Traditional Building Portfolio

Saving money is an apt metaphor for saving buildings. The embodied energy in traditional buildings is our nest egg and we are investing in it to make it grow.




Silver Lining

By Peter H. Miller, President, Restore Media, LLC

This headline in The New York Times caught my eye recently: “Shift to Savings May Be Downturn’s Lasting Impact.” I have been thinking and writing about why this recession is good for traditional building, so naturally I thought this article was about a “shift” toward a greater inclination for “saving” historic buildings, now and also after the economy gets better.

The story began, “The economic downturn is forcing a return to a culture of thrift that many economists say could last well beyond the inevitable recovery.” Indeed, this culture of thrift advances our historic preservation cause. Instead of knocking down and building new buildings, building owners, developers, planners, investors and government officials are thinking anew about restoration, rehabilitation and the adaptive use of old buildings. Our newfound culture of thrift has opened minds to the value of embodied energy and to doing more with what we have.

There are 300 billion sq.ft. of space in existing buildings in the U.S. The embodied energy of an historic building is equal to 5 to 15 gallons of gasoline per sq.ft. Let’s do the math: 300 billion sq.ft. equals 1.5 to 4.5 trillion gallons of gas! (Embodied energy is the total amount of energy needed to build/use a building and transport the materials that go into it.)

As it turns out, The New York Times story was not about saving buildings, but about saving money. The story went on, “In the last year, the savings rate – the percentage of after-tax income that people do not spend – has risen to above 4 percent, from virtually zero.” Saving money is an apt metaphor for saving buildings. The embodied energy in traditional buildings is our nest egg and we are investing in it to make it grow. “Poverty is good for preservation,” is how one state historic preservation officer puts it. Preservation can lead us to prosperity.

A new awareness of “thrift,” of saving money, energy and traditional buildings, is evidenced everywhere, including at the American Institute of Architects annual convention. In May I attended an AIA workshop titled “Sustaining the Existing Building Stock: the Greatest Challenge of Architecture 2030.” This session was presented by the AIA Historic Resources Committee, the oldest Knowledge Group within the 87,000 member association. The AIA/HRC is arguably most savvy about preservation architecture’s economic, cultural and environmental value.

The workshop faculty was led by Carl Elefante, FAIA, principal and director of sustainable design at Quinn Evans | Architects. His associates on the podium were Jean Carroon, FAIA, principal, Goody Clancy & Associates; Don Horn, AIA, director of the PBS Sustainability Program for the GSA Public Buildings Service; Ralph DiNola, Associate AIA, principal, Green Building Services Inc.; and Tristan Roberts, managing editor of Environmental Building News. This all-star team gave us more proof that the current downturn is good for traditional building.

The “greatest challenge” in the workshop title quickly became the “greatest opportunity” in each of the presentations. “Old buildings are the new economy,” exclaimed Carroon. “Preservation will lead us out of recession.” Tristan Roberts cited a book called The Restoration Economy (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2002) by Storm Cunningham and talked about “shifting to a restorative paradigm.” For Roberts and his AIA workshop colleagues, the preservation of traditional buildings is synonymous with sustainability and sustainability is the “green lining in the economic storm clouds.”

More evidence of our new culture of thrift and its positive impact on traditional building was articulated by DiNola. “What’s green about historic preservation?” he asked. The audience of about 125 practitioners shouted out with enthusiasm like grade-schoolers who are eager to show off what they know: “Urban density! Transit access! Building form and massing! Daylighting!” DiNola completed the list: natural ventilation; energy conservation; use of local materials; controllability of systems; durability and embodied energy. Everyone got an A in this class.

DiNola also discussed the new 2009 LEED rating system, which he said is more preservation friendly and brings more good news in difficult times for traditional building. He cited the collaboration between USGBC and the preservationists (AIA/HRC, APTI, NTHP) to set standards which better recognize and encourage the construction or renovation of buildings within a dense community (infill).

LEED 2009 increases points for urban infill from 1 to 5. Likewise the new LEED 2009 gives buildings near public transportation 6 points, up from 1 point. Carroon pointed out that transit-oriented housing produces 40-50% fewer cars per household than other housing types and reduces vehicle miles by 38%. There is more work to be done on LEED to strengthen the link between preservation and points, but LEED 2009 makes good progress.

Is preservation green like trees or green like money? Both. This point was conveyed by Carl Elefante, who presented information sourced from Donavan Rypkema’s The Economics of Historic Preservation, (1994; 2nd edition published 2005 by National Trust for Historic Preservation), a book more relevant in this recession than it was when originally written. The economic benefits of preservation read like a stimulus package without the price tag, so that now, more policymakers are listening.

The economic benefits include job creation, downtown revitalization, heritage tourism, appreciation of property values and small business incubation. Elefante explained that in sustainable economics, a concern for the environment and economics are merged. Sustainable economics both revive growth and change the quality of growth while meeting basic human needs.

Perhaps the most symbolic good-news-in-bad-times speaker on the workshop panel was Don Horn, director of the PBS Sustainability Program for the General Services Administration, the largest landlord in America. His participation in this workshop points to the momentum for traditional building, even when so much private construction is stalled. Horn reminded us that this recession produced the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a federal program aimed at adding jobs and cutting emissions. Already, ARRA stimulus money is in the pipeline to repair and improve many of the GSA’s 430,000 historic buildings, including $5.5 billion for green building upgrades and $750 million for courthouses, both traditional and mid-century Modern buildings.

In addition to GSA properties, other federal buildings, many historic, will be restored and rehabilitated now, even when this work had been deferred in the boom times. ARRA is the largest traditional building stimulus since the New Deal.

The federal government is not the only landlord using this downturn to spruce up existing traditional buildings. New York City’s Empire State Building is planning a $520-million historic renovation designed to reduce the historic skyscraper’s energy consumption by 38% a year by 2013, making it more attractive to corporate tenants. When the biggest landlord and the tallest historic building both undertake traditional building in a recession, maybe this recession is good for traditional building?

Is the McMansion culture really dead? Has the wrecking ball been mothballed for good? Is our “culture of thrift” here to stay? I am encouraged, again, by a press release Rhett Butler of E.R. Butler & Co. sent me. It touted his new line of hardware with the title “Materialistic Disenchantment.” His new hardware designs return to simpler forms. Out with the new and in with the old. Preservation is an idea whose time has come.

Carroon says that since the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the seminal law that effectively launched the historic preservation movement, “the preservation movement has ossified.” Our economic crisis has accelerated preservation’s role in climate change and economic recovery and re-energized the preservation movement.

It’s true that the traditional building business has suffered along with the rest of the real estate and construction markets, so my silver lining optimism might seem theoretical. But traditional building hasn’t suffered as much, problems are opportunities and lessons of our recent past are informing a bright new future for existing and historic buildings, as well as for the professionals who restore and improve them.  

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