Open the Windows

“What, you may ask, does historic preservation have to do with sustainability?” That was the question posed by Richard Moe, President of the National Trust, http://www.preservationnation.org/ Thursday at the morning session of the "Greening the World’s Capital Cities" conference. (http://www.ncpc.gov/affairs/pg.asp?p=capitalsalliance) The answer was pretty obvious to some—it has everything to do with sustainability—but perhaps not to others outside of the green design/construction community. The popular perception of historic preservation is one of old houses, roped off rooms, protestations against change, and loyal opposition to the future. But looked at a bit differently the historic preservation movement, the origins and tributaries of which form a fascinating history of their own, has been at the vanguard of sustainable principles for a long time.

Preservation and sustainability arose from very different cultures, and in response to very different sets of circumstances, yet they now find themselves joined in an ethos of stewardship of our resources---the cultural, material, and natural. The sustainability movement owes a debt to its predecessor, the preservation movement, for refocusing the architecture and urban design professions on the value of the existing environment and for challenging the hegemony of the new. In fact, the preservation movement was really the avant-garde of sustainability.

Although it sounds counterintuitive, neither preservation nor sustainability is backward looking. Both, along with a whole host of ideas to which they have given birth such as smart growth, new urbanism, voluntary simplicity, and transit oriented development, comprise the only substantial critique of planned obsolescence built large. It is a critique of the cycle of invention, consumption and destruction which, in the name of progress, has dominated the last century, what author Anthony Tung has called the “century of destruction.” It was the preservationists who first ventured the radical thought that there might be other criteria for value in the built environment than pure utility or economic return; that buildings and neighborhoods might be valuable because they have received generations of human energy and care. And really, adaptive reuse is just recycling on the scale of building, a confluence of sustainability and preservation.

But what seems good in theory often meets the wicked problems of practice. We’re familiar with the term “livability” as applied to cities and neighborhoods, and cites are ranked according to livability indexes. I’d like to offer a “lovability” index to show the increasing difficulties that face green changes to historic buildings. The degree of difficulty in making significant physical changes to a historic property is directly proportional to that property’s lovability score. The conflicts between historic preservation and sustainability arise at technological thresholds: when active energy technologies are proposed to augment the stalwart passive strategies of historic buildings, or when mechanized horizontal transit such as rail and vertical transit in the form of elevators presses additional densities on the pre-industrial walking and walk-up city. Where the individual building is concerned, all of that conflict often comes down to that architectural singularity, the window.

From my 4th floor office I can look down to the 2nd floor and watch the Green Community space gradually take shape. It's wide open, to both the arcade around the magnificent Great Hall and the warm, southern light on F street. This is heresy in the museum world, allowing in pure, unmitigated daylight. We can only do it, of course, because this exhibition has no actual precious objects, no sensitive works on paper, or antique artifacts. Those 8 windows have been freed to share the sun with the interior, as they have for about 130 years. As we gathered a group of designers, architects, and engineers to ponder what we could do with all that sun during the year-long Green Community run, we rediscovered the power of the passive and the challenges of the active. But that story will have to wait until next week…

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