Saving Old Buildings Is Better Than Building New Ones

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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3 thoughts on “Saving Old Buildings Is Better Than Building New Ones”

  1. Julia I live north of Tucson Arizona, I grew up in a like, Amish colony in Iowa, where many of the buildings are Sandstone and handmade kiln fired brick. We have 7 villages and a 25,000 acre farm. It was an incredible place to learn, as most of the buildings were built in the 1850s and 60s. I was sent by our Historical Society to be certified in restoration, so we could get preservation grants easier from the government. I worked with my grandfather and father on my first project at age 12. Needless to say at 63 I’ve been doing this awhile.

  2. Hello I have to tell you, I am so glad that you have acknowledged this issue. I have been restoring Stone and brick buildings for over 40 years.
    I have done many historical grant projects in several states. I’m getting older and have often thought about doing historic workshops, to pass on my many years of learning.
    I would hate for all my knowledge to die with me.
    I know from experience that there are people and groups out there, be it historical societys or preservation foundations, that could take this info and restore their own communities.
    Instead of getting a grant and fixing one building, they could take part of the money,get a group together, and do a workshop with me. Do hands-on learning and fix all their buildings.
    If you are interested in this or know others to contact with interest in this, please reach out and let me know. Thanks for all you do!!!!

    Dennis P.S. I enjoy your page enormously.

    • Dennis- Your message rings so true. People are departing without having passed on their knowledge and experience. Where are you located on the globe?


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