A Grand Time in Our Kind of Town

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The theme for our recent Traditional Building Conference in Chicago, September 19-20, could have easily borrowed from the title of speaker Susan D. Turner’s seminar, “Historic Buildings as Renewable Resources.” The first morning of this two-day symposium began and ended with lessons in recycling.

First thing Thursday morning, Gene Hopkins, FAIA, from Hopkins Burns Design Studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan, presented a fascinating case study of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, a National Historic Landmark that sits majestically at a point where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet. Visited by dignitaries the world over, the hotel has the largest front porch on the planet: 660 feet long, the equivalent of more than two football fields.

The Grand Hotel was built by a railroad company in 1886, long before air conditioning. Later, when well-heeled guests demanded cooler conditions, they could only get rooms in the back of the building, where room air conditioners punched through the windows. But in the back, there was no water view. That left 180 rooms with a view, but without A/C.

Working with a local engineer, Hopkins Burns Design Studio invented a double-duty, split air-conditioning system that uses a water-cooled condenser and direct expansion fan coil evaporator unit. This 20x18x10-inch condenser preserves historic fabric in the landmark building by mounting under the bathroom sink. When the air conditioner is running, the condensing unit pumps water from the cold supply through the heat exchanger and out to the hot water supply. The water flow rate is controlled to maintain a water temperature of 115 degrees. The heated water continues out to the water main to be used throughout the hotel: in the laundry, the kitchen and the guest bathrooms. Each double-duty condensing unit contributes to the hotel’s hot water production.

The system saves the hotel electricity with an eight-year payback after installation costs. At the same time, the hotel maintains historic integrity while gaining 180 individually controlled units and meeting the Secretary of Interior’s Standards.

A second case study in the same seminar was presented by Unico Systems’ Randy Niederer, LEED AP, who teamed up with Ron Staley, FAPT, of the Christman Company in Lansing Michigan. This project, the restoration of Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C., took a different approach to the non- invasive installation of HVAC in an historic building.

Lincoln’s Cottage was where the president spent the summers of 1862-1864. It is a National Monument and underwent a recently completed $17 million restoration. The Christman Company was the restoration contractor challenged with modernizing the building for public use as a house museum. The building’s owner, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, wanted the cottage to appear the way it did when Lincoln was in residence. So it used St. Louis-based Unico’s high-velocity system with small ducts. These flexible ducts were snaked through existing spaces behind walls, under the floors and above the ceiling, resulting in cost savings and minimal impact on historic fabric.

“The biggest saving,” Staley said, “was that we did not have to tear out walls and repair them.” The system is fed by three 5-ton air handlers with chilled water coils that provide both heating and cooling. The air handlers are tucked away in the basement and the third floor servants’ quarters, while the chillers are installed remotely in a historic water tower away from the main building.

Right before lunch on the first day of the conference, Turner, AIA, who’s the historic preservation leader at Bailey Edward in Chicago, delivered a talk on “Historic Buildings as Renewable Resources.” According to her, “Buildings are the largest consumers of energy.” Energy consumption happens when a building is built and continues as it’s operated and maintained. But, she pointed out, commercial buildings built before 1920 use less energy per square foot than buildings from any other decade of construction.

“The comparative advantage of some older buildings,” Turner said, “is explained by original building design features such as form, massing, orientation, window-to-wall ratio, limited installed equipment, passive design, downtown location and adjacency to other buildings, which minimizes heat loss from exterior walls.” She cited a new National Park Service Technical Preservation Brief called “Illustrated Guidelines on Sustainability for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings,” which contains useful information about leveraging inherently green features.

Turner’s case studies, including Marshall Adams Hall and Urbana Armory, make the case for adaptive reuse, even if the USGBC doesn’t see it that way. The double advantage of preserving embodied energy and recycling existing, inherently efficient building resources is a no brainer.

There was more on the subject of recycling by Carol Goodwin, NWFA certified inspector and president of the Goodwin Company in Micanopy, Florida. Goodwin reclaims antique wood from river beds and demolished buildings, mostly heart pine.

Heart pine or longleaf pine once comprised the largest contiguous forest in North America. The quality of the resin gives heart pine its hardness and durability. It takes 90 to 125 years to develop any significant amount of heartwood, and most trees were 200 to 500 years old when originally cut. When loggers moved these harvested trees on river rafts, many of them spilled into the water, where they have been kept cool, out of the sun and thus preserved, for a hundred years. When recovered and reused, they have superior strength and beauty.

The conference’s seminars on renewable resources were augmented by several other sessions. Each delivered AIA Continuing Education Credits, 10 in all, over two days at the Chicago History Museum. Between classes, attendees, including architects, contractors, building owners, facility managers and interior designers talked with the conference sponsors over coffee, snacks, lunch and cocktails. On display were windows, storm windows, ceramic tile, decorative metal, shutters, cabinets, columns, architectural millwork, decorative painting, stone, HVAC and information booths by the Society of Architectural Historians and the conference’s collaborating partner, the Midwest Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art.

At the end of the day Friday, attendees toured the museum’s architectural collection, as well as the nearby Gold Coast and Old Town neighborhoods

The next stop on the 2013 Traditional Building Conference Series tour is Los Angeles, where we will convene at the historic Ebell Club, November 6-7.

If it turns out to be as grand a time as the one we just had in Chicago, it should be another noteworthy event!