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Heritage Architecture and Sustainable Development
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My research as the 2009 Richard Morris Hunt Fellow built on my professional experience in sustainable stewardship at Quinn Evans Architects and focused on the intersection of heritage architecture and sustainable development in France. The future of historic preservation goes beyond saving old buildings from demolition. It requires us to consider preservation solutions in the context of the global environmental crisis.

Two questions were at the center of my inquiry:

1.   How are the challenges of climate change affecting our assumptions regarding existing building stock?

2.   How is the fervor of the sustainable design movement affecting the work of architects specializing in preserving historic building stock for future generations?

The six-month fellowship offered a broad perspective from roughly 100 preservation professionals in least 30 cities across France. Several concepts stand out.

The Importance of Ambitious Targets

The preservation world in France and the U.S. both started with ambitious targets: to identify the most significant buildings to each nation. From there, the lists of protected heritage have grown exponentially, to the point where in some French cities, such as Paris or the southwestern city of Bayonne, almost every building is subject to historic design review. This is due to historic listing, as well as the 500-meter (1,650 feet) radius rule that was instituted in 1943.

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La Tour Lopez in Paris is an example of how vulnerable mid-century modern architecture is. The original skin of La Tour Lopez included paneling designed by Jean Prouvé (right). The paneling was thin and did not provide good light or thermal protection for the occupants. Renovated in 2009-2010, the building is now clad with a double-skin, fully glazed curtain wall system that will allow natural ventilation, without replicating the rhythms of the Prouvé facades (above). The redevelopment project was subject to historic design review under the "abords" law and received a demarche HQE.

To address climate change, ambitious targets are similarly important. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol established binding targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in 37 industrialized countries and the European community. While both the U.S. and France are signators to the Kyoto Protocol, the U.S. Congress never ratified it. As a result, in the 21 years between 1990 (the base year) and 2011, the United States increased its greenhouse gas emissions by almost 8 percent, while France and other European countries have reduced theirs significantly: France by 12.2 percent and Germany by 26.7 percent according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change website.

Current environmental protection targets in France are highly ambitious. In 2005 France mandated the reduction of carbon emissions by a factor of 4 by the year 2050 (75 percent reduction) and to generate 23 percent of electricity from renewable sources (wind, solar, hydro power, biomass) by the year 2020. In 2009-2010, new targets for buildings were established during national discussions held in the city of Grenelle and implemented with the 2012 Réglementation Thérmiques (Energy Codes). New buildings must be designed to consume 50 kilowatt-hours per square meter per year (50 kwh/m2/year, or 16 kBtu/sf/year). The City of Paris added energy usage intensity requirements for renovation projects: 80 Kwh/m2/year (25 kBtu/sf/year).

To attain these targets is technically challenging even in new construction. For comparison, know that the average office building in the U.S. consumes 236 kwh/m2/year (75 kBtu/sf/year) and recent zero net energy projects in the U.S. are achieving between 80 and 110 kwh/m2/year (25 and 35 kBtu/sf/year).

Building codes in France are often more lenient with historic buildings, which are perceived to be more difficult to retrofit to meet new standards. Grenelle specifically excludes historic monuments, but the everyday heritage of traditional or vernacular architecture is affected as this law gets implemented through the building codes. In 2010-2011, the City of Bayonne commissioned an energy efficiency study on a typical building in its historic center. The study...

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