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Guest Editorial: Occupy the USGBC! A Call to Arms for Preservationists

23 February 2012 No Comment

Above: Barton Group headquarters (Glen Falls, NY). This historic building, built in 1865, was able to achieve a LEED Platinum rating. Improvements include a green roof and a rainwater collection system.

Many people are familiar with the United States Green Buildings Council’s (USGBC) LEED rating systems.

If you are not, here is a ten-second history: LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) was first introduced by USGBC in 2000 and was the first rating system to attempt to assess commercial building projects on their full range of environmental impacts. The rating system was reworked in 2009 and now features nine separate ratings systems – New Construction, Existing Buildings, Commercial Interiors, Core & Shell, Schools, Retail, Healthcare, Homes, and Neighborhood Development.

Speak with any preservationist who has considered LEED certification for a project and they will be quick to point out that the act of saving an existing structure is given the same weight as installing bike racks in the LEED scoring system – that is to say, not much.

The problem with LEED, from the perspective of a preservationist, is that it gives little credit for the embodied energy contained in an historic building (or any building for that matter). This energy, which is not only representative of the building materials in a structure but also the work that went into constructing those materials into their current state, is not as easy to measure as say the R-value of a replacement window and therefore have not figured heavily into LEED’s equation.

In 2006 the National Trust for Historic Preservation mounted an official effort to achieve this goal by forming the Sustainable Preservation Coalition (SPC). SPC was formed “to influence further development of the LEED Building Rating Systems to better recognize historic and existing buildings.”

The success of the SPC is as of yet unclear. Barbara A. Campagna (Director of Architecture for the historic sites overseen by the National Trust and the organizer of the SPC) writes in her 2008 article, How Changes to LEED Will Benefit Existing and Historic Buildings, that a 2007 meeting between SPC and USGBC was “quite successful” and resulted in an invitation to have SPC help prepare preservation metrics for the revised versions of LEED. She goes on in the article to cite LEED 2009’s increased credits for location in a dense community and access to public transportation as examples of victories for the preservation community. While most people interested in planning and/or preservation would certainly consider these victories exciting, it is difficult to see how they directly relate to the increased preservation and adaptive reuse of historic buildings.

What is not difficult to see is why LEED better recognizing the issue of embodied energy will help further the cause of preservationists. LEED certification seems to be most often used as a marketing tool – a means for attracting the attention (and thus the dollars) of the environmentally conscious middle and upper-middle classes. Providing developers of historic projects with an easier path to LEED certification would certainly make the reuse of an existing building more financially attractive.

Assuming that we agree on the premise – a greater consideration of the reuse of existing buildings in LEED’s rating systems will lead to increased preservation and reuse of historic buildings – the question then becomes: How do we make it happen?

The first path for making preservation oriented updates to LEED would be through the normal process which creates all of the iterations of the rating process. USGBC is a “consensus-based” organization and thus requires final versions of its rating systems to be ratified by a vote of their membership (and in some cases, also approved by partner organizations).

So, in theory a pro-preservation change to the rating systems could be implemented without the blessing of USGBC’s top leadership, provided that the idea had sufficient support amongst the membership to garner a majority vote. In practice however, the process is far more complicated. It appears that most if not all changes to rating systems are accomplished through revisions or pilot programs. In order for a suggestion to be included in one of these revisions/pilots someone with influence inside the organization must first be convinced of the idea’s worthiness. Considering that the Sustainable Preservation Council, despite the sizable weight of the involved organizations, seems to have been unable to attain such influence suggests that the traditional path suggested above is not currently practical.

The second path involves utilizing LEED’s Innovation & Design Process (IDP). Through the IDP bonus points are awarded to projects that prove exceptional performance above the requirements set by LEED and/or projects that demonstrate innovative performance in a category not specifically addressed by LEED. The IDP could be used to receive credit for an innovative preservation strategy that falls outside the current rating systems. Gaining an additional bonus point on a single project would not seem to do much to advance the cause of the preservation. However, it is a means to gain formal recognition from USGBC without going through the more traditional pilot/revision process. An innovation that receives credit through the IDP could be used as an example for future ratings systems.

The third path would be more of a grassroots effort which would require organizing the membership to insist upon the desired changes to the rating systems. USGBC’s bylaws state that a special meeting may be called at the written request of at least 10% of the voting members. This could be accomplished by identifying a voting bloc within the membership that would be naturally allied to preservation issues (i.e. preservations, developers who specialize in rehabilitation, local governments of historically significant communities, etc.). If this bloc represents at least 10% of the membership they could use their influence to trigger a special meeting. It is likely that, even if a special meeting is called, a preservation initiative would not have enough support to pass without the endorsement of USGBC’s top leaders. However, the attention towards preservation which would be generated from triggering such a meeting would likely be enough to force the Board to make a renewed effort at considering the sustainability value of historic buildings.

The next version of LEED’s rating systems – LEED 2012 – is scheduled to be voted on by membership in June, with a final comment period scheduled to open March 1. Bring your tents.

Above: U.S. Treasury Building (Washington D.C.): The U.S. Treasury Building, which was certified LEED Gold in 2011, is believed to be the oldest building to ever receive LEED certification.

By Nick Gurich

Nick Gurich grew up in the eastside suburbs of Cleveland. He developed a passion for history and specifically historic buildings from his mother and grandfather, who often took him on tours of historic homes. Nick became interested in the field of city planning after visiting a variety of cities, both successful and struggling, in his work as a union organizer. Nick currently lives with his wife Kelly and son Judo in Columbus, Ohio where he serves as the Field Director for a labor union and is also working towards his Master’s in City and Regional Planning at OSU.