Podcast 025: Barry Stiefel on the Sustainability of Historic Preservation

Barry Stiefel stands near Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., where he was conducting a historic structures report as part of his doctoral dissertation research.
Barry Stiefel stands near Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., where he was conducting a historic structures report as part of his doctoral dissertation research.

Barry Stiefel

Preservation & the Environment Course

Kim Martin: Thank you Barry for joining me on the podcast.

Barry Stiefel: Well, you’re welcome. Thank you for having me.

Kim Martin: So, I understand that you teach a class on preservation and the environment. As you know preservationists have often been arguing that sustainability and preservation go hand-in-hand. How do you approach this in your class?

Barry Stiefel: First, I start off with the basics, you might say, and that is going over some of the major points that preservationists argue as being very environmentally sound, and also trying to clarify where there is sort of gray or fuzziness in this respect and sort of going with the students. You know how quite often you have to go by a case-by-case basis.

Planning for the Long Future

That there really are no absolutes, and then sort of go on from there from what we consider bricks-and-mortar sustainable practices with preservation into things that might be considered more peripheral, but when looking at management and sort of planning for the long future, are other aspects to consider related to not just preservation but heritage and tangible aspects and the environment and sustainability.

Kim Martin: I noticed from your syllabus that you take a sort of reciprocal approach in one section with not only how preservation affects the environment but how the environment affects our buildings. Can you talk to me a little about that?

Barry Stiefel: We started looking at how coastal areas, which we have many historic cities on, are threatened or potentially threatened with rising sea levels. It’s also dealing with atmospheric conditions such as from acid rain or smog that causes or accelerates weathering on historic building materials and historic structures; looking at extremes in climate, because when we talk about climate change, we’re talking about, it’s not just the world getting hotter but it, it’s also dealing with colder extremes at the opposite end.

So you know how this can also accelerate weatherization. So that’s the one aspect. Then looking back the other way, it’s sort of thinking of historic preservation, not just the sort of adaptive reuse of historic buildings structures and districts, but also looking at historic building practices and how that can reduce our ecological footprint and in a certain sense can mitigate the effects of global climate change.

Environmental Planning

Kim Martin: I noticed also that planning had a large part in your syllabus as well. How does a planner incorporate preservation, the environment, and all these aspects?

Barry Stiefel: I’d say that it’s not trying to incorporate all of them; it’s doing them all at the same time. Traditionally, we tend to break things up into categories, you know, this is just transportation planning, this is preservation planning, etc., and we really need to get back to the idea that everything is interrelated to each other and that these are components that we need to consider in all planning, particularly if you want to have a sustainable plan, a sustainable land use, and then all these approaches need to be considered because they all affect one another.

Examples of Sustainability in Planning

Kim Martin: Is there any really great examples that you can think of at this time?

Barry Stiefel: There are some interesting things going on right now in Boulder, Colo. They’ve also been dealing with an issue of, sort of those who are maybe being too extreme to one side or the other, being either, you know, environmentally speaking or “preservationally” speaking. And the thing is, to consider is that what is going to ultimately be successful is somewhere in the middle.

LEED Certification

You know if one is too much of an advocate for preservation, you know, there are things that are important related to the environment or some other aspect of public welfare that maybe ignored and vice versa. I know they’ve been dealing with issues related to promoting LEED certified building and construction within their city, as well as dealing with the historic districts that they have and what they can do to bring those up to higher performance in terms of energy and resource use and so, I know that , at least that’s something that I’ve heard about that they have been grappling with.

One thing to keep in mind is that there is no sort of final end result where, you know, there you made it, that you’re done. It’s a continuous process. You know, you can always do better, you can always improve yourself. So, think of it more as the journey than the ultimate destination.

Kim Martin: Can you tell us what the greatest benefit of preservation is to sustainability?

Barry Stiefel: I would say that this is the greatest use of preservation, not just for sustainability but, sort of preservation at large and that is to improve quality of life. You know, if we lose sight of that then what are we doing it for.

Preservation versus Sustainability

Kim Martin: Why do you think there has been such a separation or perceived separation between people who want to preserve buildings and people who are in the sustainability camp or green building?

Barry Stiefel: I think it ultimately comes to how these two fields have developed particularly in the twentieth century, the middle of the twentieth century. Certainly in western thought we like to sort categorize things: this is preservation, this is environmental conservation, this is X, this is Y, this is Z. And we are, as a society, starting to learn that we can’t always do that.

And I think, you know, where people sort of have the “aha” moment, you know, it’s always been there. It’s just when is that the individual themselves actually recognize it. That’s sort of the issue that has to be dealt with. And ultimately it will have to come down to education and, you know a trickling down into also the college curriculum and hopefully, down into secondary and primary education opportunities.

Curriculum Development

Kim Martin: I haven’t heard a whole lot about this being taught in preservation schools. How did you come up with your curriculum?

Barry Stiefel: Well, you are correct. You know it’s just starting to change; something that we at least talk about in the joint College of Charleston/Clemson program, you know, these things were at least being talked about on the table initially, and our program wasn’t the only one where this is taking place.

As for myself, I really have to sort of look at my experience, my college and university career. My undergraduate degree is a Bachelors of Science in Environmental Policy. I was aware of preservation to a certain degree based on an architectural history class I took in high school, and then I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do at first for graduate school, and I ended up basically doing a Masters in Urban Planning but focusing in environmental planning.

And based on an experience I had in a travel course in that program to Pittsburgh, seeing what they were doing with revitalization in some of the older neighborhoods, got turned onto the idea that adaptive reuse and historic preservation was a form of recycling. And I actually came into it from an environmental perspective and in a certain sense, by the time I was in my doctoral studies, I had sort of come full circle form where I started off when I was in high school.

Preservationists: Examine Holistically

Kim Martin: What are some things that you think we, as preservationists or just lovers of old buildings, can do to sort of help make ourselves more accessible environmentally or make our case better?

Barry Stiefel: Think holistically. You know, of course, you know, reach out to people — to those who aren’t quite aware of it. Often it’s just awareness. What is the perspective that the traditional environmentalist advocate is coming from? And of course, you know, learn their side and invite them to learn your side, because ultimately, when it comes down to it, we have the same sort of goals and objectives for the long term future.

Kim Martin: And how would you suggest that we make this relevant to just the general public?

Barry Stiefel: The key thing has to be education. You know there is definitely a great, sort of a green bandwagon going on and preservationists, I think, should definitely jump on that. But you know; whenever an opportunity affords to have sort of a preservation bandwagon, you know, definitely extend an invitation to those interested in the environment and sustainability.

Kim Martin: Thank you for joining me on the podcast.

Barry Stiefel: You’re welcome and thank you for having me.

Last updated: July 19, 2023