"Green" - Friendly Guidelines

How Preservation Commissions Can Balance Preservation and Sustainability

Excerpted from Developing "Green"-Friendly Guidelines: Advice for Preservation Commissions by Noré Winter | From Forum News | December 2010 | Vol. 17, No. 4

Perhaps more now than at any other time since their formation, historic commissions have a vital—even essential—role to play in their communities. Fully 43 percent of carbon emissions in the United States come from the operation of our existing buildings. We simply won’t be able to reach aggressive carbon reduction targets needed to stave off the worst of global warming impacts without addressing the performance of our existing building stock—and older and historic buildings must play their part.

Too often, historic preservation is viewed is an obstacle to achieving energy efficiency or other environmental improvements in older buildings. Sometimes this perception is ill-deserved, but sometimes this negative view of preservation has resulted from inflexibility in the application of preservation standards. There are, of course, ways to meet both preservation and sustainability objectives, but it may require commissions to re-think how preservation interests are balanced with environmental concerns. Often these goals will be mutually supporting, but when they are not, difficult decisions will need to be made.

Re-thinking Design Guidelines

Ideally, sustainability policies for preservation are first set forth in the community’s preservation plan, which is often a component of its comprehensive plan. But where such policies are not in place, it is important to address them in the preservation design guidelines. This should be a top priority for all preservation commissions.

The basic principles of most guidelines certainly call for preserving original materials and other character-defining features, as well as respecting the inherent energy-saving properties of historic resources, but they usually only touch on sustainability indirectly. Commissions should take steps to move beyond that point and provide clearer, positive guidance to users.

Real World Examples

Several cities and states have already adopted regulations and incentive programs that focus on the environmental aspects of sustainability. In Boulder, Colorado, for example, the city council adopted a GreenPoints program in 2009. Boulder's program requires remodeling projects and additions to meet a minimum threshold of energy efficiency as determined through a scoring system.

Some cities are adopting development code amendments that promote green-friendly improvements such as eco-roofs. 

Portland, Oregon, has adopted a “green bundle” of development code amendments that promote the installation of solar panels, water cisterns, wind turbines, and eco-roofs. The focus is on removing regulatory “obstacles” to these actions by exempting certain work from review, or providing “by-right” approvals when specific design standards are met. For example, installing solar panels is exempt from the design review process for properties within historic districts when the installation meets certain specified design standards, such as placing the panels flat with the roof, and setting them back a specified distance from the front of the building. (This exemption applies only to “contributors” in historic districts, not to individually designated landmarks.)

The Unified Development Code (UDC) in Dubuque, Iowa, consolidates design guidelines for zoning, subdivision, site development, historic preservation, and signage. Historic District and Downtown design guidelines address architectural design as well as streetscape and landscape design, while form-based Old Town Neighborhood design guidelines promote compatible site development in older areas outside these districts. The UDC design guidelines successfully balance contemporary development trends and historic preservation while recognizing the diverse physical attributes of Dubuque’s resources.

The Nitty Gritty

How should commissions address specific design topics within their guidelines? One approach is to group these topics into three categories:

  • Energy conservation measures (awnings, canopies, windows, building insulation)
  • Energy-generating technologies (solar collectors, wind turbines)
  • Landscape and site design (plant materials, rain barrels, cisterns).

There are, of course, other methods for organizing these topics, and others related to sustainability, but this approach provides an easy way of thinking about different designs based on the underlying objectives they may seek to achieve.

The guidelines might also include some discussion about basic principles of sustainability. This can be helpful in laying the groundwork for an informed evaluation in the design review process, but it should not overload the document or be considered a substitute for clear guidelines.

While it may be tempting to include a lot of facts about the performance of certain systems (such as windows or solar collection systems), this approach should be treated with caution. Technologies continue to evolve, and the data frequently change. Focusing more on broader principles and the intent of the outcomes desired will keep the document sound in its policy.

Looking Forward

Commissions should consider this an opportunity to refresh their thinking about their design guidelines in general. If a major update is in store, then the process of organizing thoughts about sustainability will also trigger refinements to other long-standing policies.

All told, this should be viewed as an exciting opportunity to improve the design review process and help all players, including property owners, staff, and commissions, reach clear, understandable decisions.

Green Register Button 100 pxNore Winter explores this topic in depth in a new Preservation Books booklet, Developing Sustainability Guidelines for Historic Districts, which includes an overview of the different approaches that communities can use for writing and organizing local sustainability guidelines. Winter will also be presenting on this topic at the 2011 National Main Streets Conference in Des Moines. His session, “Greening Your Downtown Plans and Guidelines," will address how integrated sustainability policies can contribute to Main Street revitalization objectives as well.

Don’t miss this chance to bring your Main Street district to the forefront of sustainable development!