Historic Tax Credits & Conservation

Our office has been working to rescue an old school building that was developed under the Park Service's Historic Tax Credit Program. The project, an old high school dating from the 1920's had recently had an extensive renovation by another architect to reuse the school as market rate apartments under the tax-credit program. The renovation did not comply with all the rules for historic tax credits and the owner needed help bringing the building back into compliance in order to recover the credit. 

As our team walked through the project initially to evaluate it we were impressed by the project's beauty but we were amazed at how little attention had been paid to energy use in the renovation. The building had single-glazed windows and had had interior storm windows added. The original walls were three to four wythe of brick thick but had had no insulation added in the renovation. Insulation was not elected to preserve some of the plaster detailing inside. Oversized mechanical equipment was installed to condition each apartment. Utility bills are high for each of the beautiful up-scale apartments because the exterior walls are at least ten feet high and they are at least three to four wythe of brick thick. The thermal mass acts as a radiator for heat or cold outside to come in. 

The intention of the historic tax credit program is to preserve historic buildings that have details that cannot be replicated in buildings today and to preserve their history, a noble goal. One has to wonder though if we aren't actually putting the buildings we love at greater risk by not addressing their energy needs. Buildings that are energy hogs are the first to be abandoned. Building owners anticipate a profit from their buildings and rising energy costs can imperil these buildings. In a landscape where cities are adopting rules for the disclosure of the energy use of larger buildings this issue is only going to become more pressing. Buildings only get several opportunities in their lives to have deep renovations. Aren't we putting these buildings at risk by not thoroughly addressing energy when we renovate them? 

The rules that govern the historic tax credit program are not devised on a project-by-project basis. So for example in the project I just described, no one was asking the question... is the plaster detailing so special that it needs to be preserved at all costs and is it worth trading for poor energy use for lifetime of the building? In this particular instance I felt it clearly was not. No one is asking what other measures can be taken to save energy along the way. Perhaps one approach might be to do an energy audit on each historic structure and evaluate their issues on a case-by-case basis. It can be determined where interior details must be preserved at any cost and to understand where energy gains can be made without disturbing the character and the quality of the buildings we love. Right now each building is expected to be have its major interior spaces preserved regardless of their significance. There is no weighing of the merits of each structure on a case-by-case basis. Broad rules determine which areas will be preserved and which will not without regard to energy or even function for that matter. 

It is becoming clear that buildings are complex enough that the rules and rating systems governing them need to flexible if we are really going to make intelligent decisions that address the variety of concerns at hand. By making broad decisions and a using a one size fits all approach to the renovation of our historic structures we might just be putting our favorite buildings at risk.