Sustainable Preservation in American Cities

Our common framework for thinking about sustainability entails Triple Bottom Line thinking. Favorable decisions are beneficial to the environment, are equitable and make economic sense. We can argue that the more these properties are fulfilled, the more sustainable the project. The renovation of historic buildings has significant and meaningful overlap with this Triple Bottom Line approach. Reviving an old, underutilized building yields a significant societal benefit not typically accounted for by conventional means.
The environmental benefit of historic renovation is clear. When one takes into account the work, energy and material required to build a new building, it can take 80 years of occupancy to make up the environmental impact of this embodied energy if the building were to be demolished and rebuilt. By contrast, historic buildings already exist, made with materials that have withstood the test of time.

A 2011 study1 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation quantified the environmental impacts of newly constructed buildings compared to that of retrofitted existing buildings in four cities across six building types. “Even if it is assumed that a new building will operate at 30% greater efficiency than an existing building, it can take between 10 and 80 years [depending on climate and building type] for a new, energy efficient building to overcome the climate change impacts that were created during construction,” the study said.
The social equity of building reuse is also tangible. Buildings stand as cultural artifacts. Think of when we travel, we choose to visit old and established buildings, spaces, streets and landmarks. This is partly because they are remnants of a bygone time, but more because they stand as social and cultural artifacts for us, as a reference point, and a link to the past that gives bearing and additional meaning to our own lives in the present.
The economic argument for the revitalization of older buildings can be more spotty, a matter of picking the right battles. Arguably it is often more expensive to renovate a building than to demolish and rebuild a new one. Yet, people are attracted to buildings of charm and character, and this attraction translates into higher rents and value. Rehabilitation of the right buildings can also become a catalyst that leads to the renovation of adjacent buildings to rejuvenate not only buildings, but the fabric that ties these buildings together. We recently spoke with Art Ziegler, President of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation (PHLF) about how the Market at Fifth Project has done just this at Pittsburgh’s Market Square after evolveEA helped the PHLF restore three adjacent buildings from 1904 while achieving LEED Gold status for the project.

Marc Mondor, AIA, LEED Faculty, Principal evolveEA and Art Ziegler, President PHLF

Marc: At the ribbon cutting for the Market at Fifth project you said the previous mayor would have liked to tear down those old buildings in order to build enclosed shopping malls, which I guess may have brought more people into town, but in the long term, from a heritage and conservation perspective and an ecological one, it made more sense to restore existing historical buildings, giving them new life. I know PHLF has been fighting that fight for decades—this project was a case-in-point.
Art: A big mall would not have worked—he tried this in the past, with the Mellon Bank building and the Lazarus building, but the fact is that people who shop downtown like historic buildings, they like the scale and the variety of architecture, and the density of a historic district. It’s worked over and over again, and we see this everywhere—abroad the shopping areas are in historic neighborhoods and also in New York. The Market at Fifth project has set the pace for retail to flourish in the area, in Market Square and along Fifth Avenue and Wood Street.
Marc: So Market at Fifth acted as a catalyst for downtown development?
Art: Yes. The fact is we validated the market. People said it wouldn’t work but it did—the men’s store, Heinz Healy hit its percentage rent over and above base the very first month and has now for almost three years. That excited other retailers who moved into the area. The improvement of Market Square brought in restaurants, which augmented what we did, but in terms of validating the market for quality retail in historic buildings in the heart of the city as well as apartments, the project worked and it is still working very well. We set high standards, which included LEED Certification, and we’ve achieved [our goals].
Marc: So the project is actually exceeding your goals?
Art: We expected to have to subsidize the project…, but we are achieving a net income that we did not expect so quickly and we’re very pleased. All the spaces remain filled.
Marc: It was a real synergy of efforts. When we first came to the table, you know, we brought our own agenda of sustainability goals. What’s intriguing to me is the overlap between the sustainability goals and the historical goals—in most ways they work together very well and in certain ways, priorities need to be established. For example, beautiful bare brick walls don’t perform very well on an energy-saving level.
But let’s talk about the things that we were able to achieve in terms of the Triple Bottom Line. Naturally there is an overlap in terms of social equity—the inherent sense of the charm that you literally cannot build anymore. It was challenging to keep as much of the old building as possible, and the process was intensive—the contractor and design team had to respond to changing conditions almost daily.
Art: In the end, as we say the greenest building is the one that’s [already] there. To knock a building down, bring in trucks to haul it all away and put it in a landfill, and then bring in new bricks and lumber to build something new is hardly a green approach. And, as you said, it is not often that people respond to contemporary buildings in the way they do to historic ones.
Marc: You have to get in front of the curve in seeing what a neighborhood will need—how much of your development goes into determining exactly what the right use is and what people will desire?
Art: We are a grassroots organization—we talk to people who might use the spaces to get a sense of market, we know the city well and that helps, and sometimes we are to some degree playing a hunch but it’s an informed hunch. We know all these people come into downtown to work and that they might like to shop there, we know there are more and more people living downtown, and we know because of Station Square how many buyers a hotel can bring in. We have hotels downtown that are very helpful—based on market analyses we knew the project would work, and it did.
Marc: Are you looking at the big demographic picture?
Art: Downtown we are looking at the new building, the expansion of Point Park University, all those things count and we think that it means we’ll be on an upswing. On Wood Street the historic blocks between Fourth and Fifth we see as a women’s retail area and we are planning for that… We think the customers will continue to come and this will be successful.
The mayor has made downtown preservation with major new construction working harmoniously a priority of his… He’s contracted with us to partner with the URA [Urban Redevelopment Autiority] to manage this work; we have eight buildings being restored right now on Wood Street and the mayor has been a leading light on this, and I don’t know anywhere in the country that has this kind of relationship between the preservation community and the political one and all of us producing such excellent results.

Planning With Perspective

We’ve seen that historical preservation and renewal, like sustainable design, works best when planned with a long-term perspective. The first cost required for renovation may be intimidating. But there is a difference between cost and value. Choices for high value strategies tend to lead to buildings and environments of high value. Just as the establishment of early goals is critical to sustainable design, an allowance for surprises, unforeseen conditions and unexpected opportunities is part of the foresight required for the successful renovation of existing buildings. Sustainability strategies should have an eye towards the life cycle of the buildings in much the same manner as the renovation of historical buildings is best appreciated with a long-term perspective.
American cities big and small are retrofitting historic buildings for better environmental performance, and prominent landmarks like New York’s Empire State and Chrysler Buildings have been making headlines by achieving LEED for Existing Buildings certification. In rust-belt cities like Pittsburgh, reviving old unused buildings creates great new spaces but can even breathe new life into an entire urban district.
In small and mid-sized cities across the US, cornerstone development projects have catalyzed some downtowns, bringing the local economy to pivot towards steady growth after decades of blight and recession. evolveEA helped developers and partners in Dubuque, Iowa bring about this type of change through the greening of the city’s largest downtown building, the historic Roshek department store, earning LEED Platinum certification and national recognition. The project team’s approach combined green building and historic preservation, galvanizing redevelopment in downtown Dubuque.
In Pittsburgh, old warehouses and factory buildings have been sustainably restored and converted into mixed-use complexes, and historic Market Square has become the revitalized center of downtown. Between 2008 and 2010 evolveEA worked with the Pittsburgh Opera to implement sustainable operations and certify its newly renovated historic space, the original Westinghouse Brake Factory (built in 1869). And in the East Liberty area, a Nabisco warehouse that was renovated to LEED standards became a vibrant shopping center and home to Google’s Pittsburgh offices.

Successful investments in downtown areas demonstrate an opportunity for more collaboration between sustainability and historic preservation professional communities. It’s a win-win strategy whether it happens in Dubuque, Iowa, New York City, San Francisco, or Pittsburgh.


1. National Trust for Historic Preservation, January 2012, “The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse.”

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