Renewing Historic Facades

Restoring Character and Achieving High Performance



Photo of Christine Reynolds, PE

Christine Reynolds, PE


Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates (WJE), Inc.

Photo of Hans Thummel, AIA, LEED AP BD+C

Hans Thummel, AIA, LEED AP BD+C




As the first phase of a $4 billion dollar, 180-acre, 60 building government preservation project in Washington DC, this case study reviews the envelope strategies employed for the adaptive reuse of nine (9) buildings dating from 1856 to 1926. The strategies were investigated and analyzed to meet the overall goals mandated by the federal requirements of the project, including:

  • Maintain the historic fabric and character-defining features of the buildings and grounds comprising this National Historic Landmark
  • Identify and evaluate differing strategies for the improvement of envelope thermal performance as required by General Service Administration (GSA) and federal funding requirements.
  • Select and implement the optimal envelope improvements to reduce overall energy consumption
  • Strengthen roofs, windows and unreinforced mass masonry facades to resist blast pressures while maintaining historic character
  • Integrate on-site renewable energy sources into the building envelope

The utilized research methods included:

  • WUFI and other hygrothermal and thermal analysis (by others) of through-wall heat loss, vapor migration and condensation potential
  • Energy modeling based on the envelope improvement solutions that were implemented to confirm LEED Gold certification
  • ASTM E783 air infiltration testing before and after wood window restoration to determine the overall improvement with respect to air infiltration

Results indicate that the chosen strategies provided the same or better efficiencies as would be obtained by new construction and make a compelling case for the reuse of existing buildings as an attractive, sustainable alternative to demolition.


This case study covers the upgrades to individual buildings on a federally operated and abandoned mental health institution as they were repurposed to accommodate the headquarters for the Department of

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St Elizabeths was created in 1852 and became the first federal psychiatric hospital in the United States advocating for the ethical and humane treatment of the mentally ill. Following the

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The adaptive reuse at St. Elizabeths was undertaken with the mandate to:

Consolidate the twenty two (22) individual agencies of DHSProvide modern and secure work environmentsMeet and exceed current standards for

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Solar thermal panels were but one energy improvement strategy that needed evaluation. The mechanical engineer of record developed virtual computer energy models to parametrically study all of these variables. Mechanical

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Exterior Walls and Roofs

Installation of spray foam insulation at the interior facing sides of the exterior walls increased the overall R-value of the walls beyond current code mandated targets and

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Conclusions and Future Work

After 5 years of occupancy, the authors, in conjunction with the owner’s management team, have been able review and evaluate each building’s overall performance. The main points of interest are

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Rights and Permissions

1. American Society for Testing and Materials. ASTM E783: Standard Test Method for Field Measurement of Air Leakage Through Installed Exterior Windows and Doors.

2. American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers. ASHRAE 90.1 Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings, Table 5.5-1.

3. Maurenbrechecr, Shirtliffe, Rousseau, and Saïd. “Monitoring the Hygrothermal Performance of a Masonry Wall with and without Thermal Insulation”, Sept. 10, 1998.