Preservationists Outraged As Obama Cancels Building Restoration Programs


Historic buildings sure looked good a year ago. What happened? Wikipedia commons

We have noted before that the greenest brick is the one already in the wall, and that renovation and restoration are labor-intensive, giving twice as much stimulus bang for the buck than new construction. They are green jobs, creating more efficient buildings and saving energy at a lot less cost than covering the roofs with solar panels.

But that didn't stop President Obama from cancelling two programs, Save America's Treasures and Preserve America, that cost $220 million over ten years. The White House says "Both programs lack rigorous performance metrics and evaluation efforts so the benefits are unclear."

Except that isn't true, there are performance metrics, that prove that the programs created jobs at 1/18th the cost of last year's stimulus programs.
Donovan Rypkema

Donovan Rypkema of PlaceEconomics does the math:, using metrics provided by the National Parks Service, who administered the program:

Between 1999 and 2009, the Save America's Treasures program allocated around $220 million dollars for the restoration of nearly 900 historic structures, many of them National Historic Landmarks. This investment by the SAT program generated in excess of $330 million from other sources. This work meant 16,012 jobs (a job being one full time equivalent job for one year...the same way they are counting jobs for the Stimulus Program). The cost per job created? $13,780.

This compares with the White House announcement that the Stimulus Package is creating one job for every $248,000. Whose program is helping the economy?

Rypkema is justifiably outraged.

If there was such a thing as shame left in Washington the White House should be ashamed to be throwing away a program that creates 18 times as many jobs per expenditure than does their own Stimulus Plan; ashamed to be so inattentive they the couldn't be troubled to do a couple of hours of work before they dumped a program; but mostly ashamed of kicking around a constituency group because they were deemed to be too weak and small to defend themselves.


Stewart County Courthouse, Georgia, renovated and preserved by the WPA in 1935: Roosevelt thought building restoration was a fine idea.

Over in Time Magazine, they ask Will Construction Workers Survive? and note:

The middle and working-classes have been hammered by the Great Recession and no industry has taken it more on the chin than construction. Nationally, unemployment fell to 9.7% in January, but in construction it jumped to 24.7% from 18.7% in October. In many regions, union officials report 30% of their members are unemployed or "riding the bench."

The Infrastructurist suggests:

There is evidence to support the idea that building will never return to the levels it hit during the massive bubble that popped in 2008. Certainly residential building will see a long-term slowdown, with the mortgage crisis continuing to wreak havoc on home values and unemployment still sky high (meaning minimal demand for all those new houses). And the huge hit taken by commercial real estate also indicates that office buildings won't be in high demand for years to come.

If there is one kind of construction we really need, it is fixing the buildings we have. We don't need new office buildings and new houses with 18 million of them empty across the nation, but we do need what we have fixed. Why kill programs that did this so cost and job effectively? Because it's easy, restoration and renovation is done by small companies, using locally trained labour using simple equipment and caulking guns. Building highways is much more fun, and much better for Caterpillar and other big companies. As Rypkema put it:

This isn't the audacity of hope; this is the audacity of demagogic, self-serving, Richard Daley Chicago gutter politics.

I can only hope that if enough people actually do scream, this might be reversed.

Disclosure: The author is President of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario.

Tags: Barack Obama | Green Building

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