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Reuse of Historic Buildings to Address Climate Change

By Linda Reeder, AIA, LEED AP

While sustainable design didn’t become a common phrase until the twenty-first century, many sustainable features can be found in historic buildings. These include passive heating and cooling as a result of site orientation and natural ventilation, natural daylight, and use of durable local materials. Reusing existing buildings saves energy by avoiding new construction and diverts demolition waste from landfills. “The greenest building is the one already built,” as Carl Elefante, AIA, says, is a concept embraced by the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP).

The Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center for the President Lincoln and Soldiers’ Home National Monument in Washington, DC is the first NTHP site to seek LEED certification. It opened to the public on Presidents’ Day of 2008 and is expected to receive LEED-NC Silver certification.

The Beaux-Arts building was constructed in 1905 and was previously used as the administrative building for what was called the Old Soldier’s Home (now the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home), a campus of buildings on land bought by the government in 1851 as an “asylum for the old and disabled” veterans. Located on a hillside about three miles from the White House, cottages on the campus were used as summer retreats by four presidents: Chester Arthur, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln.

The renovation and adaptive reuse of the Visitor Education Center designed by RMJM Hillier was done in concert with their restoration of what is now called the Lincoln Cottage, a 34-room gothic revival house built in 1842 and used by Lincoln and his family for three summers during the Civil War. The house was designated a national monument in 2000, with planning for the renovation and restoration beginning soon after.

Although LEED was a relatively new program when planning began, the NTHP studied the possibility of seeking LEED certification for the Visitor Education Center and, with their design and construction team, determined it could be done. Because no LEED system for existing buildings was in place, the project was registered for LEED for New Construction.

The NTHP has been working with the AIA and the U.S. Green Building Council (which develops and administers LEED programs) to encourage preservation as a tool to combat global climate change.

Buildings as a Renewable Resource

In addition to the design features inherent to buildings constructed before the rise of central heating and cooling, reusing existing buildings saves energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding new construction. It also diverts demolition waste from landfills. The NHTP’s Sustainability Initiative has a fact sheet which includes the following data:

    • It takes a lot of energy to construct a building. Constructing a new 50,000 square foot commercial building takes the same energy as driving a car 20,000 miles a year for 730 years.

    • It takes about 65 years for an energy efficient new building to save the amount of energy lost in demolishing an existing building.

    • As a group, buildings constructed before 1920 are more energy efficient than those constructed from 1920 through 1999.


Maintaining and renovating historic structures, instead of building new high performance buildings, can be the more sustainable choice.

Calculating Embodied Energy

The May T. Watts Appreciation Society has posted an Embodied Energy Calculator where users can select a building type and enter the building area to receive an estimate of embodied energy in MBtu. Embodied energy is all the energy used to construct the building, including the manufacture and delivery of components and materials. The same Web site also provides a Demolition Calculator and a Teardown Calculator. A calculator to convert MBtu’s of embodied energy to the more readily understandable measure of gallons of gasoline is also available.


Sophia Lynn, “I’m Over 100—Can I Still Go Green?” in Forum Journal.

Kim A. O’Connell, “New Directions for the Old Retreat” in Preservation, January/February 2008.

National Trust for Historic Preservation, “Our Position on Sustainability.”

James J. Malanaphy III, AIA, “NTHP Sustainable Preservation Coalition: April 2008 Update.”

Reuters, “Abraham Lincoln Goes Green This President’s Day.”

Armed Forces Retirement Home, “History of the U.S. Soldiers’ Home.”


Keywords: Building Performance, Sustainability, Sustainable design knowledge, Historic preservation, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Embodied energy, Lincoln, Article


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