Green = Energy Efficient?

The title of Richard Moe’s April 5th New York Times op-ed piece “This Old Wasteful House” made me wince. In fact, while reading it, I had to glance back at the name of the author several times to be sure that this really was the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. I still wonder if he’s been suddenly replaced by evil-twin Richard Moe, like when Captain Kirk went through the transporter to a parallel universe and Spock had a goatee.

Here’s how he begins:

NEVER before has America had so many compelling reasons to preserve the homes in its older residential neighborhoods. We need to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. We want to create jobs, and revitalize the neighborhoods where millions of Americans live. All of this could be accomplished by making older homes more energy-efficient.

Let’s begin with energy consumption and emissions. Forty-three percent of America’s carbon emissions come from heating, cooling, lighting and operating our buildings. Older homes are particularly wasteful: Homes built in 1939 or before use around 50 percent more energy per square foot than those constructed in 2000. But with significant improvements and retrofits, these structures could perform on a par with newer homes.

Twice with the word “wasteful”! Seriously, is this the best way for a preservationist to frame the issue of how preservation and environmentalism intersect? Why are we all buying into the notion that being an environmentalist or Green, whichever you prefer, pretty much exclusively means that your house is “energy efficient”? This piece is almost entirely defensive in nature, except for a few little caveats in the last few paragraphs.

I’d like to see the National Trust instead go on the offensive against the whole notion, recently fashionable, that being Green means tearing down quality buildings and replacing them with larger, completely enclosed structures, expending huge amounts of new building material that is usually very flimsy but almost always expensive. Let’s talk about sustainability of buildings over time; publicize that these new suffocatingly closed structures require electricity; show what happens when the electricity goes out even for just a few hours; examine what happens to these energy efficient buildings over time as users interact with them and try to get some fresh air. Instead of energy efficiency (which, like more efficient gas mileage, can encourage more consumption rather than less), let’s frame the issue as one of conservation and sustainability–these words are the core of the original environmental movement and have a proven track record of actually improving the world around us, while energy efficiency has only recently become the required mantra, the latest fad.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not against weather-stripping or getting your house more sealed up against the cold (should I mention that Mississippi only has a couple or three months of winter?). Why, just this year, I myself put some strips on my attic ladder door to keep the air from escaping into my attic. I’ve also added insulation to the attic and I’ve re-glazed all my windows (made a huge difference with the drafts).

But on the other hand, I sit out on my screened porch many a summer night, leave a few windows open for fresh air at night, and set my thermostat in the summer at 80 or 82 degrees. It’s not very energy efficient–in fact, probably not at all energy efficient–but it actually consumes very little energy, which I think should be the whole point. Meanwhile, people who stay inside during all seasons with their windows closed and the air on at 72 tell me of their electricity bills in the many hundreds of dollars. At what point did that become Green? And when are we going to start making that point? Until we do, we’re just going to be running along behind the energy efficiency crowd calling out, “Hey, wait for us!” as they leave us in their dust.

And for heaven’s sake, stop calling historic buildings “wasteful”! Preservation is the opposite of wasteful.

Categories: Environment/Green, Historic Preservation, National Trust

9 replies

  1. Insightful, interesting post. I actually hadn’t thought of it this way, but after reading your thoughts, I definitely agree with you. In a publication as large and as far reaching at the New York Times (and subsequently the entire internet) Richard Moe should have rephrased much of his letter.

    While he obviously meant well, it seems to me that many readers will take away the wrong message and be left even more confused about preservation. This was not the way to address people who are generally opposed to historic buildings and windows and doors, etc.

    I agree that now it is more important than ever to take care of our older buildings, but I’m not so sure I would agree that all historic buildings are less energy efficient. As you say, windows are meant to be open, homes need to breathe, and an artificial environment of 72 degrees is not green or efficient.

    Before this gets too long – thank you for this post. It is excellent. I may very well link back to this at some point.


    • Kaitlin, as you have guessed, I don’t know the definition of “long” when it comes to posts, so don’t apologize for having a lot to say! I can’t claim this as my original thoughts either–I first had the epiphany about the fact that energy efficiency had become the placeholder for “Green” at a seminar about historic windows last year. And then I heard more recently on the radio (if it was NPR, it’s totally legit, right? :-) about the unforeseen consequences of increasing fuel efficiency, which was to encourage more driving by more people, requiring more roads, etc.

      In general, I think preservation as a movement began with some definite counter-cultural tendencies, and I’m not ashamed of those because they have proven the test of time. I believe that preservation and conservation are fellow travelers and have been since the beginning; but I’m very dubious about the Green movement as it seems to be currently defined, mainly because I think developers have high-jacked it for their own purposes and underneath the propaganda, it’s really just a new way to sell real estate and build new expensive buildings. I’d like to see the National Trust, and preservationists in general, be confident enough of their own beliefs that they don’t need to scrape along trying to show how they fit in with passing fads. Preservation has proven itself over 40 or 50 years now. “Green” as it’s currently defined, has had a short shelf life and already has shown its true colors, so why not say that? Just my humble opinion, of course.


  2. Good post. It is a shame that if Moe was going to use negative wording at all that he did it at the beginning, especially in our day when most people only read the first paragraph. They will probably come away with the idea that they can demolish and rebuild and save a pile of money on all that energy savings!


  3. Just as an update and continuation of the conversation, here’s a case-in-point about the Green Movement in Portland, Oregon and the impact on historic buildings. The comments are also interesting.



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