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At most, perhaps 10 percent of what the environmental movement does advances the cause of historic preservation, but 100 percent of what the preservation movement does advances the cause of the environment.

 

 

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Historic and Green

By Donovan D. Rypkema

The following is a condensed version of a keynote speech delivered at the Traditional Building Exhibition and Conference in Boston, MA, in March 2007.

A Broadway producer once told an aspiring playwright, "If you can't write your idea on the back of my business card, you don't have a clear idea." So I'm going to start by summarizing my argument in five key points:

  • Sustainable development is crucial for economic competitiveness.
  • Sustainable development has more elements than just environmental responsibility.
  • "Green buildings" and sustainable development are not synonyms.
  • Historic preservation is, in and of itself, sustainable development.
  • Development without an historic-preservation component is not sustainable.

Much of the world has begun to recognize the interrelationship and the interdependency between sustainable development and heritage conservation, but much less so in the United States. Far too many advocates in the U.S. far too narrowly define what constitutes sustainable development. Far too many advocates in the U.S. think that so-called green buildings and sustainable development are one in the same. They are not.

Sustainable development is about, but it is not only about, environmental sustainability. There is far more to sustainable development than green buildings. It is more than simply asking, "Does this building get a LEED gold certification?" or "Is that development making sure that the habitat of the snail darter isn't being compromised?" When we begin to think about sustainable development in this broader context, the role of historic preservation in sustainable development becomes all the more clear.

How does historic preservation contribute to environmental responsibility? We could begin with the simple area of solid-waste disposal. In the U.S., almost one ton of solid waste per person is collected annually. Solid-waste disposal is increasingly expensive both in dollars and in environmental impacts.

So let me put this in context. We all diligently recycle our Coke cans. It is a pain in the neck, but we do it because it's good for the environment. However, if we tear down one typical building in a North American downtown – 25 ft. wide and 100 or 120 or 140 ft. deep – we have wiped out the entire environmental benefit from the last 1,344,000 aluminum cans that were recycled. We have not only wasted an historic building, we have also wasted months of diligent recycling by the good people of our community. That calculation does not take embodied energy into consideration.

Embodied energy is defined as the total expenditure of energy involved in the creation of the building and its constituent materials. When we throw away an historic building, we are simultaneously throwing away the embodied energy incorporated into that building. How significant is embodied energy? In Australia, they have calculated that the embodied energy in the existing building stock is equivalent to ten years of the total energy consumption of the entire country. Much of the "green building" movement focuses on the annual energy use of a building, but the energy consumed in the construction of a building is 15 to 30 times the annual energy use.

Razing historic buildings results in a triple hit on scarce resources. First, we are throwing away thousands of dollars of embodied energy. Second, we are replacing them with materials vastly more consumptive of energy. What are most historic houses built from? Brick, plaster, concrete and timber. What are among the least energy-consumptive materials? Brick, plaster, concrete and timber. What are major components of new buildings? Plastic, steel, vinyl and aluminum. What are among the most energy-consumptive materials? Plastic, steel, vinyl and aluminum. Third, recurring embodied-energy savings increase dramatically as a building life stretches over 50 years. If you have a building that lasts 100 years, you could use 25 percent more energy every year and still have less lifetime energy use than a building that lasts 40 years – and a lot of buildings being built today won't last even 40 years.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has noted that building-construction debris constitutes around a third of all waste generated in this country, and has projected that more than 27 percent of existing buildings will be replaced between 2000 and 2030. So you would think that the EPA would have two priorities: make every effort to preserve as much of the existing quality building stock as possible; and construct buildings that have 80- and 100- and 120-year lives, as our historic buildings already have.

Instead, they are sponsoring a contest to design buildings that can be taken apart every couple of decades and reassembled. I'm all for reusing building materials when structures have to be demolished, but to design buildings to be taken apart is to consciously build in planned obsolescence, and planned obsolescence is the polar opposite of sustainable development.

This federal agency is supposed to be the country's lead entity for promoting and fostering sustainable development. Last fall, it issued a five-year strategic plan, complete with goals, objectives and standards of measurement – 188 fact-filled pages. How many times was the phrase "sustainable development" mentioned? Exactly twice – both times in footnotes. How can you be the agency taking the lead for sustainable development when "sustainable development" never appears in your strategic plan? By the way, the number of times that "historic preservation" was mentioned in the strategic plan? Zero.

Within the plan, the EPA has an element targeted to construction and demolition debris. The objective is "Preserve Land" and the sub-objective is "Reduce Waste Generation and Increase Recycling." They have missed the obvious – when you preserve an historic building, you are preserving land. When you rehabilitate an historic building, you are reducing waste generation. When you reuse an historic building, you are increasing recycling. In fact, historic preservation is the ultimate in recycling.

At most, perhaps 10 percent of what the environmental movement does advances the cause of historic preservation, but 100 percent of what the preservation movement does advances the cause of the environment. You cannot have sustainable development without a major role of historic preservation, period. It is about time we preservationists start hammering at that until it's broadly understood. The Smart Growth movement is the closest thing we have to a broad-based sustainable-development plan. If a community did nothing but protect its historic neighborhoods it would have advanced every Smart Growth principle. Historic preservation is Smart Growth.

Green buildings are part of, but in no way are a synonym for, sustainable development. I am very concerned that in our rush to make nice with the green-building people we will forget this is about sustainable development, not about green buildings. The big accomplishment of the U.S. Green Building Council is the development of the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification system, a checklist for evaluating neighborhood development. It's fine – but out of 114 total possible points, there are only 2 points if it's an historic building. If you look at the individual line items in the checklist, at least 75 percent of the goals of those items are automatically met if you rehabilitate an historic building. Such a checklist ought to be 200 points and should start out with 75 points for being an historic building.

Environmentalists cheer when used tires are incorporated into asphalt shingles and recycled newspapers become part of fiberboard, but when we reuse an historic building, we are recycling the whole thing.

What is the whole purpose of the concept of sustainable development? It is to keep that which is important, that which is valuable and that which is significant. The very definition of sustainable development is "…the ability to meet our own needs without prejudicing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." We need to use our cities, our cultural resources, and our memories in such a way that they are available for future generations. Historic preservation makes cities viable, makes cities livable and makes cities equitable. Sustainability means stewardship. There can be no sustainable development without a central role for historic preservation.  

 

 

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