Skip to Content

Old is the new green

Preservation is central to a sustainable world

“Radical common sense” is the term a fellow preservation architect uses to describe a mindset that values repair over replacement. Why is this radical? Because, while reuse of water bottles and grocery bags is rapidly gaining ground, reuse of buildings and building components is not. And it’s not hard to see why: It is almost always less expensive and easier to replace a whole building and almost any of its elements — doors, windows, light fixtures — than to repair and reuse. Replacement also can offer measurable and consistent quality with product certifications and warranties not available for repaired items. Theoretically, a new building can ensure “high performance” and significantly reduce the environmental impact of building operations while creating healthier spaces. What’s not to like?

Maybe the old saying applies: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. We want and need “sustainability.” We want and need buildings, towns, and cities that are not bad for the environment nor the people who live and work in them. But is “new” the solution or the problem?

In the last 50 years, humans have used more raw materials and created more waste than in all previous history. The statistics about individual and worldwide consumption are grim, reminiscent of the image of Al Gore riding a scissor lift to emphasize the exponential increase in greenhouse gas emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 42 percent of total US greenhouse gas emissions are associated with materials as they flow through the economy — from extraction, production, and transport to disposal. The single biggest consumer of materials? The built environment, which uses about half of all raw material extracts.

Every product, no matter how green, has environmental impacts that include carbon emissions, water and energy consumption, pollution, toxicity, and waste. To quote that great environmental steward, Pope Francis, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” Each year hundreds of millions of tons of waste — from mine tailings to lightbulbs — are generated through production and end-of-life disposal. Much of this is nonbiodegradable and toxic. Upstream industrial waste, created prior to product use, is estimated at anywhere from 20 to 90 times the material of the actual product. In the United States, two-thirds of all downstream waste comes from construction and demolition.

Loew’s Theater, Montreal, QC, 2013. 2,853 seats, opened (1917), subdivided into 5 screens (1976), closed (1999), used as gym (from 2005).

Toxicity is not limited to waste. Building products are under increasing scrutiny because of the inclusion of toxic chemicals, such as lead, formaldehyde, asbestos, chlorinated solvents, petroleum distillates, toluene, xylene, and PCBs. Like almost everything related to material consumption, the trends are not good. In a 2013 Brown University study, more than half of women of childbearing age had median or higher levels of at least two out of three pollutants — lead, mercury, and PCBs —  that could harm fetal brain development. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has concluded that nearly 100 percent of US citizens have brominated flame retardants in their bodies. Flame retardants are applied to fabrics, carpets, building insulation, and electrical cables, among other things. During the last 30 years, the level of flame retardant chemicals in humans has increased by a factor of 100 — essentially doubling every five years. These chemicals are linked to dna mutation, thyroid disruption, memory and learning problems, delayed mental and physical development, lower IQ, advanced puberty, and reduced fertility.

RKO Dyker Theater, Brooklyn, NY, 2009. 2,151 seats, opened (1926), closed (1977), subsequently used as retail shops and sporting goods store.

The good news for designers is that toxicity is becoming a highly visible issue. Thanks to the leadership of organizations such as the US Green Building Council, Building Green, the Healthy Building Network, and the Living Futures Institute, information about materials is easier to obtain. But even with more transparency about what is in a product, preservation professionals are probably leerier than most about new materials in general. Many of us have spent our careers removing the miracle products of the past, which are now deemed toxic. It’s estimated that only 2 percent of existing chemicals are tested for carcinogenicity. We can only wonder, as new information comes to light, which miracle products of the present will be removed in years to come and where they will go.

Removing toxicity, although obviously important, doesn’t address the often hidden costs of pollution, waste, and worker illness created during extraction of materials, their production, and their transportation. Nor does it change the greenhouse gas emissions that happen at every stage of the process. It seems almost fashionable in the design and construction world to focus on the operation of buildings when discussing how bad they are for the environment. We cannot count the number of presentations we have sat through that make the claim that the greenhouse gases released or the energy used to make all the parts of a new building will ultimately be paid back many times over by the amazing new energy efficiency achieved in operations.

Skepticism reigns when we hear this because the argument misses important points: Environmental degradation is not just about greenhouse gases; water consumption and social equity issues in manufacturing are largely being ignored; many buildings (however green the claims) are car-dependent, oversized, and do not achieve the energy-efficiency goals claimed. Most important, this is a critical moment in history, as the rapidly increasing population of the planet begins to acknowledge the magnitude of climate change and our role in promoting it. We need to be selective about actions contributing to greenhouse gas emissions right now.

Westlake Theater, Los Angeles, CA, 2008. 1,949 seats, opened (1925), switched to second-run and Spanish language movies (1960s), converted to swap meet (1991), listed on the National Register of Historic Places (2009), closed (2011), waiting for reconversion.

There is no question that new construction creates an immediate emissions deficit while the payback period is calculated in decades. A 2012 report by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in partnership with Skanska and the Cascadia Green Building Council, found that it can take between 10 and 80 years for even an energy-efficient new building to overcome, through cleaner operations, the climate change impacts created by its construction. These are precious decades we cannot afford.

“Less is more” should be the order of the day. What are the actions that gain the best returns on resource consumption with the least expenditure? At the moment this is not a financial calculation. The direct costs of products, energy, and water do not reflect environmental impacts. This must change.

Clearly, new construction is not going to stop, and conversations analyzing how to reduce the climate impacts of structural systems — concrete and steel, which are the biggest culprits in emitting greenhouse gases — are increasing. We are striving to make our new buildings less bad, but we also should be striving to preserve what already exists.

Paramount Theater, Brooklyn, NY, 2008. 4,124 seats, opened (1928), hosted artists such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Liberace and Frank Sinatra, closed (1962), used as gymnasium by Long Island University (from 1962).

Extending the service life of any object avoids the environmental impact of replacing it. To extend the life of buildings, regular maintenance is required, but this is hardly the norm. In the institutional and nonprofit world, fundraising for maintenance is exceedingly difficult. Having a new building or space named after a donor is much easier to sell than the Jane Doe Repair Plan. For government and private owners, maintenance is often the easiest budget item to cut, kicking the cost down the road. All too soon it becomes easier to replace than to repair. The new building might even achieve top billing for its healthy materials and net-zero-energy consumption.

The reality is that we will probably never be able to completely negate the environmental impact of products nor ensure that every new building will meet the regenerative aspirations of the Living Building Challenge, which calls for the creation of building projects to operate as cleanly, beautifully, and efficiently as nature’s architecture. Even if we could, doesn’t a sustainable world need to value what already exists not only for environmental reasons but also to foster creativity, social engagement, and a unique sense of place?

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs observed that “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.” The Preservation Green Lab, which is part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, produced a 2014 report — “Older, Smaller, Better” — which provides the most complete empirical validation to date of Jacobs’ long-respected but largely untested hypothesis: that neighborhoods con­taining a mix of older, smaller buildings of diverse age support greater levels of economic and social activity than areas dominated by newer, larger buildings. Tested against 40 economic, social, cultural, and environmental performance metrics, the findings support the idea that retaining blocks of older, smaller, mixed-vintage buildings can help cities achieve sustainable development goals and foster great neighborhoods.

Radical common sense requires moving past our throwaway culture to a regenerative world that creatively and persistently embraces stewardship. The path to a healthy, sustainable world is complex and certainly not linear, and it may never be fully achieved. But we cannot consume our way to sustainability. We must flip this dangerous paradigm and place real economic and social value on what already exists and the stewardship required to maintain it. ■

Online Extra:
​An excerpt from Sustainable Preservation: Greening Existing Buildings, by Jean Carroon FAIA (Wiley, 2010)


Original building construction: 1877

Historic designation: National Historic Landmark, contributing structure—national historic district and local historic district

Partial restoration/expansion completion: 2005

Square footage added: 15,000 square feet below the building

Percentage renovated: 5,000 square feet Parish House and Sanctuary Tower

Occupancy: 3,000 to 4,000 people a week for various lengths of time


Because Trinity Church in the City of Boston—designed by H. H. Richardson and richly decorated by John La Farge and others—is considered one of the most important buildings in the United States, all proposed work is reviewed by local and state historic preservation commissions. The project undertaken between 2000 and 2005 was multifaceted but sprang from the intense need for on-site space to support the many hundreds of programs hosted by the vibrant Episcopal parish, the fifth largest in the country.

Sustaining the community, protecting the building, and keeping the church fully operational throughout the construction were essential elements of the work. From the first meetings, the process included a fully integrated design and construction team led by a disciplined building committee whose standard of excellence supported collaborative and creative problem solving. The project is an example of the important synergies that spring from integrated teams with overlapping goals achieved by every solution. The final work of the team included establishing an ongoing maintenance program and a long-term master plan for completion of remaining restoration work.

Site Utilization and Rainwater Harvesting

  • The building is physically constrained by a very limited site (less than 10 feet on three sides) outside of the building footprint. The only physical expansion possible required capturing space below the building without altering or impacting the wooden-friction piles that support the structure and remain intact because of the high water table. The floor level of the new spaces is approximately 7 feet above the wood pilings. All rainwater falling on the building and site is collected and stored in drywells around the perimeter of the building. When the water table, which is electronically monitored, falls to a level that might expose the wood piles to air and encourage rot, water from the wells is circulated below the buildings to recharge the water table.
  • Strategies for claiming every available square foot of below-grade space included placing the machine room below a small area of on-site parking, locating new bathrooms below the exterior porch (an area that limited ceiling heights), placing drywell water storage beneath the broad masonry steps, and creating new storage spaces below an exisitng cloister garden.                 

Energy and Systems

  • A new geothermal heat pump system reduces the energy the church must purchase by about 40 percent. The system, which utilizes six 1,500-foot vertical wells located within the 10-foot site adjacent to the building, eliminates the need for traditional cooling towers and is ideal for the air conditioning required in the new assembly spaces. No air conditining was added to the interior of the church sanctuary. An existing connection to purchased steam was maintained for hot water and heating, but the inclusion of a variable frequency drive regulates both the heating and cooling pump systems to provide efficiency.

Materials and Resources

  • The design ofnew spaces takes both structural and aesthetics advantage of the existing walls and foundations. The team sought solutions that left existing materials visually exposed and relied on pilings known to have been set in the 1870s but not used in the final structure. Salvage stone found in the excavation was used wherever possible, and new materials were selected on the basis of their recycled content and local origin.


Sustainable Sites:

  • Stormwater management
  • Rain sensor irrigation system

Water Efficiency:

  • Low-flow plumbing fixtures

Energy and Atmosphere:

  • Ground-sourced geothermal heat pumps
  • Variable frequency drives
  • Four-pipe fan-cool system
  • Natural ventilation
  • Occupancy sensors

Materials and Resources:

  • Recycled content materials
  • Local/regional materials (wood)

Indoor Environment Quality:

  • Operable windows
  • Low-VOC materials and finishes
  • Carbon dioxide monitors

Additional Features:

  • Interior excavation for undercroft