In the late ’90s and early 2000s, the LEED designation, awarded by the US Green Building Council to recognize leadership in energy and environmental design, was generally revered only by architects devoted to reducing the carbon impact of the built environment. But corporate greenwashing has transformed LEED into a badge of status.
But really, the most sustainable building projects do not start from scratch. Reworking the old, unloved, and unsophisticated—even ugly—buildings that populate most of the built landscape has more power to meaningfully reduce carbon emissions, waste, and pollution. While buildings still stand, they embody all of the carbon and energy expended in their construction.
Major renovations can require 50 to 75 percent of the carbon emissions of new construction. That makes the most sustainable building one that already exists. Tearing them down completely would be worse for the planet. Adaptive reuse is a massive win for the climate.
The World Green Building Council estimates that the world’s stock of buildings will double in size to accommodate population growth between 2020 and 2040. Without some drastic increase in adaptive reuse, that means a huge spike in carbon released from destroying old buildings and reproducing them with new ones.
Ripping down an existing structure means wasting all the energy that went into the creation of its materials. The destruction itself also requires energy, and the waste materials must be moved to landfills. Add that to the energy and emissions required to make, transport, and assemble materials for a brand-new building, and it’s easy to see how making use of what has already been built is the more environmentally sustainable option.
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