Posts Tagged ‘Retrofit’

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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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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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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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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I stumbled upon an article yesterday in New Scientist that describes how homes made to be more energy efficient are making homeowners complacent–it appears that many people are using just as much energy as they were before they made their homes more efficient. For example, some homeowners tend to crank the heat up more than they did pre-retrofit because they no longer have to worry about bills being as high as they would have been in the past. If a homeowner is used to paying $200 to keep their house at 65 degrees, they might not mind paying $200 to keep their home at 75 degrees where they can walk around in their favorite old Earth Day t-shirt and hemp boxers in the middle of January.

Why yes, this is indeed a rather handsome $5,000 high efficiency boiler! However, if you use it to create a jungle-like climate in your super insulated home, you're not doing yourself or the planet any favors.

While the article focused on a survey done in the UK, there is no doubt that the same thing is happening in the US—I’ve seen it and felt it in the 78 degree basements of homeowners after they’ve had air sealing done and fancy new mechanicals put in. This kind of behavior could be a real barrier in achieving local and national climate action goals in the near future, and is the result of a lack of education, not some demonic plot by the 1960s ranch house down the street to destroy the earth. If the new army of emerging “green” experts only treat the symptom and not the cause, homeowners will not change their behavior because they likely don’t understand the importance of changing their habits. Habits are, without a doubt, the MOST important part of any environmental movement, despite what your Pella Windows rep will tell you. And it is education that is often lost in marketing materials and hasty audits.

For the love of Pete, let's be sure to explain to homeowners how to maintain native plantings so the don't think they are weeds that are harming their turf grass. Photo: Mike MacDonald/ChicagoNature.com

And green education extends beyond just keeping your furnace at a lower temperature and turning off the lights—how about things like on-site water retention and native landscaping? Ever plant a native lawn for someone, only to return a year later to see that they’ve been mowing it like Kentucky Blue Grass? Yeah, that happens. And why wouldn’t it? Who in the last 50 years—at least in the Chicagoland area—has done anything but dump fertilizers and pesticides on their grass and mow the bejesus out of their tiny little plot of lush lawn? Beyond that, neighbors sometimes view urban-tolerant species and native landscaping’s more wild appearance as being the result of a lazy homeowner. As if they had a bunch of car carcasses rusting in their front yard that would drive down the value of everyone’s real estate on the block. Why not educate the homeowner so that they can, in turn, educate their neighbors? When people understand things, they can feel good about them and brag about them and motivate others to do the same.

Let’s all just slow down a half second and take the extra time to educate those who we are trying to help. Really, it is often only a matter of minutes in our day and the results will be so much better and more meaningful. Otherwise, we’re patting ourselves on the back a little too hard, dig?

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Lately, I feel like every day I am pulled into a conversation revolving around this question and it’s lead me to believe that perhaps as green building advocates and preservationists, we should do 2 things: Establish some kind of guidelines and promote more repairing.

I know the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation are out there, but most homeowners don’t exactly have them hanging on the fridge–most likely they have never heard of them. But

Really? Does this make your heart go pitter-patter?

at least preservationists already have an idea of when to repair vs. replace, the info just needs to be more accessible. The green building movement is a mess in this regard, likely because there are so many new materials on the market and so many certifications out there to show how green that they are, and that’s a whole lot of money and industry. Good news is that there seem to be some acknowlegement of this, at least on the part of a small faction of Chicago “greenies,” as I was recently asked to be part of a group that weighs in on “green” materials on a monthly basis. I think that frequency is key here as 8 million new products seem to come out each year.

As a side note, if preservationists want to promote restoration to a larger, more general population, language is crucial. People often think of “restoration” as being cost-prohibitive. And this is because, well, let’s be honest, it can be. If we start to use words like “repair” which actually tends to conjure ideas of frugality, along side “restore,” a lot more of the will be on board with the idea of keeping more of what they already have and simply fixing it up. I think that this is presicely why a lot of people also fear landmark status, when in reality it will benefit them vs. make their lives difficult and more expensive. “Landmark,” like “restoration,” has a stigma for many.

Oh, how we love to gut interiors like this. It's madness.

That said, I’ve recently joined up with an initiative started up by Big Shoulders Realty “Restoration Not Rehab” to help people looking for homes, or who already have existing homes, to restore/repair their existing features and/or make their homes more efficient without gutting all the charm and craftsmanship out of the interior. I’ll save the details for another post, but I think the initiative is rather awesome. We’re a down-to-earth crew with a wide knowledge base and the best intentions. That’s what it’s all about. (Please save the Hokey Pokey jokes).

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I’m all about finding the positive side-effects of the current recession, for example, now that I can no longer afford to go out to eat often, I have learned to cook like 5,000 more things and can wow my friends with my dazzling kitchen skills! Yes, so the recession has simply made me more lovable and you can’t put a price on that. And even though my own income is, well, let’s say modest right now, much of the work I AM getting is somehow the result of positive effects of the recession. Grants abound and conservationists, preservationists, and environmental advocates are all benefitting in some way. And I like to think the general public benefits from all of our efforts, even if they don’t know it yet.

A recent New York Times article explained how land conservationists are scooping up acres of land in places that were already purchased by developers to build on. Depressed real estate prices have effectively chopped the heads off of development projects all over the county. Because of this, state and local governments, conservationists, and non-profit groups like the Trust for Public Land are purchasing thousands of acres of open land that should have been protected in the first place. This land will now be “put aside in perpetuity for parks, watershed protection or simply preservation of open space.”

California's Bruin Ranch was once listed for $30 million, but the oak-studded, riverfront land could now be protected for just $13 million. The collapse of the housing market has had a silver lining for open-space advocates. Land conservancy groups are buying up whatever they can, but largely rely on donations to do this.

There have also been a considerable benefits in terms of building preservation. First of all, there are plenty of grants out there now, and will soon be more, to weatherize existing buildings. Also, because of the housing bust, homeowners are staying put more rather than take a huge loss on their home, and making existing homes more efficient. This lessens the demand for new construction, of course. And yes, I know, people are out of work as a result, but with billions of dollars being poured into programs like “Cash for Caulkers,” hopefully more construction workers will be trained on how to retrofit existing buildings. There is plenty of research out there now that shows how projects on existing buildings actually generate a lot more work than building new.

Main Streets like this one in Rockford, Michigan will be able to take advantage of beefed up preservation tax credits for restoration and repair projects.

An interesting article from a Real Estate news source talks about how Michigan’s Governor has signed legislation that will bolster the historic preservation tax credit to help downtown areas. Beyond the typical 20% tax credit, plans that cost $250,000 or less will receive additional funding. This will be a huge help to smaller downtown areas in the state and help increase local business as well as tourism.

Beyond this, I would venture to guess that building owners across the country would be more likely to pursue landmark designations in an effort to get that tax credit for repairs in the midst of a financial downturn. Hmmm, also more money for preservationists. Can you even imagine how much more land and many more historic properties will be left alone and/or protected because of this? I mean, it’s all pretty darned exciting, folks.

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Well, I suppose the answer to that one is “it depends,” or, my favorite thing to say whenever someone asks me how much some modification/upgrade to their home will cost (especially if I don’t have a clue what the answer is): “um, well, it is really case-specific.” And you know, it’s absolutely true in both cases.

Honestly, most of the new “green” architecture is really just some brightly painted boxy thing that still focuses on maximizing interior space and has little regard for its neighbors, which are sometimes smaller homes that used to actually have some of their own natural lighting before the angular red and blue monstrosity erected itself right up to their lot line. Then there are the “green” homes that are supposedly more green because they are in a previously untouched field of green. Yeah, you lose. Crazy amounts of energy has to be used in order to build new infrastructures because you need to have your house built in the middle of nowhere, and it takes you 5 hours to drive to the nearest Walmart for pancake batter. And then, of course, there are the 30,000 square foot mansions that are “environmentally friendly” even though they only have 2 old rich people living in them and are 30,000 SQUARE FEET. Naturally I find HGTV programs that focus on these to be both ridiculous and insulting and immediately begin writing a letter to the producer that I never finish or send. Yes, that angry.

Certified green by the U.S. Green Building Council and the Florida Green Building Council. The $29 million home features eight bedrooms, 11 bathrooms, two elevators, two laundry rooms, two wine cellars (one for red, one white), a movie theater, and guest house, a high-tech air purification system and eco-friendly light fixtures. Lame.

BUT, its incredibly annoying and short sighted to hate anything that is new just because it is new, and honestly, some of these buildings are actually attractive and really pretty thoughtful. Several months ago I grabbed a few friends and drove out for a tour at Tryon Farm and was impressed by the density, community, and architectural creativity of the settlements. The homes range in price from $170,000-$470,000, but none of them are huge (our unapologetic tour guide seemed slightly annoyed when another person on our tour asked whether they had any larger homes available, much to my glee), and the materials and design are thoughtful and just fun to be in and around. There is also community gardening and concerts and all that jazz, and you aren’t that far from the rest of civilization, so you don’t have insane treks to buy additional supplies.

If you are going to build an environmentally-friendly dwelling, it had better be near civlization or you'll spend a whole lot of energy just getting to and from places. Also, you may end up becoming a creepy recluse who will likely give up bathing and potentially grow a second personality. Walkability is key!

There are also building materials being designed by architects and chemists that are meant to eventually biodegrade. Imagine a building that, once it’s useful life is up, basically eats itself and the waste created will act as fertilizer and actually HELP the environment. Crazy and Sci-fi, right? But if you have a pulse, you will be intrigued (geek or not). Many of the new, successful green building leaps are made by teams of people–engineers, architects, scientists, etc. as the technology and systems are often completely different than what architects and builders have been dealing with until now.

How does vintage architecture fit in you ask? Well it’s all part of the sustainability equation. We replace such a small percentage of buildings annually that it is madness to not focus on energy efficient retrofits of existing buildings. We also need to maintain a sense of history and place and culture in our cities, and if we replace everything with brand-spankin-new architecture, not to mention architecture that really has not yet stood the test of time in terms of its materials and systems, well, we lose not only our sense of place, but a whole lot more of our resources. I like the argument that all of the great cities in this world have a harmonious mixture of old and new architecture. The infrastructure is already built in, and historic buildings are often clumped together because walkability was obviously key when you didn’t have cars. We need to celebrate both our history and our modern innovations, so why not make the best of them both?

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There is a tremendous amount of information available to homeowners who want to “go green,” much of which comes directly from companies that produce a product that is, in some way, more environmentally or energy efficient than a comparable product. Well, usually. Some of it just has a green label with a tree on it but enough chemicals to create your own meth lab. Sneaky ad execs and their greenwashing!


Greenwash: A term used to describe the practice of companies disingenuously spinning their products and policies as environmentally friendly, such as by presenting cost cuts as reductions in use of resources. Comic found on http://www.risingtidenorthamerica.

Of course, all of this information is daunting and may have you spending more money than you intended, or leave you with a retrofit or remodel that is not what you had hoped. Don’t panic. Just sit back and decide what it is you really want to achieve. If you want to reduce the materials in your home that off-gas (release chemicals into the air through evaporation) and pay less to cool your home in the summer, solutions can be very inexpensive. If you want to reduce the cold air leakage during the colder months, there are many ways to accomplish this without tearing out all of your windows or spending your children’s college fund.

Put away your mountain of marketing pamphlets and evaluate what is most important to you and/or your family before you are seduced by the promise of a new miracle product. Also consider that there is more to a home than efficiency—consider aesthetics and health as well! Here are some first steps:

1. Determine your climate zone and work with it: Different climate zones require different solutions. For instance, to cool a home in a hot, dry climate, additional moisture will help, whereas in a hot, humid climate, the heat would only worsen with humidity.

2. Perform your own energy audit: Tearing out windows and replacing them without an audit is like having a doctor prescribe you something based on one symptom. Address the cause, not just the symptoms. You can perform a mini audit by yourself with the Energy Star “Home Energy Yardstick” on the energystar.gov site, and by walking around your home looking for cracks in your masonry, roof damage, etc.

3. Better yet, hire an energy auditor! These audits will tell you exactly where your air leaks are coming from, how to fix them, whether sealing up your house will make you suffocate from carbon monoxide poisoning, etc. These are so, so very worth it. They cost anywhere from $400-$700, but will likely save you a whole lot of money in the long run in terms of energy savings and preventing you from throwing money at a problem and not seeing results. Email me at carlabruni@greenpreservationist.org if you would like some recommendations on auditors.

blower door

A blower door is an incredibly useful diagnostic tool used by energy auditors. It is designed to measure the airtightness of buildings, and to help locate air leakage sites. Without it, you're really just guessing.

4. Decide on a budget and keep your ears open for grants, rebates, etc. They change constantly, but they’re out there! I find this site useful and up-to-date more than most in terms of federal, state and local green grants: http://www.dsireusa.org. For preservation grants, contact your State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) or local city landmarks board. Or both!

5. Find a good contractor. Easier said than done, yes, but it’s worth the time investment to ask around and research online. There are plenty of yahoos out there right now who claim to be either preservation architects or green architects and are quite frankly neither. It’s best to find 3 contractors and get 3 estimates whenever possible. Make sure the contractors are certified and ask them for references.

I’ll post more on avoiding the pitfalls of bad contractors and next steps in an upcoming post. More on energy audits coming soon as well! It’s getting cold, so I imagine this is on the minds of many.

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