This St. Paddy’s week, America’s urban areas are crawling with green-clad revelers drinking green-colored beverages. No doubt that many of these merry-makers will be patronizing pubs in historic buildings and main streets that have benefited from historic preservation efforts. They may not be painted green for the occasion (although there may be a few), but these buildings are often considered ‘the greenest buildings,’ a term coined by American architect and sustainability expert Carl Elefante (FAIA, LEED AP) when he declared, “The greenest building is the one that is already built.”
Preservationists are quite familiar with ‘the greenest building’ argument for adaptive use of historic buildings. This concept was originally perpetuated during the energy crisis of the 1970s and phrases like “embodied energy” and “carbon footprint” became part of the preservation lexicon. In the 1980s, the National Trust for Historic Preservation created the famous poster of an old building in the shape of a gas can to convey the idea that building reuse was a good way to conserve energy. It was effective and iconic.
Today, our better understanding of climate change and how our actions contribute to environmental shifts has deepened the issue, linking sustainability with responsibility. The popularity of LEED ratings and energy-efficient materials in building development are the realization of what is marketable, what is socially responsible, and what is financially beneficial over time for developers and end users alike.
Historic preservation and adaptive use are inherently sustainable practices, not only because of the aforementioned embodied energy of the structure but also because of building characteristics that encourage innovative sustainability strategies. “Because many historic buildings were built before climate control was widespread, they showcase great regional climatic adaptation and strategies for passive thermal comfort regulation. Many lessons on how to reduce energy consumption are archived in the historic buildings around us,” says Amalia Leifeste, AIA, assistant professor at the Clemson University/College of Charleston Graduate Program in Historic Preservation. “Sustainable strategies can be gleaned from an understanding of past practices and introduced to new construction or, better yet, capitalized on or re-introduced to existing buildings.”
In addition to being ‘green’ by sustainability standards, there are myriad tools that incentivize reuse and help developers achieve valuable equity for these projects. The federal historic tax credit awards up to 20 percent of qualified rehabilitation expenses for eligible income-producing buildings and at the moment 33 states have historic tax credit programs that mirror or resemble the federal program. Some states and local municipalities utilize tax abatement programs. Cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, and St. Petersburg, Florida are using local ordinances to reward developers reusing buildings with shorter and streamlined permitting approvals and relaxing zoning and code requirements that apply to new construction. This is a forward-thinking approach to encouraging the sustainable practice of reuse.
The economic benefits of historic building reuse not only benefit developers but also extend to local business owners, residents, and municipalities themselves. Time and time again, the rehabilitation of a single building – be it a landmark mill or a main street storefront – can be the spark for greater economic development in a community, bringing with it more jobs and tax dollars. The creation of housing, affordable or otherwise, is another common use of historic buildings that can stimulate the economy of a locale.
As American cities turn green this week, look around at the historic buildings and the inherent green they represent for energy, for equity, and for economic development. If you are holding a green beer while you ponder this, all the better.