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Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast, I’m Kevin Ammons, and today we join NCPTT’s Jessica Cleaver as she speaks with Tracy Nelson, director of the Historic Building Recovery Grant Program, about sustainability and historic preservation.


CLEAVER: What is your background regarding sustainability?

NELSON: Well, I have a Master’s degree in sustainable design. I went to the Martin Center at Cambridge University, and they have a sustainable design degree. And while it is focused on new construction and technology and adding to new construction, I actually focused on sustainability for the built environment and how you can add new technology to an existing building.

CLEAVER: What is your position now?

NELSON: I am the program director for the Historic Building Recovery Grant Program, which is a grant program resulting from Hurricane Katrina. We got funding to focus on historic buildings that were damaged by either Hurricane Katrina or Rita, and we have about 568 grants — historic houses that we are helping to renovate and rehabilitate.

CLEAVER: What is your definition of sustainability?

NELSON: Well, there are many definitions, but I think probably the most concise one would be any effort that creates a result that has a long-term life. Basically, any effort that can be maintained or used or reused. Sustainability is about sustaining something, and that really goes into a long term and not a quick turn around, quickly disposable product.

CLEAVER: What does the term green building mean to you?

NELSON: Well, that one is another one that is used quite a bit. A structure that requires little energy to achieve its function, but also a structure that is designed for its climate, for its location and for its use. So you don’t really want to build a glass tower in a dessert. So wherever your climate is, the location of the property, you want to design something for that area.

CLEAVER: What is embodied energy?

NELSON: Well, embodied energy is any energy that goes into making a product, which includes human labor, fossil fuels, transportation-getting it there to where ever it ends up being. So embodied energy is all the energy in a product until it gets to its end use.

CLEAVER: What features of historic buildings are environmentally friendly?

NELSON: Well one, the society has already paid for the cost of building your houses so the embodied energy is already paid for. So every product has a cost and we have already paid for that. An historic building is inherently sustainable: the products are so good that they are made out of. You can’t get them anymore that they last a long time and they have a long-term life. New material is made to be obsolete in a few years, so modern construction is not made to last, but historic properties are.

Historic buildings were built before we really had mechanical systems to give us a false environment inside, and so the buildings were designed to have passive cooling and passive heating. So most historic structures have designed in them a way for the occupant to interact with their building and to actually use the passive strategies to keep them cool or warm without using energy. So if you were to use those features before you ever got to the mechanical system of the HVAC system then you can have a lower energy bill just from the fact of interacting with your house. We have gotten out of the habit of interacting with our buildings, and so we have very large glass windows that we leave open in the summer that take a lot of heat, and we just don’t know how to work with our buildings. And you could actually lower your power bill quite a bit if you would just interact with these.

If you take just in the South where it is hot and tropical, some of our best-known and little under-used strategies are, a lot of our buildings are built up on piers. That is for two reasons. One, because we have a very high water table and it keeps the moisture away from our building, but it also allows cool air to go underneath the structure and have a cooling effect in the summer. Because if you look at a building and think about if you don’t turn your AC on, how are you going to keep yourself cool. The other thing that we have, is we have very tall ceilings because heat rises, it allows people to walk in a cooler area because the heat is up around the ceiling. If you don’t put a drop ceiling in and you actually use that, then you have a very effective way to keep the temperature in your house a lot cooler.

Plaster has the same effect. It is a great insulator, it absorbs and releases moisture as it comes through and it has a very cooling effect inside. The other two things that are really predominant in the South that people do not use very much now is our shutters. A lot of people think of those as a storm prevention, but actually if you use them in the summer, they not only stop the solar rays from coming into your house and heating it up and causing a large energy bill, but it keeps your house cooler because it creates an air barrier between the shutter and your glass so heat does not actually come into your building as much as it does. The other one is our transoms because you have what is called degree days, which is a way that scientists measure how many days you use a mechanical system. Up north the degree days are heavier when it is cold–they have more cold degree-days–and in the south most of our degree days have to do with cooling our buildings off.

So for example, in a climate if you have an average of two-hundred degree-days a year where you would need to use a mechanical system to make yourself comfortable in your house. If you were to interact with your building and use your shutters when it’s hot on the south side of the building to keep it cool, if you were to come home and open your transoms above your door and allow a breeze to go through and take the heat out of your house, you could go from an average from two hundred degree-days a year to one hundred twenty five degree-days a year. So it just is really interacting with your building.

CLEAVER: How do you incorporate these ideas into your position now?

NELSON: Well because we have so many grants and we have exposure to so many people that most of our grantees have never been involved with historic preservation, so it is a really unique opportunity to educate them. And probably the biggest education we try to give them because we interact with them over a two-year period, so you don’t try to give them all this information at once and kind of overload them, you are allowed to really work with them through a time frame that allows you to kind of give them a little bit of information and kind of build on it.

And the biggest thing that we try to do is to educate them that what you see on the TV is not your only option. And that if you have a certain amount of money, that if you start with what is already in your building and work with that,  if you are trying to lower your energy bill, if you would work with what’s in your building first than your construction or rehabilitation dollar could go further because you’re not trying…if you only have $5,000 and you do it and you use that money to replace your windows with new windows because you feel that that’s what is going to give you the best bang for the dollar, but you have good windows then you could spend maybe half of that on shutters to protect your windows and then have that additional money to go somewhere else.

So the big thing that we try to do is educate the public that what they see on TV is not their only option, and that what is in most of our historic buildings, what is already in place, is something that if you learn to use it-which costs nothing to do, to interact with your building-that you can use your renovation dollars for something else. And that is probably one of the biggest things that we try to do. That is to one, teach them the value of what they have because most people don’t realize what a valuable asset you have, and then how to best interact with it and use what you currently have instead of try to replace it.

CLEAVER: If less new construction is the result of these ideas, then what is the effect on the economy?

NELSON: Well, I think that we are so used to or so in the mode of doing what we’ve always done, which is new construction, which is a large business and I understand that, but I really do think that if you were to lower new construction and go into rehabilitation of the built environment that it really does balance it out. And the reason is because you can take people that work in new construction and if you have less new construction, then those trades people can go into the rehabilitation renovation field. I also feel that on a city-wide or development company that if you are not focused on construction than you can focus on other things, which is sustainable resources other than oil or coal. For a city, instead of having your city council do new infrastructure for new subdivision development, if you are not having to put your resources into that, you could put your resources into fixing your current infrastructure. So I think that it all balances out, I just think that you have to look at it in a different direction. I think that less construction and more renovation of your built environment creates the same amount of jobs if not more and can create the same type of profit that companies are looking for. You just have to direct your business in a different way.

New construction, a portion of the people that work in that don’t have to be skilled, you just have to be strong and willing to work hard to where preservation is a skilled labor. It is something that you can take with you. It is like going to school, you actually get educated on it. I just think that it is a poor argument to say that new construction is the only way to go, it’s just the way that we are used to going. It’s fast, it’s a quick turnaround and I think that there are too many houses currently that are unoccupied that you could use.

I think sustainability is not just for architecture, I think it is kind of a way of thinking about things. We have the ability to change the direction that we are going. I think that we are in a consumer-based society, and I understand why we are in a consumer-based society, but instead of trying to sell five things for a dollar each, why don’t you try to sell a well-made thing for 5 dollars for one of them.

I think it is just a new direction of thinking, and I don’t think it is new. I think it is just changing the direction that society thinks. I think that being a disposable society has got to stop sooner or later, hopefully it will be sooner. And sustainability, I think, is an umbrella in which all that fits under. It is more of a recycle, reuse, not need as much, don’t throw away as much. So, but sustainability is attached to architecture because it is one of the largest energy uses that we have in society, other than automobiles, but it can really trickle down to everything. It is just a way of thinking.

That was Jessica Cleaver with Tracy Nelson. If you would like to learn more about sustainability and historic preservation, visit our podcast show notes at the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training website, that’s ncptt.nps.gov. Until next time, goodbye everybody.

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2 Responses to Green Design and the Economy of Sustainability (Podcast 12)

  1. LEED says:

    Tracy makes some great points about the embodied energy of existing and historic buildings as well as the fact that historic buildings were built to be more in tune with the environment because they did not have mechanical climate control.

    Also, I have always wondered why we can’t build any more of the historic buildings like you see in NY, DC, and in Europe. Think of the libraries, museums, and post offices in Manhattan. How did we ever afford such beautiful structures? Why are they so obscenely expensive now to build something that is not even comparable to the quality of what we built then?

  2. NCPTT: The Preservation Technology Podcast | Jeffery K. Guin says:

    [...] edition of the Preservation Technology Podcast we join NCPTT’s Jessica Cleaver as she speaks with Tracy Nelson, director of the Historic Building Recovery Grant Program, about sustainability and historic [...]

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