The greenest building is the one that already exists, yet our regulatory system makes it extremely complicated and expensive to keep those buildings and retrofit them for energy efficiency. My company works primarily in the historic building sector. We purchase historic buildings, renovate them as necessary to position them for the use that the market and building best support, and then we hold and operate them.
While this is our business model, we also believe that historic buildings have a cultural and social value. We’ve read the studies confirming the environmental value of renovation over new construction. However, the process of retaining and upgrading an existing historic building is complicated and lengthy. It requires special consultants, disjointed code evaluation, and multiple applications.
In the city of Seattle, regulators strongly support the Living Building Challenge, which is very difficult to achieve with an existing building. These buildings get special departures and permitting support, yet historic buildings, which already have a lower carbon impact, are required to go through extra steps.
Let’s take a step back and recognize where we are with this. Saving existing buildings is important, so let’s make it easier to do and still meet the required energy codes. I propose we break down the silos and work toward decreasing our carbon footprint through preservation. Can the process of historic modification approval be integrated with the building/land use approvals? Rather than multiple applications running simultaneously with different organizations, the entire process should be integrated. This would allow all parties to know the status and its impact on all other approvals. Let’s get a staff member from the National Trust for Historic Preservation into the City offices once a week.
There has to be an easier way to achieve these common goals of energy efficiency and historic preservation. In the end, our goal is to ensure that we’re still here in 100 years, not just the buildings we’re saving.