“Once you have that floor out, what is the increased expense to make the slab insulated and get an extra LEED point? It is an extra $1,000. And then you say, ‘Well, that is simply a good building practice’; we likely would have done it anyway. These were the type of green selections that were easy for us to make. The really tough decisions were those that were required in order to achieve a high LEED rating that you otherwise would not have wanted.”
A good example of one such tough decision would be the LEED requirement that all of the home’s walls be entirely opened up, insulated and inspected before the wallboard is installed again. This requirement precludes a possible decision to opt to blow in insulation down a closed wall cavity while building a very tight addition to the house. But since the aim was to get LEED certified, all walls of the existing house were gutted and insulated with an expanding open-cell, soy-based foam insulation. This requirement added substantial time and cost to the project and is the key difference between a green remodel and a remodel that achieved LEED Platinum certification.
“With LEED, you cannot do half a house,” Landis explains. “You have to do the whole thing. Overall LEED for Homes is a great, very well thought out, very well tested, sophisticated regime, but it is not a building code. It is not a process where you open the book and follow A to Z and come out the other end with a superior product. It is somewhat interpretive. In this situation if someone comes to the table with the right attitude. And they want the best, or certainly an excellent product, at the end of it; it is a great system in which to achieve that outcome.”
Anyone who walks the streets of the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. is struck by its many charms — the cobblestone streets, the tree-lined sidewalks and an unrivaled collection of 18th- and 19th-century homes that provide a perfectly preserved streetscape dating from a bygone era. These charms did not happen by accident. They are the result of a rigid set of preservation codes enforced by no less than three separate bodies of preservationists who oversee all alterations to building facades throughout the district. Like Washington’s many federal monuments, the Georgetown district falls under the jurisdiction of the federal government’s Fine Arts Council.
Within that council, a separate subcommittee is devoted to hearings and approvals relating to Georgetown. The third layer of preservationists is the Washington, D.C., Historic Preservation Review Board. Brother and partner Chris Landis, AIA, is a member of this board, but his presence there was of little consequence in this case because the Georgetown group’s recommendations are usually rubber stamped by the other two.
Getting a project through the historic preservation process can be cumbersome and can potentially impose costly delays if the project needs to go back to the commission repeatedly in order to win final approval. In this case, says
Landis, the process took two presentations to the committee to win approval. But the commission meets only once per month and does not meet at all in the month of August, so timing is a major factor. Ironically, the home is not nearly as old as most of the neighboring structures, many of which date to the early 1800s. This house was built in 1900, well after the neighborhood was already built, but since all of Georgetown falls under the jurisdiction of preservationists, so too did this house.
“The owners did not buy this house because it was historic,” says Landis. “That was not their initial goal. However, it became clear very quickly that we’d have to work with the historic authorities. Our clients were not going to try to get around any rules.
They just wanted to know the balance between historic and green. And it became clear very quickly that there is no balance. Historic trumps everything when it comes to the façade of a house like this.”
Very little about a Georgetown façade can be altered, says Ethan Landis. If a home was originally built with painted wood siding, then its renovation must also use painted wood siding that matches the original. This goes for windows as well. In most cases, they cannot be changed out, not even for the most architecturally correct replicas which can be achieved by many leading window manufacturers. Instead, says Ethan Landis, each of the original windows in the front of the house had to be restored. Broken weights had to be fixed. Old paint needed to be stripped away and replaced in order to make them operable. Lastly full-lite, custom-made wood storm windows were made to fit as tightly as possible for each existing window.