National Trust for Historic Preservation: Preservation Green Lab

Who doesn’t love old buildings? They give us a sense of history, our roots, stability, nostalgia–especially during the holiday season. We should be doing all we can to preserve our historic structures. (Just a note–when I talk about historic buildings on this blog, I’m usually referring to pre-war structures. The National Trust for Historic Preservation widely aims to protect “landscapes, buildings, and neighborhoods that have played a meaningful role in our past“)

However, inhabiting historic buildings does have some complications–seismic retrofits may be needed, they may not be accessible, and they can be terribly energy inefficient. According the AIA, in 2011 43% of the energy consumed in the US went just to heating, cooling and powering buildings–a higher percentage than industry or transportation.

Pioneer Square, Seattle's oldest neighborhood, in the snow....can't you almost hear the sleigh bells?

Pioneer Square, Seattle’s oldest neighborhood, in the snow….can’t you almost hear the sleigh bells?

Retrofitting historic structures is complicated–more so when they are occupied–but they add so much value to the urban fabric and experience. It is usually cost prohibitive to create new buildings with the same weight and quality of materials. Because of the debt service on new buildings, the commercial spaces are usually more expensive than existing buildings. There is such a tremendous opportunity in old buildings for new and small businesses in urban neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs.

Enter the National Trust for Historic Preservation Preservation Green Lab, based in Seattle. They are working to bring the process of preserving buildings full circle: documenting the value of historic buildings while working to provide policy solutions to ease the process of greening and reusing these structures.

Their publication “Learning from LA” provides strategies for retrofits and reuse. A study from the Preservation Green Lab used to Life Cycle Assessment and “compares the relative environmental impacts of building reuse and renovation to demolition and new construction over the course of a building’s 75-year life span. The study compares scenarios for six building types across a range of climate regions. The results of this analysis show that it takes from ten to 80 years for a new building that is 30 percent more efficient than an average-performing existing building to overcome, through efficient operations, the negative climate change impacts related to the construction process,” echoing Architect Carl Elefante’s famous phrase, “The greenest building is one that already exists.”

See also: America Saves! Energizing Main Street Small Businesses, “Supported by a $2 million grant award from the U.S. Department of Energy, America Saves! is achieving preservation-based solutions by identifying obstacles that prevent cities from realizing the benefits of saving and improving existing buildings, and by guiding communities toward the benefits of immediate cost savings, carbon savings and local job creation resulting from energy efficiency.”