A Preservation Philosophy That Doesn’t Kowtow to the Green Movement

For those of you who were around these parts way back in April, 2009, you might remember that my post “Green = Energy Efficient?” took on an op-ed piece by National Trust president Richard Moe published in the New York Times, in which old buildings were twice called “wasteful” and that generally seemed to be jumping on the Green Movement bandwagon. I disliked the tone of subservience, given that the Green Movement is very new and seems to have been quickly high-jacked by developers and people who want to feel better about their lifestyles while still consuming as much as they want to. I ranted that historic preservation was a tried and true philosophy that shouldn’t be basing its environmental credentials on energy efficiency–which is not a strong argument–but on the broader philosophy of conservation and stewardship, which has a much longer history than the Green Movement will ever have. Now that I’m a year old as a blogger, I can quote myself:

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. . . . 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.

Well, as I was wandering around the internet a couple nights ago looking for preservation responses to the latest budget-cutting efforts, I came across the full-text of a speech by Donovan Rypkema–who I quoted extensively yesterday–to New Orleans’ Preservation Resource Center in October, 2009, entitled “The Real Truth: Historic Preservation Is Economic Preservation.” And after reading the speech (it’s long, but worth it), I think I’ve finally found the comprehensive philosophy of sustainability, responsibility, and economic development that I was hoping for last April from the Trust.

Rypkema’s is the kind of argument I can get behind–something that stands on its own two feet and isn’t afraid to call out big developers, hucksters, and government hangers-on for what they really are. Contrast this with some of the  Trust’s recent actions–including Moe’s op-ed piece and last June’s somewhat disingenuous call to support the incredibly controversial cap-and-trade bill because it had some crumbs for weatherization (see “Red State Preservationist, or what the National Trust should have said“)–which play into the idea that preservation as a movement is weak and can only wait quietly to be asked to dance. I’m not saying we need to be offensive or brash–we must at all times and in all places be familiar with and sympathetic to our audience–but we need to have the confidence of our own convictions and be willing to engage other perspectives knowing that we have half a century and more of quiet success behind us.

Rypkema’s speech creates a whole framework of approaching preservation from an environmentally responsible position and I hope will give me some biting ripostes to the people who want to rip out all their windows or who claim to be environmental angels because they built a LEED-certified glass high-rise on lots made vacant by demolition of historic buildings. Here are a few tidbits from the speech–it’s a doozy and I have re-read it a couple of times to find new nuggets. I hope you’ll click over there and read the whole thing (using your federally mandated 15-minute break, of course):

The phrase today that is the best example of imprecise speech is sustainable development. If we listen to environmental activists, sustainable development is saving the rain forest and the habitat of the snail darter. If we listen to the US Green Building Council, sustainable development is solar panels and waterless toilets.

We don’t yet get it in the United States, but the rest of the world is beginning to. The international framework for sustainable development certainly includes environmental responsibility but also economic responsibility and social/cultural responsibility.

That creates three important nexus: for a community to be viable there needs to be a link between environmental responsibility and economic responsibility; for a community to be livable there needs to be a link between environmental responsibility and social responsibility; and for a community to be equitable there needs to be a link between economic responsibility and social responsibility.

. . . .

You cannot have sustainable development without thinking long term. Our historic buildings, almost by definition, are long term in perspective – how long they have lasted already and how long they can last into the future if we protect them.

. . . .

Most of the “green building” movement focuses on the annual energy use of a building. But the energy embodied in the construction of a building is 15 to 30 times the annual energy use. A recent study in Great Britain indicated that it takes from 35 to 50 years for an energy efficient new home to recover the carbon expended in constructing the house.

Razing historic buildings results in a triple hit on scarce resources. First, we’re throwing away thousands of dollars of embodied energy. Second, we are replacing it with materials vastly more consumptive of energy. What are most historic structures in New Orleans built from? Brick, plaster, concrete and timber, among the least energy consumptive of materials. What are major components of new buildings? Plastic, steel, vinyl and aluminum, among the most energy consumptive of materials. Third, recurring embodied energy savings increase dramatically as a building’s life stretches over fifty years. You’re a fool or a fraud if you claim to be an environmentally conscious builder and yet are throwing away historic buildings, and their components.

. . . .

Historic preservation is not a hanger-on to sustainable development; historic preservation is sustainable development.

You may recall that we had an election last year. Well virtually every side in every race was supported by dozens of advocacy groups. And most of them were “rights” movements: animal rights, abortion rights, right to life, right to die, states rights, gun rights, gay rights, property rights, women’s’ rights, and on and on and on. And I’m for all of those things – rights are good. But I would suggest to you that any claim for rights that is not balanced with responsibilities removes the civility from civilization, and gives us an entitlement mentality as a nation of mere consumers of public services rather than a nation of citizens. A consumer has rights; a citizen has responsibilities that accompany those rights. Historic preservation is a responsibility movement rather than rights movement. It is a movement that urges us toward the responsibility of stewardship, not merely the right of ownership. Stewardship of our historic built environment, certainly; but stewardship of the meaning and memory of our communities manifested in those buildings as well.

Sustainability requires stewardship. There can be no sustainable development without a central role for historic preservation. Those who are doing that today, future generations will thank tomorrow.

Amen, preach it brother!

Here is a coherent and positive environmental philosophy of preservation and development that can appeal to both liberal and conservative, Green and non-Green, red and blue, etc. It’s a lot about common sense, but it has numbers and rational thought to back it up. It can accommodate a weatherization program, but it’s so far beyond that that it makes it a minor topic of discussion–which it should be–and it certainly doesn’t hang its hat on it. This is the kind of philosophy we need to bring to the table if we are going to regain our standing as an equal player in this discussion. I hope the Trust is taking notes from Donovan Rypkema.

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Categories: Environment/Green, Historic Preservation

18 replies

  1. All this reminds me of visiting the construction of the new Goldman Sachs headquarters a few years ago. They claimed it was the most expensive skyscraper in history and almost seemed to use the “green” tag as justification for how excessive it was. While I think sustainability and conservation are typically good things (and can save a lot of money over time) in the construction of new buildings, more often than not “green” seems like a justification for something wasteful.

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    • I started thinking in this same direction when I went to the new Pinnacle Building in downtown Jackson last year. Don’t get me wrong, I like the building and am very glad to see that wasteland created by urban renewal decades ago finally filled with a real “skyscraper,” but they kept talking about how it was LEED certified and therefore green, and I just kept thinking, “It’s a glass box that requires constant air conditioning, how exactly is that environmentally responsible?”

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  2. Two days of “just wow!” posts is why we keep hanging around this blog. EL I think you should get some kind of preservation related employment as your day job…you’re going gangbusters in your free time. Or perhaps you’ll just sign for some preservation-related endorsements and retire to full-time blogging! Brava!

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    • Lol, haven’t you heard there’s no money in “daytime” preservation? And as for endorsements, the big money is in windows, I’m told, and I’m afraid I might have shot myself in the foot with my recent rant against new windows. Oh well. On the bright side, though, full-time bloggers, I’m told, tend to be unkempt and pasty and can be seen wandering the streets in their bathrobes muttering at passers-by. I’m not quite that far gone yet (I hope :-).

      Thanks for your encouragement!

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  3. One thing we studied quite a bit in Tulane’s International Development program was the fact that from green and sustainable standpoint, Louisianians had gotten it right 300 years ago.

    The very design of our historical homes with their high ceilings, placement of doors and windows, deep porches and galleries, and use of landscaping is the epitome of efficient design for living in a climate with hot humid summers and cold winters. Even the materials used — locally made bricks, mousilage, reclaimed lumber from the very ships and barges that delivered goods down the river, were green before green was cool.

    We shouldn’t be tearing down these buildings, we should emulating them in new construction.

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  4. I said Louisianians in my previous comment (my usual audience) but that should include the resourceful people of Mississppi and rest of the Gulf Coast as well.

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  5. Agree completely, Drew, and welcome to MissPres! While I do admit to loving my A/C on a hot summer night when sleep would be all but impossible without it, I also think that our relatively recent decision to fight nature instead of use our minds and crafts to adapt to it, and our insistence that 72 degrees Fahrenheit is the only correct temperature, will all come crashing down on our heads very soon.

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  6. 72? It’s 66 in my 1927 house right now and I feel fine under my down comforter, althought I’ll agree with your summertime temp although were closer to 75 then…

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  7. Pfft! low 80s is my summertime setting. 75 is for sissies! :-)

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    • And as I said that, I jammed my knee into the desk so hard I saw stars, which I guess is my punishment for implying that you’re a sissy :-(

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    • You are all sissies!

      While all of you set your air conditioners somewhere in the 70s and 80s, my air conditioner doesn’t exist. No central heating or air, all I need is a ceiling fan for those 100 degree days and 90 degree nights. I cannot wait for summer, while everyone else is in front of the air conditioner complaining about the heat, I am out in the heat.

      Of course I am not referring to anyone in particular, if you live in the South and don’t complain about the heat, you are alright in my book. I do not like those who complain about how hot the South is; afterall, the South was a warm place before any of us ever got here, it’s not like this is a new phenomenon.

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  8. Bah! Show-off . . . :-)

    I too get annoyed about complaints about the heat, also the humidity. It’s Mississippi, people! You are allowed to complain about the cold, but not the heat. Of course, I’ll have to remember this come August when just getting out of bed breaks a sweat.

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  9. Great post. For more about Don Rypkema, please see my blog post “Don Rypkema Does the Math” at http://www.heritageconsutlinginc.wordpress.com. Keep on writing!
    Donna Ann Harris, Heritage Consulting Inc.

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  10. check out. http://www.savepsd.com Meridian, MS is about to get a Dollar General at the entry to the Historic Poplar Springs Drive, read and please sign the petition. Thank you.

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