Sustainable Development v. Historic Preservation

As the “green movement” in America progresses, many devotees of architecture and preservation are envisioning tall glass buildings made of copper, stone, or other materials that will save the environment or our wallets.  However, one inevitably wonders why we are building new “green” structures when we could just use the ones we already have.  Reusing an old water bottle instead of buying a new one is a great idea.  Why not reuse the old building instead of building a new one?

That is exactly what the National Trust for Historic preservation and preservationists across the country are advocating.  America has thousands of commercial and residential structures simply lying in ruin or waiting for new use or restoration.  The catch phrase amongs preservationists is now, “the greenest building is the one already built.” Many historic structures are uniquely suited for being brought up to LEED certification.

With this in mind, the National Parks service is considering cost effective options for many of its historic sights including Ft. Sumter, which sits in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.   A preliminary project is underway to evaluate the feasibility of installing solar panels and a backup fuel cell generator.  The Fort currently runs on diesel and saps power from the local power grid.  The team is considering installing the panels on a pier or on the roof of the museum as to not disturb the historic structure.

The major challenge facing green builders is striking a balance between new green construction, refurbishing historic structures in a sustainable way, and outright traditional preservation efforts.  Many warn about confusing a building fad with the true work of preservation.

These two schools of thought clashed recently in New Orleans.  Against the wishes of the Vieux Carré Commission (a preservationist group that works to protect New Orleans’ famous French Quarter structures), the New Orleans City Council approved the first use of solar panels on a house in the French Quarter.  The Council required panels to be black and angled in a particular way to best blend in with the house’s roof.  And despite the protests of the Vieux Carré Commission, many New Orleans residents remarked that the Council’s decision is consistent with the goal of making the French Quarter a vibrant, livable community.  One remarked, “The French Quarter is not some sort of outdoor museum.”  People live and work in New Orleans and it should not be made into Williamsburg, Virginia.  Also expressed were the property rights of an owner of a historic structure

In the meantime there is still no better way to build green than using what already exists.  Building techniques can be utilized to reduce harm to the original structure while newer and more efficient technologies can be integrated into the building.  Green buildings allow their occupants to appreciate the past and utilize a sustainable structure that has its place in the modern world.

Royce DuBiner majored in History at Goucher College and is currently pursing his JD at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.  His interests are History, Preservation, and the South.


Welcome to the University of Denver Sturm College of Law/Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute Blog, a special section of! Here, University of Denver Sturm College of Law students will report on emerging, novel and contested land use and development issues from a sustainability perspective. We believe the development of the American West, and indeed the entire planet, necessitates a closer and more responsible look at not only how we use natural resources but how we build our communities and economies.We invite you to comment and engage with us over issues of interest to you. And we invite you to suggest topics for us to research and report on from our unique perspective as law students. But most of all, we invite you to take these ideas and share them with your friends and colleagues so we can all be involved in a more informed and forward-thinking discussion about our future.

6 responses

  1. Great post. The conversation about the relationship between historic buildings and sustainable development is important and one we must have. But it is important to note, as you have, that while there may be some conflict between the goals of the two sides, they should not really be at odds. Many of the most sustainable neighborhoods in the world are historical. They were established before the invention of the automobile or modern zoning ordinances, so they are compact, dense, multifaceted, and imminently walkable. This is the prototype for a sustainable neighborhood, so we have no need to remake the wheel. While modern, sleek green developments like the ones in China & the UAE are great, we don’t need to replace our historic centers with them. We have the skeleton in place, it is just important to update it to accommodate contemporary life. Neighborhoods and cities are living, breathing things that must change and adapt constantly, but sustainable development really just breaks down to using modern tools to implement old concepts & ideas.

    – Tim Kovach,
    Product Coordinator, Energy Programs at COSE

  2. This should not be controversial. Even the US Green Building Council with its LEED rating system grants more points for preserving a building than constructing a new one. Using an older building saves energy and materials – as well as better preserves the existing cultural values. It’s the way things are.

  3. It’s quite clear that updating old buildings is preferential to tearing them down and creating new ones. We should be investing in even more ways to successfully update our existing infrastructures to become more sustainable.

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