Building Reuse: Why your old house may be more environmental than you think

I live in an old house. So old that it tilts off to one side and you can feel a winter breeze coming up through the floorboards. When we had it renovated several years ago, I wondered if it would have made more sense, environmentally, to tear it down and build a LEED-certified (whatever exactly that means) house.

It would have been less expensive to build a new house than restore an old one — our contractor said as much.

But would rebuilding have been better for the planet?

Apparently not.

According to Kathryn Rogers Merlino in the beautiful and enlightening book Building Reuse, the more environmentally sound approach to old buildings is to stick with them and restore them as efficiently as you can, rather than tearing them down and starting over.

I was heartened to read that old houses are not quite the thermal sieves I had assumed. Yes, they do cost more to heat and cool than something brand new. But you have to look at the larger picture. You could buy a Tesla and feel good that you’re not using gasoline, but think of all the heavy metals that were extracted to manufacture the battery when you could have stuck with your gas-powered car for another few years.

Merlino cites US government research that finds that commercial buildings constructed before 1920 “use less energy per square foot than buildings from any other decade of construction in the twentieth century.” Single pane windows, she writes, are also not the heat sinks we have been led to believe by, who else, the window industry.

And then there are the massive environmental costs of tearing down buildings and extracting and transporting building materials. Merlino draws from a number of studies that look at the benefits of reusing existing buildings versus starting over with more energy efficient buildings. And the studies repeatedly confirm that it takes a very long time for those new buildings to justify themselves. The most recent study, by the Preservation Green Lab of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, found that “a new building that is 30 percent more efficient than an average existing building takes 10 to 80 years to overcome, through efficient operations, the negative climate-change impacts related to the construction process.”

Building Reuse includes more than a dozen real-world case studies, all in the Pacific Northwest, including old warehouses, retail buildings and an old Washington bungalow.

Merlino also sheds light into the process governments use for valuing “historically significant buildings,” and points out how it leaves vast numbers of buildings and homes vulnerable to destruction. Should a house that is, say, only 50 years old be more vulnerable to tear down versus one built a hundred years ago? This is where the environmental argument carries significant weight.

Merlino writes:

Looking at buildings as environmental artifacts, rather than simply as cultural artifacts, creates a stronger argument for viewing building reuse as a critical part of our sustainable design future, given the considerable carbon savings and other avoided environmental impacts they represent. Since buildings are the greatest consumers of energy and producers of carbon emissions in the country, strategy building reuse can be a significant way to meet carbon reduction goals in the future.”

The book includes a number of old brick buildings that clean up beautifully (and not inexpensively). I would have liked to have seen more homes included for readers like myself.

But what I most appreciated was reading about how an old Sears building in Bremerton, Washington was repurposed into a beautiful multipurpose building. As well as the Days Inn in Portland that was reborn into a hipster hotel. In both cases, it would have been so easy to tear down those eyesores, but the architects put a great deal of imagination into making the most of what was already there. Also worth noting was how an old Portland high-rise was made seismically sound simply by removing the concrete cladding on the front of the building, a less-is-more approach to renovation.

If you are unsure over what do to with an old(ish) home you’ve purchased, this book might give you the facts you need to make a more informed decision regarding renovate vs. rebuild. And the case studies will surely inspire you.

As Merlino notes: “The greenest building is the one already built.”

Building Reuse: Sustainability, Preservation, and the Value of Design (Sustainable Design Solutions from the Pacific Northwest)
University of Washington Press