Don’t Know Much About Historic Buildings….
Who’s more surprising as a landlord starting a green makeover: the Henry Street Settlement, a Manhattan nonprofit that serves the Lower East Side out of rowhouses that opened 170 years ago? Or anyone who built something after 1980?
The answer is subtler than you think. Henry Street- one of the oldest social-service agencies in the nation, with a history that spans America’s immigration story- announced this week that its headquarters will be the first green landmarked site in New York City. The organization hopes “with modest investment” to cut its energy use by 25 percent. This is laudable- but not because old buildings are inherently hard to tune.
Many old buildings, constructed by artisans, have what engineers call “good bones”- strong walls, solid foundations. But many also lack up-to-date management systems -and many simply leak. (Andy Padian, an energy sleuth who now helps finance energy-retrofit loans for apartment buildings at the Community Preservation Corporation, likes to show one building he audited in recent years that was plowing a lot of wasted heat into a dumbwaiter shaft.) It’s usually politics that make an update of heating systems and air-conditioning especially slow. Preservationists hover, contractors sometimes shy away from the detail work, and aggravating conditions may lie underground. (Sometimes there are even bones.) So it can be a struggle to change the color of the awning on a historic building, especially one with landmark protections.
Henry Street’s accomplishment is that it partnered with the genteel Municipal Art Society, which got its start trying to preserve Pennsylvania Station, to spin its retrofit as an experiment. With the Society as sponsor, the organization can count on quiescence from the preservationist crowd. And with this political cover, it’s getting pro bono services from a leading engineering firm and planning a splashy design workshop.
For all of us who don’t live or work in buildings with landmark protections, what lessons will this process yield? Mainly that the buildings we already have should be the the buildings that carry us into an era when we pay for carbon. So we dance around an important possibility when we treat old buildings as curiosities or sideshows. (This is also true of how we treat old people, but that’s another issue.) The hype is that it’s splashy when people who run a 100-year-old building can retrofit it.
The truth is that as the landmarks get new systems, the professionals who fix buildings should learn new tricks. We’re out of time for the minor carbon reductions – slightly cleaner manufacturing, slightly higher reuse rates- that companies tout as progress. Once the landmark tenements cut a quarter of their energy use, what are we going to do with the McMansions?
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