Greening up historic buildings: Seattle’s Town Hall as case study

May 13, 2013

Seattle has been in the spotlight lately as the home to the world’s greenest new office building, the Bullitt Center. Also under construction is the headquarters of Brooks Sports in Fremont, which promises to be “deep green.”

But what about all the buildings that are already standing?

Seattle’s Town Hall will serve as a case study for the city and county, as they consider how to retrofit historic structures, especially those with landmark status. The planned retrofit is the subject of a big meeting this week.

Town Hall applied for—and won—historic landmark status last year.

Executive director Wier Harman says it’s unusual for groups to opt in to all the restrictions that entails, but it makes sense for them.

“We want our view of the future to be defined by an awareness of the past," Harman said. 

So they’ll have to get approval from the Landmark Preservation Board before making any changes to the building, which was completed in 1922 as a Christian Science church. Certain features such as the stained glass windows, domed ceiling, and curved wooden pews can’t be touched. But at the same time, they’ve embarked on a massive green overhaul.

“You know, it’s a less flamboyant gesture in some ways than the Bullitt Foundation, which will, for at least the next nine months, be the greenest building in the whole world. But we believe that on this site, we can show what is possible, in the context of an historic building," said Harman. 

Green architects and design experts from around the country are gathering for a “design charrette” this week to put all the options on the table. Much of what they’ll be brainstorming about will be invisible, such as how to upgrade the heating system and add cooling while making it all more efficient. But they’ll also look at possibilities like how to add solar panels or green roofs without changing the profile of the building’s exterior.

Patti Southard with King County Green Tools, which supports green building programs, says they’ll also just be learning a lot by examining the existing structure.

“Like what exactly was the original insulation in these walls? And will that all need to come out, to improve on the indoor air quality? Or to improve on the efficiency? Can we work with the existing materials?” Southard said.

She expects they’ll find that preserving what’s there will often be the greenest solution, since the materials Town Hall was built with have already lasted nearly a hundred years.

And Southard says, many of the choices made in 1922 were inherently sustainable.

“You know, they’re predominantly biodegradable materials. They’re organic, they’re wood, they’re masonry, they’re stone, they’re clay. Just inherently, old design and old construction techniques are superior to what we’ve been using currently," Southard said. 

The study will also help determine what it takes to give historical retrofits a certified green label, which would add weight to the idea that the greenest buildings are the ones that already exist. Seattle alone has about 450 that are landmark status-eligible.