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Historic Preservation

Green Building, Sustainability, and Smart Growth

The conservation and improvement of our existing built resources, including the re-use of historic and older buildings, greening the existing building stock, and reinvestment in older and historic communities, is crucial to combating climate change. A green, or environmentally sustainable building is one in which its design, construction, and operation makes a minimal draw on non-renewable resources and gives high priority to respecting the physical environment. Most well-built, existing buildings contain a large amount of what environmentalist’s term embodied energy and can be made more energy efficient without compromising their historic integrity. Embodied energy is the amount of energy already spent on cutting the wood, manufacturing the masonry and other building parts, transporting the materials, building the structure, and painting and finishing a building. When such a building, still useful and restorable, is torn down, all that previously spent energy goes along with it to the dump (plus the energy to get it to the dump!). When the loss of that resource is factored in, it takes an average of sixty-five years to recoup the energy savings that might come from a newer, supposedly greener building.

According to Donovan Rypkema, a prominent advocate for the economic development and energy savings benefits of historic preservation, “…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 it with materials vastly more consumptive of energy. Most historic houses are built of brick, plaster, concrete and timber — among the least energy consumptive of materials. The major components of new buildings consist of plastic, steel, vinyl and aluminum – among the most energy consumptive of materials. Third, recurring embodied energy savings increase dramatically as a building life stretches over fifty years.” (Economics, Sustainability, and Historic Preservation, A Speech by Donovan D. Rypkema, at The National Trust Annual Conference, Portland, Oregon, October 1, 2005) Rypkema’s speech (pdf)

Smart growth is defined as land use policy that covers a range of development and conservation strategies that help protect our natural environment and make our communities more attractive, economically stronger, and more socially diverse. Smart growth values long-range, regional considerations of sustainability over a short-term focus. Its goals are to achieve a unique sense of community and place; expand the range of transportation, employment, and housing choices; equitably distribute the costs and benefits of development; preserve and enhance natural and cultural resources; and promote public health. Historic preservation plays an important part in achieving smart growth, and should be incorporated into any smart growth plan.

For more information pertaining to sustainability, green building and smart growth, visit Caring for Your Historic Structure in the Resources section of the AARCH website, or visit the following websites:

American Institute of Architects
APTI Technical Committee on Sustainable Preservation
Building Materials Reuse Association
Energy Star
Friends Committee on National Legislation
National Institute of Building Sciences
National Park Service: Historic Structures and Sustainability
National Trust for Historic Preservation
Smart Growth Network
Sustainable Buildings Industry Council
U.S. General Services Administration: Sustainable Design Program
U.S. Green Building Council