Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Solar panels and historic districts: not a simple decision

Left photo:  simple bungalows on the 800 block of Van Buren Street NW.  These houses are not in a historic district.

Middle photo: simple bungalow on the 800 block of Van Buren Street NW with the addition of solar panels on the front roof.

Earlier this week GGW reported in "Preservation staff reject solar panels on Cleveland Park home," that DC's historic preservation office rejected a project to install solar panels on the roof of the building, out of a belief that it would significantly impact the architectural style of the house, vis-a-vis its inclusion in the Cleveland Park Historic District.

The article cites a piece by Matt Yglesias, who makes an interesting (but obvious) point:

The preservation process narrowly excludes every single factor except for historic "compatibility." In most public decisions, officials weigh a variety of factors against one another. Here, the board must ignore the value of environmental sustainability, the economic impact, and even the owner's hardship or religious freedom. 

He thinks this is a bad thing.  I don't.

The reason I disagree with Yglesias is obvious.  Historic compatibility is the whole point of having historic preservation zoning to begin with.  Why else would you go through the trouble to document the cultural and architectural history of a neighborhood if your aim wasn't to preserve the neighborhood?

Part of this comes down to the "greater good."  Most religious objections to historic preservation regulations are spurious.  Most individual hardship arguments are personal, immaterial to the house so much as the owner's financial condition.

While I think there should be revolving funds and other support programs to assist people who can't otherwise afford maintaining a house to historic preservation standards, in my experience, most individual hardship arguments are spurious as well.

The same goes for "economic impact."

The reason that historic preservation guidelines work the way they do is to preserve the great economic value present in the historic district as a whole, a point that Yglesias seems to miss.  The reality is that in most communities with historic district regulations, the historic districts have significantly higher values than comparable undesignated areas.  In fact, historic preservation tends to be the most reliable urban revitalization tool, especially for neighborhoods.

Plus, most of the time, changes in buildings made as a result of "personal freedom" are not made with no impact on others.  Changes that reduce the architectural integrity and other place qualities and values of individual properties can reduce the value of neighboring properties significantly, such as how living next to an empty, foreclosed house has been found to have a negative effect on property value of abutting houses averaging $150,000 per property.  (Research I've seen on the impact of architecturally inappropriate changes shows a property value reduction of around $60,000 for abutting and nearby properties.)

By repositioning the value and identity of neighborhoods around historic preservation, neighborhoods are stabilized and become more competitive in terms of metropolitan residential landscape.

This has been an essential element of the "back to the city" population movement and can't be ignored by cities focused on maintaining the place and economic value of their communities.

The current policy with regard to solar panels, which I think is reasonable, considers addition of solar panels on the front, visible portion of the house to be out of character, and therefore requests for such changes are routinely denied.

Certainly, the images above, showing the same types of houses on the 800 block of Van Buren Street NW, one with solar panels, the others without, demonstrates that there is no question that the building with solar panels looks significantly different.

That being said, dealing with how residential energy generation impacts historic buildings needs to be constantly monitored and considered (even though generally, historically designated houses tend to be far more "sustainable" than non-designated houses), especially if you want historic neighborhoods to remain in demand and (somewhat) flexible as homeowner preferences change.  This was a point made a couple years ago in a Scientific American blog post, "Are old houses doomed? The conflict between historic preservation and energy efficiency."

Given the reality that "traditional solar energy" is still significantly subsidized (and frankly, probably geo-thermal systems make more sense economically, especially for single family detached homes with decent sized yards), it makes sense to not be overly hasty in taking up and approving new types of treatments impacting historic districts, without necessarily waiting for better alternatives.  

The more commonly available technology, the "traditional" solar panel may not be the best choice.  Clearly there are many newer alternatives that appear to be more historically-appropriate than products that are more typically available.  Our focus should be on supporting the historically-appropriate options and not supporting the inappropriate options.

Below left: solar tiles; below right: solar shingles.


Given how this Angie's List article, "Go green, save green with a solar metal roof," describes the installation of a metal roof with solar laminate panels in Louisville, Kentucky (image by Maggie Harmon), clearly the technological developments underway with solar electrical generation are significant and multiple and deserve careful consideration, with a focus on yielding historically-appropriate outcomes that ideally also work for homeowners interested in deploying solar energy applications.

 And I'd like to see Hardie board that works as solar panels (it would be great for west facing side of our house, which gets terrific sun in the afternoons, including in winter).

Another tricky issue by the way is the addition of house-appropriate wind turbines.  This was an issue in Baltimore County when I worked for the Office of Planning there in FY10.  And it is coming up more frequently in New York City.  Washington is a windier city than people realize, and small wind turbines could be worth considering.  They'd be easy to pop on top of office buildings, but maybe more out of place in residential neighborhoods.

Image: Skystream 3.7 residential wind turbine, Atlanta, Georgia, deployed in a neighborhood that is eligible for historic designation.  CityData photo.

Preservation NJ has a good blog post about these issues,"Solar panels & other renewables in historic districts."  

And I think it makes sense for the Historic Preservation Office to have a standing committee, including citizens, to advise the office on sustainability related matters, at the same time recognizing that haste makes waste.

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At 2:52 AM, Blogger Angela Navejas said...

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