20 August 2007

We recycle bottles. Why not buildings?

The preservation alternative allows the historic Blood House to coexist with 40 new housing units.

At the 2005 National Trust Conference, economic development consultant Donovan D. Rypkema delivered a presentation titled Economics, Sustainability, and Historic Preservation, stating in a compelling way that sustainable development should be not only about environmental sustainability.
  • Preservation, says Rypkema, means that dollars are spent locally instead of at a distant manufacturing plant. That’s economic sustainability, also part of sustainable development.

  • Maintaining the original fabric is maintaining the character of the historic neighborhood. That’s cultural sustainability, also part of sustainable development.
Rypkema goes on to discuss solid waste disposal:
We all diligently recycle our Coke cans. It’s a pain in the neck, but we do it because it’s good for the environment. Here is a typical building in an American downtown—25 feet wide and 120 feet deep. Today we tear down one small building like this in your downtown. We have now wiped out the entire environmental benefit from the last 1,344,000 aluminum cans that were recycled. We’ve not only wasted an historic building, we’ve wasted months of diligent recycling by the people of your community.
Next is the concept of embodied energy:
Razing historic buildings results in a triple hit on scarce resources. First, we are throwing away thousands of dollars of embodied energy. Second, we are replacing it with materials vastly more consumptive of energy. What are most historic houses built from? Brick, plaster, concrete and timber—among the least energy consumptive of materials. What are major components of new buildings? Plastic, steel, vinyl and aluminum – among the most energy consumptive of materials. Third, recurring embodied energy savings increase dramatically as a building life stretches over fifty years. You’re a fool or a fraud if you claim to be an environmentalist and yet you throw away historic buildings, and their components.
Rypkema reviews the Smart Growth movement’s statement of principles, and draws this conclusion from them:
If a community did nothing but protect its historic neighborhoods it will have advanced every Smart Growth principle. Historic preservation IS Smart Growth. A Smart Growth approach that does not include historic preservation high on the agenda is stupid growth, period.
Rypkema points out that an underappreciated contribution of historic buildings is their role as natural incubators of small businesses, concluding: “Sustainability means stewardship. Historic preservation is sustainable development. Development without historic preservation is not sustainable.”

Read Rypkema’s complete presentation and From Bottles to Buildings by Robert Shipley and Jason Kovacs.


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