Written by Erin Shaw
Is it true that the greenest building is one that is already built? Earlier this year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation released a report detailing how home restoration is just about always greener than new construction. Aside from being “the ultimate in recycling,” restoring existing homes and buildings can save you money, keep the character of your neighborhood, and even boost your local economy. So before you consider buying that LEED-certified Garage Mahal in the suburbs, here’s a quick look at how fixing up an old home makes a world of difference for you, your community, and the environment.
For the Homeowner
- Historic properties appreciate in value faster than similar non-designated areas, and face less market volatility even in economic downturn.
- There are valuable state and local incentives to increase your home’s energy efficiency, including ways to incorporate solar without harming the aesthetic.
- Many old homes feature built-in natural light and ventilation systems that can be optimized with the original floor plan. Getting the highest use from the lowest technology was the name of the game before the era of cheap energy, which may be coming to an end soon.
For the Community
- Old buildings are “natural incubators of small businesses” that are the main source of new jobs (think of San Francisco’s Mission District – cutting edge tech century-old spaces), and make good sense for low-income housing. (See this fabulously restored Palace Hotel in Long Beach, now low-income housing for young people aged out of the foster care system.) Plus, old neighborhoods are much more likely to be walkable!
- “Cultural sustainability” is about preserving a sense of place, which becomes especially important in the face of economic and cultural globalization. Communities can put themselves on the map be retaining their historic character and becoming a center of heritage tourism.
- Restoration keeps your money local. In contrast to new construction, restorations require more labor than materials. Keep the money in your community by paying local craftsmen and contractors to fix your home features rather than buying new materials from a big box home improvement store.
For the Environment
- Every year, about one billion square feet of building are demolished and replaced with new construction. Don’t let your wavy glass and claw foot tub end up in the dump.
- New construction wastes “embodied energy,” the energy it took to extract, transport, and install materials into a structure. Replacing brick, plaster, concrete and timber with more energy-consumptive materials like plastic, steel, vinyl and aluminum trashes all that stored up value.
- Even the most efficient new buildings can’t make up for the energy it takes to construct: “It can take 10 to 80 years for a new energy efficient building to compensate, through efficient operations, for the climate change impacts created by its construction” according to the Preservation Greenlab report.
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