Master Preservationist Program-Day Ten. Rethinking Sustainability and the Meaning of “Green”

I apologize in advance for the brevity of this post because, well, part of our program on day ten was cut short by the pouring rain (no One Cool Blow and TacoBoy for us!).  But I wanted to put some food for thought out there.  Could historic preservation actually be the most sustainable and ‘green’ of sustainable and ‘green’ practices?  Could it even be greener?

I’ll let that sink in for a moment.

Now traditionally when we think of going green, we think LEED certified, Energy Star, geothermal heating, solar panels….the list goes on.  But in considering historic homes and their place in sustainability, we must first understand and respect two things.

Passive systems. The use of passive systems means that each element of a home was put into place to make the best use of light and air.  Piazzas were used to not only shade the house from the blazing sun, but also to create breezeways in order to mitigate the effects of the hot air.  Shutters were used not only for protection, but also to block out the sun while still allowing airflow.  Even plaster and lath walls were meant to circulate air, breathe in and out with temperature change and provide some insulation.  Now look – I like my A/C as much as the next person, but you get the point….

Contrast this with a typical building environment of today – we shut the weather out and use active systems to manage our environments.  Even if that HVAC system is the most energy efficient one you can buy, it still uses energy AND imagine all the resources that went into creating it and getting it to your house.  Mining, chemicals, factories, ships, trucks.  And then what do you do with it when it reaches its end of life?  It goes in a dump.  Which brings me to my next point.

Embodied Energy. Embodied energy is defined as the commercial energy (fossil fuels, nuclear, etc) that was used in the work to make any product, bring it to market, and dispose of it.  A historic building already exists.  Energy was already put into the building and maintenance of it – most of that human and natural resources.  If we destroy that historic building only to erect a new fancy one – green or not, we are tossing that energy aside, and requiring new (and frankly much less sustainable) energy to build it.  Take the plaster and lath example.  The ‘lath’ is wood, constructed out of a renewable resource. The last time I checked, a standard building material of today – drywall – ain’t quite so renewable.  Here’s a little description of how drywall is made and it includes mining, chemicals, factories, transportation….How many factory workers does it take to make one sheet?

A typical complaint in older homes is that the windows leak like sieves and home owners want to replace them with new energy-efficient windows.  But did you know that it would take almost 40 years to recoup the cost of replacement?  Hmm…I think there’s a simpler way to stop those leaks.  Or you could just settle back and enjoy the scent of spring coming through your windows….:)

At any rate, I am not claiming you shouldn’t do any green thing to a historic home, but am rather asking you to stop and think about it before you do.  There are many ways to implement ‘green’ elements if you so desire.  Try a pervious ground cover for your driveway like oyster shells or gravel (no asphalt!) or put in a cistern or big rain barrel so you can water your plants.

For a great example of a local NEW construction project using these practices, check out One Cool Blow – a condo project on Upper Meeting St.  The Post and Courier has a good article about it and a photo gallery.


Then of course, there’s the fabulous Taco Boy – created out of an abandoned warehouse using mostly reclaimed materials.  Charleston Magazine has a good article about it if you are interested.  And don’t forget – Taco Boy has delicious margheritas too!

This photo of a work in progress was provided by Currie McCullough of 53Cannon fame.  She’s the goto for commercial space in the Cannonborough/Elliotborough neighborhood.


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2 Responses to “Master Preservationist Program-Day Ten. Rethinking Sustainability and the Meaning of “Green”

  • charlesbrawnyson
    11 years ago

    Awesome article! I’m a big fan of good landscaping, but it’s really important to be environmentally responsible at the same time. Does anyone know of any eco-friendly ideas for <a href=””>landscaping in washington dc</a>? Thanks!

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