Preserve a House, Sustain the Environment

I was happy to read the recent NY Times editorial piece, “This Old Wasteful House,” by Richard Moe, head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The National Trust has been making the case for preservation as a form of sustainability for a while, but the inclusion of funds for weatherization in the stimulus package has given the idea—well, a new stimulus.

Moe points out that any house can become more energy efficient. Better insulation, weatherstripping, sealing for windows are all easy to do, and don’t interfere with the house’s historic character. Working on older houses is labor-intensive, and creates much-needed skilled work, especially in urban areas.

But he’s most eloquent on the place of preservation in sustainability:

“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.” Moe, NY Times 4/6/2009

Many American cities have housing stock built during the boom years of the 19th and early 20th century, and recognize that keeping it healthy is one of the best ways to keep a city vital. The city of Chicago has been in the forefront of preservation-as-sustainability for nearly a decade now. Recognizing that the bulk of older Chicago homes are bungalows, the city launched the Chicago Historic Bungalow Initiative in 2000. The city has been helping bungalow owners improve and green their houses with information and financial assistance. And they’ve incorporated preservation into their energy efficiency program. In Chicago, you can’t get a loan to green and improve your house unless you meet the HCBI guidelines for preserving the house’s original character.

The approach can work for any kind of house—a mid-19th century rowhouse, a Victorian mansion, a Tudor cottage, or a mid-20th-century rambler. It’s a great idea to tie the incentive of energy improvement to keeping the house’s historic footprint. In Chicago, it’s been surprising what’s been saved so far—attractive bungalows, whole neighborhoods, and the earth, too.

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