Signs of Sustainability: What is the greenest building?

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When asked to envision the greenest building, the image that most likely comes to mind is a sleek, new structure with solar panels and energy-efficient windows, heating and cooling systems and lighting.

Think again. Picture instead a sturdy, old, brick schoolhouse converted into apartments with original, tall windows that let in natural light and high ceilings that encourage air flow or a renovated older farmhouse whose old-growth timbers and wide-plank floors are more durable than wood used in new construction.

Both of these buildings represent significant embodied energy. Embodied energy is all the energy that was originally consumed to produce, transport and bring together the materials to make a building.

According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Green Lab 2011 study, renovating a historic building is almost always more environmentally sustainable than tearing it down and replacing it with a new one.

That embodied energy in the historic building? All of it is lost when a building is torn down, and natural resources are consumed and substantial energy expended to replace it. Even for an energy-efficient building, it takes between 10 to 80 years to offset the environmental impacts of its construction, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Preserving and reusing a historic building instead of tearing it down and building a new structure also keeps waste from the landfill. The

Environmental Protection Agency estimates that, in 2015, construction and demolition (C&D) waste (including from buildings, roads and bridges) was more than double the amount of municipal solid waste (MSW).

Although builders are increasingly aware of the need to reduce, reuse and recycle, the C&D waste they generate contributes significantly to landfills.

According to the Construction and Demolition Recycling Association, in 2014, C&D waste dumped in landfills totaled 158 million tons, compared to the EPA-reported 136 million tons of MSW landfilled in the same year.

Older homes and structures are often naturally energy efficient because they were designed before the advent of modern air conditioning and heating.

Thick masonry walls help regulate the temperature in summer and winter. High ceilings allow for better air circulation. Careful siting captures optimal breezes and enhances daylighting.

But what about a historic home’s drafty old windows? Aren’t they notoriously energy-inefficient? It turns out that weatherstripping windows or installing storm windows can reduce drafts, cutting down heating costs and further minimizing a building’s carbon footprint.

Refurbishing old windows keeps them from the landfill. And the old-growth wood frames are likely to outlast newer replacement windows made from new-growth wood.

Even older structures can be retrofitted to be more energy efficient without affecting their historic charm. The National Trust for Historic Preservation suggests a number of energy-efficient fixes for older buildings.

First, conduct an energy audit to identify any major issues. Insulate attics and basements to cut down on heat loss in the winter and heat gain in the summer. Retain mature deciduous trees or plant new ones for cooling shade in summer; evergreen trees can block winter winds.

High-efficiency incandescent bulbs save energy and are unobtrusive in period fixtures. In addition, signing up with a utility that provides power through sustainable energy sources offers environmental benefits without any negative design impact.

Of course, materials matter when approaching maintenance or renovation of an older structure. Instead of replacing an old door or damaged lighting fixture with a new one, try out some simple DIY repairs first to keep them in operation or shop at Significant Elements, Historic Ithaca’s architectural salvage store (212 Center St., Ithaca) to track down replacement historic fixtures that match the period of the building.

Even new construction can reduce its environmental impact by using salvaged building materials and historic fixtures, adding some patina and character to boot.

Significant Elements also repairs furniture and lighting fixtures and offers DIY workshops on such topics as window repair, furniture repair and refinishing and lighting basics. Keeping old building components shipshape keeps them from the landfill and uses fewer resources.

“The greenest building is the one that is already built,” said architect Carl Elefante, champion of sustainable design who clearly envisioned that preservation and sustainability go hand in hand.

It’s gratifying to know that saving old buildings—the ones that add to a city’s unique character and sense of place and history—also helps save the planet.

Since 1966, Historic Ithaca has championed the preservation of historic buildings and sites in Tompkins County through advocacy, education and services.

Pat Longoria is the events and community engagement coordinator for Historic Ithaca. This is the latest installment of the Signs of Sustainability series produced by Sustainable Tompkins. For more information about the organization, visit their website at SustainableTompkins.org.

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