From the energy crises in the 1970s to the recent concerns in the past decade about community livability and climate resilience, the ACHP has consistently championed historic preservation as a key component of environmental sustainability. This has included arguing for special consideration for historic properties in the application of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environment Design) standards promulgated by the U.S. Green Building Council, which had largely overlooked or underplayed the role of historic resources in sustainability.
While the federal government, especially the General Services Administration as the government’s landlord, did get involved more generally in these programs as well as consumer and government energy savings activities through the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, the preservation role was minor. The Arab oil embargo and America’s resulting energy crisis in the 1970s sparked intense interest in energy conservation. Consequently, the ACHP issued a report, “Assessing the Energy Conservation Benefits of Historic Preservation: Methods and Examples” (1979), which documented that rehabilitation of historic buildings could produce significant energy conservation benefits. An initial ground-breaking Programmatic Agreement with the Department of Energy for its weatherization grants programs was completed in the 1980s so that the Department and applicants could ensure sensitive application of weatherization treatments for historic properties.
While many historic buildings are inherently “green” in their materials and construction, and can have their energy efficiency maximized by sensitive retrofitting, federal agencies managing such properties have often had to struggle to “sell” that idea to leaders and managers. Public reinvestment in historic districts and communities promotes reuse of existing infrastructure and supports areas that generally are walkable and have good transit access options. In 1996 the ACHP participated in interagency efforts that resulted in issuance of Executive Order 13006, “Locating Federal Facilities on Historic Properties in Our Nation’s Central Cities.”
The National Trust for Historic Preservation founded its Preservation Green Lab in 2009 to conduct research and promote the idea that the “greenest building” was one already built and often of historic significance. This concept built on ideas articulated in the ACHP’s original 1979 study. Shortly thereafter, with energy efficiency and the economy once again key federal concerns, as part of the financial crisis of 2008 funding was made available for additional energy efficiency and conservation block grants, weatherization programs, and state energy plans through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The ACHP developed a prototype Programmatic Agreement to provide for timely and efficient review of such projects through State Historic Preservation Offices, and in 2013 issued a broader program comment on the entire set of weatherization assistance programs. The ACHP also created a Task Force on Sustainability and Historic Preservation in 2010 to address issues of energy conservation and community livability.
In 2011, the ACHP issued “Sustainability and Historic Federal Buildings- Integrating the Requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act with the Requirements of Executive Order 13514: Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance.” The ACHP also participated in an interagency working group to suggest changes to the Guiding Principles for Sustainable Federal Buildings used by federal agencies when constructing or rehabilitating buildings. The revised principles include references to historic buildings in line with recommendations from the ACHP.
Related to sustainability are the issues of climate adaptation and resilience. As required by Executive Order 13514, “Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance,” the ACHP created a Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan in 2010 and adopted a policy statement on climate change and historic properties.
In 2013, Executive Order 13653, “Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change,” created the interagency Council on Climate Preparedness and Resilience (CCPR). The ACHP became a member of the CCPR in 2014, and worked to help ensure that cultural resources were addressed in the CCPR’s guidance and policy development. The work of the ACHP’s Task Force was shifted to a Sustainability Subcommittee of the ACHP’s Preservation Initiatives Committee. The ACHP staff and the subcommittee continue to track developments and look for opportunities to promote historic preservation within the context of sustainability and climate change.