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INSIGHT: Alignment: Sustainability and Historic Preservation

Retrofitting existing buildings is a vital strategy for significantly reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions globally. To many, it is THE strategy.

By Elaine Gallagher Adams, AIA, LEED AP
December 1, 2009

With an eye toward 100x amplification, Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) has launched a major new initiative focused on High Performance Commercial Building Retrofits. Simultaneously, the U.S. Department of Energy is putting $454 million into ramping up energy efficiency retrofits aimed at saving $100 million annually – a 4.5-year payback. Vice President Biden just unveiled a significant report focused on middle income residential energy retrofits, and the federal Weatherization Assistance Program for low income families has added $5 billion to its budget this year to increase participation and improve the program. Additionally, with building renovation creating 20% more jobs than new construction, this is a big opportunity for increasing employment and has become a freight train that won’t be stopped.


Thinking Big: Retrofitting the Empire State Building


Earlier this year, RMI was a key player in designing a deep-energy efficiency retrofit of the historic Empire State Building in New York City, which included high-performance window retrofits, radiant heat barriers, and daylighting measures.


The building, which was already performing 10% better than the average office building of similar age and size, will reduce energy consumption by an additional 38% – saving the owners $4 million annually. The predicted energy use intensity for the building is 54 kBtu/GSF. Every existing office building in the country should be able to reach that number.


RMI’s research indicates that even further savings can be reached if effective carbon trading is implemented, with consistent utility incentives, and when renewable energy technology evolves into a true mass-market industry – all of which will help transform our existing building stock, including historic buildings, into high-performance, energy-efficient buildings.


The Nashville Challenge


This past October in Nashville, national building preservation leaders gathered to discuss the environmental and political imperative for deep-energy efficiency in existing buildings. They met the challenge with enthusiasm and impressive expertise. Hosted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Friends of the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, the assembly consisted of architects and engineers, federal preservation officers, municipal planners, and NGO representatives. With more than 150 years of building renovation history, this community is the most knowledgeable, most experienced body of professionals organized specifically to address existing building renovations.


The time has come for historic preservation practitioners and policy makers to reassess preservation guidelines with an eye toward energy efficiency and renewable energy, and conversely to come to the table and make policy at a national level – sharing effective technologies and approaches already gleaned.


At one point during the Nashville meeting, a participant asked, “Does the Department of Energy know that the National Park Service literally wrote the book on window retrofitting? How often do [DOE Secretary Steven] Chu and [U.S. Dept. of the Interior Secretary Ken] Salazar talk?”


Of course, the challenges of retrofitting historic buildings include issues such as effectively modeling passive solar buildings, the color and profile of rooftop solar panels or integrated PV shingles, and the ever-controversial methods of improving window efficiency.


Over the course of the afternoon, most participants agreed that more data, better tools, and better communication between green building advocates and historic preservationists are needed to achieve a more successful alignment. Energy modeling tools must get better at modeling passive technologies and our architecture and engineering students need to learn how to use them.


The attendees voted unanimously to revisit the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, with a real focus on the Guidelines for Interpretation. The Guidelines provide decision makers with general rules for interpretation; but many energy measures are not covered, so interpretation is left up to the reviewer – often costing the building owner unnecessary frustration and reducing potential energy savings. A few think the Standards need to be revised, although many, myself included, feel the Standards are “performance specs” and allow for any energy efficiency measure, given some creativity and consistent interpretation.


The group also agreed that promoting general building reuse – not just historic buildings – should become a focus of preservation as part of a global policy for fighting climate change, and that historic buildings should not be exempt from meeting energy efficiency standards. Data shows that older buildings are often better energy performers than newer buildings and can compete with the best of them, especially with energy efficiency upgrades and retrofits.


Next Steps


Rocky Mountain Institute is mapping out a strategy for amplified commercial building retrofits that will establish the viability of aggressive energy savings in every existing building. By establishing partnerships, improving tools and technology, and creating robust case studies, this initiative aims to be a catalyst for a tidal wave of change.


The next steps for the preservation community will be determined in the next few months. Task forces will be formed to assess standards and guidelines to: create essential partnerships; gather case studies, data, and educational materials; and work with policy makers for financial tools and bold national goals.


Meanwhile, the call to preservation professionals is loud and clear – get involved. And the call to sustainability advocates is also clear – embrace the resources that are right under our noses and take advantage of lessons learned through both past and recent history.



Elaine Gallagher Adams, AIA, LEED AP, is an architect and senior consultant at Rocky Mountain Institute in Boulder, CO, working on urban energy conservation and sustainable buildings. Rocky Mountain Institute drives the efficient and restorative use of resources, creating a world thriving, verdant, and secure, for all, for ever.


(click on pictures to enlarge)