February 8, 2008

That Old Building May Be the Greenest on the Block

by James T. Kienle, FAIA
AIA Historic Resources Committee

Summary: When was the last time you saw any kind of architecture publication that did not have something on sustainability? It is difficult to be an architect today and not know about sustainability and the green building movement. Even if you do not have LEED® behind your name, you know what LEED is, and you or your clients—even some state and local governments—are demanding that your projects be LEED certified. But in our haste to make all things green, we may be losing the bigger picture.

Green buildings are but part of a larger and more comprehensive landscape of conservation and sustainable development. The President’s Council on Sustainable Development set 10 goals, including health and the environment, economic prosperity, conservation of nature, and stewardship. Goal Six, “Sustainable Communities,” requires us to “encourage people to work together to create healthy communities where natural and historic resources are preserved, jobs are available, sprawl is contained, neighborhoods are secure, education is lifelong, transportation and health care are accessible, and all citizens have opportunities to improve the quality of their lives.”

In our haste to make all things green, we may be losing the bigger picture

Yet some architects, so proud of their LEED-certified buildings, don’t seem to think that the old building razed to make way for the new is even part of the equation. The LEED rating system certainly does not subtract points for the loss of the embodied energy in the old building or the energy expended in razing and carting it away to the landfill. Nor does it give points for salvaging “first growth” wood or masonry materials to be used elsewhere. Actually, LEED metrics don’t really account for a great deal of the green aspects found in historic buildings, making it more difficult than it should be to achieve LEED certification when renovating, restoring, or adding to a historic structure … potentially tipping the scale toward replacement due to the metrics rather than the actual sustainability.

Are we heading toward an “uh-oh”?
The summer 2007 issue of Preservation Architect, the newsletter of the AIA Historic Resources Committee, reported that members of the AIA, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Association for Preservation Technology, and National Park Service met with representatives from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to “encourage greater understanding of the benefits of preservation and rehabilitation of the existing building stock—in particular historic buildings—as a green building practice and develop methods and metrics to reflect these values in LEED rating systems.” James J. Malanaphy III, AIA, indicated: “USGBC acknowledges there are important aspects currently absent in the LEED rating systems—including historic preservation, smart growth, and cultural value.”

One other word might come to mind when listening to those who envision a brave new world filled with environmentally friendly new buildings: Uh-ohThe potential results of ignoring the need to balance the new construction of green buildings with sustaining and improving the existing built environment has prompted Wayne Curtis to write in “A Cautionary Tale“ in Preservation magazine: ”One might be tempted to compare the recent green wave with the rise of Modernism more than a half-century ago. Planners and architects back then didn’t just want buildings to look different; they also wanted to change the direction society was headed. The old ways of thinking were outmoded. Yesterday’s buildings solved yesterday’s problems; new buildings were needed to solve the problems of today—and tomorrow. Of course, many people will recall what happened to America’s historic fabric the last time we undertook a nationwide revamping of the built landscape. The result was urban renewal, and it left many of our best urban areas in tatters and many of our historic buildings in piles of rubble. And though hardly anyone would argue against the need to reduce our consumption of dwindling resources, one other word might come to mind when listening to those who envision a brave new world filled with environmentally friendly new buildings: Uh-oh.”

Encouraging news, but greater consideration needed
Some of us old preservationists are more than a bit concerned that until the LEED rating system takes the sustainable aspects of older buildings into greater consideration, good intentioned efforts toward mandating sustainable design potentially could have similarly disastrous outcomes for historic structures as we saw in the 1960s–1980s. In my state of Indiana, it recently took a group of genteel 70-, 80-, and 90-year-old women to make a “naked ladies” calendar to raise enough money and awareness to save their county courthouse. And that was before the cost of LEED mandates was added into the equation.

It recently took a group of genteel 70-, 80- and 90-year-old women to make a “naked ladies” calendar to raise enough money and awareness to save their county courthouse

There is proposed legislation before the Indiana General Assembly that would require a LEED Silver level for all new public construction and any modification to existing public structures. With the current LEED metrics giving little credit for the inherent “greenness” of historic structures and no penalties for environmental impact of discarding the old structures, one might expect some county commissioners to prefer to sell or demolish rather than refurbish existing public structures.

The AIA HRC article on the meeting of preservation groups with the USGBC indicated that the outcomes of the meeting were positive, and all attending demonstrated a willingness to make substantial progress toward shared goals. This is encouraging news. But until the LEED rating system changes, the responsibility falls to our profession to take the leadership in educating our clients and the public about the inherent green nature of historic buildings.

Are old buildings ungreen?
Wayne Curtis also writes: “New green buildings, brimming with the latest in modern technology, are perceived to be on one side; the old buildings, full of quaint, inefficient technologies and drafty windows, are on the other. Which leads one to ask: Just how “ungreen” and energy inefficient are those older buildings? … Not very, it turns out. The reputation of older structures as energy sieves, in short, is simply not justified by the data.”

Most buildings built before World War II have features that are inherently energy efficient and sustainable

Stephen Farneth, FAIA, likewise points out in “Sustaining the Past: Guidelines for Historic Preservation Shouldn’t Have to Clash With LEED Requirements, Since Preservation and Sustainability Share Many Similar Goals,” in GreenSource magazine that “sustainability and historic preservation share many underlying values, such as an emphasis on resource conservation and energy efficiency. Most buildings built before World War II have features that are inherently energy efficient and sustainable, such as excellent cross-ventilation, operable windows, extensive use of glazing, and awnings to mitigate solar heat gain. Buildings built after World War II frequently rely heavily on mechanical systems for climate control. Many have been sited without consideration for natural lighting or ventilation and lack insulation or thermal mass. Nevertheless, while it can be difficult to balance preservation and sustainability for Modernist buildings, many are worth the extra effort.”

Sustainable means old and new
The larger picture of sustainability and green architecture must acknowledge the existing environment in considering the overall impact of proposed construction. Donovan Rypkema of PlaceEconomics says: “Razing historic buildings results in a triple hit on scarce resources. First, we throw away thousands of dollars of embodied energy. Second, we are replacing it with materials vastly more consumptive of energy. What are most historic structures built from? Brick, plaster, concrete, and timber. What are among the least energy consumptive of materials? Brick, plaster, concrete, and timber. What are major component of new buildings? Plastic, steel, vinyl, and aluminum. What is the most energy consumptive of materials? Plastic, steel, vinyl, and aluminum. Third, recurring embodied energy savings increase dramatically as a building life stretches over 50 years. You’re a fool or a fraud if you say you are an environmentally conscious builder and yet are throwing away historic buildings, and their components.”

Architects must understand that new green buildings are but one of the factors along with historic and natural resource integration that provides the full answer to a sustainable built environment

Architects are front and center in the Green Building Movement in support of sustainable communities, and therefore must understand that new green buildings are but one of the factors, along with historic and natural resource integration, that provides the full answer to a sustainable built environment. It is important to understand the full impacts of demolishing existing structures, from the embodied energy that is destroyed, to the inherent sustainability of the materials being discarded, to the many features of historic structures that are inherently green. In addition, the impacts on local culture and values should be considered, as suggested by the President’s Council on Sustainability. And it is our responsibility, if we claim to support sustainable design, to understand these issues fully while incorporating them into our practice and educating others.

Ultimately, as Carl Elefante, AIA, LEED-AP, eloquently says, “We can not build our way to sustainability; we must conserve our way to it.”


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The statements expressed in the article reflect the author’s own views and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the American Institute of Architects. Publication of this article should not be deemed or construed to constitute AIA approval, sponsorship, or endorsement.

Further reading
“A Cautionary Tale,“ by Wayne Curtis, Preservation magazine, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Washington D.C., Jan/Feb 2008

“The Greenest Building Is … One That Is Already Built,“ by Carl Elefante, AIA, LEED-AP, Forum journal, National Trust For Historic Preservation, Washington D.C., Summer 2007

“Sustaining the Past: Guidelines For Historic Preservation Shouldn’t Have To Clash With LEED Requirements, Since Preservation and Sustainability Share Many Similar Goals,“ by Stephen Farneth, FAIA, GreenSource magazine, GreenSource.Construction.Com, McGraw Hill. October 2007

“NTHP Sustainable Preservation Coalition Meeting with USGBC,” by James J. Malanaphy, AIA, Preservation Notes, the newsletter of the Historic Resources Committee, the American Institute of Architects, Washington, D.C., Summer 2007

Sustainable America—A New Consensus, President’s Council on Sustainable Development, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C., February 1996

“Downtown Revitalization, Sustainability, and Historic Preservation,” by Donovan D. Rypkema, National Main Streets Conference Closing Plenary Session, Washington, D.C., March 2007.