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.



2 Responses to “Deconstruction”

  1. berg1 Says:

    feb. 4, 2009… it is prophetic that your article of today’s date ends…it is lots better to avoid accidents. Let us assume for the moment that Holy Name events of today were an accident. I am uneasy with the concept, having considered the sister building in Joliet, demised by fire on a Sunday morning around 5am. The style of the building, the similarity of the building footprint, the high value of the land(the major difference is the popularity, huge membership & vitality of Holy Name and elaborate interior ornament

    Is it all Gothic, late 1800’s, Joliet limestone churches that encounter (early morning)fire that begins centered above the altar , in the middle of the church, with some people in the building, who are miraculously unaware of the events unfolding just under the roof in the attic above? Now will we have to endure the fox investigating events in the chicken coop? An accident perhaps, or perhaps not.

    I liken fire at this place with the likelyhood of fire at the Art Institute. When you have a building of such magnitude, one can assume that the benefits to future generations do not rest with some hired hand .We almost lost a gem today. I played guitar at a Mass at Holy Name Cathedral in the late 70’s. It has personal history for me.The feeling of common good was incredible there. It can never be replaced. In light of the recent landmark ruling and now this, perhaps it is time to create a new “think tank” on how to preserve Illinois places.

  2. PreservationNation » Blog Archive » Deal or No Deal? Just Don't Call it Recycling! Says:

    […] National Trust board and is one of my Facebook buddies. He wrote a blog on February 4th entitled “Deconstruction” which I loved – comparing the reuse of his home brewed beer bottle to the reuse of existing and […]

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