October 30, 2014

Why Do Old Places Matter? Sustainability

Access the rest of the Why Do Old Places Matter series.

Keeping and using old places is one of the most environmentally-sound things a person or community can do—more than building or buying anything new that claims to be “green.” As Carl Elefante, of Quinn-Evans Architects, brilliantly said, “the greenest building is… one that is already built.”1 Yet it’s my perception that society at large doesn’t yet fully acknowledge the “green” values of keeping and reusing existing buildings and communities—in fact, old buildings are often viewed as throwaways and teardowns. Fortunately, a reuse ethic seems to be growing, and the benefits of reusing existing buildings and communities are becoming recognized more widely.

In this post, I hope to summarize some of the key takeaways from the work by the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab, the Urban Land Institute, the Green Building Council, Smart Growth America, and others2 in the hope that it will give people a brief look at the reasons that keeping and reusing old buildings and communities is “green.” But I also want to suggest that old places should themselves be viewed as part of the ecology we hope to sustain.

Here’s my quick summary of the reasons the continued use of old buildings and communities is environmentally sound:

Reusing existing buildings with character is likely to be more long lasting and therefore sustainable, such as at Old Main at the Milwaukee Soldiers Home, a National Treasure | Matthew Gilson

  • Avoided Impact. Reusing old buildings avoids the environmental impacts of the extraction, processing and transportation of new materials and the construction processes. As a Preservation Green Lab report, The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse states: “Building Reuse almost always yields fewer environmental impacts than new construction when comparing buildings of similar size and functionality” and “…it takes 10 to 80 years for a new building that is 30 percent more efficient than an average-performing existing building to overcome, through efficient operations, the negative climate change impacts related to the construction process.”3
  • Land Conservation. Continuing to use existing buildings and communities avoids or minimizes the use of forests, farms, wildlife habitat, and open space for new construction. As SmartGrowthAmerica states: “…reusing already-developed land… preserves open spaces that are home to wildlife. Habitat loss is the main threat to 80% of the threatened and endangered species in the United States, but building within an existing community, rather than outside of town on a wild greenfield, helps preserve wildlife habitat, protect air and water quality and foster the strong economic growth that’s only possible in dense development.”4
  • Embodied Energy. Old buildings and communities embody the energy and carbon that was devoted to produce them—the wood and coal used to fire the bricks, smelt the tin, forge the nails, saw and transport the timber. Although some critics argue that the concept of “embodied energy” doesn’t result in any positive impacts today or in the future, it remains true that it would be incredibly wasteful to discard these materials and their historical energy, and haul them to a landfill, adding to the environmental impact of demolition.5
  • Operating Energy. Many old buildings, because of the way they are designed, already use less operating energy than new buildings. Again, from the Preservation Green Lab: “Building owners, developers, policy makers, and green-building experts often assume that it is preferable to build a new, energy-efficient building than to retrofit an older building to the same level of efficiency” yet “… data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) demonstrates that commercial buildings constructed before 1920 use less energy, per square foot, than buildings from any other decade of construction.”6 While this is not true for all older buildings, many old buildings are inherently green.
  • Passive Design. Older buildings were often designed to take advantage of naturally occurring energy, like the light well at the Wing Luke Museum that I mentioned in the post on Architecture, or the transom windows in Main Street commercial buildings, like the one at my partner’s store, HomeRule, on 14th Street in DC. Many designers are recognizing anew the inherent passive sustainable designs incorporated in older buildings. I’m reminded of a 1970s study of the farmhouses of the New River Valley in North Carolina. These farmhouses developed organically in response to the climate to take advantage of the landscape for warmth in the winter, coolness in the summer, and the gravity flow of water to the springhouses.
  • Transportation and Density. Older communities are often on existing transportation corridors, have greater density, and are close to workplaces so that fuel consumption from cars is minimized. This has long been recognized as one of the benefits of the reuse of existing built communities because of the benefits for land conservation, and is one of the key principles of smart growth.7

All of these reasons—farmland conservation, habitat preservation, open-space preservation, reduced fuel consumption, avoidance of adverse impacts from the extraction and transportation of new materials, avoidance of new landfill material, and positive environmental passive design, and others—add up to a powerful rationale to continue to use, reuse and strengthen existing buildings and communities. The benefits of reusing existing buildings are now recognized by the Green Building Council in the credits awarded for reuse in the LEED certification calculation (although these may not adequately reflect the full environmental value of reuse).8

But there are more deeply philosophical ecological reasons to keep, maintain and reuse old places. First, older communities are organic systems developed over time, with their own distinctive cultures. They are themselves irreplaceable, if ever-changing, parts of our environment. Choosing not to continue to maintain and strengthen them essentially condemns a distinctive and unique community to a form of extinction. One aspect of this is captured by the writer and architect Kimberley Mok: “Building 'green' isn't just about using the latest and greatest technologies—it can also be about preserving time-honored, local building traditions that respect regional cultures and have been proven to be climatically appropriate over the centuries.”9

The nineteenth-century building housing Home Rule, a housewares store in Washington, D.C., benefits from natural light from the historic transom windows | Rod Glover

Second, the building materials and craftsmanship also deserve respect, not only because of the environmental cost of extracting, transporting, making, and installing them, but also because of the fact that some of the materials and craftsmanship will never exist again. The floor of my little river cabin in West Virginia is made of chestnut from before the die-off of the chestnut trees. Like heart pine windows, wide pumpkin pine floorboards, old growth redwood siding and a host of other building elements, these materials may never be available again. Yet people who offered to buy the cabin before us planned to scrap it, seeing it as a teardown. It seems to me that throwing old floorboards and siding away is not only disrespectful to the materials and to the humans who labored to saw, plane, groove and install them, but inherently inconsistent with the very idea of sustainability.

In trying to envision a world that is more environmentally sustainable, I hope for a world where we are more appreciative of the communities, buildings and things that already exist, and that we continue to use them, so that we’re not constantly tearing buildings down and throwing things away. Unthinking consumerism—including some allegedly “green” consumerism—contributes to many of our environmental problems, including stoking climate change. While I may not be much of a consumer, I am a materialist. I value buildings and the meaning they have for us. I value objects, and the meanings they have for me. The political theorist Jane Bennett, in her book Vibrant Matter, notes the way objects seem to call to us, and advocates for a re-thinking of our relationship with objects and materials as a way of shifting our political ecology. As the website Cultivating Alternatives summarized the idea, “Bennett thinks that if we paid attention to the aliveness of matter, we wouldn’t be so careless with our stuff.”10 Being “careless with our stuff” contributes to a throwaway mentality that is environmentally damaging.

Something about Bennett’s theory about things resonates with me, and I imagine with others who see meaning in our existing built environment, and who have a respect for materials, buildings and practices that have preceded us. Some people have questioned whether our current view of sustainability may be too narrowly measured by a limited assessment of carbon footprint, and may not adequately take into account other factors, including the factor of time. Scott Doyon, Principal of Placemakers, in his post on considering soul as a part of green building practice, states, “If you tear down a storied and graceful historic building—hand-built and rooted in tradition, in which generations of people have crisscrossed into and through each others lives—and replace it with a high-performance, modular gizmo-green equivalent, how much embedded energy is lost if you also count the loss of soul?”11 He goes on to ask whether a place that has no soul will have the longevity necessary for it to be truly sustainable over time.

This 1950s cabin in West Virginia could have been a teardown, a wasteful loss of irreplaceable building materials, such as old chestnut | Tom Mayes/National Trust for Historic Preservation

As I noted earlier, I’m delighted to see the current turn toward reuse, recycling of materials, and appreciation for old places. Some of the projects I’ve seen seem to reflect an idea from a quote I found in Jean Carroon’s book Sustainable Preservation: Greening Existing Buildings: “The reuse and salvage in the project infuses it with a sense of connection, history and narrative. Every detail comes alive with a story of origins, disposal, and rebirth.”12 I hope people become more aware of the fact that reusing not just materials, but whole existing buildings is good for the soul and the environment.

I suspect that the current low level of recognition of the green qualities of existing buildings and communities is partly because, as Carl Elefante has identified, we are “drunk on the new and now,” and therefore can’t even see the obvious benefits of the old.13 We are blanketed with advertisements for green products. The building industry is primarily interested in developing new communities. While I support the development of green products and green communities, the predominance of those voices should not blind us to the reality that simply continuing to use the existing buildings, communities and things that we already have is one of the most environmentally sound (and soulful, and sustainably long-lasting) things that we can do. As Jim Lindberg, senior director of the Preservation Green Lab said to me, "There is intelligence as well as energy embodied in our older buildings and neighborhoods. These places have so much to teach us about adaptation, sustainability, and resilience."14

I would love to hear your thoughts about the “green” of old places.


1. Elefante, Carl. “The Greenest Building Is...One That Is Already Built” Forum Journal, Vol. 21. No. 4, Summer 2007.
2. Please refer to the materials from these organizations for the full reports and studies. See also the Fall 2010 Forum Journal: Bridging Land Conservation and Historic Preservation (Vol. 25, No. 1).
3. The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse. National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2011, vi. The analysis of older buildings uses Life Cycle Assessment to determine the environmental impact of a building over time. See The Greenest Building, 14-15.
4. Smart growth protects natural habitat. Accessed October 25, 2014.
5. See The Greenest Building, 20.
6. The Greenest Building, 18.
7. I take note of the argument made by Ed Glaeser, in Triumph of the City, and others, who advocate for replacing current older and historic buildings with high-rise buildings to increase density in urban areas. Fortunately, in addition to the voices crying out about the loss of livability, character, history, identity and memory that this would entail, more recent studies show that the avoided fuel impacts are better in areas where buildings are comparable to older and historic buildings, or approximately 3-6 stories tall, and that the environmental benefits are not better with densities that are greater. See Lloyd Alter Is There a "Goldilocks Density"- Not Too High, Not Too Low, But Just Right? Accessed 10/22/14. See also F. Kaid Benfield, People Habitat, (Washington, DC: People Habitat Communications, 2014).

8. Huppert, Mark. “Greenbuild 2013: LEED v4 Takes the Stage,” December 13, 2013.
9. Mok, Kimberley, Cool but endangered conical houses get preservation treatment in Indonesia. Accessed October 23, 2014.
10. Summary: Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennett. Accessed October 28, 2014.
11. Doyon, Scott. “Let’s Get Metaphysical: Considering the value of soul in redevelopment.” Accessed October 28, 2014.
12. Leger Wanaselja Architecture, in Carroon, Jean. Sustainable Preservation Greening Existing Buildings, (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2010) 252.
13. Elefante, 37.
14. Email to the author, October 28, 2014.

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Tom Mayes, chief legal officer and general counsel, has worked on the full range of National Trust legal issues since he joined the National Trust in 1986. He received the National Endowment for the Arts Rome Prize in Historic Preservation in 2013 and is the author of the book Why Old Places Matter.

tmayes@savingplaces.org @thompsonmayes

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