Old Homes: A Solution, Not a Fetish
In a recent issue of The Atlantic, author M. Nolan Gray calls for new construction to replace older housing, which he says is noisy, unsafe, and "a climate failure," and says that old homes have been given preferential treatment due to their "fetishization." We disagree with this stance and believe that older homes help address the very issues the author claims to support: affordability, access, and sustainability. Here is our response from Katherine Malone-France, chief preservation officer for the National Trust.
The January 2022 opinion piece published by The Atlantic entitled “Stop Fetishizing Old Homes” suggests that trading older homes for new construction every 30 years would help address our nation’s housing crisis. The author’s misdirected view represents a serious misunderstanding of the role that older homes play in our society. The idea that new construction is better in “every conceivable way” perpetuates the erroneous notion that we can’t pair old with new and there is a one-size-fits-all solution to the crises that we face.
Older buildings are assets in the urgent work to address the twin crises of climate change and affordable housing, not the problem. More than 60 percent of the existing affordable housing in the U.S. is found in unsubsidized, privately owned buildings, many of which are over 50 years old. We should preserve and retrofit these buildings, not throw them away. Thousands of new affordable housing units are created every year through adaptive reuse, often at a lower per unit cost than new construction. New housing is obviously needed, but it is not a complete solution. Blanket new construction cannot substitute for a comprehensive housing strategy, which must include the preservation, rehabilitation, and reuse of older buildings as a key element.
Arguments that promote a practice of disposable real estate are unsustainable at best and at worst environmentally catastrophic. The Atlantic opinion piece makes no mention of the embodied carbon within existing structures, or the fact that it can take up to 80 years to offset the carbon debt that is incurred when an existing structure is replaced, even if the new building is highly energy efficient. New buildings designed to last only 30 years will likely never offset the carbon cost of their construction. We don’t have time to simply build our way to a sustainable future.
Lastly, it is a mistake to lump all older homes together in terms of quality and materials. In fact, many older homes (particularly those constructed before World War II) are built of durable materials and offer resilient design features such as operable windows, plentiful daylight, and usable porches and balconies. Windows made from old growth wood can be restored to serve for generations even if they’ve suffered neglect, whereas most new windows are short-lived and disposable. We need to keep these precious materials—the quality of which we are unlikely to see again in our lifetimes—out of landfills.
Where all sides of this argument share common ground is that there are buildings and places worth saving for future generations. A fundamental goal of preservation must be to empower people to think expansively and inclusively about the places that matter to them, the places that represent a fuller shared history—these are the places that our society can ill afford to lose. In this context, what we preserve and how we preserve it is a tool for advancing justice and equity.
Bottom line: Stewarding our history through places is an evolving and creative social movement, not a “fetish.” Historic preservation is a means by which we build a better world. What we preserve and, more importantly, how we preserve it can strengthen the fabric of our civil society and advance more just, equitable, and sustainable communities. We need creative, additive solutions to preserve and upgrade as many older homes as we can, because it is better for the environment and more affordable to do so.
Katherine Malone-France is the chief preservation officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.