by Michael R. Allen
On May 21, the Preservation Board denied an application for solar collector installation from Robert Hiscox, owner of the Bastille bar at 1027 Russell in Soulard. Hiscox proposed installing black collector panels on the south-facing rear sloped roof of his building, shown at the center of the photograph above. Soulard is a local historic district governed by design standards last updated by ordinance in 1991.
The Soulard local historic district standards are not explicit about solar panels, which means that their installation requires a variance. The standards mandate that the character of sloped roofs be maintained through adherence to one of several times of approved roofing (most of which were not in use before 1900, I might point out). In a few instances, the Cultural Resources Office (CRO) has recommended that the Preservation Board grant a variance, and the Board has done just that. This time, however, CRO recommended denial of a variance based on the public visibility of the Bastille’s street-facing rear roof.
In her report to the Preservation Board, CRO Director Betsy Bradley wrote that “Russell Avenue is one of the wider streets in the district and links the historic district with interstate highway access and neighborhoods to the west, and therefore a street important in the perception of the historic character of the Soulard district.” Certainly, the Bastille’s roof is very visible and panels would change the visual character of the block. The Preservation Board made the right decision based on the current standards, which need to be rewritten to provide clear rules about solar collectors.
In an article by David Hunn in last week’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch, there is discussion of the need to revise the Soulard standards and other local district standards to create definite guidelines for the use of energy efficient technologies like solar collectors. Should new standards permit solar collectors to be installed on street-facing roofs? Perhaps. Standing-seam galvanized roofing was once a roofing material widely used on gable roofs in Soulard. A manufacturers’ challenge is to make solar panels that could mimic such a material, which could then be incorporated in revised standards.
Yet another consideration came from my colleague Mike Jackson at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, who e-mailed me after the story came out. Mike made the point that solar panels’ efficiency are generally only 10%, making them far less “green” than they seem. Purchasing power from regional off-site sustainable sources like wind farms, while undertaking efficiency measures on building envelopes, actually is more efficient for historic building owners than a few solar panels. Solar panels will become more efficient, but they may not be the greenest way to enhance historic buildings. Thus we should be careful when revising local district standards based on current technology.