Historic Preservation and Green & Main

Steve Wilke-Shapiro

Steve Wilke-Shapiro

Sustainability has become a core component of modern-day historic preservation activism. Indeed, we now recognize that the two are integrally related: there is no building greener than the one not built. By finding ways to creatively reuse and adapt existing structures to modern-day activities, we not only “save” our history, but also reduce the need for new construction.

As a designer, I often lament that the loss of historic building craft has had a negative impact on both the character and longevity of the structures we build today. It also has a negative impact on communities in terms of employment and multi-generational tradition.

Renovation in general, and preservation in particular, are labor-dependent. That is, a greater percentage of the project cost in a renovation project is paid as wages rather than materials. Since wages equal jobs, preservation can be a great economic development tool. The Green & Main Pilot Project promotes socioeconomic sustainability by utilizing a broad range of skilled labor and specialized technical expertise. Even deconstruction of the interior is being performed in an intensively conscientious manner.

On a broad scale, preservation and renovation of existing buildings (particularly in urban areas) allow us to better utilize existing infrastructure and provide services more effectively to more people. Because many older neighborhoods were developed in a time before widespread automobile use, they tend to be more compact and connected. In addition, an already developed site allows for reuse of existing roads, sewers and utilities. This pilot project is reutilizing a building in a connected and walkable urban neighborhood that is accessible by a variety of transportation modes.

At the individual building level, extending the useful life of a structure through renovation allows us to improve energy efficiency while also minimizing use of new-source construction materials. Preservation encourages adaptive reuse of existing buildings, even as our needs and technologies change over time. The Green & Main building will be retrofit to a high level of energy efficiency while respecting the historic character-defining elements. For example, the historic storefront windows will be painstakingly recreated, though insulated glass will be utilized in place of the original single panes.

It is critically important for us to regain an understanding of how sustainable communities operate at both the individual building level and the broader urban scale. As a pilot project, Green & Main will serve as a brilliant case study. However, most of the projects I work on do not overtly address “sustainability” as part of their stated goals. Most of the people I work with simply love their homes and want to invest in the continued success of their neighborhoods. Sustainability is inherent in – and inseparable from – the act of renovating.



– Steve Wilke-Shapiro is a designer with Silent Rivers Design + Build. He is often found rummaging through the kimchee aisle at Gateway Market.



  1. Great article! I am very tired of the idea that old buildings are inefficient and therefore should all be replaced. The notion that we can only use something, including houses & buildings, for 5-10 years is unsustainable. Disposable cups, plates etc are creating enough environmental problems without adding housing materials to overwhelm our landfills as well.
    Do you know of any communities which have been able to stop or slow scrape offs? Our neighborhood in Denver is extremely popular and is in a building boom of structures that are out of proportion to the existing bungalows and homes built in early 1900s. We have pockets of historic districts, but even those sections have not been able entirely to stop the new box highrise style multiplex buildings developers seem to love to place in our neighborhood.

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