Green builders, preservationists need to team up

August 11, 2010

Historic preservationists attending Greenbuild last month were pretty bent out of shape about Mayor Thomas M. Menino's call to demolish the 1960s-era Boston City Hall, recently rated the ugliest building or monument in the world by users of the website

Aesthetics aside, consider these facts: The 500,000-sf city hall contains about 800 billion Btu of embodied energy, equivalent to 6.5 million gallons of oil. Constructing a replacement on the site would release as much CO2 into the air as driving a car 30 million miles.

Those statistics come from Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Moe was at Greenbuild to try to close what some perceive as a gap between preservation enthusiasts and green builders. In Moe's estimation, the following six principles—here in greatly condensed form—bind the two groups:

Promote a culture of reuse. Retaining and reusing older buildings can promote responsible, sustainable stewardship of environmental resources. No doubt there are many older buildings (and homes) that are not, for example, structurally sound and have to be torn down. But demolition and new construction take energy. A recent U.K. study found that it takes up to 50 years for even energy-efficient new homes to recover the carbon it took to build them.Reinvest at a community scale. Get out of the “single-building” syndrome. Think about “smart locations” and reducing vehicle miles traveled. That's what LEED for Neighborhood Development is all about.Learn from heritage buildings. Contrary to popular belief, not all historic buildings are energy hogs. A 1999 study for the GSA found that utility costs for historic buildings were 27% less than for modern buildings. U.S. Energy Information Agency data suggest that pre-1920 buildings were more energy-efficient than those built 1920-2000. Thick walls, operable windows, sunshades—pure genius!Make use of the economic advantages of reused buildings. Surprise! Rehabbing buildings creates more jobs than new construction—as many as 13 more jobs per million dollars of work. Reason: Rehab takes more hands-on, artisan-quality labor. Think “green jobs.”Relate historic preservation practices to sustainability. It's not enough for preservationists to want to save old buildings, Moe acknowledged. They must also make them energy efficient, which is something they can learn from green builders.Take immediate, decisive action on public policy. The National Trust has formed a Sustainable Preservation Coalition (with the AIA, the Association for Preservation Technology, the EPA, the National Park Service, the GSA, and the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers) and is working with the USGBC to see how reuse of existing buildings can play a greater role in LEED.

With 300,000 members and a staff of 300, the National Trust can and should be a strong ally of green building.


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