Archive for February, 2009

Getting the LEED out

February 28, 2009

Reusing an existing building saves 35 tons of CO2 production –

“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!


Quick Hits

February 27, 2009

Word is out that the Rosenwald is threatened again – the stunning Michigan Terrace Garden Apartments, an early affordable (not subsidized) housing scheme by Chicago’s greatest philanthropist of the early 20th century, Julius Rosenwald. Economic downturns help preservation by steering moneymad wasters away from random demolitions and harebrained development schemes, but they also stymie big projects like the Rosenwald that were getting ready to happen.
The other big preservation news in Chicago is the Appellate Court decision, which I presume the city has already appealed. An attorney on the North Side whose hobby is suing the city about zoning and a person of similar avocation in East Village managed to find some judges unaware of U.S. Supreme Court precedent to declare the Chicago Landmarks Ordinance “vague” in its criteria and remanded to the lower court, which would presumably throw out the ordinance. The effect of this? Nothing. Why?
1. The City has the power to landmark buildings with or without a landmarks ordinance. Every Chicago Landmark is designated as an individual legislative act by the City Council. The judges seem to be confused about who does the designation. You won’t get the Illinois Supreme Court to challenge a home rule legislative body. Believe me, I’ve tried.
2. The ordinance is like the other 2600 in the United States. They are equally vague. Even Houston designates landmarks, and it has no zoning. Maybe the hapless attorney should move there.
3. Chicago has a belt and suspenders. We have the 90-day demolition delay based on our comprehensive Chicago Historic Resources Survey, which is a level of precision a judge who had been rated as qualified would notice. Most landmarks fall under this law.
4. Even though the plaintiffs argued it, the decision did not mention downzoning efforts in the two neighborhoods. Maybe that’s why Jack Guthman stopped talking about it. He thought, reasonably, that his 25-year old argument was being validated, only to find that the judge completely whiffed it.

Meanwhile, in Oak Park they are demolishing the Colt Building and others on Westgate in preparation for a new development – wait, hold the phone – the developer backed out.
That means the demolition is?
I can see it now: Skate on Lake! Gallery Colt!
I was in favor of getting rid of the Colt if it saved the rest of Westgate, which was the plan in 2005.
But I also watched the demolition of Block 37 in 1989 for a new development.
And I watched the new development being completed.

This Tuesday.

It’s not done yet.

The timing between the demolition of 8 historic buildings on Block 37 and the completion of the new development they were sacrificed for?
How about a short list of the things that happened (besides my getting married, having children, hair turning gray)

Berlin Wall demolished
First Gulf War
Chicago Heat Wave
Six Chicago Bulls Championships
Current Gulf Wars
East Timor
Sox World Series
yes, the hometown of Chinese communism built all this while Block 37 lay vacant.
The Macarena
Harry Potter
Lord of the Rings trilogy and 3 James Bonds
iPods iPhones Wiis Facebook MySpace and most of the Internet
Bush, Clinton, Clinton, Bush, Bush


Now, to be fair, this building took longer to build than Block 37:
But come on guys, that was 800 years ago.

The Internet is slow

February 24, 2009

I have read the morning paper every day since I was a teenager, and I read the paper online as well. In fact, I have read online papers for almost a decade and I still get the paper delivered. Why? Because it is faster and more flexible. Especially now that the papers are in trouble and have gotten thinner. I can get local state national international news business sports funnies and obits in about 15 minutes in any room in the house standing reclining sitting. The internet can deliver me the same content but only in a few locations only sitting and it takes twice as long. You need to make the screen four times as big and as light as newsprint to really compete. This is not to say newspapers won’t become obsolescent – they might. But it won’t be because of convenience – it will be a choice. If you can call a decision determined by marketing a choice.

Live Blog Oscars

February 23, 2009

Okay I am watching the Oscars which is always very tedious so you need to do something else like blogging. Right now it is sort of interesting because it seems to be taking place in Bollywood and it looks like Slumdog Millionaire is running the table.

But really I have been alive since Breakfast at Tiffany’s and this show has always been a damn chore. It always amazed me that an entire industry based on entertainment – the movies – could fail so miserably as television. We don’t even critique the Oscars based on any objective criteria – we only critique them based on their failure or success compared to other Oscar shows: who was a better host, what was the best way to present the damn songs, who wore what, who thanked whom and who ran on too long and had to be drowned out by the orchestra. The fact that the awards are being announced live is the only real attraction. Heck, even a bad Super Bowl has good commercials.

And there is this completely dated intro and exit for every segment, replete with orchestral manuevers and shots of chandeliers and lights. And then the segments themselves feature all sorts of interesting actors suddenly sounding as maudlin as James Lipton on bennies and bourbon. Okay, so this last segment was the popular death march clippy where you see all the people who died this last year, with Queen Latifah in a ball gown singing like it’s 1934.

They are doing this thing where previous winners announce each of the actor nominees, and each speech is a benediction upon an eulogy stuffed into a laudatory panegyric. I think it is the incessant swells of orchestral emoticons that get to me. Now another speech and they are all overcome with emotion and I suppose we are supposed to feel emotions because they are feeling emotions in some sort of primitive mimicking like looking at the bonobos in the zoo.

But I think I figured out the reasons behind the endless boring nature of the Oscars and why it can never change. First, cinema is the art form of the last century and it is our most popular art form. This means people will watch no matter how bad the show is. Second, moviemaking is the most labor intensive, collaborative art form. The credits for any movie list hundreds of names. This means that people who get awards have an impossibly long list of other people who made that award possible. Always. Third, that massive crowded collaboration that is the creation of cinematic art denies in many ways the idea that you can give out an award to an individual or even the two or three who we have been seeing for sound editing, etc.

Now Reese Witherspoon is giving the director award to Danny Boyle and he is speed talking through the list of all the people he has to thank, but the director is the one we assign the role of author, or perhaps architect, since it takes a whole lot of people to build a building as well. Now actress and Kate Winslet was interesting and now we are doing actor and I get this new angle of having the past winners. This ups the ante. You get to see five famous actors honor five other famous actors. Most people will see this as more value – “hey I spent three hours watching that show but I got to see 58 famous people.” I suppose it is not news that this is a big self-congratulatory blunderblessfest, a sort of mid-60s Rotary Club awards dinner that goes on forever and people get loopier and longer-winded.

Sean Penn won for Milk and put on glasses to read the credits of all the people he has to thank. And now he has made the anti-Prop 8 statement – eloquently. That is the other reason we used to watch the Oscars – for Sasheen Littlefeather and streakers and Richard Gere going all Buddha and even Sean Penn sniping back a couple years ago – we watch to see what might happen on live TV – the breakdown, the spontaneous outburst, the political statement, the break from the maudlin script, the actual emotion. Heck, I remember Paddy Chayefsky’s famous outburst 30 years ago in response to all the other outbursts. It is the original reality TV only done in a really fancy room full of fancy people in fancy outfits. Now the final winner has started off saying it was a “collaboration of hundreds of people” and he has a bunch of them on the stage and you have to understand that individual people need to see individuals honored because that is what we relate to in some primitive way even if the reality behind this reality show is that to produce a contemporary work of art is not an act of individual creativity.

Touring Chicago

February 21, 2009

Today I began a community tour training program, part of the Burnham Centennial. We are working with six Chicago neighborhoods to develop tours about their plans for their communities. Rolf Achilles and Jean Guarino and I are the tour design consultants. Rolf and I did a similar docent training program a decade ago for the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor. The training involves getting information about Chicago history and architecture but it also involves helping people become good tour guides.
I have been giving tours for over 25 years and people keep asking me to do it, so I guess I know something about it. At the same time, this program is wisely designed to let the community stakeholders make the key decisions about theme and sites to be visited. And the focus is future plans, so our expertise about history and architecture is more of an added bonus rather than the heart of the project, which is about the future. Of course, the future is what preservation is about too.
Today we worked on coming up with themes for each community tour, and we cam eup with some catchy ones: From Civil War to Civil Rights and Beyond for Quad Communities (Douglas, Oakland, Grand Boulevard, North Kenwood), which encompasses most of the Black Metropolis. From Pollution to Solution was one of several that South Chicago came up with. Pilsen, the Indo-American museum on Devon, Albany Park, and Auburn Gresham also each came up with themes that link past and present to this collection of future plans. People got involved, which is the key.
It is also exciting to see how many of these communities have changed over the last 25 years. In my breakout session we had Albany Park and Quad Communities (Douglas, Oakland, Grand Boulevard, North Kenwood) which are two areas I have been familiar with for over two decades and I asked them both about perceptions that people have about the neighborhood.
This is interesting, because of course perceptions linger long after reality. I have led tours on the South Side since the 1980s and I have seen how much it has changed, but for many, their perception of the south side was formed in the 1970s or early 1980s and it hasn’t changed. And I think that for individuals who had that perception, it may never change. And if those individuals passed that perception on to others, it will take a full generation of revitalization and transformation to make a dent.
Which is all the more reason to do this project, because Chicago neighborhoods in 2009 are very different from 1989 or 1979. I know because I watched it and I am very pleased to be still watching it. I am looking forward to working in the various communities where transformation is planned and where transformation has taken place. Cities and their constituent neighborhoods are living things, always evolving. You have to see them over and over and over time and I hope our project will allow more people to do that.

Insulation, not replacement windows

February 15, 2009

The Obama stimulus bill has $5 billion for making modest income homes more energy efficient. The way to do this is to insulate their attics, not replace their windows. Once you insulate the top of your house, you have completed 80% of your energy savings. The marketing by window replacement manufacturers and vendors disguises this fact, but it is obvious once you remember one principle from elementary school: heat rises.

A few hundred dollars of insulation will thus do more for energy efficiency than a thousand dollars of replacement windows. The cheapest replacement windows, under $200 plus installation, will take 30 years to pay for themselves in energy savings, and will not last nearly that long.

In the stimulus they are talking about caulk, which is good, since caulking a window frame will usually generate savings in heating and cooling. Sadly, many replacement windows are installed without addressing the significant issue of air infiltration through the frame. If this is not addressed (usually with caulk), the replacement window may simply force more air through the leaky frame and thus have NO effect on energy costs.

Also, the stimulus is supposed to be about jobs, so let’s make it about jobs fixing houses and not jobs selling plastic windows.

TWO WEEKS LATER: 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 during the winter. (In US Govt study in 1996 that was the biggest variable – people didn’t close the windows). And I insulated the attic. 110 year old windows with triple tracks. Real brick house with real plaster walls. Ain’t no warping offgassing PVC windows gonna touch that.

A new birth of interpretation

February 13, 2009

Yesterday we had a great event in Lockport, unveiling the new Lincoln Landing park and Abraham Lincoln sculpture. It should have had better publicity, for the sculpture was a good and bold attempt at portraying the multitudinous Lincoln in three intertwined figures, at once a return to the narrative in sculpture within a modern matrix of sensibilities; an organic cubism that presents different aspects together within a realist mode. Interesting stuff and largely successful, by young artist David Ostro. Doesn’t beat St. Gaudens in Lincoln Park, but it works. Lincoln as a legislator supported the construction of the I & M Canal among other internal improvements. (Hear that GOP? – it wasn’t even shovel ready – and that is in the day they actually used shovels…)
The park itself is a huge step forward. They moved the “petting zoo” of historic buildings that had agglomerated there in the 1970s and 80s. Not only weren’t they original to the site, they blocked the view of the Gaylord Building, where I Chair the Site Council on behalf of the owner, the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Now the building has its original context of the canal and the public landing – now Lincoln Landing – and its role as a canal warehouse and grain concern during the 19th century is more visible in every way.
The interpretation in the Lincoln Landing park also incorporates the standing Cor-Ten steel silhouette figures we launched a decade ago in the I & M Canal Corridor, as well as medallions commemorating various significant Lockport figures past and present. Not only does this include 1840s figures like canal engineer William Gooding but modern figures like Will County Historical Society docent Pat Darin, because history isn’t over yet.
medallionssWe are part of history, as Prof. Dennis Cremin noted in his dedication speech. This is a key element of historic site interpretation nowadays – letting people know they are part of history, too. They are actors and stewards and history is not a foreign country but the background to everything we experience and perceive. It is altogether fitting and proper that we do this.

Making the past visible

February 11, 2009

My Research Studio class is looking at historic sites and how we mark them. This has been an interest of mine over the last decade, brought on by my experiences writing tour guides, being a tour guide and most of all, trying to explain the history of place to people. My graduate seminar is looking at the same issue, and I will report on that later this semester, but yesterday my First Year students and I took a tour of Lincoln Park and found lots of signs worth looking at, including a new project by Pamela Bannos called “Hidden Truths” which focuses on the fact that the southernmost 60 acres or so of Lincoln Park was once the city cemetery.
They moved the cemetery and reinterred the bodies, mostly at Rosehill, but a few remained behind – like the Couch tomb behind the History Museum – and skulls and bones invariably turn up every time someone digs in the park or even the Gold Coast, a fact Bannos presents in maps on her website
The Hidden Truths project is interesting because it uses the oldest and least interactive form of interpretive signage – the bronze plaque. The bronze plaque has an enduring quality in every sense of the adjective, but its ubiquity as a mode of communication has made it a turn-off for many people.
I tend to like artistic interpretations like the project on the sidewalks of Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. We found an example of that in the form of footprints and medallions in “Dad’s Park” in Mid-North, not far from the site of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, which is unmarked.
We also wandered through the Zoo on this preternaturally warm day and were greeted by the granddaddy of “wayfinding,” the signage that gets you around to see Rhinos and giraffes and even CTA buses.
We also found a few memorials, like the incredible Eugene Field memorial, which is on Zoo grounds and is an exquisite riot of 19th century sentimentality even though it was crafted in 1922. A fairy putting children to sleep with poppies…
A memorial is a different idea than a monument or even than an historical marker, which I believe is about the interaction of person and place. Memorials and monuments have less of a relationship to place, hence we have war memorials all over the country even though we have not had wars all over the country.
But we use the words sort of interchangeably: memorial, monument, landmark, markers, etc. and I think this is another example of conceptual laziness. I thought the Germans did better by having Denkmal, Mahnmal, Ehrenmal and Gedenkstätte, which are pretty specific in concept but it seems in practice they do not hew closely to the distinctions.
You know, we also have a Grant memorial in Lincoln Park.
And Lincoln, who would turn 200 tomorrow if he hadn’t been shot.
august-abesWe also found markers indicating the historic shoreline, which is useful in Lincoln Park, since the majority of its acreage is landfill.
At the South Pond, there is a lovely memorial garden with a Shakespeare sonnet on a series of four stones along a winding path. The plaque on a boulder is again one of the oldest forms of memorial marking/interpretation, and it is remarkable that it has returned to us now, in a world with such technological possibility. Why aren’t there interactive sound installations?
Actually, we found one of those in the Conservatory.
But it is striking how older forms abide even as new ones appear. It seems there is only addition, not replacement, like this odd boulder that my grad student Noel Weidner reported on Monday – erected in 1902 to commemorate the death 50 years earlier of a man who claimed to be 115 and have survived the Boston Tea Party.
The original plaque succumbed to the only force it is vulnerable to – metal scavengers – and was replaced. Now there is a brand new olde style plaque, part of Bannos’ Hidden Truths, and the whole place has become a sort of memorial to a memorial, a real memory of an apparent falsehood and the enthusiasm of those who would commemorate it.


February 8, 2009

My last post discussed one of the great problems of sustainability today and our conceptual laziness in distinguishing between reuse and recycling. Sustainability as a concept can also lead to lazy thinking because like economics, there are different levels of sustainability.
I read today about all of the green products at the International Builders Show in Las Vegas, lovely bamboo “socially conscious sinks”, sinks made out of recycled enamel, and tiles made out of 10-100 percent recycled glass (depending on the color), and the quickest shortcut to green heaven, the CFL bulb.
Of course, we have the reuse versus recycling problem here: It is swell that building materials are made out of recycled materials and that sinks can be made from bamboo, but where are they coming from and what is their carbon footprint? How much energy was used to remelt and reform those glass tiles? How much to forge that sink enamel? How much to ship that bamboo sink halfway around the world? And then you have the whole problem that a new building has a big carbon footprint no matter what it is made out of, and if you removed an old building to build the new building, odds are the project won’t become carbon neutral in your lifetime.
But the bigger problem is that there are two sustainabilities and we are only thinking about one of them. We think about the material, but we don’t think about the economy. How do you make a sustainable economy based on sustainabile practices? The Obama economic stimulus admirably looks at fixing things – bridges, roads – as well as developing new energy technologies that aren’t dependent on trucking and shipping tons of oil halfway around the world. That is good, but I am not sure it addresses an intrinsic aspect of our economy that is not sustainable.
After World War II, we purposely built a new economic model more dependent on consumerism. This is why in 2001 after the terrorist attacks we were encouraged to go shopping – to save the economy. This is why we have had “planned obsolescence” in manufacturing and distribution of consumer goods since before I was born. It is a good model for building wealth. But it is not sustainable as an economic model, since it is based on large amounts of waste and products that do not last a long time.
Motorola – the company – was in dire straits 18 months after it released the most popular telephone in the world. Why? Because it didn’t follow up the Razr with an equally successful fad product. Technology has become the latest arena of rapid obsolescence, and thus it has been the productive part of our economy. Our economic model requires growth, and the patterns of growth we have developed over the last 60 years are focused on short lifespan products – the shorter the better, for the economy.
Wal-Mart and other big stores did remarkably well with the obsolescence economy because they sold products at prices so low, you never had to fix or even hold on to those products for very long. You could just throw them out and buy a new one.
Historic preservation is about fixing things, which went out of fashion after the Second World War and the advent of the obsolescence economy. Even houses and buildings of the 1950s and 1960s were often built remarkably less durably than their predecessors of the 1920s. No developer of modern houses on the periphery has ever told me that those houses are supposed to last any longer than their initial mortgages.
This is good for the economy as we have designed it, based on waste and constant consumption. So it is only natural that our foray into “sustainability” is based on the same model. Make a bamboo bowl in China, ship it halfway around the world and install it along with lots of recycled materials in a new house with weathertight windows. Of course, we should be grateful that technology allows us to weatherproof buildings – one of the SCARIEST aspects of the proposed stimulus bill.
We have the technology today to make buildings as tight as vacuum tubes, thus losing less energy. So these buildings will run on lots less energy than historic ones, right? And old buildings with insulation and new windows can be more efficient than they ever were, right? They will use less energy than when they were built, right? Actually, no.
See, in the postwar era of planned obsolescence and consumer economics, we also introduced a whole set of new “needs” that were once luxuries. Cars had arguably become “needs” prior to the 1950s, but one new “need” that only arrived late in that decade was air conditioning. Invented only a century ago and available to most people for the last 40 or 50 years, air conditioning added a whole new set of energy requirements that never existed before. This is why we need airtight buildings nowadays – much more than heating costs, which the Victorian architects addressed in the 19th century with double-glazed window systems, many of which exceed the modern double-glazed sash in efficiency. (That’s not fair – it is much easier for two old windows with 3-4 inches between their panes to beat a modern thermal pane all by itself. Give the thermal pane the installation and frame insulation it needs, and it will be competitive.)
It is the same problem presented by the 6,400 square foot “green” house. How can a house that big be efficient in historical perspective unless it is occupied by 12 people and passively cooled? It can’t. It can be efficient in comparison to other houses of similar girth built five or ten or even 30 years ago. But it can’t touch a greystone with decent tuckpointing, caulk around the window frames and modest individual space requirements.
The real challenge is building a new economy, one that employs people to make things that last, fix those things, and reuse things for new purposes. Like buildings. That is much more than any stimulus package can offer, and much more than can be achieved given the existing models of production and consumption.
But the impulse to preserve and conserve may be able, over generations, to build this new economic model, one infinitely more sophisticated and subtle than the one I grew up with, because it was entirely dependent on marketing and the creation of “needs” where none existed. The new one will need to be based on future needs – real needs – because that is in fact the definition of sustainability.


February 4, 2009

The words we use in everyday life tend to be casual and unfortunately, that means the concepts they embody can also get sloppy. In the field of fixing up old buildings the terms “renovate,” “remodel,” “rehabilitate,” “preserve,” and even “restore” are used interchangeably, even though the latter three terms have fairly precise definitions and guidelines for their practice promulgated by the Secretary of the Interior. Those guidelines are not interchangeable and it is a very different thing to “preserve” a building rather than “rehabilitate: it. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that we use “preserve” to mean “save from demolition,” even if the final treatment of the property is (as it almost always is) rehabilitation.

Now, in the era of sustainability, a similar casual conversational confusion may lead to causal conundrums. The goal of the historic preservation movement, broadly, is the reuse of historic buildings. This is very different from the recycling of buildings, but in conservation, as in preservation, we have been lazy with our terminology.

I have been a homebrewer for 15 years and my friends always return the empty bottles to me, acknowledging that I “recycle” them. I respond that I actually “reuse” them. I clean them out and fill them again with beer. I don’t recycle, because that would involve grinding the bottles into bits, melting the glass and then fashioning a new bottle (or a highway) out of them.

In the era of sustainability, the difference between “reuse” and “recycling” is massive, because the carbon footprint of “recycling” is much larger than “reuse.” The bottle example alone illustrates that. The goal of historic preservation – supported by the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation – is to reuse as much of a building as possible, in situ. LEED is slowly coming around to this, but it started as a recycling system, geared toward manufacture rather than use.

What has brought all of this up is a movement called Deconstruction that has nothing to do with Foucault but involves tearing apart perfectly good buildings and salvaging all of the pieces, from the always popular ornamental elements like stained glass all the way down to bricks and floorboards. They are having a conference in Chicago this spring and there is even a TV show celebrating this, with a couple tearing down a perfectly good house and then admiring the salvagers recycling (and valuing) all the bits. To a preservationist, it plays like Saw V, but the happy couple are deluded into thinking they are doing something sustainable and environmental.

Note to world: when you are tearing down a functioning, complex, high-carbon-footprint object like a building you are doing THE OPPOSITE of sustainable and environmental. ANY new building is decades away from paying off its carbon footprint, and ANY demolition is several figures in the carbon debit column.

It takes me 6 ounces of water and two minutes of elbow grease to clean a bottle. It would take a whole bunch of coal, gas or uranium to melt it down into something else.

Is it better to recycle building components rather than dumping them in a landfill? Sure, the same way it is better to recycle my bottle than throw it out. But it is LOTS better and uses lots less energy to reuse. A human analogy: it is better to transplant organs from the victim of a car accident than to bury them. But it is LOTS better to avoid accidents.