Preservation and Sustainability

Sustainable design is crucial to the future of Philadelphia and its neighborhoods. But many people wrongly assume that Philadelphia’s stock of historic buildings is an obstacle to sustainability and advances in new, green technologies.

In fact, the greenest building is one that already exists—a new study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation proves that building reuse almost always offers environmental savings over demolition and new construction. Older buildings represent significant embodied energy—building materials already extracted from the earth, resources already expended in transport and construction. Buildings built before the era of cheap electricity are often designed to maximize natural daylight and air circulation, one of today’s best practices in sustainable design. Many also feature thick, insulating walls and storm windows that, when properly maintained, rival the efficiency of many of today’s vinyl replacements. Neighborhoods that developed before the automobile era are more walkable, and are often closer to public transportation.

Yet there is room for improvement. Many older buildings are not properly maintained, and a few low-cost weatherization steps can dramatically improve the energy efficiency of most older and historic structures. Visit the National Trust’s online weatherization guide to learn more about steps you can take in your own home.

Many national organizations have studied the impact of historic preservation on the sustainability of neighborhoods and cities, and all agree: preservation is good for the environment. Follow the links below for informative guides and case studies:

Sustainable Historic Preservation
The National Institute of Building Sciences’s Whole Building Design Guide includes this comprehensive section on preservation and sustainability.

Preservation Green Lab
A project of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Green Lab is a Seattle-based research center that studies the value that older buildings bring to their communities and develops policy solutions making it easier to reuse older and historic buildings.

Sustainability and Historic Preservation: Lessons Learned
This presentation by the National Park Service highlights many successful historic building retrofits from across the country.

Smart Growth and Sustainable Preservation of Existing and Historic Buildings
The US Environmental Protection Agency has developed this resource page to highlight the environmental benefits of adapting and reusing historic structures.

LEED Project Library
The US Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Program is the industry standard for rating the sustainability of new and existing buildings. Their project library includes case studies of historic buildings that have received LEED’s highest marks.