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Greening History

2009 August 11

I’ve been excited lately to see two of my passions – green building and American history – coming together. Several of our nation’s major historical sites are starting to incorporate green techniques in their visitors’ centers and sometimes even in their historic restorations. Such meaningful bridges between past and future are being built at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s architectural masterpiece in central Virginia, and at President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldier’s Home, a newly restored site in Washington, DC.

The caretakers of Monticello made the wise move of honoring the cutting-edge architect of the 18th century with the cutting edge architectural development of our time. As Daniel P. Jordan, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation put it: “Sustainable design is a Jeffersonian concept.” Indeed – it’s based on a lot of concepts that just make sense – saving energy, water and materials; building healthy spaces; reducing the pollution and environmental impact of how we build and live.

The green features of the newly-built Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center and Smith Education Center include:

  • a geothermal heating and cooling system, which uses the relatively stable temperature of the ground to provide more efficient heating and cooling;
  • two “green” or vegetated roofs, a more natural solution to help insulate roofs, and reduce stormwater runoff and the “heat island” effect;
  • recycling nearly four-fifths of the project’s construction debris; and
  • a variety of water conservation and stormwater runoff reduction techniques.

At the Lincoln Cottage, the National Trust for Historic Preservation successfully pulled off an even more amazing feat, greening a 104-year-old historic building! The Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center was the first National Trust Historic site structure to qualify for the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard. Helped by a $1 million grant from United Technologies Corporation, this building’s green features include:

  • a computerized building management system that adjusts the mechanical systems based on occupancy and climatic conditions;
  • green cleaning and housekeeping practices; and
  • an energy recovery unit, which recaptures energy in exhaust air to pre-condition incoming air, thereby increasing ventilation without using more energy.

It’s important to view history not as dead and gone, but as something we participate in every day and continue to shape. That’s precisely what happening at these historical sites, where we honor great leaders of the past while doing a favor to the future too.

There’s more information available on Monticello’s green visitor’s center and on the Lincoln Cottage.

About the author: Ken Sandler is Co-Chair of EPA’s Green Building Workgroup. He has worked for EPA since 1991 on sustainability issues including green building, recycling and indoor air quality.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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3 Responses leave one →
  1. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    August 12, 2009

    Making historic sites more energy efficient and environmentally friendly is something I never knew was possible until now. I didn’t know you could do those things without having to change the historic building to such an extent that it would lose its historical significance, so this is great and sounds like its cutting edge. I know some of the things mentioned like the green roof and the recycling air conditioning exhaust to help cool a building and save power are being done today on newer buildings. Several months ago The Orange County Solid Waste Management District opened a new administrative building at the south Orange County landfill that does have a green roof, is powered from the landfill gas, and uses recycled water for all the landscaping. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  2. ChaseR permalink
    September 2, 2009

    It was a pleasure to read Greening History and see that the EPA is furthering information regarding Monticello and Lincoln’s Cottage. You may also be interested in a NYC Landmark, the Schermerhorn Building which is now home to the Audubon Society. It became the 1st green building in NYC.

    I have a Greek Revival farmhouse from the anti rent war period. When I bought it contractors were always advising me to level it (tear it down.) After years of experience I realized that was what most people do. Something that never entered my mind. On the property was also an incredibly magnificent Round Barn. A 72 ft. diameter, three story high hemlock structure circa 1900.

    There is a lot of history inside these buildings, big or small. Like they say “if the walls could talk,” fortunately some of these old elephants find people to talk for them.

    Michael Bailey, you may want to become a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. They are an unlimited resource. If you can obtain their magazine July/August issue and read Richard Moe’s president’s note, also May/June issue

  3. Jack Liebenthal permalink
    October 3, 2009

    This is good work. As one interested in light pollution, which should be a greater priority in EPA, I recommend that you look at the historically accurate lighting program in Yellowstone National Park. It has recreated historic lights and made them all non-light polluting. Its goals would be good to incorporate into your program and to help spread the awareness of this issue further into EPA. A good contact would be Chad Moore of the NPS is a good contact

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