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Tapping the Synergies of Green Building
and Historic Preservation
Proponents of these two highly dedicated and concerned movements are finding ways to work together to advance their many shared values
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By Nancy B. Solomon, AIA

This article is also available for Continuing Education credit here.

For decades, there has been an underlying tension between historic preservation and environmental design: the former seeking to protect our history and culture, typically by applying traditional methods of construction and conservation to familiar buildings from the past; the latter trying to protect human health and natural habitat and promote alternative sources of energy, often through the application of innovative technologies and construction methods to novel forms. Although the two movements came of age in the mid-20th century, emerging largely in response to the post–World War II era of unbridled development, they eyed each other with suspicion. Like siblings born a few years apart—perhaps feeling threatened by the other’s position in the architectural family—it’s taken until middle age for them to realize that the ties that bind them are much greater than their differences.

“I’m delighted to see these two camps working together in the past 10 years,” says Carl Elefante, AIA, a self-described “solar hippie” from the 1970s working for Quinn Evans Architects in Washington, D.C., a firm devoted to historic preservation. He attributes much of this cooperation to increased dialogue. “There are many synergies between historic preservation and environmental design,” says Elefante, “and few problems with resolving conflicts—no big issues, just red herrings.”

Indicative of this growing partnership, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), which oversees many of the nation’s historic landmarks, now requires LEED certification for all new capital projects, including major renovations. LEED, the acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a consensus-based rating system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council to evaluate sustainable design measures in buildings. Several historic buildings currently being rehabilitated by GSA, including the Howard M. Metzenbaum Federal Building and United States Courthouse in Cleveland, are working toward a LEED rating. “We don’t see a conflict between preservation and sustainable design,” says Donald R. Horn, AIA, an architect with GSA’s Sustainable Design Program.


The renovation of the Metzenbaum Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse will incorporate many sustainable strategies, including refurbishment of the building’s ornamental interior by local artisans.

Photography: Courtesy General Services Administration


In retrospect, this doesn’t come as a surprise: After all, conservation underlies the basic principles of both the preservation and the sustainable movement. Many of the typical design strategies of one reinforce the goals of the other. In some cases, new green technologies are helping to resolve the complex demands now placed on our historic structures. And the two movements share some similar challenges. Nonetheless, a few areas of conflict do exist, which for the most part can only be resolved case by case, depending on the specific conditions and the priorities of the client. Some current policies may be unnecessarily exacerbating tensions between the two.


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