SPEECH: Historic Boulder Annual Meeting

Remarks by Stephanie Meeks

I’d like to thank Jancy Cambell for the introduction and Abby Daniels for the invitation to speak. It’s a pleasure to join you, Mayor Osborne, Boulder City Council officials, and all the award winners here tonight. I’d especially like to recognize the Gold Hill and Indian Peaks Fire Departments, who did such valiant work to save Gold Hill in the Four Mile Canyon Fire. 

I’m always struck by what a special place Boulder is. The city and the Flat Irons never fail to bring that sense of excitement I felt the first time I came here in the mid-1980s, when I was a student at University of Colorado. 

Back then, we didn’t yet have the vocabulary to define the movement Boulder was leading.  And then, as now, Boulder was ahead of the country in so many ways.  But in one area where you have been leading—sustainability—the rest of the country is beginning to catch up. 

I’d like to talk tonight about sustainability and historic preservation and how these two seemingly strange bedfellows are actually a companionable couple that hold great promise for our nation. 

To my way of thinking, sustainability is really the defining issue of the 21st century. I spent the last 18 years working for protection of natural resources through The Nature Conservancy.  And now I am turning my energies toward sustainability of a different, but related kind; the sustainability of our cities, our way of life, and the culture we share as Americans. Specifically, the role that older and historic buildings can play in creating greener, more livable communities.

The National Trust has spent the past five years initiating research and promoting policy solutions in this area, and I’d like to tell you more about our work, and share some of the exciting developments we’re seeing on the ground.

The idea that older buildings have a key role to play in sustainability is nothing new. Back in 1980, National Trust had a poster showing a building in the shape of a gas can, to remind people that reusing an existing building—rather than demolishing it and constructing a new one—conserves energy.

This message more relevant than ever today. The Brookings Institution released a study a few years ago estimating that we would demolish—and replace—nearly one-quarter of the building space in this country by 2030. 

That’s an astonishing amount of waste.  Especially when you consider that another recent study, this one done by Britain’s Empty Homes Agency, found that it takes 35 to 50 years for a new, green home to recover the carbon expended during construction.

35-50 years for a GREEN home.  The fact is, even using our best technology, new construction alone cannot get us out of the climate crisis.  We must conserve our way out.

The National Trust created its sustainability initiative in 2006 to make this case nationally. Our goal is to capitalize on the tremendous momentum behind sustainability—and to ensure that in our rush to embrace green construction, we don’t lose sight of the value of saving the buildings we already have.

All of you here in Boulder are doing great, leadership work on this front.  Your Greenpoint system is national model for holistic approach that encourages homeowners and designers to rehab older buildings in a way that improves energy efficiency. 

We were especially gratified to see you take up the charge for historic windows, something the National Trust has been trying to do nationally, by designating the same number of points for weatherizing historic windows as for installing a new window. I know our state and local partnerships and policy office holds up GreenPoint as a model for other communities nationwide.

At the national level, we’ve been working consistently with the U.S. Green Building Council over the past five years to encourage them to do more in the LEED standards to recognize the inherently green nature of many preservation activities.

We’re gradually seeing this work bear fruit. USGBC recently released the draft 2012 LEED standards, and it includes some significant alterations to the rating system, which would benefit preservation and improve incentives to reuse existing buildings.

For instance, LEED 2012 includes credits for “whole building reuse” as a way of encouraging people to rehab buildings that have been deemed historic.  We’re especially excited that the National Trust’s Emerson School restoration project will be a pilot project to test the proposed new credits. 

Barb Pahl and the Denver team working in conjunction with our sustainability staff to rehab the 125-year old building designed by Robert Roeschlaub, so that it meets the highest sustainability standards.  We’re re-using a central air ventilation system that was part of Roeschlaub’s original design and installing a new, highly-efficient geothermal ground source heating and cooling system.  Ultimately, the building will house the new Colorado Preservation Center: Historic Denver, Colorado Preservation and the Mountains/Plains office.

We’ll be providing LEED with direct feedback about our experience using the credits in the field. And we’ll have a chance, through the project, to make preservationists aware of the new credits and encourage them to keep championing such changes with LEED.

The great thing about this LEED work is that it has the potential to be tremendously high-leverage.  We expect that LEED standards will eventually be incorporated into municipal and state codes throughout the country. If we can make LEED more reflective of preservation values, we can ultimately help to save hundreds of buildings nationwide.

We have another high-leverage project gearing up in Seattle, where we’re partnering with the city and the New Buildings Institute to pilot a new outcome-based energy code framework. It could roll out in Seattle as soon as 2013—and hopefully in other cities after that.

As many of you know, current energy codes are failing older buildings. They take a very prescriptive approach, often forcing owners and design teams to pursue specific retrofits, with no regard for the way a change might compromise architectural integrity, and no recognition of the fact that many older and historic buildings have passive features that make them inherently energy efficient.

We know these features work: A 2003 study by the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that commercial buildings constructed before 1920 are more energy efficient than buildings constructed any time after.

The challenge is getting this message out. You’ve been leaders on this front through your grassroots outreach and projects like Hannah Barker House restoration. That project is a fabulous way to show people first-hand the inherent value of features like thick walls, operable windows, eaves and porch overhangs … and of course refitting historic windows!

We need an energy code system that works with these features—that allows us to rehab a building surgically, in a way that doesn’t interfere with its historic character. That’s the idea behind outcome-based codes. Rather than judging compliance based on whether an owner makes a particular retrofit, these codes monitor the actual performance of the building. Owners agree to a pre-determined set of performance outcomes, and they are then free to retrofit the building any way they see fit, so long as it meets these performance targets.

Outcome-based codes are a very hot topic in sustainability circles these days, as there is general agreement that the current prescriptive code system doesn’t allow the level of flexibility required to get to net-zero carbon emissions.

Historic buildings offer one of the best laboratories around for testing the new code framework because they are often exempted from some of the existing energy codes. This creates some regulatory flexibility to test new models.

The project has provided a wonderful opportunity for us to build credibility with the sustainability community and make the case with them that older buildings can fill the role we’ve been allocating only to new construction. If these codes take hold, they could make it possible to retrofit many historic buildings that might otherwise be demolished to make way for “greener” structures.

Before I close tonight, I wanted to touch briefly on one more subject, what we’re thinking of as the “new frontier” when it comes to sustainability and preservation. In the last few years, we’ve seen a shift in the way people are thinking about green buildings. We are moving away from a building-by-building approach—which has proven to be difficult and expensive to implement—to district-level solutions. Businesses and neighborhoods are coming together to figure out how they can pool their resources to meet aggressive energy goals.

District energy is one promising tool in this effort. Many of you may be familiar with it already, as Denver has a vintage steam system that’s the oldest district heating—and now cooling—system in the country. It dates to 1880.

These systems fell out of favor in the 1950s, when suburban development began in earnest. But renewed interest in efficiency and alternative energy sources has brought the idea back around. 

District energy has great promise for small businesses and historic Main Streets, which often have trouble meeting aggressive carbon reduction goals because of limited space and financing. There are many, many of these businesses nationwide: the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that nearly 75% of our existing commercial buildings are under 10,000 square feet.

By making it easier for these businesses to go green, we have the potential to save lot more historic Main Streets. With that reality in mind, our Preservation Green Lab recently coauthored a study with the Center for Sustainable Business Practices at the University of Oregon which showed that one small town in Iowa, West Union, could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent—and lower its heating and cooling bills--by switching off their individuals systems and hooking up instead to a district system of renewable geothermal power.

We have so much to gain by joining forces with the sustainability movement. We’re all motivated by the same sense of responsible stewardship and a desire to protect the natural and cultural legacy we’ve been given for the next generation.

So in closing, I’d like to thank all of you for the creative, forward-looking work you’re doing here in Boulder, and challenge you to keep the good ideas coming. Our best days are still ahead.  And I look forward to working with you to create a more sustainable future.

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The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded nonprofit organization, works to save America’s historic places.
PreservationNation.org