Documenting Change: Lesson Five – University of Kentucky College of Design
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Documenting Change: Lesson Five

What is Historic Preservation and Why is it Green?

by Emily Bergeron

“Preservationists oppose the conventional American idea of consuming ever more… we are struggling to reverse the ‘use it up and move on’ mentality. We are moving in and picking up the pieces. We are taking individual buildings and whole neighborhoods that have been discarded and trying to make them live again. We are cleaning up after society’s litterbugs.”[1] Clem Sabine (1979).

According to the University of Kentucky College of Design’s website, historic preservation is:

An interdisciplinary field of study concerned with the care, use, and interpretation of historic buildings, sites, and landscapes. Preservation specialists study built environments considered historically valuable, assess their importance, and guide treatment, use, and interpretation decisions. Preservation professionals help communities determine what matters to them and why. The field encompasses everything from creative adaptation of older structures, interpretation of sites associated with historical atrocities, and restoration of examples of high-style architecture. Strong linkages to sustainability and social justice mean that historic preservation will play a vital role in debates about the future of communities worldwide during the coming century.[2]

The National Park Service defines the term as “a conversation with our past about our future.”[3]  The National Trust for Historic Preservation ties “preservation” to the built environment, deeming it “the act of identifying, protecting, and enhancing buildings, places, and objects of historical and cultural significance.” The goal of historic preservation is to identify, designate, protect, rehabilitate, and maintain historic resources. In the United States, national, state, and local programs and nonprofit and grassroots organizations work to preserve historic structures, objects, sites, properties, and districts. Preservation operates across a spectrum of activities and typologies and can be defined in many ways depending on many variables.

“Preservation” in practice can range from the stringent levels of protection associated with preserving National Register-nominated sites to the adaptive reuse of historic building fabric. The former requires that modifications be subject to the standards for intervention known as The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. The Secretary’s Standards provide guidelines for preserving, rehabilitating, restoring, and reconstructing historic buildings. These treatments define different levels of intervention:

  • Preservation applies measures required to sustain a historic property’s existing form, integrity, and materials. It often focuses on ongoing maintenance and repair of historic materials and features rather than extensive replacement and new construction. Preservation retains the most significant amount of historic fabric and the building’s historic form.
  • Rehabilitation entails a compatible use for a property through repair, alterations, and additions while preserving features that convey historical, cultural, or architectural values. This level accepts the need to alter or add to a building for continued use while maintaining its historic character.
  • Restoration entails the removal of features added to a building from other periods in its history and reconstructing missing parts from the restoration period. It seeks to preserve materials, components, finishes, and spaces from a period of significance and remove those from other periods.
  • Reconstruction is new construction that seeks to replicate the form, features, and detailing of a non-surviving site, landscape, building, structure, or object from a specific period and in its historic location.[4]

These guidelines provide historic building owners and building managers, preservation consultants, architects, contractors, and project reviewers with intervention standards before beginning work. The standard applied to a specific site should consider each project’s economic and technical feasibility. These standards are applied generally to designated properties, and modifications can require permission from a board of architectural review. This additional burden, however, comes with the added benefits of potential financial assistance in the form of state and federal tax credits.

Buildings whose existence has outlived their function, often commercial or municipal structures, may be adaptively reused to create new uses. There are adaptive reuse projects undertaken in Register-listed buildings that are subject to higher standards to qualify for tax credits, but not all adaptive reuses rise to this level. Adaptive reusemust find a balance between façadism, where the face of a building is preserved with a new structure built behind or around it, preservation, and new construction. The Grey Design Building is an adaptive use of a historic structure not subject to the Secretary’s Standards.

In an article for the National Trust, Julia Rocchi listed Six Practical Reasons to Save Old Buildings, identifying the cultural and practical value of old buildings and explaining why preservation benefits a community’s culture and local economy. Rocchi cites the following justifications:

  • Old buildings have intrinsic value;
  • When you tear down an old building, you never know what’s being destroyed;
  • New businesses prefer old buildings;
  • Old buildings attract people;
  • Old buildings are reminders of a city’s culture and complexity; and
  • Regret only goes one way.[5]

 Rocchi’s list does a good job explaining the benefits of preservation to culture and economy. Still, the practice also has the potential to be an essential tool in sustainability and sustainable development. However, relatively new to sustainability, historic preservation did grow alongside the conservation movement in the United States. While the preservation movement started nearly half a century before the Sierra Club was founded, it is only relatively recently that the profession has considered the impacts of preservation more broadly to include environmental, economic, and social well-being as well as the negative externalities associated with “progress.” There were early links between disciplines, such as Preservation Brief 3 – Conserving Energy in Historic Buildings (1978). This publication recognized that buildings constructed before WWII often used less energy than those of the recent past. These older buildings addressed interior climate with lower energy consumption. Embodied energy was used to justify preserving buildings as early as 1979 in the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation’s publication Energy Conservation of Historic Preservation: Methods and Examples. The NTHP again raised the issue in the 1981 publication New Energy From Old Buildings.

Conserving buildings rather than demolishing and rebuilding them avoids energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, resulting from the embodied energy expended in providing new construction materials and components. The difference between operational and embodied energy was discussed in a prior lesson. Operational energy is created through the systems and practices used to operate the building. For example, heating and cooling systems contribute to this calculation. An environmental case may be made for new construction regarding the ecological impact of buildings – with their tighter fitting windows, central air conditioning, and other state-of-the-art systems. However, when you consider the effects of construction, the argument for preserving the existing building fabric becomes stronger.

old courthouse renovation

Restoration in progress of the old Fayette County Courthouse on Main St. in Lexington (2017).

Bypassing the wasteful process of demolition and reconstruction has significant environmental benefits, energy savings, and the social advantage of repurposing a place with a valued heritage. Even so, it is a common argument that existing buildings are drafty, old, and inefficient – not green. This is simply untrue. Although older buildings are dismissed as inefficient, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) data indicates that commercial buildings constructed before 1920 use less energy per square foot than buildings from any other decade up until 2000 (EIA, 2003).

This is because many of these structures were designed with passive systems before electric lighting and powered heating and cooling, taking advantage of natural daylight, ventilation, and solar orientation. These characteristics, now touted as “sustainable” design attributes, are historic building practices worthy of preservation. Older structures were also built with traditional, durable materials such as concrete, wood, glass, and steel, which, if properly maintained, have a long lifespan.

According to the US Green Building Council, “Green building is a holistic concept that starts with the understanding that the built environment can have profound effects, both positive and negative, on the natural environment, as well as the people who inhabit buildings every day. [It] is an effort to amplify the positive and mitigate the negative of these effects throughout the entire life cycle of a building.”[6] This idea of being “green” is readily applicable to historic preservation. Historic preservation serves environmental conservation purposes, addressing everything from embodied carbon to preventing the creation of construction debris. However, preservationist Norman Tyler labels buildings as “essential carriers of our community’s history,” adding an extra dimension to these profound effects on the people who inhabit them daily. In the next module, the concept of adaptive reuse as a strategy for preservation and sustainability will be elaborated upon.

For more on preservation as sustainability, see:


[1] Clem Sabine, “Preservationists Are Un-American,” Historic Preservation (March 1979), p. 18.

[2] “University of Kentucky College of Design.” Historic Preservation – College of Design – 38°84° the Power of Place, design.uky.edu/historic-preservation/.

[3] “What Is Historic Preservation?” National Parks Service, www.nps.gov/subjects/historicpreservation/what-is-historic-preservation.htm.

[4] 36 CFR Part 68.

[5] Rocchi, Julia. “Six Practical Reasons to Save Old Buildings: National Trust for Historic Preservation.” Six Practical Reasons to Save Old Buildings | National Trust for Historic Preservation, 10 Nov. 2015, savingplaces.org/stories/six-reasons-save-old-buildings.

[6] “What Is Green Building?” U.S. Green Building Council, www.usgbc.org/articles/what-green-building.