A recent article in the September 15, 2008 edition of Newsweek, entitled “The Bad News About Green Architecture” has sparked quite some lively discussions both around here as well in some areas of the preservation community read the article hereThe author, Cathleen McGuigan, outlines her disdain for green architecture – in her words: “I can’t stand the hype, the marketing claims, the smug list of green features that supposedly transform a garden-variety new building into a structure fit for Eden. Grassy roofs? Swell! Recycled gray water to flush the toilets? Excellent! But if 500 employees have to drive 40 miles a day to work in the place – well, how green is that?“
By citing examples of green building that embody cutting-edge technology but burn through non-renewable resources to construct and maintain, she lays out a good case that some of the so-called “green” architecture is an oxymoron in action. However, she missed out on a stellar opportunity to discuss one of the greenest of all construction options: adaptive re-use and preservation.
Recycle buildings? YES.
Although preservation doesn’t get a lot of attention as a sustainable design or “green” building technique, there are connections everywhere. Preservation has always been a green activity. New construction, no matter how green it is, uses valuable resources and energy and also creates waste. Furthermore, while the value of newer, greener construction can’t be overlooked, it is crucial to understand that many of these technologies are able to be applied to existing buildings.
The demolition of buildings in the US generates at least 124 million tons of debris a year, all which ends up in a landfill. Reusing existing buildings lessens demands and conserves embodied energy in structures. In terms of energy use, many older buildings are already quite energy-efficient due to the quality of their construction. Traditional features such as operable shutters, courtyards, double-hung windows with operable upper and lower sash, porches, real masonry construction, and appropriate roof pitch naturally help to keep a building warm in winter and/or cool in summer. These attributes can contribute to reductions in energy usage and can even be retrofitted with newer technologies to continue to reduce their environmental footprint.
These factors are especially relevant in areas experiencing stagnant or negative population trends – the spread of a region’s shrinking population across a broader and broader geographic area results in the decline of existing buildings and neighborhoods. Revitalizing and reinvestment in existing communities instead of continuing sprawl utilizes uses the already-existing infrastructure such as roads, water and sewer lines and encourages more walkable neighborhoods as opposed to suburban developments which have contributed to our automobile-reliant lifestyle and increased use of fossil fuels.
The National Trust for Preservation and The Landmark Society of Western New York have long been touting sustainable reuse as another alternative. Conservation and improvement of our existing building stock is logical, economically sound and environmentally responsible. Readers can find out more about this on our website, https://www.landmarksociety.org/ or on the National Trust’s website of http://www.preservationnation.org/, where much of the information I’ve quoted here is gleaned from.
The environmental value of the reuse, or continued use, of historic buildings gets much less attention than it should. We were hopeful that Ms. McGuigan would point this out while discussing the irony a “green” palace in Vegas whose visitors use tons of jet fuel to reach. We (Katie Eggers Comeau, Landmark Society Advocacy Coordinator, and I) sent a letter to the editor of Newsweek saying the same.
posted by Laura Keeney Zavala, Director of Marketing