If Old Buildings Are So Green And Efficient, Why Do We Keep Losing Them?

fire toronto empress hotel photo fire

Image credit: Dr. Tim-Rasmus Kiehl, M.D

I do prattle on with quotes like Carl Elefante's "the greenest building is the one already standing" and the Steve Mouzon version "The greenest brick is the one already in the wall." I love to quote Richard Moe: "When you strip away the rhetoric, preservation is simply having the good sense to hold on to things that are well designed, that link us with our past in a meaningful way, and that have plenty of good use left in them."

Yet all over North America, old buildings fall into disuse, they are subject to demolition by neglect, and often get hit by what I will call "heritage lightning", that strange burning that happens in vacant buildings with no electricity or gas or other conventional sources of ignition.

fire toronto empress hotel photo old

Image credit: Toronto Archives

The Empress Hotel, later known as the Edison, was a handsome building that has been recognized as historic in Toronto since 1947. Last April a portion of the side wall collapsed, possibly because of the bigger windows installed on the ground floor in the last major renovation. It should not have been a big deal to fix, but the owners immediately applied for a demolition permit for the whole thing and the city immediately designated the building as historic, the strongest protection a building can have under current legislation. So for eight months the owners and the city battled, while nothing was done to fix the building or to really secure or protect it, right on the City's main street and a block north of one of the busiest intersections of cars, people, drugs, gangs, homelessness and shopping. Yesterday it caught fire and burned to the ground; I am surprised that it took as long as it did.

fire toronto empress hotel photo context

Image credit: Dr. Tim-Rasmus Kiehl, M.D

This is not analogous to Detroit, where there are fabulous buildings but the people have all left. Look at what they just built around it- a monster structure for Ryerson University, including a monster AMC multiplex that doubles as lecture rooms in the daytime. No matter how green, no matter how old and good, a little three storey thing doesn't stand a chance.

fire toronto empress hotel photo old

A walkable city needs some low buildings, that allow sunlight to penetrate to the street and create wonderful eye-level streetscapes. A resilient city needs a mix of building types, to adapt in times of change. A creative city needs old buildings. As Jane Jacobs put it, "Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings."

But in a world controlled by real estate interests you find that none of this matters. They just want to push things out of the way and replace them with something bigger. And at some point we forget what actually attracted us in the first place.

More on old buildings being green:
The Greenest Brick: City Votes to Demolish Entire Street of 41 Historic Buildings
"Old is the New Green" According to National Trust For Historic Preservation
15 Good Reasons To Save Old Schools
The Greenest Building is the One Already Standing
Another One Bites The Dust: Walter Gropius Buildings Being Torn Down in Chicago
Why are Old Buildings Like Green Gadgets?
Big Steps in Building: Ban Demolition
12 Big Steps to Make Building Better

Full Disclosure: The author volunteers as President of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario. Follow me on Twitter! @lloydalter and friend me on Facebook

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