Historical Restoration and Sustainability

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Last week, I had the extreme pleasure of spending a few days on holiday in the City of Victoria, the capitol city of our province of British Columbia.  Victoria is a mid-sized city, with a downtown core that is easily walkable (hooray!) that is easily accessible by public transit (hooray again!).  And most obviously, the history of the place in the form of historical buildings are all around you when you visit. I recommend it, folks.

Besides my enjoyment of the city, the idea of restoration and the energy and resources it takes got me thinking.

In this 21st Century ,which is characterized by a need to ensure the future as well as celebrate the past, how does historical restoration of buildings and the principles of green building and sustainability converge?  What lessons can be found in projects which concerns itself with the past, while also using modern technology and approach to allow that past to be preserved in the future?

Some of the conversation that came out of our recent post, 10 Essentials of Green Cities, had to do with this aspect of the life of a city; it’s growth, and it’s history.  Like the natural world, cities have a life of their own that feed the lives of those who live in them.  Historical sites are rightly treasured for these reasons.  And for centuries, the impulse to preserve history has been a global phenomenon as much as new technologies and new ways of integrating them have been when revitalizing cities to suit modern times.

There is a strange irony at work here, that in preserving the history of buildings which were made in times when industrialization was not even conceived of, or was at most the gleam in the eye, restoration projects are re-thinking those methods which were once viewed as modern, and even progressive.  But, there is a newer definition of ‘progressive’ to consider. And it has something to do with bringing the principles of the past into a future where sites are thought of as much for architecture as they are for the natural environment on which that architecture stands.

Parliament building in Victoria BC.

Buildings make up for a considerable chunk of our carbon footprint as a civilization.  In the light of this, there is a view, and a compelling one, that suggests that the preservation of buildings is the more important pursuit than the design and construction of new buildings.  This is an enormous discussion, with a number of elements that affect the outcome.

But, in the light of this, it seems to me that both pursuits – preservation of the old, and innovation to inform the design of the new –  make sense in our current paradigm. What can be immediately agreed upon is that the consideration of environmental impact in either case is not only a social imperative, it is in keeping with the way that good design seems to dictate, to wit; creating buildings that are easier and less expensive to maintain, to heat, and that are more comfortable.

And from here,  let’s get back to the idea of revising what the term ‘progress’ means when it comes to design and construction.  After all, building techniques and the designs of the past did without the gargantuan power requirements of today.  The use of natural insulation, heating, natural light, and the use of natural airflow were all a part of how buildings were designed in centuries past.  They had to be.

So, maybe there is more to the restoration of buildings when it comes to green building and sustainability that goes beyond creating fewer buildings by maintaining the old. Maybe the past has something to teach us about design, too.

For more information about historical restoration policies in the light of sustainability, check out the National Trust For Historical Preservation, a restoration body founded in the U.S in 1949 after President Harry S. Truman passed legislation to create it.

Also, investigate some of the green restoration projects undertaken by Britain’s National Trust, a body that was established to preserve British historical sites of all kinds, but with a current agenda to preserve that history for future generations in a sustainable way.

And finally, to read more about the relationship between restoration and sustainability, peruse this site about historic preservation and green building.



Above image of Fisgard Lighthouse in Victoria, British Columbia (built in 1860, and still operational today…) courtesy of Brandon GodfreyThe one of the parliament buildings in Victoria – well, I took that one!

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Rob Jones

Rob served as Editor-In-Chief of BuildDirect Blog: Life At Home from 2007-2016. He is a writer, Dad, content strategist, and music fan.