Barbara Campagna Q&A: Historic Preservation and Sustainability

Often when we talk about making buildings more sustainable, the focus is on cutting-edge technologies, the newest buildings, and building environmentally sound systems into new designs. But what if the design is priceless, and was created decades or even centuries before the words “green building” were ever paired together? Barbara Campagna, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C, gives us an overview of her work as a sustainability consultant, architect, and historic preservationist in part one of this two-part Urban Green Q & A.

Ms. Campagna presented case studies and insights from her career at our event on sustainability and historic preservation at the TRESPA Design Center.

Urban Green Council: How does sustainability in historic buildings differ from sustainability in some of the older, non-historic buildings around New York? How would you describe the unique challenges? Unique opportunities?    

Barbara Campagna: In many respects, historic preservation methodologies are just sound, common-sense approaches to protecting the resources, culture and heritage of our planet—and that is inherently sustainable development. This methodology can be used on a National Historic Landmark or a contemporary shopping mall. There is no real difference to evaluating existing and historic buildings. Certainly if a building is not historic and will never be, more drastic changes could be made, but that does not mean they need to be made. But I think it’s just good architecture to understand the bones of a building first, historic or not.  Understanding what changes can or should be made is dependent on a building’s historic significance and the important architectural features that make it that way—the character-defining features.  Windows and roofs are two key historic features that typically require the most sensitivity. If the existing windows can be restored or rehabilitated, it is often crucial that they be saved. But whether they’re double hung wood windows or an aluminum curtain wall, current projects show that these features can be both restored and improved from an efficiency standpoint. You can weatherstrip wood sashes or insert a double-glazed panel with a spacer bar behind and original single-glazed curtain wall. 

UGC: Is there a dilemma in working to improve the sustainability of a historic building (thereby changing it) with the concept of preserving historic buildings in general (which could seem like an effort to resist change)?  

BC: This question might be misleading because it implies that sustainability and preservation are not well suited to one another, but for many traditional buildings, sustainability equals preservation—and does not necessarily mean change and in the cases where it does mean that, it is not necessarily a bad thing. The term “preservation” refers to a range of valid approaches, depending on the historical significance of a building, its current and proposed use, and its character-defining features. Preservation means stabilizing a building as it is. House museum buildings are often good examples of true preservation projects.  Rehabilitation means adapting a building for a new use, which can include making changes to spaces and features which have not been determined as being significant or include changing non-historic spaces and features while preserving character-defining features. Restoration, on the other hand, means taking a building back to a specific time and date which can include removing later alterations.  Reconstruction, which is rarely used in the US except for extraordinarily significant places, means restoring or rebuilding a building that has been removed, in its exact location. Reusing an existing building is often a combination of preservation, rehabilitation and restoration efforts.

The first step in developing a sustainability plan for a historic or any existing building is to understand its original design features.  In many cases, reactivating original design features (shutters, operable windows, vents, etc) will significantly improve the energy efficiency of a building for example.  Understanding a building’s original placement and its possible original passive design features can help to remove later alterations, which might ignore that original climatic approach. With historic buildings (those actually designated as landmarks or having the potential to be designated), the first priority is that all work be sympathetic to and respect the historic significance and character-defining features of the place, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make changes. Decisions for energy efficiency will look at things like adding insulation in attics, walls or basements. If the walls are historic, you may not be able to add insulation to them but weatherizing the windows (adding new caulk, weatherstripping, tightening the sashes) can make a huge difference. But with all of these efforts, it is crucial to have the right design team—architects, engineers, conservators who know how to evaluate existing buildings and integrate green building approaches.  Having an engineer who knows how to develop energy models using traditional and historic construction cannot be underestimated.

Improving water use is often one of the easiest things to improve in a historic building.  If the bathroom fixtures aren’t historic, then they can be replaced with low-flow ones.  Even historic fixtures can be updated. Traditional buildings are often well placed in urban environments and will score high in the LEED Sustainable Sites category. Finally, adding renewable energy approaches (wind or solar) can be done if it makes sense.  Solar panels can be located on flat roofs that aren’t seen.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this Q & A next week.

About the authors

Urban Green Council
Dedicated to transforming buildings for a sustainable future.