Published on June 22nd, 2012 | by Chris Keenan1
At the Intersection of Renewable Energy and Historic Architecture, A Wreck of Old Forms and New Ideas
The Soulard of St. Louis is one of the city’s oldest settled areas, featuring homes and business establishments built more than 150 years ago during the heyday of American westward expansion. The neighborhood is so historic, in fact, that it’s covered by both state and federal historic building legislation from end to end. That’s fine in most cases, and it has created a neighborhood with a distinctly “Americana” feel most residents enjoy and want to preserve.
Green Historic Preservation Runs Into Problems
This preservation ethos, however, has caused some problems. Specifically, the protection mandated for historic buildings actually prohibits installing things like vinyl replacement windows and visible solar panels. This has become a hot button issue for the city, especially as Bob Hiscox, owner of the Soulard Bastille Bar, has pushed forward with plans to install solar panels on the building’s roof.
Those solar panels would be visible, and state officials are not permitted to authorize or permit their installation the building as part of the district’s 1991 building code. That code has been in place, and untouched, for more than two decades. In addition to disallowing any solar panels which can be seen by the pedestrian public, it also prohibits installing double-paned vinyl replacement windows. Instead, windows in this historic St. Louis neighborhood must be made of wood–a highly inefficient material that wastes a significant amount of energy.
Pushing for a Rewrite to Historic Building Guidelines
Building owners have been faced with accusations that their energy-efficient goals don’t line up with the neighborhood’s historic look and feel, especially by activists who feel that certain types of replacement windows would change the character of the neighborhood. Those residents value the old-fashioned look and feel of Soulard, and they simply can’t see a future where solar panels and other exterior distractions take away from its historic charm.
Building owners, however, feel that energy efficiency and renewable resources should be non-negotiable for historic buildings–or any buildings. They cite things like the proliferation of exterior-mounted satellite dishes in the neighborhood as proof that things are changing, and new building codes should be adopted to meet the occasion. Indeed, Hiscox offered to install a small demonstration of his solar panels pending approval from a city board for a permanent installation and he collected 14 pages of local Soulard signatures in support of this effort.
The board voted 4-2, however, to disallow both the permanent and temporary installations. Their ruling indicated that an exterior display of solar panels would detract from the character of the neighborhood in a way that would be unsightly and unacceptable. Renewable energy suffered another blow, and Hiscox went to the press.
City Board Not Opposed to Green Energy, Only to a Change in Soulard Aesthetics
For their part, the city board that denied Hiscox’s attempt to take the Soulard Bastille Bar green is not generally opposed to green energy sources on principle. Indeed, in public comments to the press, members of the board have expressed their excitement for a time when solar panels shrink enough in size that they won’t require such large, exterior placement. Those panels will be able to go in places that aren’t visible to the pedestrian public, they argue, and then they’ll be appropriate for installation.
Until that day arrives, though, the Soulard Bastille Bar and many other businesses and homes in the Soulard district of St. Louis will remain without a viable source of renewable energy. And, if any hope of a renewable energy future looks to pop up in the next few months or years, it will have to take the form of wind-powered energy from a local wind farm. Those services can be activated simply by calling an existing utility company and indicating a preference for wind over fossil fuel sources of power. No exterior change of the building is required.
Until then, Soulard business owners intend to continue pushing for a long-overdue revision to the city’s 1991 restrictions on exterior modifications and distractions. It is their hope that the board will understand the need for renewable energy, and that they’ll soon be able to make bold installations to elevate both the stature and eco-friendly nature of Soulard.
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