Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Greening Design Guidelines: Two Case Studies, New Orleans and Oklahoma City 

12-09-2015 17:35

Preservation commissions across the country are taking a fresh look at their preservation guidelines in light of rapidly evolving changes in energy-saving technologies. And many are finding that they can be part of the solution, rather than simply an obstacle. Two cities—New Orleans and Oklahoma City—have recently completed an overhaul of their preservation guidelines. Both have incorporated sustainability directly into the document. For example, energy-saving technologies, such as the installation of solar panels, are no longer frowned upon, and if substitute materials are needed, owners are encouraged to consider long-lasting materials with earth-friendly manufacturing processes. To find out more about how to incorporate sustainability guidelines in your community, read Developing Sustainability Guidelines for Historic Districts by Noré V. Winter, available from

NEW ORLEANS: New Guidelines Provide Accessible Link to Preserving New Orleans’ Diverse Historic Building Stock
Danielle Del Sol

The City of New Orleans and its diverse population of residents and property owners have been through a lot in the past 36 years. Now a unique set of design guidelines that seamlessly fold sustainability into other design considerations is giving homeowners the information they need to make informed decisions about rehabilitating and retrofitting their historic homes to become more environmentally sustainable.

As the gifts of a tropical environment, such as hurricanes, flooding, termites, and subsidence (when the ground shifts as it absorbs water and then dries out) continue to challenge the city’s significant stock of Creole cottages, iconic wooden shotguns, and Italianate double-galleried townhomes, the staff at the Historic District Landmarks Commission (HDLC), continues to work to help protect the city’s priceless structures.

To ensure that owners of historic properties in the city’s 14 historic districts clearly understand how to achieve the best possible conditions for their building, the HDLC relies on a comprehensive set of design guidelines that lays these standards out for the more than 14,000 structures under its jurisdiction.

But until last summer, the guidelines that set these rules fell far short. Homeowners living within New Orleans’ historic districts were required to have all work done to the exterior of their house (visible from the street) approved by the HDLC, but understanding exactly what work required review was difficult. According to HDLC Chairman Jesse LeBlanc, the previous set of design guidelines was bulky and virtually inaccessible: an all-text tome geared to design and preservation professionals and not always user friendly. Furthermore, the old guidelines offered little help on how to incorporate green technologies into rehabilitation projects.

An overhaul of the guidelines was due. The commission hired Dominique Hawkins, AIA, partner and managing principal of Preservation Design Partnership, LLC, to write new, user-friendly design guidelines for the residents of New Orleans’ historic districts.

Hawkins started her research in summer 2009, consulting with HDLC staff and other organizations, city agencies, developers, architects, and players in the design field, and exploring the city, taking thousands of photographs and talking to homeowners.

The 250-page City of New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission Design Guidelines debuted in summer 2011 to provide just what the HDLC and the community were looking for: a streamlined set of guidelines for homeowners that set out how to make repairs and maintain their historic properties. The guidelines introduce a new, three-level rating system, and also provide perimeters for new construction within historic districts.

They also address sustainability issues. LeBlanc said: “We made them [the guidelines] environmentally sensitive, too, to incorporate the use of new building materials and new green technologies in historic homes.”

Hawkins notes that she hesitated to make the guidelines too reliant on existing technology. She explained that “green” technologies are evolving at such a rapid rate that any document intended to be “timeless,” should not set perimeters for technologies that will surely soon be obsolete. “Solar panels, for example, were a big part of the discussion because every year they keep getting thinner and more powerful,” she said. “So I talked more about where panels go on a building, referencing how close to the street and far from the ridge and eave so that the guidelines can anticipate new technology.”

Plus she had her audience to consider. In design guidelines Hawkins has authored for other cities, she has addressed the issues of sustainability and green technologies in different ways, depending on the historic district and its property owners. “Some communities are very attuned to issues of sustainability. There I included information on a range of things such as low V.O.C. paints, tips on not using salt on driveways in icy conditions, non-harmful insecticides to use in yards—none of which was under the purview of the historic district, but that audiences in those communities wanted to know.”

When Hawkins started New Orleans’ guidelines in 2009, there weren’t a lot of design guidelines available at that point that addressed sustainability specifically. Given the scope and audience, it was decided pretty quickly that information on sustainability and green technologies should be integrated within the document as opposed to being a separate chapter or appendix.

“Ultimately, I wanted to gear the guidelines toward the user,” she continued. “Most users, if they’re trying to replace windows, they’re not going to start by looking in a sustainability section.” But, if within the window section readers are informed that saving their old wood windows and caulking around the edges will save them money on their energy bills while also preserving the historic integrity of their home, “that’s a pretty good reason to save their old windows,” Hawkins said.

She also steered clear of creating a separate section solely on all things “green” because sustainable building and restoration methods are not just trendy—they’re smart economically and environmentally, and therefore will simply become common practice as the years progress. “Although sustainability is a buzz term at the moment, in five years it’s going to be like ADA—we all know it’s there, and we all follow the guidelines,” she said. “As time goes on we’ll continue discussions on what solar panels are best, etc., but building materials and their appropriateness need to be integrated within a good design.”

Plus, she worried that such a specific section devoted to sustainability would rub some people the wrong way. “Some may perceive a sustainability section as rather elitist,” she said. “By making people think about these issues in terms of problem solving, it allows the discussion of, ‘Hey, maybe this is an option for me, for my property, that solves my problem but as a sideline might be environmentally appropriate.’”

Issues of sustainability and green technologies are referenced most heavily in three specific sections of the new guidelines: Roofing, Windows and Doors, and Site Elements. Hawkins encourages interested residents to paint their rooftops white, or a metallic color that reflects sunlight, if they aren’t visible from the street, as is the case for many of the industrial structures in the Warehouse District neighborhood.

For solar panels, Hawkins structured the language with the understanding that solar film is becoming thinner in profile every year. “So we basically just said, ‘if you’re installing something akin to a solar panel on your roof, keep it off the eave, ridge, and keep it a certain distance back from the street, parallel to the roof’s surface.’”

For windows, there is ample discussion in the guidelines on improving operation and air infiltration, and on solar heat gain and loss. The guidelines explain how to improve the thermal efficiency of windows and what types of storm windows are appropriate. “The guidelines also suggest using salvaged windows in lieu of modern replacement windows, but we never explicitly state that saving things from a landfill is good. We tried to minimize the preachy quality of the document.”

Finally, site considerations that address sustainability efforts within the guidelines include specifications to minimize the amount of paving and recommend using permeable paving when possible.

In all, the compilation of the guidelines was “a massive undertaking,” LeBlanc said. But he and others on staff and in the community couldn’t be more pleased with the results; LeBlanc is helping Hawkins apply for national awards for the guidelines, which he says, “given the feedback we’ve gotten since they’ve come out, are, in my humble opinion, probably the best set of guidelines in the U.S. for historic districts.” HDLC Executive Director Elliott Perkins agrees. “They’re a valuable tool for the public, and not just for people in the local historic districts, but for anyone who owns a house in this city.”

The guidelines are available digitally for download or for sale as a paperback on the HDLC’s website,

Oklahoma City’s Green Guidelines: Combining Historic Preservation Design Review and Sustainability Policy
Catherine Montgomery, AIA and Phil Thomason

Many engaged in the administration of historic preservation ordinances are familiar with the common complaints of property owners who are required to follow their city’s design guidelines when proposing to modify their property.  Some of the most common complaints have to do with requirements to retain historic fabric, including those “old leaky wood windows that make my energy bills so high.”

Oklahoma City’s planning department took these complaints to heart when it began a rewrite of the city’s existing historic preservation guidelines and standards, and decided to completely integrate sustainability principles into the new guidelines.

Oklahoma City’s first locally zoned historic district was established in 1969. The City became a Certified Local Government in 1991 and adopted the Secretary’s Standards for Rehabilitation as its basic and only tool for making design review decisions. In 2003 the planning department created specific and detailed guidelines and standards tailored to Oklahoma City. At this time the city contained about 3,500 properties in nine, locally zoned districts. With project funding in place, the city moved forward with the “GREEN” Guidelines revision project in August 2010.

“Greening” Our Guidelines—The Scope of Work

A consultation team first reviewed other guidelines that had been prepared to include explicit sustainability standards and guidelines. Team members contacted all of the SHPOs across the country, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions to survey which communities had joined these approaches together in one document. Their study concluded that an example of what the city desired to accomplish had not yet been completed and that this project would be one of the first in the country to fully integrate sustainability standards with rehabilitation guidelines.

The final format of the new guidelines, (informally known as “GREEN Guidelines”) includes four major chapters: Introduction and Background, Site and Landscape Considerations, Alterations, New Additions and Stand Alone Construction.

Chapter One includes new sections on the relationship between historic preservation and sustainability and a section that illustrates and identifies historic passive energy conservation measures that remain appropriate today. Each section of each chapter is introduced with a graphically separated box that presents a policy statement followed by a related statement for design justification and a related statement for sustainability justification. For example, the section on Doors and Entries notes that original doors should be retained and preserved. It then goes on to explain that the original doors help convey the style and period of the building (design justification) and that their reuse preserves old-growth fabric (sustainability justification). The guidelines also note that doors can be made air tight through proper weather stripping and the addition of storm doors.

Each numbered item that follows offers mandatory standards and permissive guidance that relate back to the policy and justification statements.

The most significant changes related to sustainability include:

  • Encouraging the use of permeable paving materials.Emphasizing the use of fabric, wood or metal awnings even if they were not used historically.
  • Encouraging the use of solar panels or solar shingles on back roof slopes as well as solar panels at ground level in back yards where they cannot be viewed.
  • The consultant team held public meetings, met with the preservation review committees, and neighborhood association representatives of the historic districts. The public input was important in adding the sustainability language into the existing guidelines. Following an extensive review process, the new “green guidelines” were adopted by the City Council and were made effective on August 1.

Sustainability Gets Equal Billing

The new “Oklahoma City Historic Preservation Design & Sustainability Standards and Guidelines” remain first and foremost, preservation guidelines. The educational introductory sections offer energy conservation solutions that have little or no effect on the exterior character defining aspects of individual buildings. The new format serves to emphasize the steps owners can take, including maintenance related work, that do not require any review either by staff or the commission. Because the document contains both requirements and recommendations, only those sustainability principles that are consistent with preservation principles have been encouraged. The guidelines recognize that technological advances have the potential to improve energy efficiency in older buildings and the installation of such features is encouraged as long as they are placed out of public view and do not detract from the building’s character.

The intent is to emphasize the importance of reducing the burden of discarded building materials on landfills by retaining existing materials as much as is practical. When replacement is required and substitute materials are preferred, owners are encouraged to consider long-lasting substitute materials with earth-friendly manufacturing processes that also maintain the visual historic character of the buildings and properties. These guidelines are anticipated to be useful to every owner of vintage homes in Oklahoma City, not just those who live within zoned historic districts.

To read the guidelines go to

Publication Date: Summer 2012



Author(s):Danielle Del Sol/Catherine Montgomery and Phil Thomason