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