Town House roof could go solar

  • The current slate roof of the Town House. Staff photo by Ashley Saari

  • Tesla expects to release solar panels that mimic the look of slate roofing tiles in 2018.  Photo courtesy of Tesla

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What place does energy conservation have in the context of historical preservation?

“It’s a really interesting question,” said Dejit Taylor, the executive director of the state’s Land and Community Heritage Investment Program, or LCHIP, which provides grant funding for historical restoration or land conservation projects. “It’s something the historic preservation community hasn’t really figured out how to deal with.”

But LCHIP may have to make a determination on the issue soon, as Peterborough selectmen are interested in incorporating solar improvements to the upcoming replacement of the slate roof on the Town House. 

At Town Meeting last week, voters approved a $1 million bond to do repairs and renovation on the historic Town House — including the roof. The town anticipates submitting an application to LCHIP in hopes of covering a portion of the cost. But receiving LCHIP grant funds would also require that the town agrees to follow historic preservation guidelines in its work, and it’s not yet clear whether changing the roofing material would be allowable.

The board, however, was interested in having that conversation with LCHIP, and to pursue solar panel tiles as an option if it doesn’t impact potential grant funding.

Taylor said LCHIP doesn’t have a precedent for whether or not it would allow such a change. In her time as executive director, she has only seen one application that sought to install solar as part of a historic restoration project, said Taylor, and ultimately, that application was not chosen to receive grant funding.

“This is the first time that specific question has come up,” said Taylor. “Probably because until recently, there have not been the options that would make it possible. But solar technology is advancing.”

Taylor said LCHIP relies on the Department of Interior’s standards for historic preservation, restoration and repair as a guiding document. The standards do not specifically have guidelines relating to solar panels, but do not recommend “altering the roof and roofing materials which are important in defining the overall historic character of the building so that, as a result, the character is diminished.” Whether a change that is aesthetically similar but materially different would be considered to diminish the building’s character would have to be determined.

Peterborough Town Administrator Rodney Bartlett said that the town will research the issue to present LCHIP with the information.

“There’s work to be done, and it’s a new horizon for LCHIP to look at,” said Bartlett. “Really, the first step is to determine whether that’s acceptable to the standards of the Department of Interior.”

Select board chair Tyler Ward, who also serves as the board’s liaison to the Heritage Commission as well as being a former member of the commission, said that he doesn’t see this kind of innovation as detrimental to the building’s historic value.

“It wouldn’t be like putting vinyl siding over a historic building,” he said. “We need to think about the future. The roof is one of the most expensive things we’ll ever have to replace on this building. We want to do it once, and do it right, and if we can get additional value out of it, that’s a good thing.”

Bartlett noted that Tesla is one of the companies that is currently producing solar panels that imitate roofing materials – their smooth and textured tiles are already on the market, and tiles mimicking slate and Tuscan-style tiles are expected to be released for the market early in 2018.

The current prices for the solar tiles on the market are competitive with the cost of an asphalt roof, when considering energy savings over the projected life of the roof, according to Consumer Reports. Though the slate tiles are not yet on the market, Consumer Reports speculated that slate, due to heavy weight and difficult installation, may be the closest in terms of cost to replace with solar tiles.

Currently, its $21.85 per square foot of the solar tiles on the market. The roof would consist of a mix of solar tiles and non-solar tiles, and the total cost is dependent upon the mix, based on how much energy the building consumes. Slate roofing ranges between $15-$21 per square foot for materials.

Peterborough doesn’t have zoning related to historic districts, or restraints on historic buildings, according to planning board chair Ivy Vann. The Town House is on the National Register of Historic Places, but this status doesn’t include strict protections or requirements, and mostly serves as an honorary status that may serve as a grant or federal funds incentive. According to the National Parks Service, which administers the National Register of Historic Places, “a property owner can do whatever they want with their property as long as there are no federal monies attached to the property.”