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Historic Preservation’s Essential Role in Fighting Climate Change 

12-09-2015 17:35

Richard Moe was awarded the Vincent J. Scully Prize from the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., in recognition of his “leadership in moving historic preservation into the mainstream of American life and expanding the public’s understanding of the importance of protecting and celebrating our heritage. ”Here are excerpts from the speech he gave December 13, 2007 on receiving the award. Read the full speech here.

As growing numbers of people are worried about climate change, the degradation of the environment, and our relentless consumption of energy and irreplaceable natural resources, it is increasingly apparent that preservation has an essential role to play in any effort to deal with the environmental crisis that looms over us. Because it necessarily involves the conservation of energy and natural resources, historic preservation has always been the greenest of the building arts. Now it’s time to make sure everyone knows it.

The latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was released a few weeks ago, and it is deeply sobering. The report states that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and is the result of human activities.

The United States is a big part of the problem. We have only 5 percent of the world’s population, but we’re responsible for 22 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions that are the leading cause of climate change. Much of the debate on this subject usually focuses on the need to reduce auto emissions. But according to the EPA, transportation— cars, trucks, trains, airplanes— accounts for just 27 percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions, while 48 percent—almost twice as much—is produced by the construction and operation of buildings. If you remember nothing else I say tonight, remember this: Nearly half of the greenhouse gases we Americans send into the atmosphere comes from our buildings. The message is clear: Any solution to climate change must address the need to reduce emissions by being smarter about how we use our buildings and wiser about land use.

I’m not so naïve as to believe that preservation represents the way out of this environmental crisis. But I do believe that historic preservation can be—and must be—a key component of any effort to promote sustainable development.

“Embodied Energy” of Older Buildings
The retention and reuse of older buildings is an effective tool for the responsible, sustainable stewardship of our environmental resources— including those that have already been expended. I’m talking about what’s called “embodied energy.” Here’s the concept in a nutshell: Buildings are vast repositories of energy. It takes energy to manufacture or extract building materials, more energy to transport them to a construction site, still more energy to assemble them into a building. All of that energy is embodied in the finished structure—and if the structure is demolished and Land filled, the energy locked up in it is totally wasted. What’s more, the process of demolition itself uses more energy—and, of course, the construction of a new building in its place uses more yet.

Let me give you some numbers that will translate that concept into reality.

  • According to a formula produced for the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, about 80 billion BTUs of energy are embodied in a typical 50,000-square-foot commercial building. That’s the equivalent of 640,000 gallons of gasoline. If you tear the building down, all of that embodied energy is wasted.
  • What’s more, demolishing that same 50,000- square-foot commercial building would create nearly 4,000 tons of waste. That’s enough debris to fill 26 railroad boxcars— that’s a train nearly a quarter of a mile long, headed for a landfill that is already almost full.
  • Once the old building is gone, putting up a new one in its place takes more energy, of course, and it also uses more natural resources and releases new pollutants and greenhouse gases into our environment. It is estimated that constructing a new 50,000-square-foot commercial building releases about the same amount of carbon into the atmosphere as driving a car 2.8 million miles.
  • One more point: Since 70 percent of the energy consumed over a building’s lifetime is used in the operation of the building, some people argue that all the energy used in demolishing an older building and replacing it is quickly recovered through the increased energy efficiency of the new building—but that’s simply not true. Recent research indicates that even if 40 percent of the materials are recycled, it takes approximately 65 years for a green, energy-efficient new office building to recover the energy lost in demolishing an existing building. And let’s face it: Most new buildings aren’t designed to last anywhere near 65 years.

Despite these surprising statistics and many more like them, we persist in thinking of our buildings as a disposable— rather than a renewable— resource.

A report from the Brookings Institution projects that by 2030 we will have demolished and replaced 82 billion square feet of our current building stock, or nearly one third of our existing buildings, largely because the vast majority of them weren’t designed and built to last any longer.

It all comes down to this simple fact: We can’t build our way out of the global warming crisis. We have to conserve our way out. That means we have to make better, wiser use of what we’ve already built.

No matter how much green technology is employed in its design and construction,any new building represents a new impact on the environment. The bottom line is that the greenest building is one that already exists.

It’s often alleged that historic buildings are energy hogs—but in fact, some older buildings are as energy efficient as many recently built ones, including new green buildings. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency suggests that buildings constructed before 1920 are actually more energy efficient than buildings built at any time afterwards—except for those built after 2000. Furthermore, in 1999, the General Services Administration (GSA) examined its building inventory and found that utility costs for historic building were 27 percent less than for more modern buildings.

It’s not hard to figure out why. Many historic buildings have thick, solid walls, resulting in greater thermal mass and reducing the amount of energy needed for heating and cooling. Buildings designed before the widespread use of electricity feature transoms, high ceilings, and large windows for natural light and ventilation, as well as shaded porches and other features to reduce solar gain. Architects and builders paid close attention to siting and landscaping as tools for maximizing sun exposure during the winter months and minimizing it during warmer months.

Unlike their more recent counterparts that celebrate the concept of planned obsolescence, most historic and many other older buildings were built to last. Their durability gives them almost unlimited “renewability”—a fact that underscores the folly of wasting them instead of recognizing them as valuable, sustainable assets.

I’m not suggesting that all historic buildings are perfect models of efficient energy use—but, contrary to what many people believe, older buildings can “go green.” The marketplace now offers a wide range of products that can help make older buildings even more energy efficient without compromising the historic character that makes them unique and appealing. And there’s a large and growing number of rehab/reuse projects that offer good models of sustainable design and construction.

More recent buildings— especially those constructed between the 1950s and 1980s—pose a greater challenge. Many of them were constructed at a time when fossil fuels were plentiful and inexpensive, so there was little regard for energy efficiency. In addition, they often include experimental materials and assemblies that were not designed to last beyond a generation.

Today, these buildings make up more than half of our nonresidential building stock. Because of their sheer numbers, demolishing and replacing them isn’t a viable option. We must find ways to rehabilitate these buildings and lighten their environmental footprint while still protecting their architectural significance. This is a challenge that preservationists and green-building advocates must face together in the coming years.

The Need for Federal Leadership
Today, most of the important and innovative work on this issue is being carried out by state and local governments and the private sector. Precious little leadership is being offered by the federal government, which isn’t even doing much to promote and coordinate fundamental research. Because this issue cuts across every social, geographic, and political boundary, we simply can’t hope to bring effective direction to it without a strong federal effort, preferably at the cabinet level.

One of the first and most important things that must happen is a thoroughgoing revision of current government policies that foster unsustainable development. For decades, national, state, and local policies have facilitated— even encouraged—the development of new suburbs while leaving existing communities behind. As a result, an ongoing epidemic of sprawl ravages the countryside, devouring open space, consuming resources, and demanding new infrastructure. We need policy that maximizes wise use of existing resources by enhancing the viability and livability of the communities we already have.

Among other things, we need incentives to encourage reuse and energy upgrades in older buildings. Over the past ten years alone, historic tax-credit incentives have sparked the rehab of more than 217 million square feet of commercial and residential space—and in the process, saved enough energy to heat and cool every home in the six New England states for a full year. We must insure the continued availability of these tax credits, and expand their use in older buildings that are not necessarily historic but still re-usable. Equally important, we must provide similar incentives that will help private homeowners use green technology in maintaining and renovating their homes.

These federal actions should be complemented by steps at the state and local levels. Over the past few years, 29 states have enacted their own state tax credits to promote the reuse of historic buildings, and we need to see them adopted in more states. At the local level, we need building codes that allow flexibility and innovation in making existing buildings more energy efficient.

Finally, we need to improve green-building rating systems to ensure that they recognize the importance of building reuse. The National Trust and others are working with the U.S. Green Building Council—at their invitation. It will take time, but I hope that we’ll eventually arrive at a revised LEED[Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design] green-building rating system that accurately reflects the environmental benefits of “smart” locations and building reuse.

The National Trust’s Sustainability Initiative
These public-policy steps are critically important, but we shouldn’t wait for government to act. That’s why the National Trust has launched its own Sustainability Initiative. In addition to advocating the new policies we need, our initiative will continue to gather reliable data on the comparative energy costs of rehab versus building new. We’ll work to refute some common misconceptions about energy efficiency in older buildings—to replace myth with fact, because the facts are on our side.

We’ll also undertake a major outreach effort to inform everyone—especially architects, developers, property owners, and policy makers— about the benefits of preserving and reusing older buildings. And we’ll make our website a “best practices” resource for how to reduce energy consumption and use green technology in the rehab of older structures.

Finally, we’ll take steps to integrate environmentally sound practices in the operation of historic sites across the country. Right here in Washington, D.C., for example, when the National Trust opens President Lincoln’s Cottage to the public in February, the Robert H. Smith Visitors Education Center will be housed in a renovated historic building that is fully LEED certified— a good example of how green practices and products can be employed in older structures without compromising their historic integrity.

We’ve long played a leadership role in the responsible stewardship of America’s past. Now we’re ready and eager to play a similar role in the sustainable stewardship of America’s future.

For more information about the National Trust’s Sustainability Initiative go to

Publication Date: March/April 2008

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Author(s):Richard Moe