Lecture: “The Power of Preservation”

The Yestermorrow Design Build School in Waitsfield, VT is hosting a summer lecture series addressing sustainability through different avenues. One of those avenues is historic preservation.

On July 27, Jean Carroon (FAIA, LEED AP) presented “The Power of Preservation: Understanding the Environmental Value of Older and Historic Building Conservation.” Carroon is a principal at Goody Clancy in Boston, MA; she is well known and highly regarded for her work combining historic preservation, sustainability and architecture. Her book, Sustainable Preservation: Greening Existing Buildings (Wiley & Sons) was published in 2010.

Chances are, if you are involved with historic preservation or sustainability or a related field, you have heard the same facts and theories over and over.¬† As a profession, we are still struggling with green initiatives and compromise and doing our best to decide if the long term benefits are in fact what they say they are. It’s going to take some time before we can evaluate the best practices of today.

While lectures can blend together, Carroon gave a superb presentation, one that sounded fresh and insightful. Her words proved way above the same old ideas. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire lecture. She began (1) by asking the audience if we believed in flossing our teeth and then (2) saying that preservation is shooting itself in the foot. What an intriguing beginning!

Rather than reiterate the presentation, I thought I’d share some snippets that I found particularly interesting and thoughtful (I’m a habitual note taker to insure that I do not forget anything — though my disclaimer is that these bullet points are not exact words from Carroon; some may have my interpretations. Read her book for her exact words!)

* Preservation is the keystone to sustainability. If you want to save the earth, then you have to save the largest objects on it – buildings. You have to save buildings in order to save the earth. In the 1970s, the motto “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” came about, though we have since dropped reduce and reuse. We should always reduce and reuse before we have to recycle (i.e. in the case of buildings, before we have to tear apart a building for salvage). Similarly, if you want to save the polar bears, you have to save the buildings. [We’re all connected!]

* Today’s work on buildings is often taking out the “miracle materials” of yesterday. New materials should always be suspicious, even the green products can have environmental impacts. New construction is the #1 source for toxicity according to the EPA, which places it ahead of coal fired electric plants.

* Sustainability is not about embodied energy; it is about avoiding impacts.

*Sustainability is not something that is finite. It means stewardship. We’ll never be done with it; just like building maintenance and historic preservation is never done. There is no such thing as a maintenance free world¬† (hence, the flossing).

*The GSA has documented evidence that its older buildings are 20% easier to clean (20% less chemicals are required). The older materials are more durable, cleaner, and can be repaired.

*Regarding the non-historic building stock, such as those from the 1960s/70s: these present more of an opportunity because there are fewer aesthetic negotiations.

*Why don’t we talk about building density? A “Zero Energy” doesn’t mean anything, especially if it’s not populated. These are not sustainable. Buildings should function as networks, not individuals. Smart streets planning and complete streets projects are undertaking such ideas.

*Sustainability is also about the sustainability of institutions and the quality of life of people who live/work/play there. A sustainable area means nothing if it’s not inhabited.

* Sustainable = stewardship = daily action = great rewards.

*The preservation community needs to be a compromising agency, not an agency of no. If we keep fighting battles (i.e. windows), we’ll lose the war.

*We need to create a culture of reuse or repair. We need to recognize what we have and what exists.

If you ever have the opportunity to hear Carroon speak or to say hello to her, you should. She is lovely and brilliant.

One reason I’d recommend hearing a talk by Jean Carroon is due to the fact that she dazzled me as a listener, but her talk also inspired me to internally ponder and respond to issues she mentioned. Keep reading for my response to an issue that struck me as important.

I found Carroon’s talk to be refreshing, especially the discussion about sustainability never being reached (in the sense that it will always require stewardship). However, I strongly disagree with her about the windows battle. Everyone has a different opinion, but replacement vinyl windows will never be okay according to my own preservation standards. Reproduction windows are a different story. To me, windows will always be important because they define styles. They tell stories. Windows are not the greatest cause for lost heat in a building. Once they’re gone, it cannot be undone.

I do not find historic preservation to be an agency of no; though I see how it comes off that way. But, I imagine, any time that a resource is being protected, there will be the word “no” involved. And although as preservationists it is imperative to get a grasp on sustainability and to learn to work together with environmentalists and professionals of similar fields (and really all fields), we must remember that it is still our mission to protect and preserve our heritage. The definition of historic preservation is drastically different than it was 50 years ago, but I believe that the roots of the field still take top priority. Roughly, I refer to the roots as the documentation, sharing, teaching and caring of buildings, trade, culture and landscape. Preservationists before us understand that so much of value could be lost without their efforts and at the same time, so much of the past could be valuable to the present and to the future.

Thus, I mean to say that I am constantly amazed by the intertwined existence of professional fields today and how well we can mesh; I love how preservation can be a huge umbrella, as can environmentalism and sustainability and planning and so many others. It proves how connected we are. Yet, I believe that historic preservation must remain true to itself. We can rethink and adapt and fit with other fields, but let’s be sure that historic preservation is still historic preservation and not a green retrofitting fad with history on the side.

What do you think?


If you have the opportunity to attend a lecture at Yestermorrow, I’d highly recommend it. Yestermorrow is a lovely, intimate venue for lectures