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Smart Growth and Sustainable Preservation of Existing and Historic Buildings


The preservation and renovation of historic properties is an important part of a sustainable, smart growth approach. The renovation of an historic property is often a starting point and anchor for the redevelopment of a block, street, or district. An historic building or district can be a tangible symbol of a community's interest in honoring its heritage, valuing its character and sense of place, getting the most out of prior investments in infrastructure and development, and encouraging growth in already-developed areas. Rehabilitating historic properties can also be a critical part of promoting energy efficiency by preserving the energy already represented by existing buildings (known as "embodied energy"), rather than expending additional energy for new construction. It is estimated that a new, green, energy-efficient office building that includes as much as 40 percent recycled materials would nevertheless take approximately 65 years to recover the energy lost in demolishing a comparable existing building1. Furthermore, repurposing old buildings—particularly those that are vacant—reduces the need for construction of new buildings and the consumption of land, energy, materials, and financial resources that they require.

Current codes and many green building standards, however, do not always provide a clear path forward on how best to redevelop and revitalize historic and other existing buildings to achieve sustainable outcomes. For example, replacement of windows and doors—key elements for an energy-efficient building envelope—often pose a challenge to those interested in preserving the historic integrity of older buildings. Communities that seek to both increase their sustainable investments and protect their historic assets must resolve standards and policies that can at times conflict, and which may render some projects financially infeasible.

Yet the value in overcoming these obstacles is clear—not only for the energy benefits they offer, but also for broader economic, cultural, and land use preservation advantages. This page lists resources that can provide guidance to communities that are motivated to invest in and rehabilitate existing buildings—whether or not the buildings qualify for consideration and review under formal historic preservation provisions (such as Section 106 review triggered by federal action). EPA and others offer a range of resources to guide communities on how to incorporate historic preservation into their efforts to grow more sustainably. Several state and local governments have been at the forefront of incorporating innovative and responsive solutions to green historic preservation efforts.

These resources can be valuable starting points to help inform a community's approach to sustainable development and smart growth through historic preservation and identify ways to overcome the challenges that may otherwise impede a community's commitment to the dual goals of sustainability and preservation.

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Concord, NH, Technical Assistance Project

The capital city of Concord, New Hampshire, with a population of about 44,000, wants to sustainably redevelop historic properties in its downtown core. Concord requested EPA’s assistance to identify ways in which it can support redevelopment of historic properties that complies with new energy-efficiency and green building standards while still conforming to state historic preservation codes. Currently, a perception that it is too costly and time intensive to comply with both sets of standards is preventing historic buildings from being redeveloped.

Over the coming months, EPA will provide assistance to Concord by bringing expertise on green building, smart growth, and historic preservation from across EPA together with partners from federal and nonprofit leaders in historic preservation, as well as regional staff from HUD and DOT. The EPA-led team will work with community officials, local developers, and other stakeholders to determine how historic preservation and green building approaches can best be integrated into existing codes to create a livable, thriving downtown area that maintains its historic character. Specifically, Concord would like to stimulate reinvestment in existing mixed-use properties in the downtown area, creating residential space above street level, while still meeting state historic preservation standards and making buildings as efficient as possible. The options that the team develops could be integrated into the city's master planning process, which is already underway. This technical assistance effort could also provide guidance for a national audience on how communities can create a regulatory framework that supports the sustainable, green redevelopment of historic buildings.

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EPA Region 3, Environment Matters Audio Podcast - Green Preservation: Discussion of how sustainable and green principles can apply to smart growth and historic preservation.

EPA Region 5, Green Historic Building Preservation Initiative: Describes the region's initiative on this topic, including findings from a 2010 symposium and related activities.

EPA, Lead-Safe Renovation, Repair and Painting: EPA pamphlet describing policies and recommended practices on how to safely renovate and protect against the dangers of lead often found in older homes.

EPA, Sustainable Solutions for Historic Homes in Northern California (PDF) (65 pp, 2 MB, About PDF): A voluntary green code and green rehabilitation manual developed to support renovation for historic homes (developed through an award made under EPA's Brownfields Sustainability Pilot grant program).

National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, Sustainability Issues (PDF) (1 pg, 113 KB, About PDF) Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer: Statement of state historic preservation officers' association on the importance of historic preservation for sustainability.

National Park Service, Historic Preservation Learning Portal: Searchable database to identify cultural resources in your community, including resources on existing historic places.

National Park Service, Sustainability and Historic Preservation Lessons Learned (PDF) (29 pp, 4.4 MB, About PDF): Presentation summarizing how to preserve historic buildings and still achieve LEED certification, using examples from throughout the country.

National Park Service, Weatherizing and Improving the Energy Efficiency of Older Buildings: Information from NPS' Technical Preservation Services on how to improve the energy-efficiency of existing buildings through user modification as well as changes to the building.

National Trust for Historic Preservation, Sustainable Communities Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer: Resource page for articles, case studies, and links related to sustainability from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

National Trust for Historic Preservation, Smart Growth Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer: Resource page on smart growth, including smart growth toolkit.

The Portland Armory building during construction

The Portland Armory building during construction. The building was the last piece of property in the Pearl District's Brewery Blocks to be redeveloped. (Photo Credit: Peter Merholz, Wikipedia Commons)

National Trust for Historic Preservation, Weatherization Guide for Older and Historic Buildings Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer: Guide on how to weatherize doors and windows in older and historic structures; other resources include links to funding sources, blogs, and discussion forums.

State of New Jersey's Rehabilitation Subcode Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer: Article describing the approach that New Jersey used to modified its building code to encourage rehabilitation of existing structures, and indicators of its success.

North Carolina Rehabilitation Code for Existing Buildings Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer: Resources, training, and case studies on how North Carolina's statewide code to encourage rehab in existing buildings can be implemented.

San Francisco Green Building Ordinance (incorporating protections for historic properties) (PDF) (29 pp, 4.5 MB, About PDF) Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer: Code language adopted by San Francisco that encourages green building and includes provisions for preservation of historic building components.

Whole Building Design Guide, Sustainable Historic Preservation: Resources, codes and standards, and other information on sustainable renovation and reuse of historic buildings from the National Institute of Building Sciences' "Whole Building Design Guide" program.



1Moe, Richard. "Sustainable Stewardship." Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer Traditional Building, June 2008.

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