New Energy from Old Buildings: Then and Now

Posted on: January 24th, 2014 by Special Contributor 4 Comments

By Ric Cochrane

newenergyoldbuildingscoverA while back, as my colleague Byrd Wood was preparing for the NTHP headquarters move from 1785 to the Watergate, she found a copy of the 1981 NTHP publication, New Energy from Old Buildings, and sent it to me here at the Preservation Green Lab in Seattle. My initial thought on receiving it was: Here’s a blast from the past. The cover looks like some sort of IRS training manual from 1950, or a third-grader’s book report.

After a thorough read through, I stand corrected. New Energy from Old Buildings is a startlingly prescient and still relevant look at energy efficiency and generation through the lens of historic preservation. It’s a true treasure, and reading it has been both inspiring and sobering.

Most of the papers in the book were presented at a 1980 symposium entitled “Preservation: Reusing America’s Energy” (great title!). The Trust cosponsored the symposium with the Smithsonian, an institution that also looks simultaneously backward and forward with equal vigor. Like a day spent immersed in the wonders of the Smithsonian, my plunge into New Energy was like a stroll down memory lane that landed me in tomorrow.The similarities between the concepts captured in New Energy and the Green Lab’s current initiatives are striking. Fully 33 years ago (more than a generation), the authors recognized the value of what we now call original design intelligence1 to reduce the inefficiencies of our buildings, and of historic preservation as a tool for sustainable community development. More than 40 pages are devoted to solar energy generation. This is all quite sobering, because for the most part we’re still beating the same drum.

Much of the writing in New Energy is simply beautiful. For example:

In his foreword, NTHP President Michael Ainslie wrote:

“This book…suggests new directions that the nation can take both to cut energy consumption and retain tangible elements of its rich heritage. The simple philosophy of reusing what is best from the past and rejecting the throw-away mentality is the same ethic behind protecting wildlife, guarding the beauty of fragile natural areas and saving gasoline, fuel oil and electricity. We must find, highlight and change the laws, practices and misconceptions that have led us as a nation to treat buildings as simply more disposable items, rather than the capital assets that they are.”

This is one of the most eloquent (and nonpartisan) statements of a national ethic of conservation that I’ve encountered.

Here’s another beauty, from former Department of Energy Deputy Secretary John Sawhill in his essay, “Preserving History and Saving Energy: Two Sides of the Same Coin.”

“[There is a] philosophical transition away from a throwaway society based on an illusion that resources are unlimited – toward a new kind of civilization grounded in performance, balance and order. Through historic preservation’s leadership, it will be made obvious to all that two vital social goals – energy conservation and historic preservation – are self-reinforcing. Each can assist the other in obvious and important ways.”

That’s from the Department of Energy--the same DOE that is funding the America Saves! project led by the Preservation Green Lab. Why did I think our relationship was new? We go way back!

In fact, the vision that Sawhill presented in 1980 could be mistaken for the Green Lab’s 2014 strategic plan, anticipating performance-based energy regulations (Outcome-Based Energy Codes), energy retrofit programs led by municipalities and nonprofits (America Saves!), and, in the following passage from the book, comprehensive urban planning policies based on historic preservation (Neighborhood Performance Metrics):

“The case for preservation no longer rests solely on aesthetics. Business people and homeowners alike are coming to recognize that rehabilitating old buildings for new uses is often less costly than new construction, and retailers know that a historically or architecturally interesting environment is an irresistible attraction to tourists and shoppers.”

However, it doesn’t take long before a sort of panic sets in, the same disillusionment that takes hold when I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Jane Jacobs’ Life and Death of Great American Cities. These grand visions and calls to action still resonate, but that’s just the problem. We’ve been here before.

gas canMany of the essays are eerily similar to today’s headlines. The call for a new focus on energy efficiency is based on the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s, not so far removed from the contemporary interest in energy independence. There is a callout to preservationists’ opposition to “the large-scale destruction of historic buildings carried out in the name of urban renewal”–-New York City’s East Midtown re-zone, anyone? There is recognition of a convergence of preservation with social and economic goals, including “the revitalization of urban areas, the protection of valuable farmland, increased employment opportunities…and the reduction of wasteful consumption in all segments of society.” The authors call for preservation to form new alliances, and to celebrate the partnership of preservation with environmental protection allies.

It’s sobering to realize that many of the ideas that we now espouse under “21st-Century Preservation” were proposed in 1980. So what is new? Have we made progress or have we circled back to the start?

You know the answer: Yes, we’ve made progress, but not nearly enough. We have substantially more information about the opportunity for energy and cost savings through energy efficiency. We know much more about the economics of energy efficiency and renewable energy generation. Technology available today is vastly superior to that of 1980, making it easier to retrofit historic buildings without compromising architectural integrity. Solar or photovoltaic energy generation is cheaper and more efficient, and is easier to integrate into historic sites. The futuristic financing models for energy retrofits envisioned by Sawhill are standard practice in some sectors, such as the $5 billion energy services company (ESCO) industry.

Yet in many ways, we’ve regressed. When New Buildings was published, the solar power industry was in its first heyday, and was soon thereafter almost abandoned under a new president with different energy priorities, a setback that many energy experts believe we have not fully recovered from. The cross-sector alliances that so many of the authors anticipated have not been realized, which is why we think of partnerships between NTHP, DOE and the National Renewable Energy Lab as innovative. In reality, they are way overdue.

I will finish with a passage from Paul Goldberger, the inimitable New York Times architecture critic, who wrote the final words in New Energy From Old Buildings.

“Preservationists can show the rest of the country that in the end things are not necessarily so bad, that the seeds of improvement and the way out of a crisis can lie within what we already have.”

Truer words were never spoken. What has changed since then? Primarily, the urgency with which the preservation community must now lead. I don’t think we capitalized on the opportunity that was evident in 1980, and we don’t have another 33 years--or even three--to waste. I believe the preservation movement has the power to lead where other sectors have fallen short, precisely because we help people nurture and protect what matters most to them, and when people have security and a sense of identity, we take care of each other and our surroundings. I believe we have a responsibility to help the nation realize new energy from our old buildings. We can, we must, and we will.



1.  From Department of Defense: Original design intelligence (ODI) features vary between buildings but can include solid brick walls with a higher thermal value than contemporary brick, externally loaded narrow floor plans and building orientation perpendicular to prevailing winds. These buildings were typically designed to maximize thermal comfort by incorporating features that provide “passive” or energy conservation through the choice of building materials and design.

  • Natural ventilation through building siting, operable windows, transoms, and open staircases;
  • Passive solar benefits obtained from building siting, thermally massive construction materials and shading devices; and
  • Natural light enhancement through building siting, use of tall and wide windows, narrow floor plates, and sloped ceilings, and shading devices.

Ric Cochrane is the associate director of projects, Preservation Green Lab at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


4 Responses

  1. Margaret McMahon

    January 24, 2014

    Would it be possible to makes a copy of this available now?

  2. Ted Sande

    January 24, 2014

    It was a surprise and a delight to read your review of New Energy from Old Buildings. If I recall correctly, the National Trust book store did carry it for several years, but it didn’t seem to attract the attention that many of us at the time thought it deserved. Thank you for bringing the book to the attention of today’s preservation community.

  3. Ted Sande

    January 24, 2014

    Thank you for bringing this book to the attention of today’s preservation community.

  4. Ric Cochrane

    January 27, 2014

    Thanks for your comments. I will explore the possibility of having the book scanned as a PDF. Also, there are almost 20 copies available at very attractive prices on