Historic Preservation

Sustainability and Historic Preservation

Preservation keeps our nation’s history and culture alive as we continue to learn much from the methods and practices of those who came before us.

Historic Preservation is an inherently sustainable practice. The repair and retrofitting of existing and historic buildings is considered to be the ultimate recycling project. Preservation maximizes the use of existing materials and infrastructure, reduces waste, and preserves the historic character of older neighborhoods.

Some of the historic buildings were traditionally designed with many sustainable features that responded to climate and site of a particular location. Traditional materials are generally durable, the continued maintenance of historic buildings and features relies on local craftsmen rather than replacement parts, and these structures generally make up the heart of our towns and cities. When effectively restored and reused, these features can promote substantial energy savings. Taking into account historic buildings’ original climatic adaptations, today’s technologies can improve building performance without compromising unique historic character.

Explore example strategies for sustainable upgrades for Historic Buildings and Structures:

  • This section provides best practices in approaching preservation, rehabilitation, restoration and reconstruction or historic properties.

    An integrative approach to planning is key when it comes to Historic Preservation. This means that you should consult with all parties involved, building owners, occupants, etc., and determine the most appropriate upgrades before any actual work begins. Consider these guidelines when beginning your project:

    • Form an integrated sustainability team when working on a large project. Include a preservation professional to ensure that the character and integrity of the historic building is maintained during any upgrades
    • Before planning any changes, make sure to analyze any of the existing sustainable features such as shutters, storm windows, awnings, porches, vents, roof monitors, skylights, light wells, transoms and naturally-lit corridors.
    • When performing an energy or energy modeling, make sure to include all of the above sustainable features
    • Identify possible low impact ways to encourage energy efficiency. Consider solutions such as: fixtures and appliances that conserve resources, energy- efficient lighting or energy-efficient lamps in existing light fixtures, low-flow plumbing fixtures, sensors and timers that control water flow, lighting and temperature.
    • Prioritize improvements based on their invasive impact on the historic building material. You’ll be weighing all improvements against any changes to the historic nature of the building.


    According to the Whole Building Design Guide the major preservation goals include:

    • Update Building Systems Appropriately—Updating building systems in historic structures requires striking a balance between retaining original building features and accommodating new technologies and equipment. Building system updates require creativity to respect the original design and materials while meeting applicable codes and tenant needs.
    • Accommodate Life Safety and Security Needs—The accommodation of new functions, changes in technology, and improved standards of protection provide challenges to the reuse of historic buildings and sites. Designers must address life safety, seismic, and security issues in innovative ways that preserve historic sites, spaces and features.
    • Comply with Accessibility Requirements—Accessibility and historic preservation strategies sometimes conflict with each other. Designers must provide access for persons with disabilities while meeting preservation goals.
    • Maintain your building on regular basis. This will help to preserve historic fabric and maximize efficiency of systems within the building. Consider creating a maintenance log to track your work and log any issues that need to be addressed.Repair and retain any durable building materials
    • Use environmentally friendly cleaning products that are suitable for the historic finishes. Learn more about the dangers of abrasive cleaning.
    • Use low VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) products and treatments such as paints, adhesives and paint removals. Consider Green Seal standard when choosing your products.
  • Windows are a big part of historic character of the building. Maintain original windows on regular basis to ensure their proper function and address any deterioration issues in time.
    • To make windows weather tight consider weather stripping and caulking
    • If necessary and historically correct, install exterior storm windows and panels
    • If old windows need to be replaced make sure to pick compatible energy efficient windows that match the appearance of the building. Pick durable, repairable and recyclable models.
    • When replacing windows pay special attention to size, design, proportion and profile of the existing historic windows
    • Consider a high performance glazing film to reduce solar heat gain. Pick a film without noticeable color to best match historic façade.
    • Maintain existing, reinstall or install new, historically appropriate shutters and awnings.
    • Consider existing delighting options that will contribute to natural light and airflow of the building.

    For more information on Window Repair and Retrofit, visit the Office of Historic Preservation’s site 

  • Weatherization is the practice of protecting a building and its interior from the elements, particularly from sunlight, precipitation, and wind, and of modifying a building to reduce energy consumption and optimize energy efficiency.
    Weatherization is distinct from building insulation. Many types of insulation can be thought of as weatherization, because they block drafts or protect from cold winds. Insulation is a method for slowing the movement of heat. Insulating materials work by trapping air in tiny pockets that restrict it from moving. Heat transfer that would normally be accomplished through natural air movement is slowed down because the air can’t move as freely.

    Insulation primarily reduces conductive heat flow; weatherization primarily reduces convective heat flow.

    • Before you start your project make sure that your construction team has a good understanding of the inherent thermal properties, meaning how good they block out heat and/or cold, of the historic building materials and the actual insulating needs for the specific climate and building type before adding or changing insulation.
    • Develop a weatherization plan based on the results of the energy analysis (for free Energy Audit contact Kim Ketron at SDG&E  or call 800-644-6133)
    • Begin with the least invasive and most cost effective measures such as caulking and weather stripping before taking on more costly and invasive weatherization measures
    • Start with any unfinished spaces such as attics, basements and crawl spaces
    • Avoid any changes to the exterior of the building, which may result in the loss of historic materials and may alter the proportion of the wall to the windows and trim.
    • When removing interior plaster make sure you replace it with plaster or gypsum board to retain the historic character of the interior
    • Reinstall historic trim if it was removed to install insulation
    • For more information on weatherization go to: http://energy.gov/commercial-weatherization
    • If existing heating and cooling system is functional and efficient, work to retain and maintain it.
    • When new HVAC system is necessary consider installing an energy efficient HVAC system that takes into the account whole building performance and retain historic character of the site. Energy Star labeled equipment is a good choice!
    • Supplement the efficiency of HVAC systems with less energy-intensive measures, such as programmable thermostats, attic and ceiling fans, louvers and vents, where appropriate.
    • When installing new equipment make sure that it is placed with minimal visual impact in mind, but where it will operate effectively and efficiently
    • When changing or adding new ductwork consider historic fabric of the building. Leave ductwork exposed or hidden depending on the original design of the space.
    • Work with your HVAC vendor to schedule commissioning and regular maintenance of the system
  • For more information on Historic Preservation please review following resources: