Oglethorpe’s plan for Savannah
Savannah is known for her unique and plentiful city squares that promote open space. Consequently, its present city planning department, the Metropolitan Planning Commission, tends to be examined under a microscope by planning departments and preservation scholars across the country. My impression had been that living under this microscope understandably tended the Board towards “safe decisions” and away from modern and new technologies. It seems that I was wrong, as evidenced by The MPC’s unanimous recent ruling to allow the first solar hot water installation in the Savannah Historic District during this month’s meeting on July 9th.
The homeowners of this precedent setting project are Sara Barczak and her husband Anthony Jernigan – customers of ours at OneWorld Sustainable. I met Sara at Savannah’s Earth Day festival this April. She was holding down the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy booth, while I was representing OWS. We got to talking, and I learned that she was looking into solar hot water for her home. A couple of months later, OWS, together with Sara and Anthony, began the process of submitting an application to the MPC for approval on the installation of the solar-water delivering mechanism, 20 evacuated tubes, to be placed on top of her roof.
In my research to prepare for the application, I spoke with several helpful people across the country who all had experience in attempting to marry sustainability with historic preservation, very new and unchartered territory for me.
The message was clearly delivered by many planners, from Key West, FL to Ypsilanti, MI, that solar PV and hot water were the least obtrusive instruments to deliver alternative energy. And since these installations are also reversible in that they can be removed, the fear of a more solid commitment and ease of correction are both reinforced. Everyone I spoke with also agreed that the general preference for installation was on a roof NOT facing the street. This gave me pause, since Sara and Anthony’s South facing roof is also street facing. Thankfully, their pitched roof was designed for future solar, remaining virtually invisible from the street, thus helping our chances for an approval come decision time.
In my search to better understand the issues, and in turn to hopefully convince the MPC board to approve our application, I luckily happened upon Kimberly Kooles, a University of Georgia National Alliance of Preservation Commissions (NAPC) staff member. She actually answered the phone, and serendipitously explained that she was crafting her PhD on the very subject of the integration of Sustainability and Historic Preservation. What luck! Kimberly educated me and sent me innumerable articles, research links, and various precedents set throughout the country.
Thanks to Kimberly, I learned that while this subject is fairly new to us all, there is a common thread set forth by both Boulder and Ypsilanti, MI, among others. The thread is this: we need to create energy efficient homes through energy efficiency audits and upgrades, prior to implementing alternative energies for any building. These measures include envelope sealing, HVAC equipment upgrades, appliance upgrades, and more efficient lighting equipment.
I have often used a similar line of thinking while speaking with potential solar customers with the simple analogy of turning up ones heat while simultaneously opening all of ones doors and windows. While we all realize the foolishness in the above scenario, we must work together in educating homeowners to pursue energy efficiency prior to considering solar, wind or geothermal alternatives.
This thinking was presented with our application, as the Barczak/Jernigan home was built twice as efficient as their Georgian neighbors’ homes. It is a new home, built on a previously empty lot within the historic district. And it is this fact, that the home is NOT an historic home, that seemed to allow the board to recommend an approval.
Thankfully, Jack Star attended the MPC meeting and spoke during the public comment period. He stressed the importance and timeliness for the board to consider the future allowances of solar PV and hot water applications within the historic district, including installation on historic buildings. It seems many on the board, most notably Joseph Steffen, are open to this discussion and future attempts at finding a good balance at the intersection of sustainability and historic preservation.
As Chatham County has produced a resolution to become the “greenest county in Georgia” and new Georgia tax credits have taken effect on July 1st, there is no time like the present to tackle this much needed dialogue and resolution. Community cooperation together with individual’s heightened responsibility towards environmental stewardship is the vehicle we need to drive implementation of alternative energy worldwide. The first steps, of course, always begin at home.
P.S. A very sincere thanks to all of the combined efforts that helped make this precedent ruling a reality: Sara and Anthony, their neighbors Anthony Alfonso, Tom Hoffman, and Gretchen Ernest, Bill Traver of OWS, Jack Star, all of the generous sharing of information by various planners across the country, and of course, the MPC Historic Review Board.