Solar installer by Greens MPs licensed under Creative Commons.

DC's Historic Preservation Office has a new, proposed guide for homeowners who want to make their buildings more environmentally friendly. Environmentalists may not be so pleased, though, with the way the guidelines still prioritize keeping buildings looking the same over enabling green features.

This is one reason we're pushing for reform in the historic preservation process. Sign our petition!

Some guidelines in the document are very good. For instance, they encourage property owners to keep trees and not pave over everything in sight. Page 47:

1. Identify and preserve existing inherently sustainable features such permeable paving and surfaces and mature trees that block harsh sun or serve as a wind break.

8. Avoid paving up to the building foundation with impermeable surfaces as this can increase building temperature, cause damage to the foundation, and trap moisture. Instead use permeable paving materials.

Solar panels should to be invisible, the guide says

But what if you have a sloped roof and want to put solar panels on it? Under the guidelines, the answer seems to be no, if they would be visible from the street. On page 53:

1. Locate solar installations so that they are not visible from the public street view.

4. Consider placing solar systems on a secondary building or rear addition where they may have less impact than on the primary roof.

[For buildings with flat roofs:] 8. Place solar panels at a low angle to reduce their potential for visibility from public street view; the more horizontal the orientation, the less visible it will be.

[For buildings with sloped roofs:] 11. Locate solar installations on a rear roof slope.

12. Set solar panels away from roof edges and ridges to minimize visibility.

That means anyone with a house facing south, east, or west may be largely out of luck and can't contribute to reducing humanity's carbon footprint. Or, by making the panels flatter or changing which roof they're on, they will be much less effective. But at least the buildings will look historic.

Solar panels have often been a point of question in historic debates. The American Geophysical Union is making its building “net zero” with, in part, a large solar array on the roof. The preservation board initially rejected the proposal as too prominent, and one former board member called it “not appropriate for Dupont Circle.” The board approved a revised version with some changes.

Here are some accounts from residents about dealing with preservation and solar panels. Since almost 20% of DC buildings are already protected by historic preservation and more keep being added, guidelines like these have a weighty effect on important other priorities, like sustainability.

This is probably invisible from the street so okay under the rules. Green Roof at Human Rights Campaign by S. Davis licensed under Creative Commons.

No visible green roofs or rain cisterns either?

Other parts of the guide similarly say that green roofs or stormwater collection features should be invisible. It says to “install cool or green roofs on a flat roof or secondary roof slope to limit visibility from the street” (page 32), and on rainwater, “Above ground rainwater collectors should be placed in unobtrusive locations, tucked in a corner or in a rear yard not visible from the public right of way.” (page 47)

The guidelines aren't absolutely clear. For instance, one provision says, “Provide appropriate screening for visible rain barrels or collectors if visibility is unavoidable and if the appearance is incompatible with the character of the building or its surroundings.” So are visible rain barrels okay or not?

Vagueness is common in documents created by the preservation office, as we've discussed before. Whereas lawmakers and zoning crafters try to write clear rules which definitively say one thing is acceptable and another is not, HPO instead simply makes a lot of suggestions, some good, some less so. If you don't accept them, will the preservation office let you build or not? Who really knows?

Preservation still admits nothing might be more important than itself

My bigger quibble with this document is that it's an 86-page set of tips for a homeowner or developer, but not a set of tips about guiding HPRB members. It doesn't tell HPRB that some things ought to be approved because of the importance of sustainability.

The preservation process is almost entirely discretionary. HPO has widespread power to tell property owners what is okay and what's not. Often they wield that benevolently, not being too particular and not making it too hard for people to adapt their homes to their needs, but that's almost entirely due to their forebearance. No written rule says they have to let people make a certain kind of change or not, in most cases.

This document follows in that vein. HPO is gently helping homeowners know how to design something that will get the nod from the all-powerful hand of the preservation office; it's not a serious discussion from preservationists about when they should step aside a bit and prioritize some need other than preserving buildings as they are.

Environmental sustainability is actually very much about preservation, of the planet. If we don't preserve the Earth, it's meaningless to preserve some buildings. If sea level rise floods Washington, it won't much matter if the roof of a building looks as free of solar panels or vegetation as it did 50 or 100 years ago.

DC should say that sustainability is a critical priority. As such, solar panels and green roofs and stormwater collection should be permitted, period. Sure, the preservation office can work with homeowners on ways to screen rain barrels and encourage lower vegetation on a green roof that's less obtrusive, but there should also be a clear guideline saying that they're to be allowed. Solar should just be allowed, period.

Preservation already doesn't apply to some things; you can install storm windows, gutters, downspouts, curtains, and anything that's not “permanent” without historic review (in most of those cases without permit review at all). HPO could declare solar panels to be part of this list, but these guidelines don't do that.

Sign the petition for preservation reform!

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.