Posts Tagged ‘Historic Preservation’

Okay, so I returned from the National Trust conference in Austin last night, and I’m reeling. In a really good way. Here’s the thing about this field: it’s SO DIFFERENT from city to city and culture to culture. I probably shouldn’t travel as much as I do on my budget, but hell, there’s no other way to understand the scope of preservation work. And I mean yeah, it’s fun. I was only able to see a handful of seminars at the conference, but they couldn’t have been more varied and inspiring in their contrasts and similarities. I really, really love my field and the fact that it’s so impossible to sum up. I also really, really (really) love Torchy’s Tacos.

The Torchy's Fried Avocado taco. Sorry, this is more for me than you...I just really miss it.

The sessions I attended included: There’s no place like Houston, Creative Solutions and Self-Determination for Historic Preservation; The Urban Density Debate: Good Density, Bad Density, and the Role of Preservation; Preservation Strategies in Low-income Urban Neighborhoods; Austin Modern; Rethinking How We Nominate Large Cultural Landscapes to the National Register of Historic Places; and What Happens When Dates Don’t Matter (debating the 50-year rule)”

Yeah, really all over the place. I was, as always, incredibly impressed with Preservation Green Lab, its Urban Density Debate and really all of their efforts to come up with and conduct meaningful studies and analysis of how we use places and spaces. These kinds of studies are essential to justifying the existence of older buildings, as they helped to measure the public response to them, basically arguing that the public at large knows a thing or two that developers may not. This is also crucial in the wake of green building trends, which aim to quantify everything as a way to elevate and distinguish these buildings from others.

The bar area of Austin's historic Driskill Hotel, where the National Trust LGBT celebration was held this year. Yeah, rad.

Another lecture that I found interesting touched upon Aspen, Colorado’s preservation of 1960s (and beyond) structures that really define that area of the state. The system used to measure the buildings’ historic integrity and the impact of changes over time via a point-based rating system—a system similar to a green building rating system. This is called the Aspen Modern scoring system and also allows for perks like expedited permits. While there are thresholds that must be met to qualify for landmark designation, the system doesn’t document any social history or other less visible aspects of the architecture. It was interesting to see preservation groups taking cues from the green building movement, however, and I’m really curious to see where this kind of system goes, as it is still in the experimental phases.

Some examples of Aspen's Modern Chalets, which often don't meet the 50 year criteria set by the Secretary of the Interior's Standards. A scoring system has been put into place to rate the integrity of these structures. Picture from http://www.aspenhistoricpreservation.com

And then, things got romantic. People were LITERALLY CRYING at the Preservation Strategies in Low-income Urban Neighborhoods session as videos rolled out of the demolition of the beloved La Gloria building in San Antonio. Several community activists involved in the battle took the stage and one described how the bulldozers couldn’t get through all of the concrete that made the structure–in fact, 2 or 3 wrecking balls had to be replaced from all the hard work
(talk about sustainability). Ultimately, the speaker simply said, “the building was fighting back.” And oh my god, it totally was, and while the video about the battle to save this building was playing, some members of the audience literally shook with every swing of the bulldozer. This was a site where every Conjunto musician (yeah, I didn’t know what it was either, but after this lecture, I was outraged—outraged!—that anyone would ever do anything to hinder it) worth his/her weight in salt had played and a huge part of the local community. For the latest battle for a similar venue in South Texas called the Lermas Night Club, see here.

Lideres de la Comunidad (Leaders in the Community) was painted in 2006 by Valerie Aranda. La Gloria refers to a gas station/dance hall that was demolished in 2002 in San Antonio, and that acted as a catalyst for the Esperanza Peace and Justice coalition. Image found at http://urbanspotlight.wordpress.com/2010/01/04/westside-murals/

Another heart wrenching session focused on public murals and their importance to their communities—how they are crucial as a form of positive expression, historic documentation, and local engagement. Murals are a tricky preservation issue as they are kind of their own thing, and often done on private, potentially historic buildings, but hell, you just had to care and want them to stay once the images and stories started rolling out. One mural featured was The Great Wall of Los Angeles, where one of the slogans on the website proclaims “we are architects of social justice.” Also, I just have to say, the Los Angeles Conservancy is amazing. I had no idea I even liked Los Angeles until I saw the kinds of work their Community Outreach Coordinator was doing.

Farewell to Rosie the Riveter, a detail from the 1950s section of The Great Wall of Los Angeles mural, 1983. Mural: Judith F. Baca and The Social and Public Art Resource Center.

Bottom line: preservationists got into preservation because they got emotional about architecture, even if most preservation jobs end up being rather repetitious and political. I get emotional about the stuff that gets torn down for soulless crap on a daily basis, but understand the need for both concrete facts that can affect policy, and the rallying of the troops in an outcry of cultural decimation and gentrification. We need them both if this field is to continue because stats aren’t enough to fire people up for an extended period of time, and emotions don’t always stop the bulldozers, even when the building fights back. Beyond this, what a fortunate thing to be able to engage poets, scientists and artists in a single passion to protect the built environment. My god, why isn’t this movement millions strong?

So yes, I love my field. That is to say, I love all of my fields.


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Anyone who has worked in preservation eventually gets a little bit tired of seeing the insides of old, restored Victorians (admit it), and good lord, once you’ve seen a dozen green buildings, you’re pretty much over the typically installed measures and upgrades. But occasionally, I still get to be surprised–the tour I went on today was astonishing, and showed how preservation and efficiency are important because they simply make way more sense than the alternative. I’m sure I’m leaving so much out from the tour, so by all means, add or correct me after this has posted.

The Plant, located at 1400 W. 46th Street in Chicago at the Stockyards.

The 93,000 sf warehouse, now called The Plant, is so unbelievably innovative that I won’t pretend to fully understand everything that I’m going to mention. The Plant describes itself as “a project combining adaptive industrial reuse and aquaponics to create Chicago’s first vertical farm.” While “aquaponics” and “vertical farm” seem innovative enough, there is so much more to this place. The ultimate goal of The Plant is, according to it’s developer, “to create sustainable food and energy systems in urban areas that can be reproduced at a grass roots level by others with few resources,” and that is accomplished through the cooperation of many entities and ideas.

This is how I was greeted at 11 a.m., as if I wasn't already happy to be there. They don't do this on SOM tours.

The building was sold for the scrap value by the time it was purchased this summer by John Edel, the owner and developer of this project. Edel also recently converted a burned-out 24,000 sf warehouse in Bridgeport into the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, proving his point that “no building is too derelict to be sustainably renovated and made productive again. It doesn’t necessarily require large amounts of money, just creativity.” BOOYAH. His new project could likely be an excellent and unprescedented model for other cities and depressed areas around the country like Detroit, and could finally help keep big box stores out with the work space and food it creates. And yes, it’s a former meat plant, and yes, it still smells meaty (they are cleaning it) and has cage rails on the ceilings that pigs would swing from. And yes, meat plants apparently make for damned good garden spaces, but I’ll explain that later.

Mushroom columns hold the weight for organic farming--fitting, no? Note if you can the floor drainage here from the meat packing plant. The floor pavers are durable and dip down to drains in the center of the floor. This drainage would have been astronomically expensive to put in for urban farming. Fortunately, it was already here and in tact!

How the space will be used:

-Energy-efficient brewery (the idea is to be even more efficient than Fat Tire)


-Community (“shared use”) kitchen, which apparently there is a dire need for. For more on issues with this in the city, please see a Chicago Reader article and extremely sad Chicago Tribune article and video.

-Conference rooms and offices

-Nonprofit farm

-Research offices to test effectiveness of hydroponics, vertical farming, condensers, etc. so that The Plant can be an effective and tested model and help other communities to do this work

-Rentable office space (that can sometimes be bartered for when times are tough)

-Some retail space

Visionary and developer John Edel explaining the meat cage rails that still exist--and will be preserved--in a future conference room and office space.

So all of this is really great, of course, but it gets so much better, folks. These are all noble ideas, but the expense of heating and cooling a 93,000 sf facility with all of these plants and processes would be insane…well, it would if you weren’t terrifically smart like Edel and friends.

Because this was still used for meat production up until four years ago, lots of coolers and stainless steel remains for these new projects, cutting costs considerably.

How The Plant closes the energy loop:

-Everything in the building is being salvaged, with the exception of some plastic walls that were put in and are unrecyclable. Everything.

-Windows are being replaced with triple-pane windows that are produced locally. I know, I hate window replacement, too, but these are mostly just glass block at this point and painted or boarded over. This is bringing in local business and actually will be a huge improvement in this case.

-Floor drainage for vertical gardening would normally be insanely expensive to put in, but existing drainage from the meat plant (don’t think about it too much) will take care of all that and is in great condition

-The building is already extremely well insulated because 70% of it was used as a cooler for the meat. I know, right?

-Tens of thousands of dollars in plumbing equipment was left inside the building when John bought it. And this is a building that has some pretty intense plumbing needs.

-Before the last company moved out, they updated all of the electrical wiring, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in upgrades

-There will be an anaerobic digester, which will make biogas, which will feed the turbines, which will provide waste heat that will help heat the building. I hope I got that right, and it obviously deserves more attention than this bullet point.

-All electricity will be generated on site, so there will be no transmission loses. Vertical garden plans are often thwarted by electricity needs, so that problem is solved.

Fish breading and aquaponics will create fish waste, which is primarily comprised of ammonia, and use it to feed the plants. The plants then filter that same water so that it can return to the fish tanks.

-An 8,000 sf greenhouse and small orchard will be installed on the rooftop

Donated containers--I believe from a bakery--will become tanks for thousands of fish.

I’m sure I’ve missed a million other ways of closing the energy loop within the building, but the bottom line is that if we want successful, green adaptive reuse projects, we need to find buildings that already have systems built into them that help serve the purposes of the new use(s). Buying a giant warehouse and completely gutting it to the brick shell just isn’t that impressive, green, historic, or cost-effective. Seriously. We all know this intuitively, but as preservationists, we are accustomed to taking what we can get. Being creative with what already exists is so much more effective and rewarding. And involving the community and providing organic produce, work spaces, educational opportunities and more is essential to the success of reuse projects, especially those in areas that have very few places to eat, shop, and work. That’s why we keep seeing the Big Box of Despair going up in depressed areas, knocking out all independent thinking, lowering wages, and destroying the remaining ma and pa businesses that give neighborhoods character. I hate you, Walmart. But I kind of like to think that if humans join forces with plants and fish, we may create a large enough army to beat you, not unlike a Tolkien novel where the good always prevail in the end.

The rooftop, which will eventually house 8,000 sf of greenhouse space.

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When I was in grad school, I got in the habit of riding my bike to and from class from the far north side of the city to downtown. This was partially due to the fact that I was sick of sitting in front of my computer and torturous microfiche viewers all the time, and partially because I realized that I LOVE RIDING MY BICYCLE. Studying architecture has changed everything for me because everywhere I go in the city, I am surrounded by buildings that are constantly entertaining (or horrifying) me, and I gotta tell you, the view is much sweeter from a bicycle than a car or the same old train route. You’re more in touch with your surroundings and don’t have to worry about killing anyone when your car veers into oncoming traffic as you crane your neck to see some carved sandstone. Granted, I did slam into a parked car on my bike once, but really, only my pride was hurt. And I avoided that street for a few weeks just in case someone hiding behind a bush might have noticed. I’m practical like that.

Fall architectural bike tour schedule for Big Shoulders Realty.

Anyway, I know a guy who does amazing things with bicycles and architecture—not in a Dr. Frankenstein way, but in a marriage kind of way. Lee Diamond of Big Shoulders Realty has managed to marry these two passions in a million different and meaningful ways, and I just had to blog about it after going on one of his tours last weekend in Logan Square.

Seeing architecture by bike is a completely different experience and quite frankly targets a new audience that likely isn’t your typical incestuous group of green building or preservation folks. I only happened to know one person on the tour, and it was bliss being on an architectural tour with a totally new group of enthusiasts. For more on Big Shoulder’s tours, which run year-round (yes, winter, rain or shine, etc.), go here. For a long time the tours were free, but finally Lee had to charge people as he was hemorrhaging money creating these extensive tours and the materials for them. Alas, our labors of love can get pricey. The tours are still reasonably priced, and also tend to end up at a local bar, which is the perfect way to cap off a long day of riding.

Meet up point at the Logan Square Centennial Monument at the intersection of Milwaukee, Kedzie and Logan.

Also super incredibly awesome: Lee just started Chicago Velo which he describes as being “a guide to the communities in and around Chicago. It is a guide to Chicago’s hidden gems of architectural splendor, its forgotten history and its secret riches. Most of the time, these spots are not really hidden from us at all, just obscured by time and neglect, and sometimes it takes someone in-the-know to help you find it.” I’ve been on these 5-hour-long tours, and we cover a lot of area and a lot of buildings you normally wouldn’t notice. This is a lot of information to store on a website and an incredible resource. I mean, I’ve done architectural surveys by car, and biking is a way, way better (and more fun) way to survey an area…and it’s all online!

A stop on the tour with Lee giving some history.

Following the same logic that one can have a more intimate experience with their surroundings by bike than by car, Big Shoulders Realty also shows homes by bike. If you don’t have your own, you can use one that hangs in the office’s conference room. Each bike is named after a historic Chicago figure–Lee was riding the “H.H. Holmes” bike on the tour, which I was naturally envious of. Going by bike can give a person a feel for how close public trans, the grocery store, etc. really are. And obviously it’s a lot more environmentally friendly and healthier to encourage this.

Conference room at the Big Shoulders Realty office. I mean look at it. It's the best conference room ever. Image from http://www.chicagonow.com/blogs/rent-or-buy/

And yet another initiative is Big Shoulders Realty’s “Restoration Not Renovation” project, which encourages homeowners to think before they gut the hell out of everything. Basically, this came about completely organically, as Lee began noticing that if he showed homes for sale that had been preserved vs. gutted, potential homeowners invariable were more interested in the preserved homes.

So, in short, this post is really just a big love fest for bicycles and creative realtors like Lee Diamond and Big Shoulders. I could honestly go on forever about this, but I’ve already gone way over the ideal number of blog words and fear I would lose you all. Suffice it to say, these kinds of initiatives totally give me hope for better models and a renewed enthusiasm among younger crowds in historic cities. And also make my jeans fit better. Huzzah!

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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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