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Posts Tagged ‘Preservation Green Lab’

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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In my last post, I addressed rating systems and brought up the point that it is difficult for rating systems to, well, rate without standardized measures like NFRC ratings on windows. Fortunately, the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) is smarter than me and is addressing this issue at the USGBC Cascadia Chapter’s Living Futures Conference in May. The Trust’s session will focus on “Outcome-Based Energy Codes as a Foundation for Policy and Market Transformation.”

As many of you may have read or heard, a New York Times article from August 2009 revealed that many buildings boasting the LEED label were not performing nearly as well as had been originally predicted by the U.S. Green Building Council. This was a pretty big deal because the LEED label allows building owners to gain tax credits and charge premium rents. It is also, well, a little annoying because there is so much patting on the back and hoopla surrounding these certifications. Once the data was released, some experts in the field were recommending that LEED certification be withheld until a building proves itself to be energy efficient, and that energy consumption data from every rated building should be made available to the public. Honestly, this was a big break for preservationists. Not that we like to encourage failure, but something smelled fishy from the get-go with many of these new “green” construction projects, and there was some rejoicing in that moment of “I told you so.”

Preservation Green Lab was created to encourage municipalities and states around the country to fully consider historic preservation and the existing building stock in formulating their climate change action plans.

I don’t bring that up to rehash the past, but to highlight how smart and timely the NTHP is in regards to this issue, even in a time when their budget is being hacked to bits and they are in danger of losing major programs. I will let Liz Dunne, Consulting Director of the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab sum up what outcome-based energy codes are about:

The NTHP’s Preservation Green Lab (PGL) is working with the City of Seattle on a new energy code framework that will be based on actual energy performance outcomes, rather than prescriptive measures, for retrofitting existing buildings. Existing energy codes typically rely on prescriptive measures (for example, requiring projects to use windows with a certain “U” value) rather than targeting certain performance outcomes (for example improving overall energy performance by a certain percentage.)

I sometimes think of software and rating systems as a kind of misguided cyborg Superman (surely, I am not alone in this?). They seem like they will fix everything and keep you safe and warm, but in reality, they often lose that human, common sense element, creating even more problems.

PGL is currently calling for case studies on older buildings that have undergone energy efficient retrofits (they don’t need to be historic) to collect more real data and to hopefully be a major voice in this movement–or should I say, a voice that is finally taken more seriously. This data will be valuable in many ways as stimulus money is continually being pumped into home energy improvements, which is always well intentioned but not always in the most effective way to use funding. Energy audits are also proving to be a poor predictor of energy savings with older homes (based on what I have seen, they are inflating the projected energy savings of homes based on the software recommendations), so what is needed are more realistic and outcomes to draw on instead of software programs modeling off of god-knows-what. And, of course, this will also show which measures are effective and which are not delivering what they promise. This is not to say that energy audits are not crucial to energy saving measures, just that they need to be expressed in a different way. Audits are missing that more human element, which could help owners to pay more attention to existing features and not worry so much about all the lab testing done on replacement materials because much of it is bunk or doesn’t take into account existing materials and factors.

In short (finally): I’m completely stoked to see this new data and glad that we’re finally getting to a point where measures installed a couple of years back can now be measured in terms of true performance. It just seems that the most accurate lab testing out there will not be done in a closed room with expensive machines and artificial conditions–it will be the info gathered by the Preservation Green Lab.

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