By Val Ballestrem

Last week I had the privilege  of joining hundreds of my preservation colleagues from around the U.S. in Austin, Texas at the 2010 National Preservation Conference – hosted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The conference provided solid information on a number of fronts on everything from dealing with density to the LEED EB O & M program. I thought I’d share a few takeaways from the conference that I hope are useful to preservationists and others.

1. Preservation = Jobs

This was but one of several themes running through the conference and it in 2010, it was perhaps the most important. Earlier this year, a Rutgers University report verified what we preservationists have long asserted. The Rutgers Report noted how the Federal Historic Tax Credit has helped create 1.8 million jobs in the past 30 years! To put this in a less abstract way, I think this study shows – and as preservation economist Donovan Rypkema has long asserted – that preservation work is more labor intensive than new construction. Rather than sending money off to some far away place, preservation work, often “keeps things local” providing an economic boost for everyone from the window restorer working on a historic building to the restaurant owner who sells them lunch.

2.  Old buildings aren’t the energy hogs, we are.

Our historic and older buildings were often built to last, and to reflect the

Postcard of the Morgan Building from the Bosco-Milligan Foundation Collection

climate and region in which they are located. In most cases, building components – like windows – can be rehabilitated/repaired, made workable again and made more energy efficient. The first step to lowering our energy and resource consumption may be by “refusing to replace” such components until all other measures are considered and implemented. For example: replacing old windows or doors with new products will do little to offset energy loss, if your building is not properly insulated in the attic and walls and you have not addressed the major issue of air infiltration.

There is a great recent example here in Portland of what can be done in this regard with a historic commercial building. The 96 year old Morgan Building recently received LEED Existing Building Operations and Maintenance (EB O & M) certification. Now the building’s tenants can open windows rather than always relying on conditioned air. We certainly hope that owners of other older buildings see this sort of example and follow a similar path, even if they don’t want to go through the LEED process.

3.  Density

Hopefully, the era of density for its own sake is over. There is however, still pressure on our older urban neighborhoods to add additional housing.  One suggestion that I overheard in Austin, was that there is no need to tear down any building in the U.S. in order to achieve adequate density. Instead, we should simply focus on re-purposing existing surface parking lots and underutilized existing buildings in order to meet desired density goals. This could conserve energy and prevent waste while also helping to revitalize some of the oldest and historic parts of our city.

Another concept I heard discussed in Austin, was the relationship between density, sustainability, and historic preservation. It’s time that we consider preservation as something embodying more than just the “historic.” Today we might want to position ourselves more as building conservationists than merely focused on the historic. It’s time we give credence to the “background buildings” that make up our urban fabric. After all, they are often a big part of the enticement to people looking to live in neighborhoods with character.

Density does not have to be focused on the construction of  huge developments either. In many of our traditional neighborhoods, housing density could be increased by adding additional units to existing residences. This can happen in many ways from re-purposing existing garages to actually lifting houses to make basement spaces more accommodating.

Today’s talk about walkable neighborhoods (often referred to as 20-minute neighborhoods in Portland) refers directly to the sort of neighborhood character many preservationists have been working to preserve for years. In other words, preservation is not simply about nostalgia – but returning to (or re-invigorating) what already works in our urban environments.

Hopefully, some of these ideas help dispel the myth that preservationists are foes of “progress.” In fact that is far from the truth. While we do work tirelessly to save older buildings, we are not simply doing this to preserve the past. We also want to see a future in which the places we live, work, and play have patina (as Paul Goldbereger calls it), while also being fine examples of how we reduced the amount of resources we consume and the amount of energy we waste.