Old? Green? Wasteful?

By now most preservationists and many more have probably read This Old Wasteful House, the April 5, 2009 Op-Ed piece in The New York Times written by Richard Moe, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Perhaps I am out of the loop lately, but I’ve heard little discussion about the piece. What does everyone think about it, preservationists and non-preservationists?

Let’s take a look at the first and last paragraphs:

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.

Before demolishing an old building to make way for a new one, consider the amount of energy required to manufacture, transport and assemble the pieces of that building. With the destruction of the building, all that energy is utterly wasted. Then think about the additional energy required for the demolition itself, not to mention for new construction. Preserving a building is the ultimate act of recycling.

Good stuff, right? It’s the perfect combination of historic preservation and sustainability.  It seems very positive and encouraging for historic homes, as Moe explains that all houses can be just as energy efficient and green as new houses.  He writes that by improving these older homes, wages stay local, homeowners receive tax incentives, and overall the carbon emissions reduction is equivalent to 200 million barrels of oil (saved). 

One would imagine that because the messages of the first and last paragraphs place preservation in such a good light, that the body paragraphs would be just as encouraging. However, upon further reading, Richard Moe states outright that “older homes are particularly wasteful.”  What? Isn’t “wasteful” a word that the opponents of preservation throw at us all of the time? People are often convinced, whether justified or not, that older homes will always cost more money in terms of heating and cooling and upgrades and repairs.  But, does Moe mean “older” as in a few decades and not “historic” as in over 50 years old? A home built 20 years ago is entirely different than one built 90 years ago.  

To Moe’s credit, he does explain that older homes can easily catch up to being as green as the new homes and how it is actually cheaper to “go green”.  Still, while he is promoting the ease of it all, it seems to be too much of a slight towards older homes. Many people would rather have a new home with nothing to think about in terms of energy efficiency. 

On a similar line of thought, read EL Malvaney’s blog post, Green = Energy Efficient?, at Preservation in Mississippi, in response to Moe’s op-ed piece. Interpreting the piece in an insightful manner, he questions the depth and definition of “energy efficiency” while considering that being energy efficient is still consuming energy. Will anyone open a window rather than turn on the air-conditioning?  EL Malvaney also ponders the correlation between historic preservation and this new energy-efficiency/green fad: does being green mean that preservation standards are relaxed? Are preservationists wincing less at the multitudes of new developments if they are “green” building?  It’s a good piece to read and a good angle to consider, one that I had not looked at previously.

Overall, it’s a complicated matter – the balance between preservation and green building. Both going green and being a preservationist require a strong commitment and people who truly care about their natural and built environment.  It is a long process to prove to people that both are affordable, cost-effective measures.  While Moe had the best of intentions, this is probably not the piece that will change the minds of those against historic and/or older homes. It is fitting for those who understand, but I fear someone pulling “older homes are particularly wasteful” out of context.  All homes are wasteful if you neglect maintenance and choose to live with windows closed all year and lights on all day long. Perhaps, we preservationists should remember to highlight the benefits of historic homes (character, details, craftsmanship, established neighborhoods, etc.) while we are promoting the “green” factor.  Together they make a much stronger case for each other, preservation and environmentalism, than they would alone.