Greening History

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.