Greening the painted ladies

Ashevilleans go gaga over historic architecture and get their geek on when the subject is green technology. But historic homes are notorious energy wasters, and those located in national historic districts like Montford are restricted by national and local guidelines drawn up to ensure architectural conformance to the era in which they were built.

The sun also rises: Michael McDonough stands outside the Montford home he built that includes solar panels for hot water. Photo by Jonathan Welch

The inherent conflict between these enthusiasms has sparked a recent discussion among Montford residents regarding solar technology. The concept of solar power may have roots in the 1800s, but at the turn of the 20th century, when most homes in Montford were built, the technology certainly didn't come standard. And the general rule guiding the preservation of the neighborhood, as enforced by the city's Historic Resources Commission, is to keep things looking as close as possible to that bygone era. Now, neighbors are looking for a little more flexibility from the HRC.

The issue picked up steam a little more than a year ago, about the time Asheville Council Member Brownie Newman built a new home in the neighborhood with the intention of installing solar collectors for hot water. New homes also have to comply with historic guidelines, and the HRC has maintained that any panels must be hidden from view. But Newman pointed to a 2007 federal Solar Access law that prohibits cities from disallowing solar panels altogether.

The current language of the HRC guidelines, which are applied by the commission on a case-by-case basis, states that solar panels "shall be located and installed so that they do not damage or diminish the historic character of the building, site or district."

And although the federal law does allow for restricting placement of solar panels visible from the street, Newman's installation was approved.

Shortly thereafter, the Montford Neighborhood Association began meeting to discuss suggested changes to HRC guidelines, including a broader allowance for solar panels.

"We thought the section [of the HRC guidelines] on renewable energy could stand to be expanded," says Travis Lowe, liaison in the discussions between the MNA and the HRC. "There was only one paragraph on them, but it seemed pretty restrictive."

In MNA's view, the HRC should not prohibit visible solar panels if there is no other placement option. That's frequently the case in a neighborhood where tree removal is also tightly restricted, limiting sunlit areas.

Meanwhile, city staffers linked to the HRC are currently in the process of drafting new language addressing solar technology, but HRC Director Stacy Mertin says it is reinforcing the policy that panels not be visible from the street or common areas. "It's not that we don't care what the Montford people think," she says. "But the new language is being written based on state law." Rather than relaxing or tightening the rules, Mertin says the revised language will clarify the HRC's position further.

Amy Musser, of VandeMusser Design, a home energy-efficiency consultancy in Asheville, says she would like to see the rigidity of the guidelines change.

"I wish the HRC could recognize that Asheville is a very progressive community," she said. "Most people won't see solar panels and say 'What an ugly shame!'"

Still, Musser, who has worked with several historic homes in the region, says there are plenty of steps that can be taken prior to choosing solar that will increase the efficiency of a home. Paying attention to insulation deficiencies in houses, including between floors, makes a big difference. "Getting it all closed in and insulated is the first step," she says. And alternative energy sources, like pumps that draw heat from the ground or use the house's own warmth to heat water can save money and energy comparable to solar panels and come with state or federal tax credits to boot.

"Most historic homes have little or no insulation, drafty single-pane windows, fireplaces that pull more air in than [throw] heat," says architect Michael McDonough. His Montford district home, itself new construction, has enough built-in green elements to have been featured in Fine Home Building magazine as an example of blending historic design with efficient living. It also uses solar panels for hot water, but McDonough aimed them away from the road and is one Montford resident that supports restrictions keeping solar panels in the district inconspicuous.

Nevertheless, Lowe notes that technological advances mean solar panels will continue to get less and less obtrusive, and that the HRC rules need to have the flexibility to allow for things like panels that fit onto roofs like shingles.

"Renewable energy is changing all the time," he says.

Windows were also a big topic at the MNA discussions. The single-pane, double-hung historic windows may be drafty, Lowe explains, but they are also protected against replacement by national Historic Register guidelines. And there wasn't enough support even within the neighborhood association to allow for pulling old windows.

"Windows was a big sticking point," Lowe says. "A lot of people didn't get what they wanted." That leaves the use of storm windows and weather stripping as the likely options for reducing energy transference.

Besides, says Musser, replacement windows are expensive and take a while to pay off in energy savings.

And despite their leaky reputations, the HRC draft guidelines stress that historic homes were positioned to take maximum advantage of light sources and shade tress and are typically in areas that encourage walking. And, highlights city staff preservationist Cristin Moody, moving into a historic home is already a sustainable move. "We look at is as recycling," she says.

Still, the conversation continues, with Mertin planning to bring revised Montford guidelines to the HRC in December for a vote, with a presentation to Montford in January. Updates to the rules governing Asheville's other historic districts will likely follow, she said.

Brian Postelle can be reached at 251-1333 ext. 153 or bpostelle@mountainx.com

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One thought on “Greening the painted ladies

  1. ginny daley

    Historic Preservation and green technology do not have to be mutually exclusive, in fact the two fields share some of their core ideologies.

    Two articles recently published in the National Trusts’ Forum magazine focus on how green technology can be implemented successfully into local historic district guildelines:

    ADAPTING HISTORIC DISTRIC GUIDELINES FOR SOLAR AND OTHER GREEN TECHNOLOGIES by Kimberly Kooles gives an overview of current issues including solar access laws and best practices for green historic guidelines.

    GOING GREEN: APPLYING A SUSTAINABILITY LENS TO HISTORIC DISTRICT GUIDELINES by Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll focuses on historic district guidelines that embrace green technologies recently drafted by the town of Davidson, NC.

    If anyone would like copies of these articles, just e-mail your request to the Preservation Society of Asheville & Buncombe County at info@psabc.org.

    The National Trust for Historic Preservation has also just launched a new online weatherization guide for historic homes which is available at http://www.preservationnation.org/issues/weatherization/

    These resources can provide insights on how to be green & historic at the same time!

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