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Old Buildings Matter – the Green Renovation Trend Continues to Grow

The greenest building isn’t necessarily the latest and greatest, highest-scoring LEED-Platinum award winner. According to the 2021 World Green Building Trends report from the U.S Green Building Council (USGBC), about half of respondents engage in green renovation/retrofit projects, with most investors engaged in this work. The green renovation trend is expected to continue to grow.

According to Carl Elefante, FAIA, LEED AP, “The Greenest Building Is…One That Is Already Built.”  In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs pointed to the “plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings” as the best candidates for keeping a city healthy, diverse, and stable.

Besides the value of the economic investment in the existing building stock, there is the obvious historical and cultural value that buildings have in their neighborhoods and communities. Measuring and, therefore proving value is what gets people’s attention.  Therefore, we keep trying to find ways to make the business case, whether it is for historic preservation or sustainability. Or, preferably, both (together).

There is much greater value in reusing existing and historic buildings than what can be measured in BTUs. “Keeping and using old places,” wrote Tom Mayes of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “is one of the most environmentally sound things a person or community can do.” The historic preservation and sustainability movements have much in common. The National Trust’s 2011 study The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse found that “it takes 10 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.”

In a recent article The Reuse Imperative, Jim Lindberg, senior policy director, wrote how an understanding of embodied and upfront carbon changes how we think about buildings. 

“The urgency of reducing embodied carbon emissions inverts common perceptions about older buildings and climate change. Rather than outdated structures that we hope to replace, older buildings should be valued as climate assets that we cannot afford to waste.”

Carbon emissions throughout the lifecycle of a building, ACAN

He notes that as buildings become more efficient and have lower operating emissions, then upfront emissions come to dominate.

“As building operations become more efficient and the energy grid shifts to renewable sources, reducing the embodied carbon emissions from construction will become even more urgent. Although low-carbon construction techniques are becoming more viable, decarbonization of the construction industry is still years off. The best way to avoid embodied carbon emissions right now, when our carbon budget is shrinking fast, is to conserve and reuse as many existing buildings as possible.”

Even though 80% of existing buildings were not designed to be energy efficient, existing buildings can become more sustainable. 

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