Yes, we should give a better future to our past. I’m talking about the architectural and cultural value of our buildings, we have the duty to preserve and transfer it to the generations that will come after us. I used in the title a quote by Loredana Bruma, an architect who is carrying out as president of the Rhabillage Association a lot of important activities to create awareness of the risks involved in the loss of architectural heritage in Bucharest. Furthermore she has coordinated RePAD, the first guide in Romania to approach the heritage in all its complexity.
The conservation and renovation of historic properties is an important part of a sustainable, smart growth approach. The renovation of an historic property is often a starting point and anchor for the redevelopment of a block, street, or district. An historic building or district can be a tangible symbol of a community’s interest in honouring its heritage, valuing its character and sense of place, getting the most out of prior investments in infrastructure and development, and encouraging growth in already-developed areas. Rehabilitating historic properties can also be a critical part of promoting energy efficiency by preserving the energy already represented by existing buildings (known as ‘embodied energy’), rather than expending additional energy for new construction.
It is estimated that a new, green, energy-efficient office building that includes as much as 40 percent recycled materials would nevertheless take approximately 65 years to recover the energy lost in demolishing a comparable existing building. Furthermore, repurposing old buildings—particularly those that are vacant—reduces the need for construction of new buildings and the consumption of land, energy, materials, and financial resources that they require [US Environmental Protection Agency]. Cultural heritage (‘national heritage’ or just ‘heritage’) is the legacy of physical artefacts (cultural property) and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations. The deliberate act of keeping cultural heritage from the present for the future is known as preservation (American English) or conservation (British English).
EPBD, the European Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, establishes that member States may decide not to set or apply the requirements referred to [from 1 January 2014, 3 % of the total floor area of heated and/or cooled public buildings is renovated each year to meet at least the minimum energy performance requirements of Directive 2010/31/EU] to buildings officially protected as part of a designated environment, or because of their special architectural or historical merit, in so far as compliance with certain minimum energy performance requirements would unacceptably alter their character or appearance. But at the same time we perfectly know that improving energy efficiency in the historical heritage is an urgent and topical issue, now undervalued by the legislation, which tends to act more incisively on new constructions.
Recent studies (Eurostat, 2009) have shown that act by imposing limits on consumption only to new buildings is not enough to achieve these goals. The intervention to improve the efficiency of existing homes, most clearly in the case of goods identified as belonging to the cultural heritage, always poses a fundamental question linked to the risks of a transformation that could lead to a decrease in the value of the building.So, what to do? Sustainability and energy efficiency against heritage conservation? The issue is complex, there are several research and development ongoing projects that are studying technological solutions as well as defining a methodological approach. The project 3ENCULT coordinated by EURAC Research (Institute for Renewable Energy) for example bridges the gap between conservation of historic buildings and climate protection, which is not an antagonism at all: historic buildings will only survive if maintained as living space. Energy efficient retrofit is useful for structural protection as well as for comfort reasons, like comfort for users and ‘comfort’ for heritage collections. 3ENCULT will demonstrate the feasibility of a considerable reduction in energy demand, depending on the case and the heritage value.
In other words, is sustainability in historic buildings possible? Yes, if we read the third cornerstone of sustainability (see the Brundtland definition), the protection of the social aspects of life in buildings, also as ‘related to the life of the buildings’ because the culture related to the preservation of historic buildings is a social must. For this reason GBC Italia has started in 2012 a project for the development of a standard that would take account of this. Paola Boarin, of the Faculty of Architecture of Ferrara is leading with perseverance the development of GBC Historic Building, a voluntary certification protocol of the level of sustainability of conservation, rehabilitation, recovery and integration works on historic buildings with different uses. A short version and the checklist of the protocol are actually available for consultation, while the long version of the handbook will be completed within the first half of this year, also thanks to the work of about 60 professionals (volunteers) and the valuable contributions of the case studies; the process of certification for historic buildings will then begin.
Considering only the aspects of management and operation of historic buildings, also the LEED EB:O&M (LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance) standard can be used. It’s the case of Ca’ Foscari, the University of Venice headquarter, a Venetian Gothic palazzo built in 1453 and overlooking the Grand Canal. It’s the oldest LEED certified building in the world, thus overtaking the Empire State Building. Water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, sustainable sites, these are the sustainability areas assessed and improved during the certification process. Not considering the installation of new heat generators with high efficiency and the optimization of centralized HVAC control systems (available in free loan from the general contractor) the ROI (return on investments) is very good: about 18 months. Assuming stable energy prices, carried out works will lead to estimated average savings of € 23,400/year (13.5% out of total annual costs (electricity + gas) of about € 173,000) [Source: Habitech].