Tearing down our homes seems to be almost a national pastime. Americans have always viewed anything old with suspicion, and that makes sense when we’re talking about outdated concepts of governing such as having an inbred, pinky finger-wagging king tell us what to do. But when it comes to the architectural legacy left to us by preceding generations of Americans, this approach not only robs us of unique neighborhoods and our history, but also is insanely destructive to the environment.
According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, rehabbing old buildings is the ultimate form of recycling. The Trust’s president, Richard Moe, says, “The greenest building is one that’s already built.”
Think about it: when a building’s torn down, where does all that rubbish go? Maybe the bricks are recycled along with a few architectural elements, but where do the dumpsters full of the rest of the refuse go? Why to a landfill, of course. According to Preservation Magazine, 136 million tons of waste are created from teardowns—annually. Even a brain as agile as Einstein’s would have a difficult time comprehending just how much garbage that is. In addition, existing buildings represent an investment in energy of around 5 to 15 gallons of gasoline per square foot.
And then there’s all the waste associated with the construction of a new building which can easily fill an additional dumpster. The Trust cites figures showing that an average 2,000 square foot home generates the following waste: 3,000 pounds of wood, 2,000 pounds of drywall and 600 pounds of cardboard. That’s a hell of a lot of garbage.
Ignoring the dire environmental affect of our profligate ways in this area is akin to the elder Hiltons sending their wayward, party-happy daughter Paris to dry out on Bourbon Street with a case of booze, a clutch of friends, and a film crew from Girls Gone Wild. Seriously, we can do better and we should.
Some might argue that rehabbing old buildings isn’t a good investment, but there are plenty of examples of the opposite being true. In Charleston, S.C., it’s the quaint antebellum quarters that attract millionaires, while in Boston, the Federalist townhome-studded Beacon Hill remains the city’s most desirable neighborhood.
Moreover, older buildings are, by and large, built to endure. And while it might seem counterintuitive, most aged buildings are actually better poised to withstand a fire.
According to Matt Picard, a Delavan, WI, firefighter and Chicago carpenter, new construction typically utilizes petite, lighter wood that catches fire more easily and burns faster. Moreover, the toxic glues, particle board and trusses seem to nearly dissolve during a fire, rendering newer buildings much more susceptible to fire. An older, masonry building with plaster walls, lathe, old-growth beams and individual floor and ceiling joists can burn for hours and still be salvageable.
Older buildings certainly are not the most energy efficient, but they can be brought up to date and made green with far less waste and damage to the environment than tearing them down and starting over. To make an old or historic building eco-friendly, check outour guide to green architects here, or you can also find a green builder or remodeler here.
Our country’s older structures, often constructed by highly-skilled craftsmen who built exactingly and to last, will likely survive another century (if they can avoid the wrecking ball). And saving and rehabbing them is one of the greenest – not to mention patriotic – things we can do.