In With The Old: Fixing What We've Got Comes Before Re-imagining What Might Be

denver living city block image

Denver Living City Block

Over 40% of our energy consumption goes into powering our buildings, and we all know that we have to cut that Godzilla-sized footprint. But it seems that most of our efforts go to looking at new stuff rather than fixing the old.

Matt Cole, of the Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago writes in Remodeling Magazine's blog that he is "skeptical about the green building movement's commitment to our existing built environment. There's too much talk about LEED, too much focus on new green buildings and products, and too many competitions aimed at "totally re-imagining" something rather than working with what we already have."


New Orleans Historic Green

Matt notes that we have forgotten how to fix what we have:

Very few of us understand how to properly repair or maintain traditional building assemblies. Widespread familiarity with these practices went the way of the dodo over time as the home industry shifted to modern, mass-produced building techniques after World War II. As a result, it's possible today to hire an otherwise excellent masonry contractor to repoint your vintage home, only to discover later that your brick or stone is failing because he filled your walls with a standard off-the-shelf mortar that was harder and more moisture-impermeable than the historic original.

He also acknowledges that even those seriously involved in the business do not yet understand the full implications of what we are doing, such as the question of how to insulate solid masonry walls that are subject to freeze-thaw cycles, as they have in Chicago.

insulating solid masonry wall image

adding 7" of urethane insulation to a solid wall: is this a good thing?

This is an issue we have discussed on TreeHugger before, where we noted that "the issue of insulating old buildings to such high levels,[is] a subject that is worrying not a few heritage architects. In most old buildings, heat from the interior drives moisture out of the masonry or stone and helps it resist the freeze-thaw cycles that we have in this climate." Matt explains the obvious about why we have to figure this stuff out:

Why does any of this matter? Because is there is nothing sustainable about repairing an old home in such a way that it downcycles its materials and needlessly contributes to its demolition.

Lastly, Matt hits the most important point, that there is more at stake than individual houses but we have to think about neighbourhoods.

Here is the ugly reality: None of our efforts to preserve and retrofit vintage buildings will be sustainable if we don't find ways to stop working on an ad-hoc, building-by-building basis We need to move upscale and start focusing on blocks of homes, distinct districts, or even entire neighborhoods. This is likely the only way we will lower project costs, develop affordable financing mechanisms, broaden resident outreach, and encourage better contractor training, etc. Depending on the scale of the focus area, such projects might also offer opportunities to facilitate green infrastructure improvements or pilot renewable energy projects.

TreeHugger has noted before that our older communities and historic districts are, overall, among the most energy efficient parts of our cities because they are walkable, cycleable and often have viable and vibrant main streets. We have to preserve them and encourage people to restore them. So many of our urban neighbourhoods have fallen into disrepair as people fled to the suburbs; we have to give people good reasons to move back downtown.

Matt makes so many good points at Remodeling Magazine. I learned about Matt from his tweeting on the subject of historic preservation at @urbanmatt.

More on the energy efficiency of our heritage districts:
Minus Oil: Forget Hybrids And Solar Panels, We Need Active, Exciting and Vibrant Cities

Related Content on