Blending Solar into our Historic Landscape

Those of us who make our home in New England are proud of our region’s Yankee spirit and our rich architectural history. With each generation, our antique homes, storefronts, and industrial sites are stymied with changes in technology that have the potential to impair their historical essence. Protecting this architectural history is in the domain of New Hampshire’s Historic District commissions. There are currently 56 local Historic Districts in New Hampshire, each with a governing commission comprised of volunteers who serve to offer technical assistance to property owners. It is the task of these commissions to preserve the landscape and the historic character and quality of the properties in their care.

Naturally, protecting the historical nature of an area often comes in conflict with contemporary lifestyles and needs. Established Historic Districts are currently being challenged to respond to this new era of green technology.  Insulated windows, spray foam insulation, mechanical ventilation, and now solar modules are some of the issues historic districts have had to recently grapple with. Solar is now in the lexicon of our local landscape. We have seen its emergence here in the Monadnock region with rooftop and ground-mounted modules for electrical energy production via Photovoltaics (PV). To a lesser extent, we have seen solar hot water (SHW) with its larger and bulkier rooftop collectors find a place as well.
But can they fit into historic properties? Do they belong there? I believe that the answer is (often) YES! Done correctly, solar installations can be carefully integrated into our sensitive historic areas. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Department of the Interior gives us some guidance.

Generally, solar panels should not be installed on a principal façade of a building that faces a public right of way. Preferably, solar panels should be installed on an area that is least visible to the public such as on a new addition on the property, like a garage. Perhaps a ground-mounted installation could be partially concealed in a backyard. Solar panels and mounting systems that match the roof’s color
scheme and have a lower profile are encouraged. The industry itself has responded to the increased demand and is slowly making more unobtrusive designs available. So it is possible for solar panels to be installed so they are the least obtrusive while still efficiently collecting solar radiation.

Having had a part in founding one of the first solar installation companies in the region (Solar Source) I saw our home, business, and industrial customers very happy with their solar energy investment. Having an electrical power plant or hot water production apparatus on their own roof spoke strongly to their sense of monetary independence and self-reliance. It also fostered a deeper sense of
environmental stewardship. They became a valuable team partner in the reduction of fossil fuels while reducing the critical carbon footprint of our planet. As the cost for solar PV has become considerably more affordable in recent years, property owners in these historic areas want to capitalize on the monetary as well as the environmental benefits. Preservationists by nature, they seek to not only
preserve their homes and properties, but they also want to play their part in preserving our environment. I have always found these words to be the most instructive: “A historic district is not the same as an outdoor museum. It is not frozen in time, nor is its purpose to
bring everything back to a particular time period. The purpose of a historic district is to ensure that new construction and significant renovation are respectful of existing character.” NH Preservation Alliance Handbook. Indeed, I believe that the addition of solar panels, if done correctly, can be respectful of the existing character. Ultimately, it comes down to how well a local historic commission knows the emotional pulse of its own community and is mindful of the most effective ways to serve it.

Doug Walker is a Board member of the Monadnock Sustainability Hub and the Harrisville Historic Commission.