Menus Subscribe Search

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

July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


July 23 • 11:49 AM

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.


July 23 • 10:00 AM

Outing the Death-Drug Distributors

Calling all hackers: It’s time to go Assange on capital punishment.


July 23 • 8:00 AM

The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.



July 23 • 6:00 AM

How the Other Half Lifts: What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class

Why can’t triathletes and weightlifters get along?


July 23 • 5:02 AM

Battle of the Public Intellectuals: Edward Glaeser vs. Richard Florida

On gentrification and housing costs.


July 23 • 4:00 AM

Our Fear of Immigrants

Why did a group of fourth graders rally in support of an undocumented classmate while the citizens of Murrieta, California, tried to stop immigrant children from entering their town?


July 22 • 4:00 PM

Can Meditation Really Slow Aging?

Is there real science in the spiritualism of meditation? Jo Marchant meets a Nobel Prize-winner who thinks so.



July 22 • 2:00 PM

The Alabama Judge Who Refuses to Let Desegregation Orders Go Ignored

A federal judge in Alabama says a local school board has failed to meet legal mandate to integrate.


July 22 • 12:00 PM

On the Destinations of Species

It’s almost always easier to cross international borders if you’re something other than human.


July 22 • 10:51 AM

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.


July 22 • 10:47 AM

Irrational Choice Theory: The LeBron James Migration From Miami to Cleveland

Return migrants to Cleveland have been coming home in large numbers for quite some time. It makes perfect sense.


July 22 • 9:32 AM

This Time, Scalia Was Right

President Obama’s recess appointments were wrong and, worse, dangerous.


July 22 • 8:00 AM

On Vegas Strip, Blackjack Rule Change Is Sleight of Hand

Casino operators are changing blackjack payouts to give the house an even greater advantage. Is this a sign that Vegas is on its way back from the recession, or that the Strip’s biggest players are trying to squeeze some more cash out of visitors before the well runs dry?


July 22 • 6:00 AM

Label Me Confused

How the words on a bag of food create more questions than answers.


July 22 • 5:07 AM

Doubly Victimized: The Shocking Prevalence of Violence Against Homeless Women

An especially vulnerable population is surveyed by researchers.


July 22 • 4:00 AM

New Evidence That Blacks Are Aging Faster Than Whites

A large study finds American blacks are, biologically, three years older than their white chronological counterparts.



July 21 • 4:00 PM

Do You Have to Learn How to Get High?

All drugs are socially constructed.


July 21 • 2:14 PM

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

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