Document” and look for the following sections

4. Once you have read the documents, click on the “Comment” button (Note: You must sign in to the USGBC to submit a comment. You do not have to be a member, but you do have to submit information about who you are to get full access to make the comments.)
a. Select the category “Materials and Resources”
b. Select the Whole Building Reuse section
c. Make comments
d. Repeat these steps for Materials Reuse

5. Repeat the process for LEED for Homes

6. Repeat the process for LEED for Neighborhood Development


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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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In late February, NPR released a story dealing with historic preservation and green building that raised a lot of eyebrows in the preservation community. In fact, I think about fifteen different people forwarded me the story just in case I missed it. In a nutshell, the story talks about a new law that will go into effect next year in California requiring that all new construction meet significant green building standards. Preservationists worry that this with further reinforce the belief that only new buildings can be green. Patrice Frey, Director of Sustainability Research for the National Trust responded to the article on the PreservationNation blog. Another blog post by Ralph DiNola, LEED AP, LEED Faculty, Associate AIA, and preservationist, also responded to it in great detail. While there are some points that I might argue–like materials reuse credits and how and when they are applied–this is a great post that really breaks down a lot of issues that preservationists bring up on a regular basis. Certainly both blogs are worth the read, regardless of your feelings about LEED. Honestly, I’m still not sold, but think that it’s important to keep up with the changes and to try and understand them.

A 16,000 sf building built in 1865 was awarded LEED Platinum status in New York. 97% of the structure was reused. (Photo from Jetsongreen.com)

The other day I was having a discussion with a green building professional about rating systems and getting ranty about why things like windows were rewarded even in light of evidence that they aren’t terribly effective and certainly not cost-effective in terms of weatherization projects. I naturally just assumed that it was because of the money factor…rating systems catering to green product manufacturers that essentially buy add space in the manuals and training sessions that are related to those rating systems. And while I am still convinced that is part of it, this particular green building professional (and I should say, a friend of mine) brought up a valid point: it is easier to reward and keep track of something like new windows because they are rated by an independent party and therefore have a standard to measure by. In other words, how do we give points to a homeowner who says that they have restored their windows? What if there are no receipts? How can this be monitored and kept track of? I have to say, as much as I hate to admit it, it is a valid point and one we need to address in the preservation community.

The best way to encourage preservation is through incentives–we know this and this is why we push for increased tax incentives for historic properties. So let’s think: how can we prove that we have restored something and avoided landfill waste and new material usage? How can we show the good work we have done without receipts and manufacturing stickers? There are simply not enough auditors and long enough check lists to keep track of these kinds of things in historic homes and then apply them to a rating system. We need to find a creative solutions to these questions and more and find a way to prove what we are doing is good–in my opinion better–for the environment. The burden is on us.

I’ve been entrenched in a Falkner novel recently and this quote struck me: “Facts and truth really don’t have much to do with each other.” It’s basically sums up how I feel about most “green” products and services these days. It seems that common sense usually gets buried under the labels and jargon. Let’s fix that.

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The other day I was visiting a friend and discussing possible options for her soon-to-be eco-friendly modular home. I went home afterward and stumbled upon a website about the demise of Coney Island while surfing the web for vacation rentals in New Orleans. And something clicked: deconstruction. A typical random chain of events ala internet, but seeing a bunch of constructed floats and ferris wheels reminded me of an old house catalog called “A Book of Plans.” This was a book that the Chicago House Wrecking Co. put out in 1913.

An old add from the Chicago Home Wrecking Co. in The American Blacksmith. You buy the materials, which were likely from the dismantling and deconstruction of local fairs, and receive A Book of Plans for free!

Around the turn of the last century, several pattern books were put out for homeowners to help them achieve their dreams. Books like Gustav Stickley’s “Craftsman Homes” were meant to make building easy and cheap for homeowners by cutting out the need for architects or craftsmen. Many people know of the Sears Catalog homes, but there were quite a few others models that took off as well. Some of my favorite older catalog companies, like the Chicago House Wrecking Co. also sold all of the wood and materials needed for their plans. By obtaining the rights to dismantle the Colombian Exposition and scavange other local fairs, homeowners were able to basically buy a giant doll house that they would then put together on site. I have to wonder how many people in the Chicago area are made with wood from the Columbian Exposition. I find this to be and incredibly cool thought.

Coney Island's Thunderbolt was demolished in 1995 to allow some executives to have a better view of a minor league ball park. Thanks, Giuliani.

I have no idea what happened to all of the materials that were smashed to bits at Coney Island, but I couldn’t find a single article about how any of it had been recycled. Please, if anyone out there does know, I’d love to hear about it.

Coney Island. Thor Equities must have felt something during this.

And word to all of the new green kit home companies that are sprouting up all over tarnation: amusement parks are going bankrupt on a daily basis in this economy. Get dibs and save some of that old growth wood!

A cottage from greencottagekits.com, which touts traditional homes looking towards tomorrow. Seemed like an interesting contemporary example of the kind of home the Chicago Chouse Wrecking Co. would have advertised.

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Ah, once again, I’ve had a milli-second of downtime this weekend, which has lead me to think about the philosophy of preservation. I went skiing out in Wisconsin and squealed with delight each time I passed a barn that looked like it was about to completely collapse. Drinking schnapps and hot chocolate in a ski lodge will make one reflect on their reactions.

Morley Baer published a book that looked at barns from 1951 to 1994 and showed off why rural architecture is so very, very breathtaking. That said, I would appreciate it if one of my readers would buy me California Plain: Remembering Barns. Thanks.

I spend my time saving buildings and arguing that we should reuse existing structures whenever possible for both cultural and environmental reasons. But one thing I wrestle with is the fact that culture is not a static thing that can be simply preserved three-dimensionally. Barns are supposed to be used and used and used until they almost fall over, and then used another 10 years after that until they finally do fall over. That’s part of the culture. And then the boards can be reused, etc. I am not against restoring barns by any stretch of the imagination, and there are some great initiatives out there (my favorite is called “Barn Again!“), and no doubt there is a preservation philosophy unto its own involving barn restoration.

A barn returning to the earth in Indiana. Look at those bones!

But I remember learning about various preservation philosophies throughout history and being especially drawn to John Ruskin, whose philosophy was that a building’s beauty increased with its age, and a building’s beauty was not fully achieved until it was in ruins. Watching a building decay is possibly the most beautiful thing in the world, at least in my opinion. You can see the construction, how the materials work together, how the wind and rain and sun have changed each part of the materials. You can see how time and the elements have taken a bright, rigid, angular structure and slowly, over decades, worn it down to rusted patinas and bent it into organic forms that will gracefully return back to where they came. I mean good lord, doesn’t that just bring you to your knees? I might have to start a campaign for human/old barn legal unions.

Paradigm Music & Coffee in Sheboygan, WI. 70% of the materials used to renovate the space were recycled--some from the owner's parent's old barn--and non-motorized transportation to run errands and pick up goods for the shop. (Photo from The Sheboygan Press)

From an environmental standpoint, well, deconstruction is clearly the smartest route in a situation like this. A friend was telling me that she was just visiting her friend’s new cafe in Sheboygan that is made up almost entirely of recycled materials, much of which were salvaged from her family’s dilapidated barn (see above). It’s really, really hard to argue that that isn’t a creative and inspiring thing to do.

For the 2009 international Solar Decathalon competition, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign students focused on midwest farmhouse forms and recycled barn wood.

We are constantly replicating existing architectural forms and styles, but usually using new materials. Recently, there has been a push to once again focus on deconstruction and materials reuse. Where does that leave the beauty of decay–will people still be able to squeal in delight and delicious horror while looking at a barn that is still in use and just waiting to crush someone? How should preservationists feel about the preservation of materials but not form? Should we just let some buildings die in a more natural way instead of always harvesting their organs, so to speak? Can nostalgia and environmentalism coexist, and where does preservation fit into the mix? I expect a full report on my desk next week.

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1. New Orleans has more historic districts than any other city in the U.S. with 18 National Register districts and 13 Local Historic districts. And this is not a huge city, folks.

The French Quarter, like almost all areas of the city, is a time capsule.

The Garden District is full of houses equal to this one in beauty. If anyone were to build new in that neighborhood, local residents would sick the vampires on them.

2. The 8 million green initiatives that are happening in the Holy Cross neighborhood alone.

Honestly, I can't even name all of the green initiatives happening in areas where the homes were wiped from their foundations. The pic to the left was taken when I was down there in 2008, the one on the right in 2009. This is part of Brad Pitt's Make It Right program.

3. Most major cities in the world are on oceans. Sooner or later super storms will pummel them as well and they’ll know what to do.

I mapped the 20 largest cities in the world to see how many of them are on oceans. All of these cities will have to contend with major storms and flooding issues in the near future if they aren't already. New Orleans is the perfect test lab, and is being used as such in hard-hit areas, for these struggles. Instead of complaining about efforts, people should be thankful for them.

4. The Preservation Resource Center and other nonprofits are working their tails off.

A Preservation Resource Center street project. I mean, are you kidding? These nonprofits are the only thing driving this restoration and rebuilding effort and they are doing insanely amazing things. Governmental efforts only result in demolition.

A Preservation Resource Center street project. I mean, are you kidding? These nonprofits are the only thing driving this restoration and rebuilding effort and they are doing insanely amazing things. Governmental efforts only result in demolition.

Just some of the nonprofits working on effots in NOLA and beyond.

5. You can rent an 1807 Creole cottage for a pittance during off seasons and not have to treat it like a house museum! Just love it.

While this is not a home I have stayed in while down there, it shows the spirit of the residents and the fact that people LOVE their houses and will work on them and keep them in families for generations. This is a concept foreign to people in most other major cities, and part of the reason I love that city so damned much.

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