Sustainability and Preservation: Is the Message Catching On?

Posted on: July 14th, 2011 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Written by Rachel Bowdon

Preservationists have long known that reusing existing buildings (and their component parts) and maintaining historic communities are essential to ensuring a sustainable future. Of late, we’ve started to notice more and blogs, news articles and others pieces that suggest the message might be catching on. As my colleague David Garber made clear last month in Preservation Roundup: The Greenest Building Edition, it is increasingly common to come across stories and articles that demonstrate how reuse and improvement of our existing built resources and reinvestment in older and historic communities is crucial to addressing climate change.

We wanted to share with you a few of the stories that caught our eye recently…

Historic windows (via PreservationNation on Flickr)

Historic windows (via PreservationNation on Flickr)

Check out Treehugger's LifeEdited: Looking at Windows, in which architect Lloyd Alter highlights the merits of keeping and refurbishing older windows. As he points out, not only is the energy efficiency of properly repaired historic windows nearly indistinguishable from new windows, but the economic benefits of replacing windows is virtually non-existent. In fact, one Indiana study showed that the payback period through energy savings by replacing historic windows wood windows is 400 years!

Further, historic wood windows, built of scarce, hardwood timber from old growth forests, are environmentally and socially valuable. Just as environmentalists contest the destruction of the trees, Atler questions the logic of discarding windows that were built with this same scarce resource. Especially when these durable, wood windows are replaced with vinyl windows — which, riffing on preservation economics expert Donovan Rypkema’s joke — are called replacement windows because every 20 years you have to replace them.

While Alter does not disparage replacement windows in all cases, he ultimately concludes that “the greenest window is the one already in the wall.” He believes that “if you fix the exiting windows and put on a high quality interior storm window that you will get a good insulating value, and that on the basis of a life cycle analysis is the greenest window going.”

More historic windows (via PreservationNation on Flickr)

More historic windows (via PreservationNation on Flickr)

We couldn’t agree more! For links and resources on how to refurbish historic windows, check out our weatherization site.

In a separate piece, Atler also highlights Dave LeBlanc’s “Architecture Lover’s Manifesto” that reinforces Carl Elefante’s rallying cry “The greenest building is the one that’s already built.” LeBlanc, a writer of architecture trends for Toronto’s Globe Life, wrote the manifesto as "A dozen things to consider as you consider purchasing, renovating or demolishing a new house—for the sake of your home or building’s future owners—and the neighborhood."

While the majority of the 12 points of the manifesto apply to preservation, particularly relevant to sustainability are points 2 and 3:

"2. I will consider buying an older home over a new one. Older homes are usually in established neighbourhoods; this means I can walk to do some errands, just like my grandparents did. Even if I must replace a furnace, a roof or windows, or even take down a wall, I am still celebrating the fact that the greenest building is the one that already exists.

3. Before I demolish, I will Google “embodied energy."

You tell ‘em, Dave LeBlanc! Seen any good, preservation and sustainability friendly stories or blogs lately? We’d love to hear from you.

Rachel Bowdon is the program assistant for the Sustainability Program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

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