Why Are Old Buildings Like Green Gadgets?

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Timothy Neesam, The Shadow Collective

Treehugger and Planet Green tech diva Jaymi recently wrote an article listing the three basic traits of green gadgets:

1. Made Without Toxic Materials and with Longevity in Mind;
2. Used Well By Someone Who Charges it With Renewable Power and Maintains it for as Long as Possible
3. Is Reused or Recycled So There is No Waste

and concluded with "The Greenest Gadget is the One You Already Own."

Patrice Frey, the the director of sustainability research for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, made a creative leap and applied these principles to buildings.


Everything New Is Old Again
1. Made without toxic materials and with longevity in mind:

Frey notes:

Many (though certainly not all) of our historic buildings are made of traditional materials that tend to be less harmful for humans than modern materials that are made from petrochemicals and other nasty stuff.

This is a point we have made, in our post Everything New Is Old Again; old buildings had wood or terrazzo floors instead of carpet, high ceilings to let natural light in instead of drop ceilings that collect dust, big windows for natural ventilation. There just were not as many places for nasty stuff to hide.

Jaymi's point about longevity is addressed too:

Is it designed in a way that will be flexible for undetermined future needs? Or is it overly-designed to fit the current occupant’s needs?

So many buildings are designed like so many gadgets: To do just one thing. When things change and that one function isn't needed any more, it both become junk.


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2. Used Well By Someone Who Charges it With Renewable Power and Maintains it for as Long as Possible

Frey disagrees with Jaymi about the renewable energy, and suggests that efficiency is more important.

Here I part company with Ms. Heimbuch slightly. I am a proponent of doing everything we reasonably can to bring renewable sources of power to our heritage buildings and communities... but I am even more of a proponent of making them energy efficient first. We lose much of the benefit of solar when we slap panels on a house that hasn’t gone on an energy diet.

Sorry Jaymi, he is right; better to have a more efficient gadget (or building) than to worry about the power source. But we all agree about maintenance:

But what really delights me here is the mention of maintenance... that all-important but rarely mentioned key ingredient for green. Why? It’s pretty basic. Maintain something well and it extends the life of the product – whether that product is a sweater, a car, or a 100-story building. And yet maintenance rarely gets the glory it deserves.
This focus on maintenance also puts the onus of green on the product owner. It makes green a behavior, not just stuff you go out there and buy.
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3. Is Reused or Recycled So There is No Waste

OK, but...

...in environmental terms, reuse trumps recycling most every time. When we recycle items, they are almost always down-cycled (down-cycling is recycling a material into one of lesser quality.) When we continue the viable use of a building we eliminate that loss, and avoid the environmental impacts of new construction.

That is what is so interesting about Jaymi's post; she is writing about electronics, but the principles are universal. However Jaymi missed one that Frey picks up on, that could be applied to gadgets as well as buildings:


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Is it Loveable?

As Stewart Brandt would ask in his book How Buildings Learn, is the building lovable? (Before you roll your eyes, bear with me.) Is it a building that will stand the test of time? Or is this a building that has been value-engineered to within an inch of its life, without even the slightest bit of architectural merit or interest? Is it a building the people in our field – preservation – will fight to save in 100 years? Or does it have more in common with a strip mall than the quality architecture of our past or present?

Here, what applies to buildings matters in electronics, and is where design comes in; a well designed gadget gets loved and gets used longer. There is a reason Apple users are such fanatics or people still love Braun appliances designed by Dieter Rams; design really does matter.

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As for Jaymi's conclusion, "The Greenest Gadget is the One You Already Own," The architectural response is The Greenest Brick is the One That's Already in the Wall.

From Preservation Nation: Essential — and Often Forgotten — Elements of Green Buildings