Preservation Green Lab: Making the Preservation Case for Old (and New) Buildings

By Special Contributor posted 11-20-2013 17:10

By: Ric Cochrane, Mike Powe, and Jeana Wiser
At this watershed moment in the history of the atmosphere, here’s a modest proposal: Stop building altogether.”
That’s the argument put forth in a recent op-ed in the Huffington Post by a leading green architect. The author, Lance Hosey of global design firm RTKL, says the United States has plenty of buildings and infrastructure in dire need of investment, so he suggests we focus on doing more with what we have, and ban the construction of new buildings. Hosey cites the Preservation Green Lab report, The Greenest Building, twice as he makes the case that banning new construction for a few years offers the kind of significant impact necessary for reducing carbon emissions attributable to the built environment and staving off catastrophic global warming. He predicts a number of additional outcomes that should resonate with both preservationists and advocates of sustainable development:
In the US alone, the building industry represents an economy worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Imagine if this were applied exclusively to adaptive reuse, historic preservation, and restoring infrastructure. Virtually overnight, blight and sprawl would disappear, and the state of communities would dramatically improve.

This sounds simple. But does the central hypothesis hold? Is new construction the problem? If we were to direct the massive building industry toward reuse and retrofit, applying sustainable design principles to existing buildings in urban cores and Main Streets, what kind of improvements in quality of life and environmental health would we see? If new buildings are America’s addiction, would a temporary fast and cleanse really cure what ails us?

The Green Lab works on multiple fronts to identify the key factors in sustainable development, and Hosey’s article gives us reason to present our work against the backdrop of his somewhat radical proposal. We couldn’t agree more with two of his key points.

  • Energy-efficiency standards for new development should be much more ambitious: net-zero energy and emissions standards, aimed appropriately high, given the severity and pervasiveness of the environmental challenge we face.
  • New development should be directed toward existing neighborhoods (though we believe surface parking lots and vacant parcels—not just brownfields—are ripe for new development and strategic infill).
To the first point, we can do more with what we have, and we’re losing substantial economic benefits by overlooking our existing built assets. The Green Lab’s Partnership for Building Reuse (PBR) demonstrates that vacant and underutilized buildings represent major opportunities for cities to revitalize central neighborhoods. Also, our work on energy efficiency demonstrates that there is tremendous financial value held hostage by inflexible energy codes, often overlooking the natural energy efficiency of older buildings, resulting in wasted money and resources by not making use of existing assets. We are a culture obsessed with new. We have forgotten how to take care of things—how to fix, repair, and appreciate—even when it is in our direct financial interest to do so. As a society, we can and should operate much more efficiently, creating opportunity and prosperity with what we already have.

To Hosey’s second point, the Green Lab’s newest research offers a surprising twist: Existing neighborhoods comprising older buildings often need and benefit from new development to really come to life. Our Neighborhood Performance Metrics research leverages Big Data to explore the relationships between characteristics of communities’ built fabric (building age, diversity of building age, and building size) and various social, economic, and cultural community outcomes. Just as Jane Jacobs noted more than 50 years ago, we are finding evidence that cities’ most vibrant communities have a diverse mix of buildings from different eras serving diverse uses. Jacobs argued forcefully that this was true for Greenwich Village, and her argument holds true today, as we are seeing similar results in the metrics pilot cities, Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. We look forward to testing these relationships in legacy cities and other communities in 2014.

Our metrics research shows that neighborhoods with a diverse mix of building ages (both older and newer) perform better than the citywide average against a range of economic, environmental, and social measures. Dollar for dollar, investments in renovation and new infill development in existing commercial districts produce better results for communities, measured by such metrics as the proportion of new businesses, the diversity of business ownership, the number of younger residents, the walkability of the streetscape, and the concentration of jobs in creative industries.

Lance Hosey’s proposal that we ban new construction, though bold and progressive, is akin to a proposal banning procreation. Just as a healthy population needs new life, healthy and thriving communities need new buildings. But, let’s be smarter about new construction: Let’s build upon our communities’ beautiful old buildings and functioning, walkable Main Streets with new, strategically located energy-efficient buildings that can last a century or more. Let’s support appropriate development at transit nodes. We need diversity—diverse people, diverse buildings, and diverse ideas. At the Green Lab, we’re building a brick-by-brick, research and development (R&D) foundation that we believe will inform policy and private sector decision-making in a way that will shape our cities and towns, to give them life and bring them into balance with nature.

Ric Cochrane, Mike Powe, and Jeana Wiser, work at the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Green Lab.

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