When I first started working on sustainability issues at the NTHP three years ago, my boss Emily Wadhams (the VP for public policy) and I made the rounds to various agencies and organizations to talk about our work on sustainability – and especially our efforts to get people thinking about the value of reusing buildings rather than tearing them down and building anew. We were greeted with polite nodding heads, but quickly realized that the preservation community was just about the only group out there pushing the envelope on the issue of reuse.
Over the years I've had plenty of time to think about why it is that reuse just doesn’t register on most radars. Architects prefer to work with blank canvases, developers often don’t want to deal with the risks of rehabbing existing buildings, and new construction drives much of the American economy. And then underlying it all is our cultural obsession with all things bright, shiny and new.
So what really is lost – in environmental terms – when we tear stuff down and replace it?
Turns out we don’t have a lot of research that helps us understand this question -- sure, there are lots of studies that explore the merits of constructing new green buildings, but there’s relatively little data available on the economic and environmental benefits of building reuse. That’s about to change, and not a moment too soon.
Today, the National Trust is announcing a partnership between Portland, Oregon-based Green Building Services and Seattle-based Cascadia Green Building Council. The three groups are joining forces to design and execute a study that will challenge conventional thinking about the built environment.
The study will quantify the value of building reuse for a number of different scenarios. For example, the study will examine the types of environmental impacts avoided when homeowners reuse and retrofit an existing house rather than tear one down and construct a new green home in its place.
This study, which is made possible by a grant from the Summit Foundation, will use Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to look at the differences between energy, carbon, water and other environmental impacts in new construction and building reuse. We’ll look at a variety of building types in four regions of the United States with the goal of gaining a sophisticated understanding of when and why building reuse makes the most fiscal and environmental sense.
Look for findings from this study by the beginning of 2011.
Patrice Frey is the deputy director of the sustainability program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.