Can Solar Panels Be Installed on Historic Properties? by@thomasneyhart

Can Solar Panels Be Installed on Historic Properties?

PosiGen CEO Thomas Neyhart HackerNoon profile picture

PosiGen CEO Thomas Neyhart

CEO and Co-founder of PosiGen, a provider of residential renewable energy and energy efficiency solutions.

Historic properties are lovely to look at and there are many reasons why people fight for their preservation in modern society. However, many of them don’t come with the energy-efficient features of today’s world. And with historic characteristics playing a key role in the possible remodeling of historic buildings, one must wonder what updates can be made. 

Recently, the historic Harvard Square atrium has been transformed with solar power updates. This opens the discussion of what type of remodeling is permitted on older buildings. This article will look at the Harvard Square atrium updates and other historic buildings that have gone solar in recent years. 

Harvard Square Atrium’s Solar Updates

The updates made on the Harvard Square atrium are quite unique and include a one-of-a-kind solar energy installation over the glass atrium that sits atop the roof. This will allow the roof to generate up to 66 kW of solar energy while still providing the open view to the sky that the building is known for. 

It also provides temperature control ensuring the space will be comfortable for the many conferences and functions it hosts. 

The building had been plagued with energy-related issues for years. Its energy-inefficient glass ceiling led to extreme temperatures on cold winter and hot summer days. 

To solve the problem, new atrium glass was installed along with solar panels that serve as a rain screen separate from the glass. The fact that the solar panels are separate from the glass means they can be replaced with more efficient solar panels as improvements are made in years to come.  

The translucent panels that were installed allow approximately 50% of sunlight to illuminate the atrium to provide natural lighting and heat while the panels produce their own solar energy. About 10kW of solar panels have been installed over the atrium glass while another 56 kW have been installed in the roof’s room and tower structures. The total power generated offsets a considerable amount of the neighborhood’s electricity consumption. 

Other updates made include the replacement of a failed passive solar hot water system installed on a 55-degree tower of the roof over 40 years ago. For the project to move forward, approval from the Cambridge Historic Commission was necessary. 

What are the Regulations for Solar Panels Installed on Historic Buildings?

The contractors at Harvard Square installed a solar panel separate from the glass allowing for clean energy usage without interfering with the historic characteristics of the building. But how do other historic buildings go solar while preserving their unique assets

Generally, if solar panels are installed in a location on the building that cannot be seen from the ground, they will be approved by the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. On the other hand, if an installation negatively impacts the property’s character, the proposal for remodeling is likely to be rejected. However, there are some gray areas, and every project must be considered accordingly. 

Here are some examples of how solar improvements were handled on various historic properties throughout the country. 

Gund Brewery, Wisconsin

The Gund Brewery underwent a rehabilitation project that included the installation of solar panels. The panels are visible from the parking lot, but they are located on top of a new addition located at the back of the property. The panels are consistent with the character of the historic site and, therefore, met with the Standards for Rehabilitation. 

Old Hilton Hotel, New Mexico

The Old Hilton Hotel is a large and prominent community landmark. Originally, a proposal was made that called for panels set at an angle that detracted from the roofline and its notable cornice detail. As a result, the angle of the panels was changed so they would not be as visible. 

Richmond & Chesapeake Railway Barn, Virginia

This historic barn was updated with two pole-mounted solar arrays installed near the back of the building. Because the site has an industrial look and the panels are obscured from primary viewpoints, the project was approved by the Secretary of the Interior. 

Vermont Residence

This historic apartment building was updated with low-profile solar collectors for the water heating system. They were flush mounted to the roof. The solar panels are visible, but, because the roof is not a prominent feature on the property, they do not have much impact on the building’s historical characteristics. 


Historic Buildings lend beauty and culture to a neighborhood. As such, their characteristics must be preserved over time, even when solar installations are made. Efforts are made to keep the properties in line with their original states making for a win-win situation. 

It is fortunate that the powers that be can work together to find a way to preserve history while bringing energy efficiency into the mix.

PosiGen CEO Thomas Neyhart HackerNoon profile picture
by PosiGen CEO Thomas Neyhart @thomasneyhart.CEO and Co-founder of PosiGen, a provider of residential renewable energy and energy efficiency solutions.
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