In this edition of the podcast, we join NCPTT’s Jeff Guin as he speaks with Aaron Lubeck, author of the book, Green Restorations. Today, they will discuss his book and how it connects the sustainability movement with historic preservation.
Guin: Aaron, welcome to the podcast.
Lubeck: Thanks for having me. I Appreciate it.
Guin: Now you write on your website that our buildings define us. What do you mean by that?
Lubeck: I was reading a book recently by Paul Goldberger, the New York Times architectural critic, called “Why Architecture Matters,” and it’s a great book. He has buried in the book a fantastic quote that says, “Architecture is the ultimate symbol of a culture even more so than its flag.” We’re really bombarded with the primary symbol of American culture as our flag but when we think about it our architecture is obviously much deeper and is a better articulation of who we are and where we came from and where we’re going, for that matter. You can look at it in historical perspective that old houses, which tended to be much more individualistic, built by individuals for individuals, where people making the decisions on design were closer to the actual house- and usually the owner- than they are today, where there are a lot of split incentives and principal agent problems that kind of take that identity away from the architect. And so for better or for worse our buildings define us. I think that the attraction to old homes is that most of them were built during a time of American ascendancy and American idealism, and course now if we think our buildings define us we have a lot of track homes that are large and centrally planned, where the design decisions are out of the hands of the end user that are not very customized, and they define us in a negative sense as well.
Guin: How did you first become involved in sustainability and the green preservation movement?
Lubeck: A long evolution. I grew up in a family in St. Louis of early adopters of recycling. I remember driving pretty far to find the one place to recycle in the 70’s. Oddly I grew up in probably half a dozen or so what we think of as historic houses, just old houses. I knew I loved them and could identify with them though I never really knew why. And I’m not sure I actually heard of historic preservation until I was about 28 years old, and it was a movement that finally articulated the value of these old homes and somewhat why I had identified with them growing up. But it was also frustrating to see like obviously so many people had lived in these old homes and relate to them and love them, for someone like me to not have heard about it until I was 28 was almost concerning that there’s almost a PR failure of the movement to spread and articulate those values. That historic preservation is not a household name, it’s never on the front pages. I found it has real negative repercussions for the preservation movement to meet its ultimate goals.
Guin: Well and when it is in the news it’s a conflict or a protest more than a group trying to be proactive.
Lubeck: That is absolutely right and that is historically a reactionary movement, and that has been I think a challenge at least locally here in Durham, N.C., where I live, is that traditionally the troops get rallied whenever there is a building to save but then there’s a movement to try to switch the efforts of preservation to be proactive, to label neighborhoods historic so people can use the huge incentives of historic tax credits to spread cultural tourism and heritage and so forth as a much more positive and far reaching mechanism and vessel for historic preservation to accomplish its goals, but that’s been a difficult change because at least 4 or 5 decades this movement has been reactionary.
Guin: Absolutely, well let’s talk about sustainability, and that is a huge buzz term right now. And it seems like every field of endeavor, historic preservation and otherwise, is adopting sustainable principles. How does this apply to historic preservation?
Lubeck: You do see sustainability and green everywhere. In some ways we’re seeing green fatigue. Because everybody just everywhere you go you’re kind of blind sighted by “greenness.” There is confusion where most people when thinking about your house associate sustainability with energy efficiency and energy efficiency alone; and if you look at the core root of the word sustainability its really tied more to longevity, and energy efficiency is just one of the inputs into that. Longevity and historic preservation are some what synonymous with each other, and you look at the four tenants of green building and its energy efficiency, indoor air quality, longevity and your environmental footprint. Just working on an old house, whether you make it really efficient or not, has huge benefits to the sustainable equation. Old buildings, they don’t require new material loads so they’re more energy efficient. Old buildings were meant to operate without mechanical systems, so particularly if you have a wider comfort zone of temperature they’re more energy efficient to run. Actually our mid century homes were less energy efficient than our old homes, that’s a common misconception. Indoor air quality is usually better in old homes than new because we don’t have the synthetics and the glues and the formaldehyde products that you see in the new homes.
Longevity, it speaks for itself when you’re working on a home that’s 100 years old, its already passed the test of longevity, and of course footprint when you’re working on homes that already have existing infrastructure, that already have their walls framed, that already have plaster and all of this embodied energy and intellectual capital and financial capital that went into them, to continue to reuse that really is the ultimate recycling. Ultimately my clientele, which is overwhelmingly academic, I work real close to Duke University here and folks were buying up old houses in Durham and were really interested in the sustainability movement. Conversations start with, “Aaron, I’ve got an old house, I want to restore it in a green way, what do I do?” And there’s so much information to take in, both on the green building side there’s a wealth of information, and then you factor in all the complexities of historic preservation and all the opportunities of both movements does get a bit overwhelming and that’s where we saw the need for this book. There’s just not that much out there. We actually had one client Google the term “green restoration” and come up with virtually no hits, so I realized there is a void in the market place that the book could fill. But they’re all sorts of questions that people ask when they’re working on an old house: How do you keep the character while upgrading to meet the needs of the next century? What systems are appropriate for an old home? What should I do with my windows. How do I keep the architectural integrity of the streetscape, should I unwrap the vinyl siding and restore the architecture? How do I insulate an old house? What are the debates you need to address when doing so?
Guin: We have the book in our library here at NCPTT. It’s a good primer and a very practical holistic approach to introducing everyday people, who are dealing with these historic preservation issues, to all the facets that go into maintaining a historic structure and updating it as well.
Lubeck: And that really is the intent is that contractors can read it, homeowners can read it, it can be read cover, or really a reference if you’re just remodeling your kitchen in an old house you can just read that chapter and so forth. So I’m sure It’ll serve a lot of different needs, but it is meant to kind of paint with a broad brush.
Guin: You make comparisons to the environmental movement and to the preservation movement. And there it’s both situations where people are very passionate about their beliefs, yet the environmental movement has been so much more successful in communicating what it’s trying to accomplish and in mobilizing its audience, and working together, collaborating, especially on the web. Why do you think they are successful?
Lubeck: Yeah it’s a great question, and there’s one of the best articulations of that answer is Stewart Brand wrote a book called “How Buildings Learn,” and he has a great chapter on preservation there and the history of the preservation movement. And he had noted that environmentalism really rose up to be on front pages, and that preservation suffered almost from a lack of charismatic leadership. There was no big event, no big calling or no head of the movement that people could identify with. This ultimately made preservation sort of the little brother or little sister of environmentalism; it’s never gotten the same traction that it has. To me, I also think that the business benefit has not been pressed. Besides Donovan Rypkema, I have not really seen it articulated very well or forcefully or thoroughly. The green benefits of preservation, I think when I started thinking about this book even two or three years ago, they were still not pressed very much and now of course the preservation month, the theme was ‘Old is the New Green’. Carl Elefante’s work of calling “the greenest building is the one that’s already built.” “Historic preservation is the ultimate recycling” actually has some more historical roots and the Preservation Magazine from the National Trust comes out with a green issue now every year. But all of these things happened in the last two or three years. And one of the other things I think that has not helped preservation get a larger foothold in America is that, to me, conservatives are notably lacking from the movement. There’s a cultural preservation link and the protection of an architecture that represents American ideals of individualism, strength, ingenuity and pride should be very attractive to conservatives. But to me when I attend preservation events I find them notably lacking and that has, I think, slowed the movement as well.
Guin: I’ve been involved in the social web within heritage preservation for a few years, that it really wasn’t until last year that we had a breakthrough in that field. But it wasn’t the large preservation organizations that were leading the way on that. It was everyday folks and bloggers and the people who were having issues with their homes.
Lubeck: Yes, this has been a movement that is notoriously “IT phobic” and that has not helped either. I think that there’s a big switch to youth input into historic preservation that were really recognizing right now. The last five years I think, you go to the state preservation conferences, that there’s this whole group of folks in their 20s and 30s that are redefining the preservation movement, and I think that’s going to be a great thing. But we’re seeing blogs, fantastic blogs, pop up everywhere that are really digging into detail and amazing research and on local entities and using the Internet as a medium to articulate preservation in ways that were never possible before. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, and I think that will bring a lot more people to the movement as well. And I think the movement is wider than we think. There are more people out there that just love old houses than identify with historic preservation. I was one of those growing up. I think that there are a lot of folks out there. I even talked to someone last week that said, “I don’t know about historic preservation, but I just love old houses.” And I think there are a lot of people out there like that that just need to hear more information or just be talked to about some of the benefits of the policy of historic preservation and some of the businesses that are out there to rehab houses and protect our architectural history.
Guin: One of the things I really like to talk about is the context of a cultural resource. Including historic structures. I think historic buildings are great—nice to look at. But it’s the story that really attracts folks and makes us care about why this building should still exist.
Lubeck: I think we’re on the tip of an iceberg as well with seeing technology and mobile platforms being used. Someone’s going to recognize that buildings are the static medium through time. So people come and go, fads come and go, styles come and go, but for the most part buildings stay and they’re there for hundreds of years. And so we can use that to root these stories, to tie together how buildings came to be or how communities came to be; how the owner of a tobacco company lived in that house to move to there and that house burned down and they moved to there and had five kids that went on to start this company; or this person helped him start a business or do a development out on the edge of town–and we can start to piece together the story through our buildings. It’s the best medium to do that.
Guin: Well, lets go into some other first steps that the average homeowner can take to maintain their homes in a sustainable and a green way.
Lubeck: Every project’s different. One person may be painting a room while another may be doing a million dollar gut job so it really varies, but the one piece of advice that I’d give to folks who are starting out is to work with professionals or seek out professionals. Even if you don’t end up in a contractual engagement with an architect or a restoration contractor, picking their brain as much as you can or seeing their websites or just meeting people at green building tours and historic preservation tours, will help. Talk to the experts you’ll learn so much.
Guin: How can people get connected to what you’re doing, Aaron?
Lubeck: Definitely reading the book is a great start or going to the website as well, and I’ve got a Twitter account, so you could join my feed for up-to-the-minute thoughts as they come out as well.
Guin: Aaron, thanks for being on the podcast.
Lubeck: Thanks a lot Jeff, I appreciate it.
Outro: That was Jeff Guin with author Aaron Lubeck. If you would like to learn more about Lubeck’s book, Green Restorations, visit our podcast shownotes at the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training website. That’s ncptt.nps.gov. Until next time, goodbye everybody.