It is said the greenest house is the one never built. Hardly practical for those looking to buy a home, but the second-best option is finding one that's already built. For properties in historic districts, however, buildings must adhere to the city's Historic District Landmarks Commission (HDLC) guidelines. The HDLC acknowledges its first rule of thumb is to keep the historic integrity of a building intact. But what about properties with several decades of wear and tear — leaking cold air and absorbing heat, leaving massive carbon footprints? No problem, says HDLC director Elliott Perkins. Though they may be old, New Orleans buildings can have their cake and it eat, too.
"Our guidelines don't dictate increasing energy efficiency," he says. "That being said, there are a number of ways of achieving energy efficiency. We certainly advise insulating. But where we come into it is we are more concerned with doing things that are in the long-range interest of the building. When you start insulating historic buildings and air conditioning them, if you do it wrong, you end up with some real problems. We're explaining to the public the proper ways of (maintaining) a historic building."
Those guidelines — posted for each historic district from Algiers Point to Esplanade Ridge — are being redrafted and can be viewed at http://groups.google.com/group/hdlcguidelines. They'll be submitted to the City Council in January.
"We're trying to make them easier to understand, more user-friendly, better illustrated, and not just to be a rulebook, but to teach people about the value of their houses so they can better understand it and maintain it," Perkins says. That includes green building and restoration, which he says "is the right thing to do.
"But the trick is making sure when changes are being made, it's really in the interest of the building ... and really just trying to teach people the right (ways) of doing it so they don't screw up," he says.
Old windows leaking cold air don't need to be replaced from scratch. The footprint of a new window, from manufacturing to shipping, won't be worth the price or energy costs over its lifespan, Perkins says, adding that leaking windows account for about 10 percent of a home's energy loss. First, he says, a home's attic and windows must be insulated, then all a window needs is proper maintenance. Even a simple layer of Visqueen can act as "sort of a cushioned, intermediate temperature zone," Perkins says.
"There's nothing inherently inefficient about a window. It's just that generally they're poorly maintained and not weather-stripped at all," he says. "With a little bit of love and a little bit of elbow grease, you can a have a window that, first of all, is the window you have — you don't have to buy a new one — and if a piece of it has to go, you can replace it without [buying a] whole window. We're trying to educate people in the inherent value in what they have."
Even more advanced, greener additions to a home, like solar paneling, can work into the HDLC's guidelines. New Orleans roofs traditionally are black or dark gray, which attracts heat into the home and overworks air-conditioning units. Perkins recommends "solar" shingles and galvanized roofs that deflect heat rather than absorb it. Perkins also recommends thin-film solar strips for some roofs, though any solar installations have to be hidden from street view.
"So even in the most important (historic) buildings, we probably have a solution that works, and we definitely advocate for it," he says.
The HDLC guidelines for maintenance and roofing also are available on its website.
Patricia Gay, executive director of the Preservation Resource Center (PRC), says if one looks at energy efficiency holistically in considering the environment, homeowners in historic communities are doing their part just by filling existing neighborhoods and avoiding suburban sprawl.
"Our most important work, when it comes to the environment, is saving historic buildings and filling up our neighborhoods the way they used to be," Gay says.
The PRC partners with Rebuilding Together New Orleans and its Deconstruction and Salvage Program to repair New Orleans homes and salvage useable materials from older, deconstructed properties. The center's Salvage Store serves as a home base for those materials; instead of homeowners buying new stuff, they can find replacements and make repairs as a low-cost, greener alternative.
"What it comes down to is, how energy efficient is a house?" she says. Landfills gather construction materials, resources like trees disappear to be used for construction, and new materials like solar panels and efficient water heaters are factory made. Right off the bat, a new home already has a footprint. Gay agrees with Perkins that despite restrictions in building codes and historic guidelines, everything needed to build green is available without starting from scratch.
"Just by living in an old neighborhood close to where you work and your grocery store, you're doing something for the environment," she says.