Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Old Buildings Combine Sustainability, Preservation

• June 06, 2011 • 4:00 AM

Studies suggest the greenest building is the one already built — a pleasing message for historic preservationists.

Much to the consternation of developers and redevelopment agencies intent on demolishing historic buildings and constructing new ones, these days, in the name of going green, preservationists are making the case that “the greenest building is the one already built.”

“When we first started working on sustainability issues and tried to get people thinking about the environmental value of reusing buildings, rather than tearing them down and building new ones, we were greeted with arched eyebrows and polite nodding heads,” explains Patrice Frey, director of sustainability research for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “That’s changing now.”

“This whole idea that reusing existing resources — especially historic buildings — is the ultimate in recycling is beginning to get some traction,” agrees Donovan Rypkema, one of America’s most prominent and outspoken preservationists, and author of the classic book in the field, The Economics of Historic Preservation: A Community Leader’s Guide.

Helping historic preservationists present their case are new studies that calculate what is lost — in measurable environmental terms — when we tear buildings down and replace them with new ones. Plenty of studies have demonstrated the merits of constructing new green buildings, but until recently, there’s been relatively little data available on the economic and environmental benefits of building reuse.

Some of the latest reports calculate both the enormous amount of energy and materials already locked into buildings (embodied energy), and the significant carbon emissions they represent.

Embodied energy is the energy consumed by all of the processes associated with the construction of a building, from the acquisition of natural resources to product delivery. This includes the mining and manufacturing of materials and equipment, plus their transport.

A discussion of embodied energy first arose during America’s energy crisis in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Embodied-energy researchers developed a handy calculation: By entering a building’s size and type (residential, commercial, hospital, etc.), it was easy to do the math and come up with a quick estimate of the amount of energy saved by preserving a building.

Embodied-energy calculations had little influence on the old-versus-new building debate, though because it was believed that the embodied energy content of a building was rather small compared to the energy used in operating the building over its life. Most conservation efforts were, therefore, put into reducing operating energy by improving the energy efficiency of the structure.

Nowadays, it’s accepted that embodied energy can be the equivalent of many years of operational energy, and that new construction requires enormous expenditures of energy and materials. A recent study by the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 30 to 40 percent of natural-resource extraction every year goes to the building industry.

Meanwhile, to the delight of preservationists, old buildings have been adjudged to be surprisingly energy efficient. U.S. Department of Energy research on the energy performance of existing buildings ascertained that commercial buildings constructed before 1920 use less energy per square foot than buildings from any other period of time except after 2000. Older buildings, it seems, were constructed with high thermal mass, passive heating and cooling. And, obviously, were built to last.

Some builders acknowledge that historic commercial buildings use less energy than buildings of more recent vintage but insist the exact opposite is true of homes — the older the home, the worse the energy consumption is likely to be.

Yes, but historic preservationists counter that recent studies show older homes can be remodeled and upgraded to meet energy standards at less cost — and at less cost to the environment — than tearing down and building new ones. That was the conclusion from a study in England by the Building and Social Housing Foundation and another in Scotland commissioned by Historic Scotland.

Both studies also looked at the carbon impacts of building new homes compared to retrofitting old ones. The BSHF study commissioned by the Empty Homes Agency found it could take as long as 35 to 50 years for a new green home to recover the carbon expended during the construction process, while the Historic Scotland estimate was 15 to 20 years.

“The idea that even the most energy-efficient new house could require a minimum of 15 years to recover carbon ought to be reason enough to give us pause,” says Frey, “and take a second look at retrofitting our existing housing stock.”

Preservationists admit there is still some fuzziness in how exactly embodied energy and carbon emissions are measured. Noting that well over 40 percent of the nation’s carbon emissions come from construction and operation of buildings, The National Trust for Historic Preservation launched its Preservation Green Lab in Seattle to conduct further research.

“The goal of research at Green Lab,” says Frey, “is to develop tools and resources to enable policymakers and decision-makers to get needed residential and commercial growth and at the same time protect what is already there.” (Run your dwelling through their embodied energy calculator here.)

Most everyone, though, remains resistant to reusing and retrofitting buildings. Architects like to start from scratch, developers don’t want the hassles of rehabbing existing buildings, and new construction is a mainstay of the U.S. economy.

“The most unenlightened in this regard are the traditional environmental advocates and the U.S. Green Building Council and their LEED certification,” Rypkema jabs. “If it isn’t about a waterless toilet, solar panels or saving the rain forest, those groups don’t think it’s about the environment.”

As Rypkema sees it, the environment and historic preservation have one thing in common: to understand their importance to society, you have to think long term. But in his experience, “The myopically short-term perspective of elected officials means they focus on the next election, not the next generation.

“Fortunately, much policy on the national, state and local levels is effectively set by boards, commissions and public employees. With the right set of arguments, they are persuadable.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

John McKinney
John McKinney is the author of 20 books about hiking, parklands and nature including "The Hiker's Way" and "A Walk Along Land's End: California on the Edge." After a long stint as the Los Angeles Times hiking columnist, John (aka The Trailmaster) now writes articles and commentaries about nature and outdoor recreation for magazines and online.

More From John McKinney

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.