The Greenest Building Is One That Already Exists

Richard Moe, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, recently explained why restoring this historic building in downtown Madison, SD, is more sustainable than tearing it down and starting from scratch (and no, that’s not an April Fool’s joke!).


The title of this post comes from the speech Moe gave in December when he was honored with the Vincent Scully Prize. The speech is a long one, but stick with it through all 4,000 words. It’s worth it. Moe explains why building preservation and construction practices are crucial to environmental sustainability. He points out that the thing we usually focus on in reducing our collective carbon footprint is transportation, especially cars, when construction actually accounts for much more of our greenhouse gas emissions than does transportation. He also cites some rather stunning statistics to back up his thesis.

If you are the least bit interested in environmental stewardship, climate change, architecture, historic preservation, land development, or even economic development, take a few minutes to read or listen to this highly informative speech. Here are a few choice quotes:

When you strip away the rhetoric, preservation is simply having the good sense to hold on to things that are well designed, that link us with our past in a meaningful way, and that have plenty of good use left in them.

It all comes down to this simple fact: We can’t build our way out of the global warming crisis. We have to conserve our way out. That means we have to make better, wiser use of what we’ve already built.

Much of the debate on this subject usually focuses on the need to reduce auto emissions. 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.

Buildings are vast repositories of energy. It takes energy to manufacture or extract building materials, more energy to transport them to a construction site, still more energy to assemble them into a building. All of that energy is embodied in the finished structure – and if the structure is demolished and landfilled, the energy locked up in it is totally wasted. What’s more, the process of demolition itself uses more energy – and, of course, the construction of a new building in its place uses more yet.

Most new buildings aren’t designed to last anywhere near 65 years . . . we persist in thinking of our buildings as a disposable – rather than a renewable – resource.

Unlike their more recent counterparts that celebrate the concept of planned obsolescence, most historic and many other older buildings were built to last. Their durability gives them almost unlimited “renewability” – a fact that underscores the folly of wasting them instead of recognizing them as valuable, sustainable assets.

It makes no sense for us to recycle newsprint and bottles and aluminum cans while we’re throwing away entire buildings, or even entire neighborhoods.

Read or listen to the whole speech here.


About EMH

Forty-something. South Dakotan. Mother to 11-year-old K.L. Wife to Cory. Lutheran pastor. Novice organic gardener. Sustainable living aspirer.
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6 Responses to The Greenest Building Is One That Already Exists

  1. Earthenstein says:

    Nice post, I have to agree. I love that last quote about recycling cans and throwing away buildings! If you haven’t heard about the Cambridge Energy Alliance you should check them out, I wrote a short article about them and what they’re doing. It is a city backed non-profit in MA. that is working to convert the buildings in the city (residential and business) to be more green by reducing electricity, water, and heat usage by about 15%. The exciting thing about it, though, is that they are aiming for 50% participation throughout the city which is huge compared to anything thats been attempted or even considered before. Anyway, thanks for the post!

  2. Jay says:

    I have to agree. Also, I have a link to another good (but also lengthy ) interview on the subject.


  3. lou says:

    Bravo, Jay. Much has been written about green building, a sexy topic, but little about green renovation and retrofitting. Of course, this topic leads to the more existential green questions we should be asking: Should we be building more? Driving more (albeit in a hybrid)? Eating organic Oreos? One last plug for green rennovation: lots of great, old buildings are going the way of the wrecking ball, and with them the history that we so desperately need to be reminded of. We are living in a temporary age of fuel gluttony. Woe betide us if we think this isn’t just a cycle that will end.

  4. Pingback: Green Certifications Lead to Sustainable Businesses | Alliance for Sustainable Colorado

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