What is the “Greenest” Building? Making a Case for Building Reuse and Historic Preservation

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Mother Earth Brewing in Kinston, NC: Gold LEED certified & Historic Preservation

Carl Elefante, AIA, LEED AP, a prominent proponent of sustainable historic preservation, states, “The greenest building is the one that has already been built.”  Elefante’s declaration revolutionized the commonly-accepted theory that newer is better, both for society and for the environment. Elefante meant to dissuade public and private sectors from new construction and development, and to revalue existing and irreplaceable building stock. The preservation of historic structures has proven to be an effective tool towards economic, environmental, and social sustainability. However, the green movement, as it exists currently, stresses new construction rather than the preservation of existing resources, leading to implied preferences towards the touted sustainability of “green design.” 

Rating systems, such as the United States Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy or Environmental Design (LEED), have overlooked historic structures in their evaluation of green architecture, leading to the demolition of these existing structures in favor of new construction. This rating system was created in the hope of promoting “green” architecture and encouraging a rubric that such architecture can be measured against. It exists today as the most recognized and implemented rating system in the green building industry. However, the least valued point system within LEED is that of existing buildings, which leads to the promotion of new construction rather than the renovation of older structures.

Sustainability, as defined by economist Robert Solow, is the ability of a society to “leave for the future the option or the capacity to be well off as we are” in natural resources, landscapes and cultural heritage. The concept of sustainability is an umbrella term that is both casually and formally applied to multiple disciplines. Sustainability has become intertwined with the field of historic preservation, becoming prevalent in the rehabilitation and maintenance of the built environment. When evaluating preservation projects within the context of sustainability, it is crucial to understand and denote the motivation behind such developments and rehabilitations.

Developers, architects, and other key players should be on the same page when it comes to the overall goals and proposed result of the preservation or construction of historical sites and landscapes in regards to sustainability. By providing developers and homeowners with tangible economic, environmental and social benefits, it becomes difficult for them to overlook the profits associated with historic preservation. As Donovan Rypkema and Caroline Cheong of PlaceEconomics, state, “historic preservation emerges [today] as an economically sound, fiscally responsible, and cost-effective response to the challenges of today’s economic environment.”

Per Amy Webb, Director of Heritage Tourism Program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “there is no form of economic development that is more cost effective [in leveraging] scarce public resources than…preservation-based commercial revitalization.” As historic preservationists, it is often commonplace to overlook promoting the economic benefits of preserving an existing structure for the more obvious educational, environmental, social, historical, and cultural benefits. Nevertheless, it is often the economic arguments that win the battle against the proposed demolition, actively or by neglect, of a historic building or district. The rehabilitation and restoration of historic buildings can impact the economics of a historic district in many ways. Rypkema denotes three categories of such economic impact: jobs created, increase in household income, and demand created in other industries. These economic lines of reasoning can offer substantial proof to the benefits of historic preservation in today’s city management and planning, both on an individual and collective level.

Swift Building Lofts, High Plain Architects, 2009, Billings, Montana. Project Highlights: LEED Platinum; National Register; Historic Tax Credits; MT Preservation Alliance; Yellowstone Historic Preservation Board; Seattle AIA WMIG 2012, USGBC Montana Sustainable Building Award.

The economic benefits of historic preservation can include, but are not limited to: longer life spans (100 years) of historic structures versus life spans of new buildings (30 to 40 years); creation of jobs; increase in property values, natural resource conservation and end of landfill increase; use of existing public investments and infrastructure; support of small businesses; and revitalization of Main Street and commercial core; investment attraction; tourism attraction, sprawl prevention; establishment of affordable housing; and viable economic development. Per the Forum Journal, preservation has grown to be increasingly superior economic alternative to new construction and other investments. Within New Jersey alone, over $1 million in non-residential historic preservation created 38.3 national jobs and 19.3 state jobs; new construction created 36.1 national jobs and 16.7 state jobs.

Per Rypkema, community benefits of such a promotion and investment of preservation include the formation of new business; private investment and tourism stimulation; increase of property values; enhancement of quality of life, sense of neighborhood, and community pride; creation of new jobs; compatible land-use patterns; increase of property and sales taxes; and dilution of pockets of deterioration and poverty. Financial incentives, such as tax credits and abatements, allow for economic safeguarding and development and provide investors and homeowners with even greater motivation to establish historic preservation practices within their existing structures. In addition to the economic benefits of historic preservation, sustainability can afford economic benefits through its implicit environmental design.

Through the reduction of waste and energy costs and the preservation of social and historical infrastructure of individual buildings and larger neighborhoods, sustainable preservation and construction aids in the diminution of our carbon footprint. With over 40 percent of yearly carbon emissions attributed to building construction and maintenance, it is necessary to reevaluate building practices within the realm of minimal to zero-impact sustainability. This neutral or positive environmental impact of structures is reliant upon the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, energy savings, water efficiency, indoor air quality, and resource stewardship.

The environmental effectiveness of historic structures is a continued debate within the world of architecture, construction, design, and sustainability. Key findings of a study conducted by the National Trust for Preservation, The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse, ascertained that “savings from reuse are between 4 and 46 percent over new construction when comparing buildings with the same energy performance level.” The study ultimately concluded that “when comparing buildings of equivalent size and function, building reuse almost always offers environmental savings over demolition and new construction.”

The popularity of sustainable and “green” building necessitates further exploration of the social, economic, and environmental sustainability inherent in the preservation of historic structures. The examination of tools such as Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), Life Cycle Cost Analysis (LCCA), embodied energy, energy consumption analysis, and other metrics will further demonstrate the relationship between preservation and the environment, particularly the contribution of historic preservation to sustainable development and Smart Growth.

Kaley Huston is a Master’s candidate in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Department of City and Regional Planning specializing in Land Use and Environmental Planning and a Community Revitalization Fellow with the Development Finance Initiative. She is also pursuing a Natural Hazards Resilience Certificate in partnership with the Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence at UNC. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Historic Preservation from the University of Mary Washington.

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