“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.