Historic building reuse is greenest of green

There is an impression that old or historic buildings are not energy efficient, however, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the average building constructed prior to 1920 is more energy efficient than one built from 1920 to 2000.Improving the energy efficiency of historic buildings may only require moderate or minimal upgrades. Fewer raw materials need to be manufactured and shipped to upgrade an existing building. There is also less site development, and less demolition and associated waste that will go into landfills.Most buildings can be successfully retrofitted within a reasonable budget without destroying their historic character.If the building is eligible, there are a number of tax credits, grants and other rebates that may help offset rehabilitation costs.Historic preservation incentives are typically found in the form of tax credits. The historic preservation tax credit is a federal program administered through the National Parks Service (nps.gov/history/hps/tps/tax/index.htm).Current tax incentives for preservation include a 20 percent tax credit for the rehabilitation of certified historic structures and a 10 percent tax credit for the rehabilitation of non-historic, non-residential buildings built before 1936.Since these credits are only usable in the form of reduced taxes to the property owner once the project is complete, the initial financing of a project is often the largest roadblock to beginning construction.Many state preservation agencies have grants for the rehabilitation of historic buildings.In New Hampshire, both the state Division of Historical Resources (nh.gov/nhdhr) and the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance (nhpreservation.org) have grants and information regarding financial resources.To ensure that the building rehabilitation is financially viable, the building owner must ascertain several important factors: the cost to complete the project, the financial incentives available, the payback period and an analysis of the future earning potential of the property.The ultimate design of the renovation will impact costs so the sooner the team of designers, consultants and builders can be brought together, the better the process will go.The costs must be clearly delineated between improvements to the existing building, additions and site work. Only the portion of work associated with the existing structure is eligible for the tax incentives.Making the most of your assetHistoric preservation is an economic engine that provides more jobs and uses more local labor on average than new construction. Preservation projects are inherently green by recognizing the embodied energy in the existing building by not using new building materials. Existing infrastructure is re-utilized and the cost to municipalities is generally less, since services like sewer, water and power are already brought to the building.The project will also have a limited impact on the environment and lower site costs by not requiring the development of an untouched green or open space.The end result is likely to be more valuable as a completed project compared to a similar new building due to historic character, location and green emphasis.There are myriad ways in which the reuse of a historic building makes sense. By using a location with an established infrastructure and existing connections to municipal services, transportation and community, the project may have a cost advantage over new construction of the same type.A resource that has been in place for years also ties into the culture and social networks of a specific place.By developing a resource that is already built, you are working sustainably to take advantage of the embodied energy of a building. You avoid demolition and landfill impacts, and preserve materials and detailing that may no longer be possible to achieve with modern products.While the process and financing options for historic projects are different, they are not necessarily more complex than other financial requirements for large capitol building projects.With the proper project team in place early, unforeseen impacts will be minimized, the preservation community and the local communities will be heard, and the project will very likely end up a beautiful, green, efficient property that will be used and appreciated for generations to come.Paul Wyncoop is a construction project manager at Bread Loaf Corp., Middlebury, Vt., and an accredited professional of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, or LEED, program.