Q&A with Bourke Reeve, Southface (EarthCraft Sustainable Preservation)

By Margaret O'Neal posted 03-25-2016 15:58


The re-installation of the original hard wood floors which were removed and refurbished for an ECSP project. | Credit: Southface

Originally Posted  January 13, 2016

Connecting sustainability and historic preservation—understanding how old buildings contribute to sustainable cities—is the foundation of the Preservation Green Lab. But we’re not the only ones doing this work. To highlight one of our peers, I sat down with Bourke Reeve of EarthCraft Sustainable Preservation to understand how his program links the two fields and when he became interested in connecting the old with the new.

How did you get interested in sustainability?

After finishing graduate school, I worked with the Georgia Main Street Program. Working in communities to revitalize historic districts made me aware of the many features of these communities that were being recreated in new “green” developments. For example, in green building programs, connectivity between housing, retail and restaurants, pedestrian-oriented transportation, and green space would be considered sustainability features. Many old communities already have these features. Additionally, I had a long-standing interest in building reuse and architectural salvage. This got me thinking about how sustainability and preservation really have a lot of the same fundamentals.

When in your career did you start to consider the role of older buildings?

Having studied preservation and worked in older communities, I was very aware of the passion people have for older buildings and their value in communities. Getting interested in sustainability and learning about building science gave me new perspective on how buildings function. I realized that, if we could bring to the table the passion and expertise of preservationists and combine that with the systems-based approach an organization like Southface applies to high-performance building, we could create structures that protect historic features while also making these buildings star performers. The preservation community and the green building community are full of people who care about the built environment. Finding common ground between the two movements creates the best possible buildings: historic high-performance structures.

Why do you think retrofitting older buildings is so important?

There is recognition in the green building world that no amount of new building will cure our energy, water and resource demand issues. To make a significant impact, existing buildings must be accounted for. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2009 American Housing Survey, shows that about 30 percent of Americans live in houses built prior to 1960. Old buildings and historic buildings have an important role to play in changing how we use energy, water and resources and how we live in the future.

 What spurred the creation of the EarthCraft Sustainable Preservation?

The EarthCraft program was created in 1999 as a partnership between Southface and the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association. In subsequent years, additional programs were created to address the sustainability needs of a variety of building types including light commercial buildings, multifamily developments and whole communities.

In 2010, the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation formed a Sustainability Task Force to consider how sustainability principles could be appropriately applied to historic structures. This committee considered a number of ideas and, in the end, determined that creating a new program specifically designed to address the unique needs of historic buildings would be the best approach. Throughout 2012 and 2013, Southface and the Georgia Trust performed market studies and technical review of existing green building programs to identify methods for incorporating sustainability measures into historic buildings. This research culminated in the creation of a new program, EarthCraft Sustainable Preservation (ECSP). The program is designed to evaluate and highlight what is inherently sustainable about reusing historic buildings while providing guidance on appropriate alterations to make them more energy and water efficient. ECSP offers third-party certification for environmentally responsible design and construction practices for historic buildings in the Southeast. Projects receive technical guidance from green building and preservation experts helping them to achieve customized solutions for more sustainable historic buildings.

What has been a particularly successful or significant moment?

 View of the exterior of one of the pilot projects for the program. | Credit: Southface

The success of our first pilot project: Rhodes Hall, the headquarters of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. Rhodes Hall was the first building to participate in the ECSP Pilot Program. The Georgia Trust was extremely successful in rallying support and funding for their “from historic to sustainable” program. That support shows the interest of the preservation community in the sustainability of historic structures. Equally impressive is the performance of the building. Today, Rhodes Hall has an Energy Star score of 80 and is an Energy Star Labeled building. Energy Star, a Department of Energy program, rates buildings on a scale of 0 to 100 based on actual energy bills. Buildings are compared to their peers and can achieve the Energy Star label with a score of 75 or higher. In 2009, the building had a score of 46; a score of 50 is average. Since the baseline year of 2009, Rhodes Hall has achieved a 27 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a 29 percent reduction in utility costs. Rhodes Hall was able to achieve these energy and emissions reductions while also maintaining its historic materials. This success demonstrates that historic buildings can also be high performance buildings.

What is the conversation that you wish the preservation movement was having? OR What do preservationists need to be talking about that they are not currently?

I think the conversation is about keeping preservation in the present. Preservation is about keeping history and interest in history alive and that means making it relevant to the present. Main Street is about making historic communities relevant in the present, Sustainable Preservation is about making historic buildings relevant in the present. Today there are new ways to communicate and new ways to connect people, places and the past. As preservationists, we should challenge ourselves to keep the past alive by finding new ways to engage others in the story of historic places.

What has changed in the "green building" movement since you first began your career?

Today, green building is taking a more holistic approach to the built environment. Energy and water savings are still critical aspects of any green project but occupant health, community impacts, and lifecycle impacts of buildings and products are receiving more attention. Green building experts are starting to ask, “Can we do better?” Instead of creating buildings that have less impact, can we create a built environment that is restorative to nature and humans? New programs and rating systems like the Living Building Challenge are helping to lead the way to more restorative developments. To me, embracing preservation as a fundamental sustainability principle is another example of challenging the green building community to push the envelope of change.

What do you see as an area of growth for preservation/sustainability/old buildings? OR What is the biggest opportunity for older buildings in the future?

I feel that one of the best ways to keep historic buildings from being threatened by demolition or neglect is to give them a purpose. Costs of maintenance and utilities are significant factors when considering how historic buildings compete with new buildings in the marketplace. As preservationists, we fundamentally believe that historic buildings are “good buildings.” Older city centers are receiving a lot of attention and pressure to house more people and businesses. As this happens, historic properties may be threatened by demolition if it is believed that they are too expensive to operate and maintain compared to new buildings. Retrofitting historic buildings to achieve higher performance while maintaining the character, materials and craftsmanship that make them great presents a challenge and an opportunity; if our historic building stock can comprise our most beautiful buildings, as well as our best-performing buildings, we will truly have the best of both worlds and the case for preservation of historic structures will be even stronger.

How can the preservation movement support this vision?

I encourage all preservationists and green building advocates to be open minded about historic structures. The best solutions will provide for high performance while also allowing historic buildings to retain their traditional features and materials. This combination of performance and curb appeal will allow them to compete in the marketplace with newer buildings. There is a lot of common ground between preservation and green building. Experts in both fields must realize that both are movements of people who care about great buildings. We can accomplish more working together. I see historic buildings as economic engines and storytellers in our communities. Making sure the story is one of the past as well as the future is critical to keeping our historic buildings viable and our planet healthy.

Margaret O’Neal is a senior manager, sustainable preservation at the National Trust Preservation Green Lab.

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