What Use is Preserving a Historic Home if You Haven’t Got A Tolerable Planet to Put it On?

By: Matt Grocoff , Contributing Writer
In: Old House Construction, Home Improvement Tips, Old House Musings, Green Renovations, Technology

Are solar panels appropriate for historic homes?  Wouldn’t it be better to put the panels on the back of the house - behind the tree - so it can’t be seen from the street?  Do the panels look worse than asphalt shingles or vinyl siding?  These were some of the questions I heard during an hour-long hearing where my friend Chris Hewett was the first resident ever seeking permission from the Ann Arbor Historic District Commission to install solar panels on his 120-year old home.

Historic Victorian house in Santa Cruz, CA with thirty-two 215 watt SunPower solar panels

Historic Victorian house in Santa Cruz, CA with thirty-two 215 watt SunPower solar panels

These questions demonstrate the conflict between historic preservation and the urgent need to eliminate the carbon footprint of our homes.

But, the first question our Historic District Commissions should be asking is one posed by Henry David Thoreau, “what’s the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?”

I deeply believe that we must preserve old homes and I am a die-hard supporter of historic districts.   Preserving and restoring historic properties and neighborhoods helps us know who we are and helps revitalize deteriorating communities.  Indeed, it is essential to a sustainable future and a core mission of my show on www.Greenovation.TV.

Existing homes produce a shocking 22% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.  Historic district commissions must understand the urgency of this problem and become an active part of the solution.

But, as the barriers slowly fall for consumers to install renewable energy systems, historic district commissions nationwide are creating bigger hurdles and sometimes forbidding renewable energy solutions - all in the name of preservation.

Commissions should certainly collaborate with homeowners to help find the least intrusive way to install panels, while still allowing maximum production efficiency.  We don’t want old homes cluttered with poorly designed solar arrays.  But, denying applications outright makes historic homes unsustainable in the future energy economy.

To get my family’s historic home to net-zero energy we are considering using SunPower solar panels which are exceptionally efficient, meaning fewer panels will produce more energy.  They also have a black-on-black color which makes them well suited for historic district aesthetics.  But, should our application be denied if the historic commissioners decide that black-on-black looks “too modern”?

The Ann Arbor HDC unanimously approved my friend Chris’ application for his six solar panels.  But, thousands more homeowners in historic districts will soon be considering rooftop solar.  Since Chris’ hearing was the first in Ann Arbor, the commissioners admitted they have a steep learning curve.

We need to streamline and relax the historic district approval process nationwide.

And strict prohibitions against visible solar is contrary to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s mission of making historic homes more sustainable.  Most importantly . . . is it wise to preserve history if we fail to protect our future?

Meanwhile, I am scheduled to appear next month before the Historic District Commission for our solar application.  Will they prevent us from becoming the first net-zero house in a historic district and the oldest net zero house in America?  Or will they help us make history?  Stay tuned . . .

I’d love to hear your stories about installing solar on a historic house.  Tell me about your good and bad experiences. Share your stories in the comment section below and join me on Facebook and Twitter.

Addendum:  Since writing this story I learned that the Ann Arbor Historic District Commission is setting up a subcommittee to meet with solar experts to learn about solar options.  Jill Thacher, Ann Arbor Historic Preservation Coordinator, said “the commissioners want to figure out what information they need to make quick and informed decisions.”  I believe this is a historic step toward integrating renewable energy into historic neighborhoods.

Photograph via Real Goods Solar

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  1. 4 Responses  to “What Use is Preserving a Historic Home if You Haven’t Got A Tolerable Planet to Put it On?”

  2. Aug 29, 2011
    MA Solar Installer - thanks for the note. We hope to see changes nationwide soon. Let's hope that the small renewables lobby in DC is any match for big oil and coal. Since writing the article we have installed our panels (producing 283 watts under 4 inches of snow as I type) and we're on target for net-zero. Sadly, we have been denied a $20,000 state historic preservation tax credit because we put solar on our roof. We have a long way to go. Look for our house to be featured this spring in Solar Today, Photon International, Preservation Magazine and Hour Magazine. You can watch see videos on our site http://www.Greenovation.TV - http://MissionZeroHouse.com and see our live solar production at http://enlighten.enphaseenergy.com/public/systems/W47E9809
  3. Aug 29, 2011
    Agreed! There are still so many challenges here in New England to building a PV system on what may be considered a historical home. I'm glad you wrote this piece and you're starting to see some progress on this issue at least in Michigan. I hope to see similar developments in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
  4. Tom Whitaker
    Aug 29, 2011
    I realize that conflict makes for more interesting reading, but all I'm seeing in Ann Arbor in this regard is "Approved, Approved, Approved." You have a great forum here to demonstrate how compatible historic preservation and alternative energy/energy efficiency are. There's really no need to hype up potential conflict where none exists. Historic commissioners have an obligation to consider the aesthetic impacts of new technologies on historic districts just as environmentalists have the obligation to question the impact of wind turbines on birds. It is this push and pull between disciplines that leads to better products and this should be celebrated and encouraged, not feared, or "streamlined" out of existence. Oil drilling in the Gulf was streamlined by the Bush administration for many years and we all know how that turned out. You're doing a great job on the house and I'm very pleased you have incorporated the historic preservation aspect--especially with the windows. Keep up the good work!
  5. Jeremy
    Aug 29, 2011
    There are a lot of older houses in my area that almost 5+ years ago got on the solar panel train and I don't think they look bad at all. Majority of them are on top of the roofs where you can't see them. If anything they get more compliments than anything.