Harmony in marriage: integrating sustainable solutions into historic house museums without interfering with the historic fabric

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2014-05

Authors

Bolliger, Serena Gigliola

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Abstract

Historic buildings live a double life between climate-adapted largely-passive structures and draughty, poorly-maintained ones. Preservation professionals argue that preserving these structures is more resource effective than constructing new buildings, and that pre-electricity structures were built to take advantage of climate and geography, using passive technologies to perform efficiently. Modern technologies have also been adopted- electrical lights, air conditioning, fire alarms - as a natural progression of inhabitation. Yet in historic house museums, there is still the promise of historic representation, one unmarred by ‘inauthentic’ additions. If modern and past technological changes have been accepted and integrated, how is the historic house museum not a ‘living building culture’? And if house museums are indeed a living building culture, why not allow a more flexible representation of our historic properties if they are interpreted with integrity and honesty?

The EPA estimates that buildings represent 65% of the U.S. electricity use, and predictions estimate 80% of the 2030 building stock exists today. If we truly plan to reduce our energy consumption, we must confront the reality that existing buildings are a significant contributor to our output. If, as curators, it is our hope for historic buildings to represent preservation, then we must admit that in preserving the past for the future, we must begin by preserving our future.

This thesis analyses the opportunities and risks for historic house museums to respect their historic interpretation but adapt to changing conditions. Examples of energy efficiency strategies both historic and current, will be examined in historic structures, illustrating that caretakers of historic buildings are making value judgments about the future of their property, in terms of environmental, fiscal and historical sustainability.

This thesis includes the analysis of a case study historic house museum in Austin, Texas, the French Legation Museum, which is used as a base model for estimating energy efficiency gains from the adoption of some low-energy technologies. Calculations based on this information indicate which integrations and additions could offer the greatest return on investment for this historic building to operate as or more efficiently than a modern code construction without visible or egregious alteration to the historic fabric.

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