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Sustainability & Historic Preservation

Houston Public Library
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Innovation Summary

Houston Public Library has had great success with achieving sustainability goals through historic preservation. By choosing to invest in restoring our older buildings, we reap rewards in high-performing, award-winning, well-loved libraries with all the “green” features we are seeking.

Problem Statement

HPL has a sizable stock of buildings over fifty years old, many of which were built to be durable and climate-friendly. As the systems in these buildings reach the end of their usable life, a decision must be made regarding their future service. Reusing these buildings often requires higher levels of expertise and care in design and construction. Additional cost may be a factor, such as the expense of abating asbestos and lead paint or of restoring historical detail. However, we have found that these existing buildings have the sustainable features we are seeking in our new libraries, such as daylighting, optimal solar orientation, and durable materials. The structure and building envelope can be effectively reused. Also, there is public support from the community served by the library, as well as elected officials, to keep our older, well-loved library buildings. By saving these treasures, our customers have the opportunity to share in the generational attachments to the community’s “third place."


Four green library projects with historic buildings have recently been completed and certified in the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. (1) The African American Library at the Gregory School was reopened in 2009 and has obtained LEED Gold Certification. This former school, built in 1926 especially for African American children, was so dilapidated that no one believed it could or would be restored. It is now a welcoming historical center that features archives, exhibits, and programs of African American history and culture. The project received a local award for historic preservation. (2) The Oak Forest Neighborhood Library reopened in 2011, renovated with a new wing. It has since received LEED Gold Certification. Its stylish, mid-Century décor houses all the latest technology and services. This library is loved by its community and has received local awards for real estate development, preservation, and design. (3) The historic 1917 home complex at the Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research reopened in 2008 and has since received LEED Silver Certification. The campus is being rented for weddings and parties, and the complex serves as an extension of the genealogical library for records processing, microfilm reading, and offices. The project received local awards for both design and preservation. (4) The sumptuous, Spanish colonial Julia Ideson Building reopened downtown in 2011, after three years of addition and restoration, and is expected to receive LEED Silver Certification this year. A new generation is discovering this 1926 City treasure. The building has become a popular event venue for meetings, parties, and weddings. It houses priceless local archives in a state-of-the-art, climate-controlled new wing and a digitization lab. The project has received several awards for design, preservation, real estate, and it has been featured in a number of publications.


Our award-winning projects benefit from built-in, sustainable features in their original design. The Gregory School and the Clayton home complex both had cypress window frames, perfect for the local climate. These were able to be restored and reused, and will last many more decades. All four projects included well-conceived site plans, maximizing daylight while minimizing solar heat gain. By adding insulation, restoring clay tile roofs, and adding reflective roofing on flat roofs, these buildings have become highly-energy efficient. These buildings are filled with natural light, requiring much less artificial light and creating a more welcoming, usable environment for library activities. Roof overhangs limit glare and heat gain. The buildings’ durable brick exteriors will continue to ward off the elements for generations to come. The distinctive architecture of these buildings has great appeal for customers and neighbors. The high levels of artistry in these historic landmarks make people feel these are special places in which they are valued. Historic preservation, combined with sustainability, garners community support across the political spectrum. Conservative-thinkers love the reuse of these existing treasures, and progressives appreciate sustainable features that will continue to perform in the future. Budgets for high-quality materials and craftsmanship are easier to defend when they support a well-loved landmark. Civic officials and citizens agree that these buildings are significant to the history and culture of the city and recognize that they must be built to serve the public for a long period of time. They are each uniquely different, welcoming, durable, energy-efficient, and easy to maintain. We have proven that historic preservation and sustainability go hand-in-hand for state of the art, award winning library buildings.