Greening Sprawl? Why the Context of Buildings Matters

Posted on: October 9th, 2007 by Patrice Frey 2 Comments

Last week’s conference in St. Paul featured a presentation by Mike Jackson of the Illinois Historic Preservation.  Among preservationists, Mike is known as an Energy Guru on the subject of the energy embodied in historic buildings, and on the operational efficiency of historic buildings.   During his presentation, Mike referenced a recent article by that found that commuting by office workers can account for far more energy use than building operations.  According to BuildingGreen calculations, commuting “accounts for 30% more energy than the building itself uses.”  As building efficiency goes up, the proportion of energy used for transportation is even more significant. “For an average new office building built to code, transportation accounts for more than twice as much energy use as building operation.”

So what does the mean?  While new green buildings – such as those certified under the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED standards -- may be energy efficient, the context in which they are located isn’t necessarily sustainable.   I’m reminded of an excellent piece I ran across recently in Greener Buildings in which Shari Shapiro discusses "green sprawl,"  -- development in which green buildings are located in unsustainable contexts.   Under most green building standards, buildings are certified as “green” because they incorporate energy efficient features, provide adequate daylighting, – and meet a host of other criteria.  While these standards may encourage development in existing urban areas, they do not require it.   

I’ve done a bit of research that seems to substantiate concerns about “green sprawl.” About 19% of LEED-NC (New Construction) projects have earned a credit for being located in a densely developed area – that means 81% of LEED-NC certified buildings don’t meet the USGBC’s requirement for dense development. Though a relatively small number of historic buildings have been LEED certified (about 35 out of more than 400), more than 50% of historic projects have earned the credit for dense development. Furthermore, over 90% of LEED-NC certified historic projects earned a credit for providing access to mass transit, as compared to about 60% of newly constructed projects.   

The research bears out expectations that many historic buildings are located in sustainable contexts – and location matters.   Rehabbing and re-using these buildings allows us to capitalize on existing infrastructure – including mass transit -- reducing those gas guzzling commutes. 

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2 Responses

  1. Ron Emrich

    October 29, 2007

    It seems to me that a “green” building seeking LEED certification that replaces a demolished historic building (do we know of any specific examples? surely there are some!) ought to receive negative points for all the lost energy, life cycle and landfill costs etc. Just a thought.

  2. National Trust for Historic Preservation
    Sue Tilden

    October 30, 2007

    Mention was made in this edition of PreservationNation of the LEED-NC system and how some historic building projects have earned LEED ratings. New on the horizon, however is the LEED-ND rating system, which is in Pilot stage right now. This is LEED for Neighborhoods (ND = Neighborhood Design). Context matters very much in LEED-ND, as does connectivity, including all forms of non-automotive transportation such as public transit, bicycle and pedestrian modes.

    Neighborhood can be new and certified by their developers, or can be existing neighborhoods in which a single project or structure “completes”the neighborhood, with residents, local groups or even governmental entities can be the certifiers. It would seem that local or more broad-based historic preservations organizations might explore this new LEED rating as another tool to bolster neighborhood preservation.

    Best regards,
    Sue Tilden, AICP, PP