Strategically Green: Implementing High-Performance Building Technologies and Practices in Historic Structures

Spring 2013

Owners and operators of historic buildings are finding ways to improve building performance while still preserving the unique physical characteristics of their landmark structures. Adopting high-performance building (HPB) technologies and practices can improve energy efficiency, reduce operating costs and provide a healthier and more comfortable place for people to live and work.

As of 2011, more than 1.4 million places, including buildings, districts and landmarks, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which receives more than 30,000 applications each year. Most structures are at least 50 years old and meet one or more of the following four criteria for historic status:

  • Recognized as the site of an historic event;
  • Associated with a famous person;
  • Designed or built in a distinctive way; or
  • Yielded important historic or prehistoric information.

HPB technologies and practices are a sound investment, according to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The USGBC found that the cost premium for implementing HPB technologies beyond local building codes is less than two percent, and that those incremental costs are paid back 10-fold during the typical lifespan of a commercial building, estimated to be 60 years or more.

Owners and operators of historic buildings can take the following steps to better understand the potential benefits of an HPB approach for their facility:

Identify mission-critical factors. Determine how adopting HPB practices and technologies will help the building owner or operator reduce costs, improve reliability or create a better indoor environment.

Conduct a critical building systems audit. A critical systems audit (CSA) assesses the performance of essential building systems. Many owners seek help from a third party, such as an energy services company (ESCO) to conduct their CSA and identify next steps.

Analyze energy and operating costs. An ESCO can help gather and analyze data on energy use over a period of several years, which can be compared to aggregate data for comparable structures.

Calculate anticipated maintenance costs. Estimate the average annual cost of planned and unplanned maintenance. Historic facilities can also have hidden non-HVAC maintenance costs, such as window glazing, that can be eliminated by the replacement of old windows. Balance the cost of implementing a predictive maintenance strategy against the potential cost of unplanned downtime or system failure.

Evaluate non-operational benefits. Assess the value of an HPB approach when it comes to occupant satisfaction, employee productivity and property value.

Historic buildings are important cultural touchstones. They also stand as evidence that functional, well-designed and constructed buildings have a long life, underscoring the critical importance of improving total lifecycle energy and operational performance.