Conservation Writ Large
A Discussion about Sustainability and Heritage

Watch a pubic discussion by this same panel presented at the Getty Center

JEAN CARROON is a principal at Goody Clancy, a design firm based in Boston. Nationally recognized for her achievements in integrating sustainable design into historic buildings, she is the author of Sustainable Preservation: Greening Existing Buildings (2010), a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation Sustainability Coalition, and one of the founders of the Technical Committee on Sustainable Preservation of the Association of Preservation Technology.

JERRY PODANY is the senior conservator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum. He served two terms as president of the American Institute for Conservation and is currently president of the International Institute for Conservation. A University of Southern California adjunct professor and a regular lecturer at Columbia University, he has published widely in the field of conservation, the history of restoration, the relationship of sustainable heritage preservation to the preservation of natural resources, and the changing role of heritage conservation.

CHRIS WOOD is the head of the building conservation and research team at English Heritage, where he has worked for the last seventeen years. The team specializes in dealing with the problems of deteriorating materials in historic structures. Recently he has been working on a number of initiatives that seek to improve energy efficiency in historic buildings without causing harm to their character and appearance.

They spoke with SUSAN MACDONALD, head of GCI Field Projects, and with JEFFREY LEVIN, editor of Conservation Perspectives, The GCI Newsletter.

SUSAN MACDONALD: What do you see as the relationship between cultural heritage conservation and the concept of sustainable development?

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JEAN CARROON: Unless we embrace cultural heritage and the concept of stewardship as essential to environmental sustainability, we really are lost. Stewardship means maintaining physical and cultural assets, but it’s also about economics and viability. The three parts of sustainability are social, economic, and environmental. Sustainability is a complex entity but it’s essentially about creating a healthy world. How can we have an emotionally or physically healthy world if we don’t care for things of value within that world?

JEFFREY LEVIN: This is a much broader concept than simply reducing energy consumption.

CARROON: Yes. The original vision of the United Nation's Brundtland Commission was about holistic health, not just the environment. It was very clear that we cannot sustain the Earth if we don't create a sustainable culture in terms of human spirit, memory, and place. It's unfortunate that climate change has pushed us into thinking only about energy. Clearly our energy policies are wrong and are contributing to global warming. But when you talk about sustainability only in terms of energy, you start to have inappropriate pressures placed on individual buildings and individual sites, rather than looking at the whole picture. As conservation practitioners, we constantly press to get a more holistic conversation. But public opinion and policies have zeroed in on energy.

CHRIS WOOD: The reason we concentrate on energy is because it's something politicians understand and something we can respond to. A holistic attitude isn't developing among government decision makers and industry because it appears as a nebulous concept. As I see it, the energy issue is helpful in that it focuses attention on part of the sustainability agenda. In terms of the relationship of cultural heritage to sustainability, the two are inextricably linked. Old buildings are far more than just usable products—they make places and they provide memory. But they're only part of a greater whole.

JERRY PODANY: The definitions of sustainability are really broad and might just be boiled down to "making something that lasts." However, it's really more about how we make it last, how much it costs, and if it's worth it. Our place as professionals who deal with heritage conservation is to understand that culture can be seen as a language. If it's a shared identity that this language expresses, that identity ultimately works its way through the world as developing trust—and that trust results in cohesion. We're the ones who are helping steward the products of that culture, whether they're tangible or intangible. And if those disappear, then that cohesion suffers as well. The process of caring for something can filter down throughout society—and throughout the world's cultures—as an expression of caring for all of us and for the planet. We have an important place as role models.

LEVIN: Jean, you've observed that a new building by definition isn't green because you're creating new materials to build it, while often destroying something old. Both of those acts take energy. Why isn't the preservation of existing buildings fully appreciated as an act of sustainability?

CARROON: A greater awareness of this is starting to permeate some green building conferences, although it's a battle because of our love of the new. But generally the environmental impacts of materials aren't recognized. Over 50 percent of U.S. resources are used in new construction and in new construction of the infrastructure to support buildings. When you consider that the United States has 5 percent of the world's population, that we use 30 percent of all the resources, and that half of those resources are for new construction—that means we're using 15 percent of the world's resources for new construction. By inference, any new object has a substantial environmental impact. There's no way to make a building that doesn't have an environmental impact, except perhaps a mud house that you make on site. Within our current manufacturing systems, every product has an environmental impact. You can lessen our environmental impact by taking existing objects and extending their service life. The preservation and heritage community has these skills, and that's what we could teach—if people accepted this approach as crucial.

WOOD: In the United Kingdom, I see this hypocrisy with respect to being sustainable—which to me means keeping old fabric because there's a lot of embodied energy there. One example is the replacement of windows. A great number of our windows were built with slow-grown, imported Scots pine from northern Europe, which is a soft wood but a wonderful-quality timber. They've lasted for over two hundred years. Ill maintained, but they still work. There's strong encouragement to rip those out and replace them with short-lived double-glazed plastic windows because of supposed energy benefits. We have disputed that, but the perception is there, and building regulations reflect it. And yet when we look at the real life-cycle costs of producing plastic windows, it's astronomical. In sustainable terms, the obvious thing to do is to make the most of what is an incredibly precious asset.

LEVIN: Are there other examples of problems with new materials, Chris?

WOOD: Well, synthetic internal wall insulation is one. Even some energy-saving advocates admit that the statistics for insulation are very disappointing. In England most of our historic buildings are built with solid walls. Our climate is damp. We get frosts. In a house that is uninsulated, you at least get a sensible relationship between heating, control of moisture, and evaporation—and provided it is not excessively leaky, it works very well. But as soon as you put up this barrier on the inside to prevent that wall from warming, we see brickwork decay very quickly. We see moisture percolating around buildings and causing problems. We see health problems. The whole thing is completely unsustainable. We need to look back at how people lived in these houses when they were built. When we look at nineteenth-century photographs of these grand Georgian terraces, they had external shutters. They had blinds and awnings to control sunlight. People used buildings sensibly. They closed up rooms they weren't using. They had draft excluders at the bottom of doors, which I remember from when I was a kid. It was a more sensible way of living, which we've got to relearn. Having said that, I have to make a plea for new, as well. We consistently encourage the reuse of original materials as a building is refurbished. That's fine. But roofing materials, such as stone and clay tiles, have become very valuable, so they get stolen. There's a huge market for that sort of thing. What we've realized is that by encouraging the reuse of seconds, our original suppliers are going out of business, and the skills for making these things are dying out. So now we support new material coming from as sustainable a source as possible—i.e., local vernacular sources—and produced in the right way.

CARROON: But that can't compete in the current market.

MACDONALD: Yes, but on the macro scale, local materials often have advantages environmentally over imported ones, when you take into account transport costs and think in terms of sustaining local markets.

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WOOD: Our stone initiative encourages rejuvenation of old stone quarries because we need the right stone to repair historic buildings. If you use a tougher stone, the old stone around it deteriorates a lot faster. If you repair with the right stone and the right mortar, it works very well. We want to see some of these quarries reopened because they'll provide new materials for buildings in these very sensitive villages. They're highly sustainable because they're local, and they provide local employment in areas where there's virtually none. In terms of a carbon footprint, it's very small because mostly hand tools are used. Unfortunately, we're seeing imports from India and China at basically a quarter of the price. Of course, the distance of some Chinese quarries to the docks is around two thousand miles. There are no health and safety controls over a lot of these quarries, so we're not competing on the same basis. And we're not changing that situation, at least not in the short term, because the great mantra in Europe and North America is free trade, whatever the cost.

An even worse problem is thatching. We have probably fifty thousand rustic thatched buildings. There is no material more sustainable than thatch. It's a by-product of our local farming. In England, our tradition was something called long straw thatching. The conflict we have at the moment with certain thatchers is that some are rejecting the old tradition of long straw thatching. They'd rather use water reed imported from South Africa and China. We are fighting very hard against it. Farmers are being deprived of a considerable amount of potential income—I think they earn four times more per ton than they get for the actual grain growing. It's highly sustainable, but we are losing out.

PODANY: I'd like to address the idea of sustainable development. There are some hard-core environmentalists who would say that those two words are contradictory. But it depends on what you mean by development. Within the collections world, one could say development might mean the endless expansion of museums and collections. Do we have the carrying capacity to continue to expand, with the design and wastefulness of new museums that are treated more like sculpture than functional architecture? On the other hand, development might also be the continuation of traveling special exhibitions, which are beneficial in many ways. They reduce the number of people who might travel far distances to see these objects. I don't think we should necessarily stop doing that, but at the same time we have not explored how we can make it more efficient and sustainable.

LEVIN: As president of the IIC [International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works], you organized a roundtable at the IIC's 2008 meeting that addressed climate change and collections. I presume you saw a need for the profession to confront the sustainability issue head on.

PODANY: Yes, the IIC roundtable was meant to raise awareness among conservators about their role in the larger issue of climate change and its implications with regard to their professional responsibilities. I would note that the following year, the Salzburg Global Seminar, sponsored by the IMLS [Institute of Museum and Library Services], held an international meeting on the conservation of collections, which included a plenary session on sustainability and stewardship. Both events, I think, helped bring greater attention to these issues.

To be honest, the issue of environmental controls in collections has been driven partly by a responsible professional response to climate change but far more strongly by cost. Museums—which are faced with large energy bills at a time of economic stress—are turning to the conservators and saying, "Do we need these strict environmental controls for our exhibitions and storage?" The profession has been caught a bit off guard, in the sense that there isn't enough research on whether these narrow controls are actually necessary for every object. But to borrow an idea from Tom Friedman's book The World Is Flat, these challenges are opportunities masquerading as insurmountable problems, which, if we resolve them, can contribute to the welfare of our planet and also verify what our heritage objects really need for preservation. Many standards aren't based on empirical observation of the response of the object to an environment, and they've gotten narrower and narrower—and more energy wasteful—because we can measure finer and finer changes in relative humidity and temperature. That's resulted in this attitude that we will do whatever it takes to save our cultural heritage. Is there a provable case for doing that? If there is, then we should start looking at more efficient ways to achieve that. But if there isn't, perhaps we should broaden our environmental guidelines. We would save energy while also providing a good example to everyone else about the larger meaning of the term conservation. The word conservation is, after all, in our title, and we should promote it more broadly.

MACDONALD: There's been a repositioning by conservation practitioners in immovable heritage to demonstrate that what they're doing is managing thoughtful change in a way that sustains the heritage significance of the place. Jerry, how do museum conservators think of themselves in relation to that idea of the inevitability of change?

PODANY: The collections world is just entering the discussion about the limited time period that we have for all of these objects. The time period is far greater than buildings because use of objects is much more limited. But we need more discussion about what we mean by the future. We often say we're conserving these objects for the future—but while we see the future as a kind of infinite continuum, we evaluate materials we're using in conservation based on known stability for fifty to one hundred years. Unfortunately, we don't evaluate our expectations of how long we think we can help an object last. This idea of managing change is coming into the discussions of collections conservators, but it's a difficult discussion because we've always identified our mission as preserving heritage forever, even if we knew that wasn't possible. I'm not advocating that we relax our effort. I'm simply advocating that we have that discussion, identify how long we think we can help objects to exist, or at least discuss the possibility of a finite lifetime for any given collection. That will influence how we approach conservation, how we use and prioritize our resources, and in the end help us work more efficiently.

CARROON: If I could grossly generalize, I don't believe that the U.S. preservation community understands their management charge. The bulk of the preservation community is citizen-driven commissions that often have no formal expertise. It's very common for a commission to have decided what their mandate is, even if it is different from their legal charge. In large part, people who have embraced the idea that they are protecting heritage try to freeze things in place. We're creating historic neighborhoods that don't have corner stores, that don't have vitality, that don't have mixed communities, and that are no longer able to be anything other than gentrified communities. That perception of heritage preservation within the United States is extremely detrimental to what we need to do as a sustainable world that values stewardship and is environmentally responsible.

WOOD: Most of my working life has been about managing change in the heritage world. We have protection for buildings with special architectural or historic qualities—the vast majority of which are privately owned—and we try to preserve those qualities. We are perceived as being preservationists who simply want to preserve things in aspic, but that's not what conservation is about. Conservation is active management of our assets. What we have done for years is negotiate. We identify important features of a building and make sure those aren't harmed. The use can possibly change, and alterations can be carried out, provided they're done in ways that conserve character.

In the last few years, we in English Heritage have been looking more into communal heritage. We've given a lot of guidance on small towns and eulogized about insignificant seaside towns with few conservation areas. These studies have been successful in getting recognition for the town because they've shown its history. Why is the local football club important? It's never achieved anything significant—but generations of fathers and sons have gone there, watched, and suffered watching unsuccessful football teams, like we all have. People have successfully clamored for these places to be protected. What's interesting is the local MP often gets quite enthused and realizes, "My town's on the map." English Heritage is suddenly exciting. What we're now seeing is planning within these towns to maintain shops and pubs for their social and communal value. Even if the building is not significant, the heritage has social significance.

MACDONALD: It's recognizing social significance and some of the intangible aspects of significance. You've aligned yourself to sustainability in broad terms and demonstrated the role that heritage might play in sustainable development.

WOOD: Yes. There are ten thousand conservation areas in England, and everybody thinks, "Well, that's because that's where the big beautiful Georgian terraces are." In fact, some are broken-down industrial areas. They have heritage significance because of the historic importance of the buildings, but they only work as conservation areas because of their actual use. One of our most impressive is the Jewelry Quarter, a series of little workshops near the center of Birmingham. They were not very special architecturally, but the area was abuzz with activity. About ten or fifteen years ago, it suddenly became very fashionable to gentrify and convert them to apartments. English Heritage designated the whole neighborhood as a conservation area, and Birmingham City Council put in place policies that discouraged changes of use. The Jewelry Quarter has now prospered because it's on the heritage trail. It's partly to do with buildings, but it's mostly to do with the activity—the social and communal aspects.

CARROON: It's embracing the bigger picture and educating the community about the interaction between these things. From the standpoint of protecting heritage, if we want to implement policies that are good for the environment, they need to be about maintenance and stewardship. If homeowners get a tax credit for repairing their windows, as opposed to replacing them, or get some reward for putting on a one-hundred-year-life roof, even though they're only going to live there five years—those things are good for a community's heritage, as well as the environment and the economy. The heritage community understands some of the economic links and some of the things about extending service life and living in a healthy way. We have a tremendous opportunity to define the conversation and be the leaders of the conversation in tangent with the economic and business world.

MACDONALD: Why haven't we been able to do that so far?

CARROON: We have to change policies so that there is an ability to do the right thing within the economy. The argument that we run into as practitioners is always that the new is less expensive than repair—even though repair creates more jobs.

WOOD: In the United Kingdom we've had major regeneration schemes in areas where developers have wanted to flatten everything. In the last twenty years, there's been an upsurge in building along canals, rivers, and other attractive waterfronts, and we've had major battles to save historic warehouses. Today some of those warehouses are Grade One listed buildings that are being converted for mixed uses and have become wonderful tourist centers. Everybody applauds the developers who did it, forgetting that it was actually only made possible by opposing their demolition—which was tough because the politicians were saying, "Who the hell are you? We need the jobs." But when you look back and see what has been created, it's worth it. It's one of the untold successes of the work our regional teams have done. Regenerating areas around their heritage assets is what draws people. It gives a sense of place to the people who live there. And politicians appreciate the benefits. Their priority is to make sure there's employment, and we support that. The message we keep sending them is that we're actually oiling these deals. We want jobs. We want buildings to be used. We don't want to fossilize a place in time. We just want to make sure that when change comes, it’s done in a sensitive way.

MACDONALD: What about the challenges now in the urban environment? Asian cities are going from low-rise, low-density, to having to accommodate an extra five million people a year. How do we deal with that large change?

CARROON: The major conversation environmentally and in urban planning and in heritage in the next twenty years is going to be about density. Appropriate density—appropriately located, planned, and designed—can be a complement to heritage, not a cause for demolition. However, it may mean setting up a mechanism for density transfer from one district to another. The National Trust's GreenLab is exploring this in different cities. The conversation about density must also include people within buildings. We forget the fact that people, certainly within this country, are consistently taking more housing space for themselves. The solution is not always to build more. The solution may be to tax more, to say that space is a premium, that you're not allowed to have five thousand square feet per person no matter where it is located—or if you are, you pay this tax. It means changing this assumption of consumption.

MACDONALD: Jerry, how does the issue of sustainability enter into the relationship between archaeology and collections? I had a recent conversation with someone from a well-known archaeology institute who talked about a site they were excavating, and the government in the country has asked them to conserve and protect the site and bring tourists to it—tasks they don't have the money or capacity to do. But they want to keep digging because it's a fantastic site with great results potential.

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PODANY: There is a dialogue that needs to happen among archaeologists, the tourism industry, ministries, and archeological conservators that has to do with sustainable yield. Forestry uses the concept, and I think it has a place in the discussion about archaeological sites. Sites are a far more finite resource, but we treat them like we're harvesting forests—as if sites will go on forever and we can just keep digging the material up. There's an increasing demand by governments to require conservation of sites, a demand driven almost solely by tourism. That's a success, but one that carries with it a lot of complexities. The simple answer is, "yes, we should excavate less"—but that's also saying that we should know less, and that's a hard sell. Management of sites can be made more efficient, which might ease some of the negative impact of continuing excavation. Is it fair to say that archaeology should disappear? Or are we saying we should limit it and engage in it more sustainably? Like museums, we have to explore our efficiencies and the best way to utilize the resource, rather than simply always saying no.

LEVIN: Jerry, you've occupied leadership positions in the conservation community and you've given a lot of thought to broad policy issues. How do we promote preservation as an important component of sustainability efforts?

PODANY: We start first by changing the conversation inside the field. There's a wonderful quote from Sarah Brophy and Elizabeth Wylie in their book The Green Museum, in which they call the planet the ultimate museum. Speaking from the collections end, if we start thinking that way, we can become an integral part of this larger effort. A lot of conservation outreach activities have to do with conservators trying to promote their work to the larger community, and it's almost always about technical issues. The before and the after. The real or not real. The hours of patient cleaning with a swab. These are interesting and should be communicated. But the message that heritage is not a luxury but an essential—and that we are dedicated to prolonging this essential aspect of our world—also needs to be advanced to the community. Museums communicate very little about their efforts to join the larger preservation world. We have LEED certification that has led museums to think more about energy efficiency and sustainability—but museums that are LEED certified don't tell people that this is part of the larger picture of conservation. We should. Maybe conservation needs help from the PR people who know how to do this. Maybe that's the part we're missing.

LEVIN: The environmental movement has been successful in selling its ideas to a large population, in part because people make connection to the impact of the environment on their lives. How do you help people connect to the notion of sustaining cultural heritage that may be thousands of miles from where they are?

WOOD: Look at how successful environmentalists are at getting out the message about polar bears and rhinos. Frankly, I've never seen any of these things in the wild, nor have a lot of people who get emotionally involved in these things, even though they have absolutely no direct bearing on their lives. Look, there is a huge cultural shift that is needed if we are to be sustainable in the world. The way I see things, you can't change the culture of society very easily. It's going to come with the next generation. The kids of today are being told that their parents are killing the polar bears by wasting energy and not living sustainably. I've been accused of it myself—and I think that's very positive. And that's where the future lies. It will be in the next generation where more meaningful advances take place. We've just got to keep providing the evidence.

PODANY: There have been efforts to join natural resource preservation and heritage preservation. At the same time, there is some competition between them because they're competing for the same piece of the pie. But there are some good examples of the two being joined. An archaeologist named Richard Hansen is working in the Mirador Basin in Guatemala, which happens to also be an incredibly beautiful, lush forest that's under threat. He's working to promote both nature and heritage. It isn't "preserve this Maya site"—which is one of the great Maya sites of the world—and it isn't "preserve this forest." They are the same thing. They are part of your heritage. It is part and parcel, all together. There should be more of that.

CARROON: We used to joke in architecture that by quietly putting in water- and energy-saving devices, we could do stealth green without the owner realizing it. In the same way, perhaps it is time to do stealth preservation. If young people who are emotionally attached to the polar bears understand that replacing a wood window jeopardizes the bears, then we start to change attitudes. Young people may not realize that by saving the window they preserve the character of the house or the neighborhood or create more linkage with the stories of the people who used to be in that house—but they might get the polar bear connection. Eventually they will understand the heritage connection. However, for the moment, if they only understand the polar bears, fine—save the polar bears by extending the service life of what we have and avoiding the environmental impacts of new, shortlived products. Not changing the window will definitely help save the polar bear, and someday somebody will be very grateful that they didn't throw out the window. If we can make these linkages and ride on the success of the emotions for the natural world, we'll still have challenges, but at least we'll have started to demonstrate that these two things are inherently connected.