It’s not often a cause or a movement has the opportunity to magnify its reach in one fell swoop, but after attending Greenbuild 2013, the annual gathering of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), in Philadelphia this past November, clearly the preservation movement and the green building industry are coming together in new ways that could substantially amplify our community impact.
Rick Fedrizzi is the president, CEO, and founding chair of the U.S. Green Building Council, and his closing plea at Greenbuild was “Join Us!” Let’s take him up on the offer! Our movement in historic preservation has a strong and active core of more than 750,000 members and supporters of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The 188,000 employees represented by USGBC’s member companies expand our reach when we unify our efforts. We have an unprecedented opportunity to think beyond the individual building and focus on making great cities, towns, and neighborhoods together with our peers in the green building movement. They too have an opportunity to think beyond the walls and the products and the pieces of buildings to join us in our concern for people and the livability of places. Together, we can do more than we could ever accomplish separately.
"A Victory for Old Buildings"
LEED v4 is a big step in that direction. Actually it is a “quantum leap,” suggests Fedrizzi when he describes the latest version of the far-reaching rating system. The new certification adds specific points for historic preservation and adaptive use in the newly introduced Building Life-Cycle Reduction Impact credit. Sustainable preservation pioneer Barbara Campagna, who has been working for years to bring preservation and green building closer together, explains the significance in her blog: “Now any building listed in the National or State Registers and/or locally designated automatically gets 5 points, a victory for old buildings that are inherently sustainable.”
However, the improved LEED is a substantially higher bar for both new and old buildings alike--one that all buildings may have a harder time getting over, for a while at least. Wanda Lau from Architect Magazine writes, “Design teams will have time to test the waters themselves. The USGBC built in an overlap period, until June 1, 2015, in which projects can be registered to become certified under LEED 2009 or LEED v4. Then there's no wading back.”
Standards and Code Compliance
Then there is the issue of code compliance. At the Greenbuild 2013 policy breakfast, Jennifer Senick, executive director of the Rutgers Center for Green Building, stated that the time has arrived for a greater focus on the actual energy performance of buildings in both standards and codes. LEED v4 moves closer to this goal with the inclusion of mandatory energy and water metering. According to Scot Horst, senior vice president of LEED for USGBC, “You'll have to have a meter in your building, you'll have to know what's happening there, and then share that information with us to do the rating system.”
While this may initially sound scary to preservationists, it may open up entirely new opportunities that favor old buildings. Case in point is a new alternative to energy code compliance that was adopted by the City of Seattle in 2013. Originally tested in three historic buildings as a partnership between the Trust’s Preservation Green Lab, the city, and participating developers, the “Operating Energy Alternative” to the code allows older buildings to leverage their inherent strengths in achieving measured energy outcomes, rather than following a prescribed set of rules or a hypothetical model. This outcome-based energy code enhances the energy and financial performance of existing buildings undergoing substantial alterations, a situation that would normally require them to be upgraded to new construction standards and can often threaten the historic character of these buildings.
On the positive side, many pre-WWII buildings were originally constructed before piped gas and wired electricity. They needed to harvest heating, cooling, and light from their environment and were designed with the natural elements in mind. This “original design intelligence,” a term promulgated by historic preservation consultant Cherilyn Widell and informed by her work with the U.S. Department of Defense, is something well understood by preservationists and is increasingly studied by designers of modern buildings.
The world is moving toward incentivizing performance through data and evidence-based payments and regulation. LEED v4 is just one small example. One only has to look at the recent reform in health care toward payment for outcomes, rather than procedures, to understand the magnitude of the potential shift in our own industry. With change comes opportunity and with thoughtful maintenance and renovation, old buildings across the country are demonstrating that they can perform as well or better than their newer counterparts.
Proving the Environmental Value of Old Buildings
So that leads me to suggest that, “The greenest building can be one that is already built.” However, preservationists can’t just wish it to be so. To compete in the real world that is owned largely by product manufacturers and industries, many of whom are active in USGBC, we need to prove it to be so. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) combined with outcome-based approaches to measuring building performance are the keys to unlocking the environmental value of old buildings. The adoption of LCA into LEED v4 sets up the historic preservation movement as a partner with the green building movement in addressing how to most wisely use our communities’ and our planet’s precious resources.
What we know from the Preservation Green Lab report The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse, a study conducted in partnership with the USGBC’s Cascadia Green Building Council, is that any time we extract new, nonrenewable resources from our planet to replace an existing product, we are likely polluting our air and water and causing harm to people and to the abundance of life in our ecosystem. Buildings are big products with big impacts. The challenge for us in preservation, though, is that the impacts from resources extracted to operate a building vastly outweigh those from the construction period. If we truly want to claim, as Carl Elefante did in 2007, that “the greenest building is one that is already built” then we must do our part to embrace the values that bind us to the environmental movement--a concern for making places better for people and the world we live in. This means that we can’t just live in the past, but we must wholeheartedly embrace what is necessary to sustain places for the future. In short, we need to work with our partners in the green building industry to focus on what happens inside and outside of the building as much as we care about the building itself.
For more on Greenbuild 2013 you can check the 2013 Greenbuild Playlist for more detailed articles, videos, and the keynote speech by Hillary Rodham Clinton.