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LEED and Historic Preservation: A Construction Management Professional’s Perspective

August 30, 2012

In this guest post was by construction management expert Noelle Hirsch, we highlight the debate-bordering-on-conflict between preservationists and construction policy-makers. PreserveNJ commented on new, more preservation-conscious LEED standards in 2008, but despite these improvements, the debate remains relevant as green building codes inspired by LEED threaten to retrofit historic buildings with green solutions that are unsympathetic to historic preservation standards. Noelle regularly writes for, a resource for people interested in working and studying the construction management field.

Construction Management in the 21st Century: Preserving History with LEED?

Green building advocates and historic preservation supporters have not always seen eye to eye. Take a scenario in 2010, when California lawmakers approved a measure that requires all new construction to meet certain sustainable building standards. The first of its kind in the U.S., this law was lauded by environmentalists, who have encouraged legal support for sustainable building practices. But preservationists say the law could encourage the demolition of historically significant buildings. Many

“The greenest building is the one that’s already built”

sustainability advocates claim the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification program represents a key component for solving efficiency problems in the U.S. Yet, as green building under the LEED program continues to expand, battles between sustainability advocates and historical preservationists may be inevitable.

LEED is an acronym developed by the USGBC which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The concept behind LEED is to provide a framework for identifying and implementing practical and measurable green building designs, construction and maintenance. LEED committees use a checklist of various measurable criteria to ensure that new buildings maximize energy use. Since its inception, nearly 15,000 companies and organizations in 120 different countries have utilized the LEED program to reduce energy usage and encourage sustainability.

While preservationists agree that sustainability is important, they argue that historic buildings should be retrofitted with their original plans rather than anachronistic modern designs. Long before LEED certification ever existed, preservationists argue, historic buildings were regularly built with sustainable features out of necessity. “When effectively restored, these features can bring about substantial energy savings,” according to the Whole Building Design Group (WBDG). “Taking into account historic building’s original climatic adaptations, today’s sustainable technology can supplement inherent sustainable features without compromising unique historic character.” The WBDG Historic Preservation Subcommittee argues for revising the current version of LEED to better account for the social values and environmental benefits of preserving historic structures.

For buildings that carry historic value, proponents of LEED recommend using the LEED-EB certification for existing buildings. LEED-EB includes a checklist for maximizing the sustainable qualities of existing buildings that can be very effective, yet preservationists maintain that the certification has its oversights. Although LEED encourages concepts like tall, appropriately placed windows to utilize natural light and heat while avoiding mechanical air conditioning, preservationists argue that simple fixes like historically appropriate awnings, which are not featured in LEED’s checklist, can reduce overhead gain by 65% or more, without compromising historical accuracy.

Few academics or preservationists will dispute the importance of energy-efficient building to save costs and maximize our limited resources. Yet, the importance of historic structures can also easily be overlooked in our haste to build for the future. Ingeniously developed architecture has existed for millennia, often in times and places where resources were scarce or difficult to attain. By embracing the tenets of LEED while maintaining the relevant architectural successes of the past, construction managers and architects have the best chance at developing truly innovative, sustainable structures.

From PNJ: There’s lots more that can be said about LEED and historic preservation- what are your thoughts?

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