A post on The Atlantic Cities blog recently asked the question: “Can solar panels and historic preservation get along?” When installing PV on older buildings, there is some debate as to “how much updating can and should occur without compromising the building’s historic character.”
Kaid Benfield, the post’s author, is the Director of Sustainable Communities in Washington, D.C. and dedicates his work to sustainable planning and development (urban and otherwise). Kaid believes that the preservation of historical architecture (in healthy neighborhoods, anyway) is “intrinsically green.” He explains:
Most historic buildings, at least the ones constructed before the days of freeways and urban flight, are on walkable streets in relatively central locations. They represent … energy and materials that would be consumed if the same amount of space and the same function had to be constructed anew. Also, being built before “the thermostat age” … many of them were built with attention to climate and with locally sourced materials, giving them environmentally beneficial characteristics as a matter of design.
Benfield points to the debate over the placement of solar panels on the street-facing sides of roofs in historic districts and on historic homes throughout the country. In many cases, city governments have either restricted or made attempts to restrict PV systems to sides of a building that significantly reduce the efficiency of the panels.
Benfield ultimately admits that while he is generally an advocate of solar in historic districts, the issue is a “thorny” one “that requires compromise and acute sensitivity to design considerations.” In other words, it all depends on the district and the unique character of the district or building and its architecture.
Here at Sunetric, it should come as no surprise that we are strongly in favor of PV on any roof that would benefit from it.
There are innumerable historic properties in America that have been retrofitted with modern conveniences and technological developments—electricity and air conditioning, to name a few—that would otherwise fall into unfortunate disuse and disrepair because nobody would want to live or work inside them.
Our CEO Alex Tiller visited Senator Inouye’s private office at the Capitol a few months ago and says:
I was amazed to see the upgrades that have been made to that historic old building. The lighting, cameras, air conditioning, elevators and ramps, fire sprinklers, emergency exits—and I’m sure there was a lot more I couldn’t see!
Far from detracting from the building’s history, Alex said, “the upgrades actually help date the building by offering a point of relativity in the juxtaposition of architecture and technology, all while keeping wonderful old structures useful and enjoyable for decades to come.”
The perceived adulteration of a historic area or architecture is often just that—perception—and all perceptions should be challenged when moving forward toward sustainability as a community. We believe it is possible—and indeed, necessary—to maintain the unique architectural and contextual aspects of a district and its architecture while upgrading its energy needs.
In the long run, the increasingly hostile environmental problems caused by our dependence on fossil fuels will have a much worse impact on historic preservation than will solar panels.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Upgrade!
Update (July 30, 2012)
In a perfect example of updating historical landmarks with modern technology, the storied Alcatraz prison has gone solar:
Now, the prison is host to 1,300 solar panels, powering lights and appliances that for three-quarters of a century were powered by diesel fuel ferried across the bay. The panels are part of an effort by the National Park Service(NPS) and the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to bring clean energy to national parks and landmarks.