Reusing an existing building saves 35 tons of CO2 production – http://www.emptyhomes.com
“We can’t consume our way to sustainability” – Carl Elefante, AIA
“Confronting energy reduction with technology in lieu of conservation is short-sighted-
-the problem is conservation is not very sexy and difficult to package and sell. ”
Neal Vogel, Restoric LLC
Neal is a longtime friend and colleague and one of several experts who have seen the limitations of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), which was introduced this century by the U.S. Green Building Council and has made new buildings more energy efficient. The problem is that LEED at the beginning virtually ignored old buildings, despite the fact that an old building’s carbon footprint is always less than a new one. Much of the “Green Building” industry was driven by marketing efforts to push new products.
Of course this makes sense, because you can get sponsors for LEED if it is focused on flogging new products. What the marketing needs to do is distract your attention from the fact that each green product must be manufactured, packaged, stored and transported by fossil fuels. But the market for those products was enough to drive not simply an industry but a professional training and rating system that certifies both professionals and buildings. LEED has become shorthand for Green in a nation where Green has gone all trendy.
Historic buildings are full of components that don’t require energy for manufacture and distribution but initially LEED gave a mere 3 points out of 69 for inherent conservation. The number for a green neighborhood starts even lower.
Thanks to the efforts of professionals like Barbara Campagna of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Mike Jackson of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, they are coming around to the obvious: it takes less energy to leave something where it is. The greenest building is the one already built. Soon, we hope, LEED will reflect that fact, despite marketing efforts to hide it.
There is a lot of concern nowadays about insulating older buildings as part of the economic stimulus. As I noted a few posts ago, once you insulate your ceilings, you have achieved 4/5 of all the energy savings you are going to achieve. Because heat rises. That is simple and straightforward, but a good marketing effort can still confuse the issue.
A lot of people are looking at insulating walls. Again, there is nothing wrong with the impulse, and in some situations it makes sense. But mostly -like window replacement – it confuses the issue and gets people to focus on 20 percent of the problem. Let me quote Neal at length here:
“You will need to be careful with studying wall assemblies–construction has evolved to compensate for our on-tap energy addiction. I think a good starting point would be load-bearing masonry construction versus veneer construction today. Look at assemblies that are considered too expensive to build today, or only for the very, very affluent. If you look at energy as a stand alone criteria, a historic frame house does not stand a chance against a modern wall assembly in pure R-value. You have to consider the broader perspective, like the fact that plaster can retain 70% of its volume in moisture without being destroyed while drywall can only handle 5%. Issues related to indoor air quality, the growing epidemic of asthma, energy required for packaging, transporting, storing new materials, energy required for demolition and processing debris, etc. As it stands, I try to downplay LEED every chance I get because their narrow view of energy and what’s beneficial for the future essentially requires impractical alterations and replacement of historic materials.
I don’t know of anyone who has gathered enough data of residential building types for comparison. My thought on this at one time was to approach the Historic Bungalow Initiative of Chicago–a building type that I think would perform very favorably with relative minor and practical retrofits–to produce energy data on enough houses to be statistically defendable. I think they compared energy improvements to a few houses over a year but I would like to see them expand the study into a much larger group and then compare the data with a typical modest house built today for the same money and in the same climate. Seems like the Trust could get a lot of good PR in our heavy heating dominant climate with this kind of partnership.”
Rock on, brother. I had an 1872 frame house for a dozen years that performed remarkably well in winter and summer because it had real plaster walls. My current house has real brick walls which kick the crud out of the fanciest fiberglass at Home Depot. But Neal’s point is important: If you only measure one variable, a product manufactured with that one variable in mind (and ignoring all the variables of its manufacture and distribution) will outperform the older technology. But looking at one variable is liking buying a new green product that has to be shipped 13,000 miles: you are ignoring other important variables.
You don’t learn to run fast simply by buying a great running shoe.
You need to look at the entire system by doing an energy audit. You don’t answer the question of how green your building is by adding up all the green stuff you bought and stuck in it. You determine how your building is functioning and how you can continually make it more sustainable.
If the USGBC existed from 1880 to 1930 and watched the construction of Victorian and Progressive Era America they would have been passing out medals with a crop duster to keep up with the brick cavity walls, plaster, dutch biscuits and storm windows. Commercial buildings built before 1920 used 80,127 BTUs per square foot. That number climbed steadily to over 100,000 in the 1980s. Only after 2000 did it come down to the level it was at in 1920.
Neal is right – that quality of construction is cost prohibitive today. But you have to remember that the carbon emissions that came with that construction were released into the atmosphere before the Model T.
Without time travel, a new building can’t compete with that.
NEXT DAY UPDATE: Hey I just got my heating bill – I was on the budget plan based on previous owner – $442 a month. Now? $158. Did I replace my windows? No. I closed them. And I insulated the attic. 110 year old windows with triple tracks. Real brick house with real plaster walls. Historic buildings ROCK!