Preservation Green Lab: A Five-Year Review

By Margaret O'Neal posted 12-22-2014 17:06

 Credit: Jim Lindberg
Sidewalk dining, Center City in Philadelphia. | Credit: Jim Lindberg
When I joined Preservation Green Lab earlier this year, the team was on the brink of releasing a seminal piece of research on the contribution of older, smaller buildings to livable cities, rolling out a pilot program to position energy efficiency as a community development tool, and wrapping up discussions on how to integrate historic buildings into a new international energy code for the first time. In the midst of all this, the Green Lab passed a major milestone: five years of research and innovation. As the year comes to a close, it seems fitting to revisit this five-year milestone and reflect on what it means for the team, the National Trust, and the field of preservation.

The Green Lab was established in 2009 when the National Trust identified that one major barrier to the preservation of older and historic buildings was our movement’s inability to speak the language of decision makers. Building owners, architects, design firms, and policy makers needed access to better research on the value of older buildings, policy tools that make it easier to reuse those structures, and technical resources on how to retrofit these assets.

Over the next three years, the Green Lab produced groundbreaking work quantifying the environmental impacts of building reuse, bringing life-cycle analysis to the national preservation conversation, and providing data to help preservationists win the windows debate. At the same time, it tackled policies to make building reuse easier and more likely, showing that flexibility in energy codes allows developers to take advantage of the inherently sustainable characteristics of older buildings and that small-scale commercial buildings require unique solutions to meet energy goals. As the staff and research products grew, the work of the Green Lab became an increasingly larger piece of how preservation was being defined in the 21st century. Now, in 2014, we have staff across the country and have learned a number of things about sustainability and preservation. Here are five highlights representing one for each year:

Preservation is quantifiable.

 Credit: Tom Liebel
Miller’s Court, an adaptive reuse project in Baltimore. | Credit: Tom Liebel
Preservationists love old buildings for a number of reasons—quality of life, sense of place, neighborhood character. Yet the benefits cited about historic buildings are ultimately matters of the heart. You can say you love your older commercial corridor, but you can’t say how much it improves the quality of life in your neighborhood. Or can you? Last year, the Preservation Green Lab developed a methodology that looks at the measurable impact that older buildings have on their surroundings—creating a Character Score and establishing statistical links between building character and a variety of performance metrics, from walkability to measures of a strong local economy. The research allows us to quantify for the first time the difference between areas with concentrations of older buildings and those without. When taken together with our ability to measure the environmental impacts of reuse over demolition, it is clear that we are getting to a point where preservation can be quantified.

Performance matters.

This new, measurable way of talking about preservation has opened the door to discussions with decision makers and developers who speak the language of data and metrics. Similarly, talking about sustainability in preservation is all about building performance. From our work in energy codes and designation programs like LEED, we’ve learned that in order for preservation to be taken seriously as a tool for sustainable development, we need to talk about how older buildings actually perform. Our research shows that old buildings have the potential to perform very efficiently. We also know that providing efficiency checklists or exempting old buildings from efficiency requirements risks leaving old buildings out of important conversations about creating more sustainable communities. Challenging historic buildings to perform better, with flexibility on how they get to that end goal, is critically important to the modernization of our movement.

Preservationists were right.

 Credit: Hien Dang
E. Smith Mercantile in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. | Credit: Hien Dang, Alliance for Pioneer Square.
The Preservation Green Lab prides itself on taking basic assumptions of the preservation movement and using data and rigorous empirical research to test their validity. A groundbreaking study of the environmental impacts of building reuse validated Carl Elefante’s infamous notion that the “the greenest building is one that already exists”; proving that it can take between 10 and 80 years for a new, energy-efficient building to overcome, through more efficient operations, the negative climate change impacts that were created during the construction process. More recently, we tested—for the first time—Jane Jacobs’s claim that “vigorous streets and districts” need old buildings to thrive by measuring quality-of-life indicators in districts built around older, smaller buildings. These assumptions that preservationists have been holding true for decades are now backed by quantitative research.

Flexibility is required.

Too often, preservation has been viewed as rigid and unyielding—the movement of “no.” In our research identifying barriers to building reuse in cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore, the Green Lab found that a major impediment can be the inability of building codes and local policies to be flexible. However, changing these codes is just one piece of the puzzle. Oftentimes, preservationists have been forced to think within the framework of what is and is not ‘allowable’, because the movement was born out of a need to protect. Not every reuse project is able to fit neatly into existing regulations. While we recognize the immeasurable value of historic buildings and commercial corridors, we have also realized that if a building has the potential to live on through a new use, it benefits us all in the long run to allow a little flexibility up front in order to accomplish this. For example, if an old hardware store has the potential to become a new neighborhood-serving restaurant with the addition of a fire exit to the back alley, is it not better to allow this change than let the building continue to sit vacant?

We can’t build our way to a sustainable future.

 | Credit: Gary Grissom via Flickr (Creative Commons)
 West Philadelphia. | Credit: GaryGrissom via Flickr (Creative Commons)
The most valuable lesson that the Green Lab has learned in our five years is this: Though technology contributes significantly to our ability to retrofit older buildings in greener, smarter ways, the biggest benefit from building reuse comes from what you’re saving when you choose not to throw materials away and create new ones. We can’t build our way to a sustainable future without incorporating existing buildings and infrastructure into our planning—it’s simply not possible.

If older buildings have the potential to be as efficient as new construction while contributing measurably to the economic and social health of communities, we can significantly advance efficiency goals and quality of life issues by focusing on existing structures. The potential scale of our impact—knowing the vast number of older building across the country—is huge. As we say goodbye to 2014, we have much to be proud of, but more importantly, much to look forward to. Building on our recent successes proving the environmental, economic, and social value of older buildings and districts, the Green Lab will be working for the first time to demonstrate the impact that targeted, place-based reuse and retrofit projects can have in helping to tackle the complex urban problems of the 21st century. Working in places like Louisville, Chicago, and Detroit, we will engage community members, students, developers, and other nontraditional partners to identify the market, financial, and technical barriers to investment in high opportunity areas—creating a new kind of economic development centered on promoting older and existing buildings as the foundation for a more equitable and sustainable future.

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