Improving the Performance of Historic Buildings While Preserving Their Unique Characteristics

More than 1.4 million places – including buildings, districts and landmarks – are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which receives more than 30,000 applications each year. Most are at least 50 years old and meet one or more of the following four criteria for historic status: recognized as the site of an historic event, associated with a famous person, designed or built in a distinctive way, or yielded important historic or prehistoric information.

Historic building owners and operators are looking for ways to improve building performance and achieve critical goals while still preserving the unique physical characteristics of their landmark structures. Proven high performance building concepts enable them to accomplish these objectives and maintain the architectural qualities that give their building a place in history.

Because they were built before modern heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) and other building systems were introduced, many historic buildings used designs and natural materials so they retain heat in winter and stay cooler in summer. They also incorporated such sustainable features as natural lighting and ventilation that lend themselves to modern high performance building thinking. As time went on and technology advanced, many older buildings were retrofit with mechanical systems in an attempt to bring them up to modern standards.

But buildings age, their mission and purpose evolves, expansions and modifications are made, and mechanical systems get older and less reliable before they eventually become obsolete. Many historic buildings use HVAC systems that are many decades behind the times. In some cases, these systems cannot meet today’s codes or modern indoor environmental standards for occupants. To improve building performance and reduce operating costs, owners must replace original mechanical systems with modern HVAC, automated control, lighting and other building systems.


Historic building owners and operators can follow these steps to better understand the potential benefits of a high performance building approach for their facility:

  • Identify mission-critical factors. Determine how adopting high performance building practices and technologies will help the building owner or operator reduce costs, improve reliability or create a better indoor environment.
  • Conduct a critical building systems audit. A critical systems audit (CSA) assesses the performance of essential building systems. Many owners seek help from a third party, such as an energy services company (ESCO) to conduct their CSA and identify next steps.
  • Analyze energy and operating costs. An ESCO can help gather and analyze data on energy use over a period of several years, which can be compared to aggregate data for comparable structures.
  • Calculate anticipated maintenance costs. Estimate the average annual cost of planned and unplanned maintenance. Historic facilities can also have “hidden” non-HVAC maintenance costs such as window glazing that can be eliminated by replacing old windows. Balance the cost of implementing a predictive maintenance strategy against the potential cost of unplanned downtime or system failure.
  • Evaluate non-operational benefits. Assess the value of a high performance building approach when it comes to occupant satisfaction, employee performance, productivity, property values, and brand and reputation.

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