Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 12:19:23 PM CST

Top Stories

Courtesy of Jo Stavig

Stavig has installed rain barrels,a thermostat, energy-efficient boilers and other green appliances in her 90-year-old bungalow in West Rogers Park. She says preserving old buildings is automatically green in itself.

Preserve an old building, live a green life

by Yue Wang
March 01, 2012


Courtesy of John Eifler

After meticulous work, the 1892 Richardsonian Romanesque-style house was infused with many green technologies without damaging its historic value.

It was old. It was stout. It was a mess inside.

But Jo Stavig fell in love with it nonetheless.

A 22-year-long companionship thus began.

It is the West Rogers Park bungalow Stavig purchased in 1990. Ever since she became the owner, Stavig, an interior designer, embarked on a journey of restoring the 90-year-old house to its original look as much as possible.

“Most of what we did is actually undoing from what we thought was not wise choices previous owners have made, such as replacing wood with aluminum and that kind of thing,” she said. “We think we brought it much closer to how it looked.”

Stavig is one of the many Chicagoans who have a passion for restoring and rehabilitating old residential units. Apart from loving the history within, they have another preservation philosophy:
Preserving old buildings is a green way of life.

Contrary to popular perception that green buildings are those newly constructed ones with cutting-edge energy-saving technologies, the Preservation Green Lab of the National Trust for Historic Preservation concludes that the most sustainable buildings are often the buildings that already exist.

According to its most recent study, released in January, it can take as many as 80 years for a new building that is 30 percent more efficient than an average–performing existing building to overcome negative climate change impacts exerted by the construction process.

“You could destroy an old building and build a new building and talk about how much energy it uses, but the waste energy of the building that was destroyed is never factored into the overall energy efficiency of the new building,” said Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago, an activist organization for the preservation of historic architecture, neighborhoods and urban spaces.

“If that is taken into account, you can have a very different perspective about the historic preservation of old buildings,” he said.

The preservation of historic buildings, experts say, is just like reusing and recycling in many ways.

“Most people, when they hear the word recycle, they just think about bottles and bags and cans. But we are really doing is recycling the planet,” said Storm Cunningham, CEO of ReCitizen L3C, a Washington-based global network for citizen-led regeneration of communities and natural resources. “We are recycling the city, the infrastructure and the buildings. We are recycling the natural resources. You don’t have much choice. We have the same planet now as 5,000 years ago.”

In addition to preserving old houses, residents are continuously adding a touch of green to the history that surrounds them.

An 1892 Richardsonian Romanesque-style building along North Lakeshore Drive has just emerged from a four-year greening process, looking as exquisite as when it was built, but with a modern core.

“We installed geothermal heating and cooling and complicated mechanical control that heats the building when it should be,” said John Eifler, principal of Eifler & Associates Architects, architect of the lakeshore project. “The more you can install green technologies in the rehabilitation, the less it will cost to maintain it, thereby ensuring its longevity.”

Advocates say incorporating green technologies, done with care, poses no threat to old residential buildings’ historic values.

“The biggest damage [to the historic value] is the change of the look of things,” said Jean Follett, executive director of Landmark Illinois. “But none of that needs to happen.”

The secret of living both old and green, experts say, is really about finding the right contractor.

“There are ways that are much less invasive than other ways,” said Carla Therese Bruni, sustainability and historic preservation consultant at the Historic Bungalow Association of Chicago. “If somebody doesn’t know what they are doing, they will just come in and tear your house apart. Finding the right contractor is one of the biggest parts. Educating the homeowner is another big part of it.”

“People want new, exciting things. The problem is, it is not necessarily a better product, it is just new,” she said. “We get confused on that because there is so much marketing, telling us new is better.”

If done right, the old has a good chance to outshine the new, Stavig said.

“The greenest thing is something that is already there,” she said. “It [the bungalow] is a very solid building. There are many things we like. There are many things we appreciate more and more.”