Posts Tagged ‘embodied energy; sustainability; LEED; preservation’

Test the proposal

July 24, 2009

The City of Chicago just awarded $11 million to two contractors to demolish 28 of the 29 buildings at Michael Reese Hospital, including all 8 that were designed with the involvement of Walter Gropius. This brings the total city cost for the site to almost 100 million dollars, but this does not of course begin to tally the environmental costs. Ten years ago, I watched another lakefront demolition, where dust and debris socked those watching from the lakefront.
Let’s measure this one. I would like to know where all the stuff goes and where it comes from. I would like to know how much gasoline and coal and uranium are used to take these buildings from us and give us some other ones, and I need to know how long those last and how much they cost to operate. In fairness, we need to know the environmental costs of rehabbing the Reese buildings, which could be extensive. I don’t know why you can’t make these buildings work as housing and I would like to know the REAL costs of replacing them.
MRH kaplan anglS
Please note: announcing that the new buildings will have green roofs measures nothing.


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.

Huge Fact

December 14, 2007

Dick Moe, President of the National Trust made a FANTASTIC speech last night on the occasion of receiving the Vincent Scully Prize at the National Building Museum. The basic point: “Preservation IS Sustainability” This is obvious stuff to those of us who deal with old buildings – they have embodied energy and if we want to slow down climate change, we need to save buildings. Dick had some killer statistics which again are obvious if you think about it. An excerpt from Moe’s speech:

“But according to the EPA, transportation – cars, trucks, trains, airplanes – accounts for just 27% of America‚s greenhouse gas emissions, while 48% – almost twice as much – is produced by the construction and operation of buildings. If you remember nothing else I say tonight, remember this: Nearly half of the greenhouse gases we Americans send into the atmosphere comes from our buildings. In fact, more than 10% of the entire world’s greenhouse gas emissions is produced by America’s buildings – but the current debate on climate change does not come close to reflecting that huge fact. The message is clear: Any solution to climate change must address the need to reduce emissions by being smarter about how we use our buildings and wiser about land use.”

PRESERVATION IS SUSTAINABILITY he said. BRAVO! And then Dick talked about looking at the comparative carbon footprints of old versus new buildings:

“According to a formula produced for the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, about 80 billion BTUs of energy are embodied in a typical 50,000-square-foot commercial building. That‚s the equivalent of 640,000 gallons of gasoline. If you tear the building down, all of that embodied energy is wasted.”

“What’s more, demolishing that same 50,000-square-foot commercial building would create nearly 4,000 tons of waste. That’s enough debris to fill 26 railroad boxcars – that’s a train nearly a quarter of a mile long, headed for a landfill that is already almost full.”

“Once the old building is gone, putting up a new one in its place takes more energy, of course, and it also uses more natural resources and releases new pollutants and greenhouse gases into our environment. Look at all the construction cranes dotting the Washington skyline, and consider this: It is estimated that constructing a new 50,000-square-foot commercial building releases about the same amount of carbon into the atmosphere as driving a car 2.8 million miles.”

“One more point: Since 70% of the energy consumed over a building‚s lifetime is used in the operation of the building, some people argue that all the energy used in demolishing an older building and replacing it is quickly recovered through the increased energy efficiency of the new building – but that’s simply not true. Recent research indicates that even if 40% of the materials are recycled, it takes approximately 65 years for a green, energy-efficient new office building to recover the energy lost in demolishing an existing building. And let’s face it: Most new buildings aren’t designed to last anywhere near 65 years. ”

You build a new house and you do more environmental damage than you can undo by never driving a car again.

Then Dick goes after LEED, the admirable system designed to show how green and efficient a building is. BUT IT DOESN”T COUNT RE-USE! D-OH! Here’s what Dick said:

“This emphasis on new construction is completely wrong-headed. The statistics I cited earlier tell us clearly that buildings are the problem – but incredibly, we propose to solve the problem by constructing more and more new buildings while ignoring the ones we already have.”
“Here’s what we have to keep in mind: No matter how much green technology is employed in its design and construction, any new building represents a new impact on the environment. The bottom line is that the greenest building is one that already exists.”
and then the kicker, because the punters always whine about energy efficiency:

“It’s often alleged that historic buildings are energy hogs- but in fact, some older buildings are as energy-efficient as many recently-built ones, including new green buildings. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency suggests that buildings constructed before 1920 are actually more energy-efficient than buildings built at any time afterwards – except for those built after 2000. Furthermore, in 1999, the General Services Administration (GSA) examined its buildings inventory and found that utility costs for historic buildings were 27% less than for more modern buildings.”

This is a big no-brainer for anyone with a knowledge of history. ENERGY WAS EXPENSIVE for most of history, hence EVERY VICTORIAN BUILDING WAS DOUBLE-GLAZED. They also had operable upper sashes for cooling. Energy was only cheap for one historical period – 1945-1970 – and that was when inefficient, single-glazed buildings were built. Dick notes this because it is a real challenge for preserving the Recent Past.

Dick winds it up with emphasizing the climate devastation of sprawl, a topic he brought to historic preservation:

“For decades, national, state and local policies have facilitated – even encouraged – the development of new suburbs while leaving existing communities behind. As a result, an ongoing epidemic of sprawl ravages the countryside, devouring open space, consuming resources and demanding new infrastructure. Look at nearby Loudoun County, for example, where pro-growth supervisors have already approved thousands of new homes, and are considering the approval of thousands more, in a semi-rural area underserved by roads and public services. Meanwhile, here in Washington – and in scores of other cities – disinvestment has left viable housing stock abandoned and schools slated for closing in areas where infrastructure is already in place, already paid for.”

Bravo, Dick! This is momentous. Here is a link to the whole speech.

The wheel is in spin, folks, and historic preservation is part of the axle.