Existing Buildings are Green: Do They Energize You Heart?

Existing buildings just don’t stand a chance. Every month many glossy architecture magazines hit the newsstands, arriving in checkout lines like a plague of locusts. Anyone who loves beauty and design can’t help but shoot a quick glance and read the headlines. We can’t help but peek. As Americans, we are programmed to desire, want, and spend.  

To be honest, sometimes I am a little embarrassed for my profession. Every month, American Institute of Architects (AIA) members receive magazine subscriptions depicting beautiful, expensive new buildings from across the globe. Showcasing such “important” work is great for those with unlimited budgets, but offers little insight into 95% of the work on the average architect’s drawing board, much less the typical buildings and homes most of us call our own.

No, I don’t hate Dwell magazine, or despise Cottage Style; I actually think Mother Earth News is a kinda cute, and Fine Homebuilding keeps taking my money, but this is not the point. 

As an architect, I am marketed to just as heavily as the average grocery shopper. In industry publications I rarely see articles covering existing building issues, or, sadly, much depth in energy efficiency. It just doesn’t sell in print.

As an opportunity, existing buildings offer tremendous potential to save energy, and higher quality of life us all.  For those of us led by a green heart, existing older homes and commercial properties can easily outshine new construction through their lighter environmental footprint, quality construction, superior location, and financial freedom they offer.

Light footprint: Existing Buildings are Already Green

Older, existing buildings are already green. In the recent 2-part series on vernacular architecture, we began the discussion on why traditional building was exceptionally sustainable. It's great that many of these properties are still standing today, and they are a more important resource than ever. 

In their seminal study "The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse" , the Preservation Green Lab of the National Trust for Historic Preservation shows building reuse almost always has fewer environmental impacts than new construction. This lesser impact lies in the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) principle of “avoided impacts”.

If we preserve, maintain, and retrofit good existing buildings, we avoid additional (financial, energy, and carbon) costs related to demolition of the existing structure, plus all the new costs and impacts associated with new construction today. 

Quality Construction is Hard to Find (or Afford) 

Construction has some typical pieces, but how do we make sure that it was well considered? The amount of energy it takes to construct a new building (a good one) is something important to understand. Mass production home-building does not often include rigorous quality assurance. It is after all a profit business and it’s hard to offer good, fast, and cheap on a platter. 

Older homes, constructed before the boom in mass produced suburban-style housing (early 1950’s) were commonly built better than homes today. From my observation, typical new home quality was really good through the mid-1970's, and with a major decline in quality around 1980.

In the home building segment today, I see increasing irreverent design and building practices. This is a great reason to work with a qualified architect on your next home, addition, or remodel.  

With our capabilities to utilize new materials and technology, there is little reason not to consider the marginal cost increase in building to a high-performance standard.

Since most of the lifetime costs associated with building ownership are tied to energy use, it makes sense to follow a staged approach to existing building upgrades, and optimize new buildings through an integrated design process.  

Work with your architect and energy consultant to analyze the total cost of ownership, and potential return on investment time for efficiency upgrades and/or retrofits. 

Superior Location

I like to think of communities as a singular organism. They all started at the "heart" in the downtown commercial core and surrounding residential district. Then, they grew concentrically outward to form neighborhoods, districts, and even other sub-communities (in larger cities). 

Existing architecture in your town shines because it is close to all the best services and amenities. It is easier for the City to serve your needs located close to the heart as well. It is also easier for you to get somewhere useful on foot, or by bicycle. Check walkscore.com, if you doubt me. 

Older, existing homes and neighborhoods have more charm too. The Forbes magazine article “American Homes By Decade” does a great job of giving an overview to how homes developed stylistically during the last century. It also points to how - in many revitalized communities - the older the neighborhoods command the highest real-estate prices in town. This is certainly true in Oklahoma City.For 

Financial Freedom

For many people, it is hard to resist the ideal of “new”, especially compared with the wear-and-tear that older homes have. Though not as flashy on outside, existing buildings represent a great opportunity for the majority of Americans.

In many small to mid-sized communities, the historic district may still be undervalued as a resource. There are some great opportunities to buy an ideal existing property and renovate it to suit your needs. It is a sustainable approach to building equity while making your town shine. Why do you think there are so many rehab/flip shows on cable? 

According to an NPR article on the Ever-Expanding American Dreamhouse, “The average American house size has more than doubled since the 1950s; it now stands at 2,349 square feet.”  This is something that deserves closer inspection, and we will look into this at a later date. For now, lets just talk about "right-sizing". 

Living in a right-sized older, home is a great way to get out of debt. My family did exactly this before the birth of our twins. My wife and moved from a 2,500 SqFt, 1974 “Rustic Ranch” style home , and down-sized to 1,400 SqFt, 1955 brick home. It was originally 1,100 SqFt, but had a “Mother-in-law” addition on the back that made it a Just Right Home for us. We followed a version of Dave Ramsey's Total Money Makeover, and in short time did not have a mortgage. Plus, having no mortgage made it possible for my wife to stay home with the girls.   

For any historic or existing property, taking an integrated, “whole-building” approach, when considering energy efficiency retrofits is crucial. Working with a qualified architect and building science professional ensures that you will maximize your opportunity to live well today and maximize your return on investment. 

Looking Ahead to the Future

According the 2010 report “Engineering a Low Carbon Built Environment”, by the Royal Academy of Engineering, by the year 2050, 80% of the people across the globe will be living and working in buildings already built today. In the work to reduce global carbon emissions, focusing on improving our existing building stock is the first priority. Given this fact, why is our culture so enamored with the glitz and gleam on the magazine covers? Shouldn’t we be a little more focused on improvements for the buildings we actually inhabit?

Existing buildings offer a solid opportunity to live a wonderful life today. I hope you see that older building are pretty cool and even a little smarter than anything you could build today. Many preservationists say that "the greenest building is the one already built".  Do you agree?

Can you think of any downsides to living in an older, smaller home?