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  • Writer's pictureAaron Ruby

Saving Energy- Look to Historic Buildings

I have a confession. I am a preservation architect and yet I have never visited Washington, D.C. I have another confession. I just now read the article from the esteemed Carl Elefante, FAIA, FAPT,

LEED AP entitled “The Greenest Building Is…One That is Already Built”, originally published in Forum Journal, a publication of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the Summer of 2007. If you, dear reader, have not yet read this article and you have an interest like I do in historic buildings and the ever-expanding topic of sustainability and “building green”, then you really need to read this piece by Mr. Elefante. A link to it is here:

I am not going to repeat all of its wisdom here, but I do believe it is as relevant today as it was thirteen years ago, probably more so. While I have spent years contemplating the relationship of admiring and restoring buildings from the past, while also imagining and designing new buildings, this article pegs the sentiments and suspicions I have harbored for a while: “Our culture is drunk on the new and now. This intoxication clouds our judgment, causing us to profoundly undervalue the legacy of our forbearers.” [italics from original author] This may sound a little counter-intuitive, but there is so much we can—and ought—to learn from buildings from the past, especially in regards to subjects of sustainability and energy usage, that we ignore those lessons at our peril. Let me explain:

Prior the advent of the thermostat, buildings had to be designed and built specific to their climate. If you were an average practicing architect in a southern state in the early 20th century, you would undoubtedly plan for tall ceilings, operable windows, transoms over doors and ventilated attics. If the building was going to be comfortable in the summer, there had to be mechanisms for allowing air to travel freely through the building. These strategies were a given. They were second nature to architects of the time—and you simply did not ignore the realities of climate and nature, or try to defy them, if you planned on being a practicing architect for long.

Today, however, we have the thermostat—and much more technology that allows us to control the climate inside our buildings at the setpoint of our desire. Now, we are no longer at the mercy of the seasons, we can generally design and build what we want—and we do. Besides the fun that comes with specifying the newest and most interesting building skin, we are allowed many freedoms that architects of 100 years ago did not enjoy.

I’m not picking on the thermostat or suggesting that we return to the days of the horse and buggy. My hvac unit is running right now as I type these words. However, I do think that previous generations—architects, builders, masons, etc…. had a grasp of the reality of nature that perhaps our generation has become desensitized to because of our modern conveniences, and it isn’t making us better designers. For instance, on nice sunny days I find myself taking a break from the office to walk past a major new construction project going up in the middle of downtown, just a few blocks away. It is large, very modern set of buildings. It is “modern” in the sense that you see all the usual architectural features that you might expect of a new, prominent project in the heart of downtown, including glass (lots of it), metal, generally formed in the typical de-constructivist manner. Two of the buildings are going up now around a very expansive, white, concrete plaza.

On one building in particular, I don’t believe it is a stretch to say that somewhere between 80-85% of the west and south facing facades on this new building are glass. Of the remaining 15-20% of wall surface area, I would estimate at least two-thirds of that conceals the structural frame. Thus, perhaps 5-7% of those facades (that’s probably generous) is actual WALL, you know, the kind that contains insulation. No matter though right? See aforementioned thermostat.

While sometimes making for a pretty façade, glass is among the most energy consuming materials on earth to manufacture. So not only is its production expensive in terms of what it costs the environment, the very best triple-insulated, low-e-coated, argon-filled window on the market is like an R-3. R-3! Those windows, while very nice to look in and out of, are still holes in the wall. And by the way, the Achilles heel of the insulated glass industry is that rubber seal—when it fails in twenty years or so, you’ve probably dropped to an R-1 and your windows fog up. Is this “sustainable” by any stretch of the definition of the word? And while I recognize the owners and designers behind the building I'm criticizing had no intention of being “green”, I recall the words of Mr. Elefante: “We cannot build our way to sustainability; we must conserve our way to it.” In other words, we must be smarter and use our resources wiser. It falls squarely on architects, I think, to design better. It falls on owners and investors to insist on building in a way that will not be burdensome to future generations. I cannot help but think that learning the lessons of the past will keep us more humble today, and less likely to design whatever we want, just because of the thermostat.

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