In a case that was widely reported in local media, the City Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) narrowly allowed installation of 45 photovoltaic solar panels on a historic home at the corner of Mission and Eagleland.  32 of these panels will be on roof surfaces that are not easily seen from the public right-of-way, consistent with most installations approved by HDRC in King William and other historic districts.  Because the house is on a corner lot, however, 13 panels will be visible from Eagleland, and these panels have been a source of controversy.

For the record, we present statements by Mickey Conrad, architect and chair of the KWA Architectural Advisory Committee, and by former state representative Mike Villarreal, owner and resident of the house.  As this newsletter goes to press, we understand that the HDRC will discuss guidelines for solar installations in historic districts at their February 17 meeting.

Striving for a Balance of  Preservation and Sustainability

In the introduction to the City of San Antonio Historic Design Guidelines, Shannon Shae Miller, Historic Preservation Officer, provides good answers to the question “Why Preserve?”  Shannon cites the benefits of preservation on several levels including cultural, economic and environmental.  The Guidelines are plainly written and help anyone wanting answers to basic questions about preservation and how to go about it.  They can be accessed online at: sanantonio.gov/portals/0/Files/HistoricPreservation/1_UsingtheHistoricDesignGuidelines.pdf

The Guidelines provide clarity in our pursuit of preservation as stated in the KWA’s Mission Statement.  With the King William and S. Alamo/S. St. Mary’s Historic Districts both being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, preservation is our duty and privilege.  The Guidelines address alterations, additions, landscaping, site elements, signage and new construction, including designing for solar panels.  

Sustainable and energy efficient technologies are making great progress in America.  Initiatives to conserve resources are moving in the right direction by recycling, reusing and reducing.  We value collecting and using water from our roofs.  Some of us brag on how efficient our air conditioners are and how well our walls are insulated. We all enjoy reduced energy bills and a few of us are making the investment to install solar panels on the roofs of our homes to harvest energy from the sun. 

The KWA Architectural Advisory Committee (AAC) has enjoyed seeing our neighbor’s plans to install solar panels.  Obviously, since the term “solar panel” was not even in the vocabulary of the designers and builders of our historic homes, it takes thoughtful planning to sensitively integrate this 21st century technology on the roofs of our 19th century structures without looking out of place and compromised.  

Most of the solar panel installations the AAC has reviewed were designed to be in keeping with the Historic Design Guidelines that promote a balance of minimizing the view of the panels while maximizing solar orientation.  Panels should not be placed on roofs that face a street. They should be located on roofs that face the side or back yards, where they’re not readily seen from the street, other public right-of-way or the River Walk.  In some cases, existing trees help to screen panels from streets without blocking the path of sunlight to them.  

Unfortunately, a few of the solar projects proposed had panels located in clear view from the street, which would be an unfortunate detraction from the historic character of the home.  In these cases the AAC offers suggestions to integrate the solar arrays without diminishing the historic character of the home.

Like other improving technologies, we should expect the future of solar energy harvesting to become progressively efficient, cost effective and less obtrusive when integrating them into our historic homes.  Until then, we will continue to strive for a balance of preservation and sustainability with the technology we have today.

 - Mickey Conrad, AIA, LEED AP BD+C
Chair, KWA Architectural Advisory Committee