The Greenest Building is the One Already Built

Green tipsHere’s some good news for owners of old houses: The January/February issue of Preservation magazine, published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, offers tips for “greening” your older house while maintaining its historic integrity. Most of these tips are common sense, but the magazine detailed many of the underlying facts and figures to make its case. Though these tips are aimed at residential buildings, many of the principles would also apply to non-residential structures as well.

Richard Moe, President of the National Trust (and a native Minnesotan), was recently awarded the prestigious Vincent Scully Prize, which recognizes exemplary practice, scholarship, or criticism in architecture, landscape architecture, historic preservation, or urban design. In his acceptance speech, Moe offered some insights into the economic and environmental implications of preservation and conservation of old buildings.

Here’s what we have to keep in mind: No matter how much green technology is employed in its design and construction, any new building represents a new impact on the environment. The bottom line is that the greenest building is one that already exists.

It’s often alleged that historic buildings are energy hogs—but in fact, some older buildings are as energy-efficient as many recently-built ones, including new green buildings. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency suggests that buildings constructed before 1920 are actually more energy-efficient than buildings built at any time afterwards—except for those built after 2000. Furthermore, in 1999, the General Services Administration (GSA) examined its buildings inventory and found that utility costs for historic buildings were 27 percent less than for more modern buildings.

It’s not hard to figure out why. Many historic buildings have thick, solid walls, resulting in greater thermal mass and reducing the amount of energy needed for heating and cooling. Buildings designed before the widespread use of electricity feature transoms, high ceilings, and large windows for natural light and ventilation, as well as shaded porches and other features to reduce solar gain. Architects and builders paid close attention to siting and landscaping as tools for maximizing sun exposure during the winter months and minimizing it during warmer months.

You can read the full text here, or download the audio of his speech.


  1. Ross Currier said:

    This is a very worthwhile post, linking to some important ideas. I figured I’d wait until the hundreds of others commented before I threw my two cents onto the table. Enough time has passed.

    In my case, it’s preaching to the converted. As many of you know, the Founding Fathers of the NDDC, Bardwell Smith, Brett Reese, Jim Braucher and Keith Covey, based the organization on the Four Points of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Program. In fact, last year I attended the national conference in Seattle and blogged about it both on the NDDC and LG websites:

    Tracy references the January/February edition of “Preservation – The Magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation”. The NDDC is a member, and we always get the magazine, however, in my mind, this was a particularly valuable issue, with important information for both commercial and residential applications.

    Indeed, it’s about being green.

    Native Minnesotan and National Trust President Richard Moe sees the convergence of the preservation and sustainability movements. He states that at first the Trust worked to save iconic structures, next it emphasized the economic benefits of reusing historic buildings, more recently they’ve talked about the sense of stability and continuity that comes from preserving and enhancing well-built older neighborhoods, and now they are focusing on preservation’s environmental benefits. Some Trust members are calling preservation the ultimate recycling.

    Moe points out that “older buildings were built to last, which is the very essence of sustainability”. The National Trust and its supporters argue, such as Trust Public Policy Associate Rhonda Sincavage, that the “retention of existing buildings conserves the materials and the energy embodied in the construction”. This “embodied energy” is the energy required to extract, process, manufacture, transport, and install building materials. In fact, analysts have determined that the typical building required the equivalent of an average of 10 gallons of gasoline per square foot. If the building is abandoned or destroyed, the benefits of that embodied energy are lost.

    Architect Walter Sedovic notes that “before sustainability had a name, traditional builders incorporated sustainable elements into buildings. Working in sync with the environment was the norm, including siting, local materials, natural ventilation, shading, reflective roofing, cisterns, indigenous plantings – the list becomes long, and in many ways mirrors ‘new’ standards espoused today”.

    Advocates for the Trust suggest that the ‘green design’ movement may have undervalued the ecological value of building reuse. They cite an east coast foundation’s newly constructed Environmental Center, the first building to earn a LEED Platinum rating, that used many of the most cutting edge technologies to reduce its environmental impact. However, the new building was constructed 10 miles from the original downtown headquarters and many of the 100 employees that once walked to work now drive.

    The Trust’s researchers are beginning to quantify the value of preserving older buildings by gathering data on topics such as embodied energy and building life cycle analysis. They are already sharing recommendations on managing building operations to bring energy usage in line with even the most green new construction buildings.

    Mike Jackson, chief architect with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, put it well. “Let’s tell the story that we’re green. We’re just stealth green.”

    Perhaps going forward, the Trust will be a little less stealthy and a little more noisy.

    March 5, 2008
  2. I too was waiting for the hundreds of other comments on this topic, but I’ll follow Ross’s lead. I agree with all of the excellent points that he (and Tracy) make above.

    Tracy is preaching to the converted in my case as well. Your existing home (or commercial building) can be extremely “green,” no matter how new or old it is. I have suggestions for greening your home, be it new or old, on my website.

    If you are an Xcel Energy customer, you can request a subsidized $35 energy audit and you’ll get a couple of hours of an energy auditor’s time in your home, helping you identify and prioritize energy-saving opportunities. (Disclaimer: I perform energy audits as a sub-contractor for Xcel in this geographic area, so if you request an energy audit and live in the Northfield area, you’ll probably be stuck with me….)

    March 6, 2008
  3. BruceWMorlan said:

    When talking about older (legacy) buildings being green you have to realize that to me as an owner of an older building (100+ yrs) it is only green because I am figuratively wallpapering it with folding money. And unfunded mandates from historical preservation groups or changes in the city’s rules for that building make it even more green in that sense. All of which does not leave enough cash flow to make those marginal energy saving improvements like new windows, so I struggle with the old hoping to catch a break somewhere. The old architectural style was huge glass, poorly insulated, very expensive to update, but good at providing natural light (which was the more important objective back when coal was burned locally to provide heat. That’s why in older buildings operating at the margin you often see retrofitted wooden window inserts with little “egress-only” sized windows embedded in the middle.

    But, I am heartened that the Northfield area planning commissioners (Northfield, Dundas and Bridgewater) have or are updating their comp plans to reflect this adjusted reality. Keep up the faith and we conservative conservationists will turn this 1000′ ore boat of a society to a better path.

    March 7, 2008
  4. Ross Currier said:

    Wow Bruce, you better get Bruce Anderson into your house. I’m sure he’s got better ideas for investing your money than using it as wallpaper.

    I strongly suggest that you get your hands on a copy of the magazine. They explode many myths, including the one you’re grasping, that replacing windows is your best investment. In fact, the magazine suggests that insulating around the windows generally gives you a far bigger bang for your buck than replacing the windows, admittedly not cheap.

    Those big windows do provide a lot of natural light. Many of the new construction green buildings try to achieve this level of sunlit space. In fact, the Trust has assembled studies that show that people use less energy for lighting when the windows are doing more of the work.

    Finally, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is a private group, not a government group. Most of the big wigs associated with the organizations that I have met around the country seem to have Republican tendencies like yourself. In fact, some even reveal Libertarian leanings.

    As a result, the group has not generally, at least to my knowledge, advocated for increased government regulations. Instead, they support incentives to encourage private investment in a direction they support. With this particular issue of Preservation, it seems that they are now shifting some of their resources into education.

    I do hope that some of our design and construction professionals will weigh in on this topic. I think that their thoughts and experiences might be more valuable for the community than yet another debate on philosophical minutiae between you and me.

    See you at The Cow,


    March 7, 2008

Leave a Reply