Historic Preservation and Green Architecture: Friends Or Foes?

According to architecture critic Blair Kamin, they’re natural allies—and always have been

Whenever I hear people talking about tension between historic preservation and green architecture, I am taken aback. What tension? Choosing between preservation and conservation, it would seem, is like choosing between a Volvo and a Saab. They have more similarities than differences.

Both movements cut their teeth in the 1960s, challenging the prevailing value system of postwar American culture and its unbridled faith in anything "new." And both camps drew inspiration from brilliant women who wrote brilliant books—Jane Jacobs, whose The Death and Life of Great American Cities assaulted the conventional wisdom about "urban renewal," and Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring helped give birth to the environmental movement by documenting the harmful effects of pesticides.

Preservationists and conservationists are close relatives— sisters or brothers—not strangers. Yet if you scratch the surface of their relationship, it is possible to find evidence of sibling rivalry.

2010 Green Issue IconTake the tension that surfaced in Chicago last year, when the owners of the Sears (now Willis) Tower revealed plans to make the nation's tallest skyscraper more energy efficient. Among the measures they considered: splashing a coat of heat-reflecting silver paint on the tower's heat-attracting black facade. Although the 37-year-old high-rise is not an officially protected landmark, the idea that it could be radically altered in the name of saving BTUs sent shockwaves coursing through Chicago's architectural community. Fortunately, the owners backed off their glittery idea, but not before my colleagues at the Chicago Tribune floated some fanciful alternatives for "greening" the tower (including encasing it in a hemp shopping bag).

All joking aside, the Sears Tower saga raises a fundamental question: Should preservationists place a new and unremitting emphasis on saving energy, or should retaining the integrity of architectural masterworks remain paramount? To what extent, if at all, should preservationists be guided by the U.S. Green Building Council's standards for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification?

In other words, should the green movement and the threat of climate change prompt a rethinking of what it means to be a historic preservationist at the dawn of the 21st century?

The answer, in a word, is yes. But things are considerably more complicated than that. A close look at three projects in the Midwest reveals the need for a broad spectrum of approaches, based on the recognition that different circumstances demand different responses—and a healthy dose of innovation.

Like Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin in Spring Green, Wis., the tiny Seth Peterson Cottage near Lake Delton, Wis., has a tragedy-laced history. Its namesake owner died before the 880-square-foot cottage was completed in 1960. Another owner finished the house, but it fell into disrepair after 1966, when the state of Wisconsin bought the property to enlarge a state park. (Luckily, the Department of Natural Resources preserved the cottage until restoration could be effected.) Only in the late 1980s, when local activists dreamed up the idea of offering a completely restored getaway to renters, did things look up.

Enter Chicago architect John Eifler, who was hired for the restoration. Eifler's mechanical engineer determined that the existing house, with single-pane glazing, could not be heated efficiently in winter. So Eifler proposed double glazing and ran his radical idea by the state historic preservation officer. The response was predictable: Rather than set a possibly dangerous precedent, the SHPO refused to approve the request.

But someone with the Seth Peterson Cottage Conservancy knew the governor of Wisconsin and got his ear. And before you know it, Eifler says, the governor called the head of the state historical division and asked, in effect: "Why are you giving those good people in Lake Delton such a hard time?" And that, remembers Eifler, is how he got his double glazing. By adding appropriate Usonian-style furniture and by retaining some single glazing, he went on to restore this Wright gem to its former glory.

When work on the Seth Peterson Cottage concluded in 1992, the clock had not been turned back. It had been turned forward, anticipating today's energy concerns. Eifler put a radiant heating system in the floor, a feature the original client could not afford, and he installed insulation below it, ensuring that heat would rise into the house rather than seep into the earth below. He even designed pockets in the ceiling for electronic roller shades (still on the cottage's wish list) that will drop down on winter nights, providing further insulation.

As a result of his foresight, the cottage stays warm in winter and cool in summer. This isn't just good for the environment, it's good for preservation. Because the Seth Peterson Cottage Conservancy isn't spending thousands of dollars heating the property, it has sufficient funds to maintain it.

The broader lesson is that a restoration should not only reinstate the past, it should also prepare a building for the future. If a building cannot meet tomorrow's standards, in Eifler's view, it is doomed to become obsolete. And that will lead the public and policymakers to wonder why they should devote precious resources to the very cause preservationists hold dear. Eifler's radical mantra: Preservationists have to reinvent themselves—or they will become dinosaurs.

Clearly, that approach will not work on every project. Take the recent restoration of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's S.R. Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. By 2003, time and deferred maintenance had taken their toll on this icon of International Style modernism, Mies' greatest achievement at the IIT campus on Chicago's South Side. The elegant travertine stairs had cracked, and the once-crisp black Mies facade had turned a faint shade of gray. The restoration team—Chicago architects Krueck & Sexton and preservation architect T. Gunny Harboe—faced the enormously difficult challenge of modernizing the steel-and-glass temple completed in 1956, while also making it look as if they had never touched it. And that meant standing up for the icon, even at the expense of saving energy.

For example, the architects rejected a consultant's suggestion to insulate Crown Hall's huge upper-level sheets of glass with low-emissivity coating. Although low-E coating would have improved insulation, it would also have made Crown Hall's lights noticeably darker than Mies had intended. Instead, the architects specified a highly transparent low-iron glass. This thoughtful decision formed just one part of an aesthetic triumph, and the bone-beautiful clarity and revolutionary transparency of the original were fully restored.

So, did the architects simply shove aside green design? Not at all. As part of the restoration, they replaced the landmark's lower lights, a series of translucent, laminated-glass windows left over from a previous renovation. These windows had trapped heat, reflecting it inward. Bringing back Mies' original sandblasted glass restored the cool elegance of the lower lights and provided green benefits, letting in more natural light and cutting down on heat gain. In addition, the architects crafted a strategy for future greening. Opening Crown Hall's bottom-hinged hopper windows and roof vents on a systematic basis, for example, will allow the building to naturally vent itself in warmer months.

At Crown Hall, then, the restoration team achieved a very different balance than did Eifler at the Seth Peterson Cottage. Because the architects were restoring an icon, retaining the authenticity of the original outweighed concerns about energy. Krueck & Sexton, along with Harboe, did what they could—and put off the rest for another day. To Gunny Harboe, the essence of sustainability is cultural, not simply scientific. It means prolonging the life of buildings that attain the highest level of artistry and express our highest cultural ideals. Why save civilization, he asks, if it means compromising the integrity of civilization's greatest achievements?

So we have two restoration approaches that are polar opposites, one privileging energy, the other iconic status. But I know of another, exemplified by the just-completed restoration of a muscular, 105-year-old power plant that supplied steam and electricity to Sears, Roebuck & Co.'s once-thriving catalogue operation on Chicago's West Side. It shows that a hybrid approach can work within the envelope of a single building.

Designed in 1905 by Chicago architects Nimmons & Fellows, the power plant combined Chicago School efficiency with classical decoration, exhibiting such flourishes as terra-cotta rondels that depicted bolts of electricity. When Sears left the West Side in 1973 for its 110-story tower downtown, the power plant seemed a white elephant. Yet after a skillful adaptive use led by Chicago architects Farr Associates, who worked with the Midwest office of MacRostie Historic Advisors, this former palace of steam has been transformed into a palace of learning—the Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center. (The center's public charter high school, Power House High, welcomed its first students last fall.) The highly honored project deftly walks a tightrope between preservation and green design.

That balancing act is especially evident in the old engine room, a striking space with soaring arched windows and glistening, glazed brick walls. It is now used for school assemblies, a cafeteria, and community events. Originally, with superheated steam coursing through the room, its thick walls did not require insulation. But with the heat provided by engines long gone, the walls were sure to turn cold in the winter—and stay that way. During early phases of the design, the architects actually discussed covering the original walls with drywall. In a bit of Disney fakery, they were going to finish the walls with tile that would simulate the very white-glazed brick they were thinking about concealing.

"We said, what the hell are we doing?" Farr Associates' president, Doug Farr, remembers. "Yes, it solves this problem. But it creates new problems. And it's incredibly expensive."

Instead, Farr and his team, led by principal Jonathan Boyer and project manager Rose Grayson, decided to keep the glazed brick. They compensated for the lack of insulation with huge new exhaust fans that vent heat in the summer and a plenum, or air chamber, that slowly releases heated air during winter months. (Mindful of how the plenum could mar the historic interior, they cleverly tucked it beneath a bench for students.)

To fully achieve their green aims, the architects concentrated on the building's other half, where giant boilers once turned water into steam. There, in addition to removing a thicket of machinery and inserting floors, stairwells, and corridors into the towering vertical space, they insulated brick walls and reglazed an existing skylight with more energy-efficient glass.

The results are inspired as well as inspiring, engaging students with distinctive surroundings that preserve the past and chart an ecology-minded course for the future. Farr Associates' flexible, pragmatic approach made it all possible. By carefully picking opportunities for preservation and conservation, the architects achieved both aims in the same historic structure.

So where does that leave us? Not, I hope, with a false sense of comfort that the agendas of preservationists and conservationists will always be in sync. As these examples demonstrate, that is sometimes (but certainly not always) so.

The real common ground between preservationists and conservationists is evident in cities like Chicago and Grand Rapids, Mich., which promote mass transit, walkable streets, vibrant cultural attractions, and with them, the density that makes urban areas hum. Density is what it's all about. If we live densely and don't sprawl, we'll save on energy. And if we save cities, we'll create a demand for the historic buildings in them. The LEED rating system is finally coming around to this understanding. Thanks to recent changes, it now awards more credits to projects in urban settings and to projects close to mass transit. Preservationists continue to press for additional changes that would better recognize the value of building reuse.

This shift in the LEED standards suggests that the key to resolving the conflict between preservation and conservation is not technical but cultural. It's about how we live and how we ought to navigate between perilous extremes: not with overzealous ideology but with an enlightened pragmatism that reshapes and reinvigorates old ideals in response to new realities. By virtue of their common heritage and their common values, preservation and conservation can be friends, not foes. But like good friends or rival siblings, they may need, occasionally, to agree to disagree.

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