Why do Buildings Matter?

In Charleston, buildings and related energy use account for over half (58%) of our energy consumption and the resultant greenhouse gas emissions annually. With the build up of carbon in the earth’s atmosphere, we have recognized the need to introduce “green” strategies into architecture, but perhaps we are overlooking the most “green” of all:  Simply Recycling.

Construction of new buildings accounts for 40% of raw material consumption in the global economy each year. The rehabilitation of historic buildings proves to be among the most sustainable options for the architecture sector, preserving quality materials and construction, embodied energy and human capitol already expended in the original construction.

Old is the New Green  

While ’green’ principles may be modern in articulation, these design principles have been practiced for centuries. In many ways, going 'green' is all about relearning old lessons. Built when technology was limited, long before modern heating and cooling systems, historic and vernacular structures demanded practical design solutions to improve the comfort of occupants.  From region to region, builders developed a specific style of vernacular architecture, thoughtfully responding to local site and climate conditions.  Thus, these historic structures remain inherently ‘green.’ And cast in the new ‘green’ light, many traditional building practices are experiencing a revival -- a return to good design.

“Historic architecture, particularly vernacular architecture, is by its very nature  ‘green’ because it is deeply tied to the land. The use of locally available materials; careful siting of buildings to take advantage of natural prevailing winds and sun patterns; the reliance on natural systems of solar heating and ventilation utilizing the physics of thermal mass and transport of air movement; and the use of durable materials means that many historic buildings already meet many of the principles outlined for new structures intended to be sustainable design.”  - Sharon C. Park, National Park Service

The Greenest Building is Already Built

Green buildings boast lower annual operating energies- the energy required to maintain and operate a building over its life cycle. Regardless, we must recognize that new construction, no matter how green, requires tremendous outlays of energy and materials. At the most fundament level, Historic buildings are green because they already exist.

The concept of embodied energy helps to better focus this idea. Developed during the energy crisis in the 1970’s, the embodied energy concept describes the amount of energy ‘invested’ or ‘embodied’ within an existing building. For example, think of an existing building– Now imagine the amount of present-day energy it would take to build a replacement building of the same size and of the same materials.

The survival of historic buildings  is a testament to their quality – the quality of materials and the level of craftsmanship in their construction. This resilience is possibly the ‘greenest’ quality of traditional buildings, and it becomes difficult to match with modern materials and methods of construction.