guest post: Scott Whipple
Sustainability and historic preservation are at odds, right? Well, not so fast. Here in Montgomery County, and in many places across the country, people are discovering that historic preservation and sustainability goals can and do coexist.
Wednesday night, the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) unanimously approved a proposal to install solar panels on the Sycamore Store, an individually designated County historic site. The HPC found that the installation of the solar panels was consistent with the County’s historic preservation review criteria and appropriate for this historic resource, which had been vacant and is now used as a residence. According to the property owner, the solar panels are expected to provide between a third and half of the building’s electrical load.
National preservation organizations, such as the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, have produced guidance on the installation of solar panels on historic resources. The HPC has adopted solar guidelines that follow similar principles. In short, these guidelines encourage the installation of solar panels in locations with the least impact on a historic resource. This can mean doing a freestanding installation or installing the facility on outbuildings, non-historic additions, or rear-facing roof planes.
In the case of the Sycamore Store, site constraints prevented the installation of freestanding panels. The configuration and orientation of the historic building and its garage precluded the installation of panels on the garage or on the store’s rear- and side-facing roof planes. The HPC agreed with the property owner’s conclusion that the only feasible location for the installation was on the building’s front—southwest facing—roof plane.
Installing solar panels on front-facing roof planes is clearly not the preferred treatment from a historic preservation vantage. But operationally, placing the solar collectors in a readily visible location is sometimes the most effective alternative. The HPC found that in this case the panels, while readily visible, would not damage significant architectural features, alter the store’s importance as an established and familiar visual feature, or detract from its historical and cultural significance.
In the past two years, the HPC has approved six other solar installations, all installed in less visible locations: two free-standing in Brookeville, three on secondary roof planes on houses in Takoma Park and Brookeville, and one on a barn in the Agricultural Reserve.
The demand to decrease our carbon footprint, whether by making use of alternative energy sources or enhancing efficiency of buildings, is only going to increase. A growing number of preservationists are promoting the idea that the greenest building is the one that is already built. The Sycamore Store’s solar installation is just the most recent example of how Montgomery County preservationists are coming together with the perspective that preservation and sustainability can work in concert to breathe new life into historic buildings while slowing climate change.