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.