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

October 1 • 2:00 PM

Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It. Why Is This Widely Denied?

The idea that addiction is typically a chronic, progressive disease that requires treatment is false, the evidence shows. Yet the “aging out” experience of the majority is ignored by treatment providers and journalists.


October 1 • 1:00 PM

Midlife Neuroticism Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease in Old Age

New research from Sweden suggests that the personality dimension is connected to who ultimately suffers from late-in-life dementia.



October 1 • 11:11 AM

The Creative Class Boondoggle in Downtown Las Vegas

On Tony Hsieh and the pseudoscience of “collisions.”


October 1 • 9:14 AM

Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.


October 1 • 6:00 AM

Would You Like a Subscription With Your Coffee?

A new app hopes to unite local coffee shops while helping you find a cheap cup of good coffee.


October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


Follow us


Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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