“R-E-C-Y-C-L-E. That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” sang Tom Chapin. With Earth Day just around the corner, it’s a good time to reassess how what we do impacts the environment. Preservationists are always thinking about recycling, whether consciously or unconsciously, as historic preservation is inherently “the ultimate recycling project.”
By nature, historic preservation is much more sustainable than building from scratch. By using existing structures, you reduce waste and conserve energy.
How exactly does adaptive reuse differ in environmental impact from new building projects? A study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Green Lab put it simply: “Building reuse almost always yields fewer environmental impacts than new construction when comparing similar size and functionality.” Of course, the exact amount of environmental savings depends on the specific building and location, but overall environmental savings for reused buildings can be up to 46% higher when compared to newly built structures.
Historic structures even perform better than most “green” buildings when looking at the immediate climate-change impact. Green buildings—those more than 30% energy efficient than the average building—can take up to eighty years to cancel out the negative effects of the construction-from-scratch process. When you adapt and retrofit, you lose many of those negative impacts that are part of the initial construction process.
Traditional building materials also tend to be extremely durable, even more so than some modern equivalents. Many historic structures were designed to deal with changes in light and temperature without modern conveniences like electricity, air conditioning, and central heating, making them more energy efficient. A deep front porch? Not just a nice place to sit and chat, but also a way to keep a building’s exterior cool and out of direct sunlight. Glazed interior windows and doors? Not a product of some outdated trend, just a means for letting in natural light while still giving privacy.
The bottom line? When possible, reuse and adapt structures, as it will do more than just preserve the historic fabric of a community. So, on the occasion of Earth Day 2014, don’t forget: buildings can be recycled, too!
The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Adaptive Reuse (Executive Summary) by Preservation Green Lab
Illustrated Guidelines on Sustainability for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings by the U.S. Department of the Interior