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Lincoln's summer home offers a lesson in green building

WASHINGTON -- One hundred fifty years ago, there wasn't much the locals could do to escape the stifling heat of this city's August.

Public officials had more choices. They could steal away to leafy retreats on the city's fringes, enjoying a somewhat cooler summer as Washington slowed down for the hot season.

For three years of his presidency, Abraham Lincoln did just that. He took over a cottage at the third-highest spot in the city, a point chosen for its frequent breezes. As summer wore on, he studied and conducted the business of the Civil War in a house closely attuned to its surroundings.

Without the luxury of air conditioning, the cottage's designers had to be clever. They oriented the building so opening the home's large front doors and rear windows would invite a powerful cross-breeze. They installed tall windows with two sections -- a top half to expel warm air, and a bottom half to introduce it.

Last, they attached shutters to block the sun or let light in when necessary. Lace curtains kept out errant bugs.

Keeping the cottage comfortable took constant opening and shutting -- a task for Lincoln's paid servants, and one that computers can perform today. But the result was a home that made August more bearable without the need to use a single electron.

As big, energy-sucking buildings increasingly take the blame for the country's carbon footprint, one group wants to show that even century-old structures, like this one, contains wisdom that will help in the battle against climate change.

In 2001, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a group seeking to restore and protect historic sites, began work on Lincoln's cottage. For years, this crucial site of Lincoln's presidency had sat largely ignored behind the fences of a veterans' home, but the trust opened the restored version to the public in 2008.

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First, understand the climate you're in

The cottage's renovation could have been justified on historic grounds alone. But the trust had been reconsidering its mission in light of climate change. With the national building stock turning over no more than 3 percent a year, and with buildings accounting for 40 percent of CO2 emissions, old structures were a cornerstone of the climate problem. And none were older than the trust's.

"The buildings that have really caused global warming and climate change are the existing buildings, so we have to pay attention," said Barbara Campagna, an architect with the trust who is leading its work at the Soldiers' Home, the site of Lincoln's cottage. "We don't think we should get a pass for being historic or existing. We think if we set the standard and show everyone that if we can do it with our jewel buildings ... then anybody can do it."

One lesson to draw from the past, she said, is to build with an understanding of the climate you're in.

"Before World War II, we didn't have the ease of putting buildings anywhere we wanted and thinking we could live anywhere," she said. "So people were building in ways that would accommodate their climate, that would accommodate location, that would accommodate topography."

Then, between the 1950s and 1970s, a new gadget gained mass appeal. Much of today's building stock went up during this period, when builders had become convinced that air conditioning meant any house could fit any place.

"We all thought that we should be able to control and manage our spaces in terms of conditioning -- whether it was heating or cooling -- any way we wanted to," she said.

At the same time, Campagna said, this is what makes Lincoln's cottage genuinely green: It was built for a certain climate, and its location was chosen to accommodate that climate. That's the main reason why the trust is in talks with the U.S. Green Building Council as to whether it could achieve the nonprofit's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, label designed for existing buildings.

For most, the restored cottage gives visitors a chance to imagine Lincoln the man. Scholars say the cottage is where the president did much of his thinking about the Civil War -- which was often not going well. In some of its worst moments, the breezes blew in the sound of distant rebel cannon fire. He regularly hosted Cabinet members here, and it's thought that this is where he first drafted the Emancipation Proclamation.

The cottage gave him a panoramic view of the city, from the Capitol to the not-yet-completed Washington Monument. After the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, a newly designated cemetery also entered Lincoln's landscape, giving the president a clear view of the tombstones as they multiplied with each passing day.

The promise of buildings that have 'great bones'

Today's visitors, expecting a chilled museum experience, may walk away sweaty. As part of its renovation, the trust did install a small air conditioning system, but it only runs on the hottest days. "Quite frankly, it's a more authentic experience if you're a little hot," explained Erin Mast, the site's curator.

Another trust project, directly across Lincoln's lawn, has found a way to coexist with air conditioning. In 2004, the cottage staff called in the trust to work on a 1905 building that had formerly housed the offices for the Soldiers' Home. The goal was to make it a visitor center for the cottage, as well as to hold the staff.

As it was a less-historic building and would be a main gathering place for tourists, comfort and aesthetics became priorities. But the trust also found that the building's original design made it a ripe candidate for the trust's first-ever LEED project, Campagna said.

A broad central room, called an atrium, featured high windows that could be opened to release hot air. With so much light coming in through the ceiling, there was significantly less need for electrical lights. Transoms, smaller windows between rooms, offered people another way to get cross-ventilation.

The building would be outfitted with modern air conditioning and plumbing, including individual thermostats for the offices and low-flow toilets. But en route to the project's LEED Gold label, practically nothing was replaced. Walls, doors and windows were left standing. Fully 98 percent of the building's major features were left intact.

As some advocates have said, the greenest building is the one that's already built.

"We were just really lucky with a really sound building with great bones," Campagna, who directed the renovation, said. "When they built this building, they realized what the climate and weather was like in Washington, realized how hot and humid it was ... basically, everything could be restored."

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