Necessity is the mother of preservation. At least some places it is. Take Cuba, where an estimated 60,000 pre-1960 cars are still on the road. These so-called "yank tanks" — classic Chevys, DeSotos, Plymouths etc. — were kept rolling not because they were historic but because the Cubans had to make do after the U.S. embargo cut off their American car supply. They've nurtured, coddled, and improvised to keep their old wheels turning. Now, as times change, the old cars have become a tourist attraction — a slice of heritage on rolling rubber. That provides a whole new incentive to keep them going (and they can, by the way, be retrofitted for fuel efficiency, too), but they wouldn't exist today if they hadn't been needed, if the Cubans hadn't been forced to rely on Cold War-era ingenuity.
Americans have no such incentives. Despite global warming fears and greater competition for resources, we're still happily throwing useable things away. We pay lip service to "sustainability," but the modern ethic is still biased toward the new. We aren't a duct-tape society, though that will likely have to change.
As a result, historic preservationists have to make their arguments based on significance, hoping for tax breaks or government grants or a landmark designation will protect the old from being replaced by the new, because the old are demonstrably important, not because they still have life or use left in them.
Buying new rather than fixing the old is almost always the preferred public policy, whether it's stadiums, bridges, ferry boats, city halls, or libraries. Building new stuff makes developers and bureaucrats happy. But one wonders if, for the sake of the environment and growing taxpayer burdens, we'll have to learn to be more thrifty and more adaptive.
Historic preservation walks hand-in-hand with the kind of sustainable approach that says sometimes "making do" is much better than thinking big. We're trying to build green, but often that's simply a new rationale for old-fashioned 20th century consumption. We haven't outgrown "planned obsolescence," the phenomenon that industrial designer Brooks Stevens defined as "instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary." In fact, our economy still counts on it.
Those pushing new development often cite safety concerns — sometimes legitimately — and in Seattle, making things more eco-friendly (like "green" highrises) is a common justification for tearing down old structures. But rarely do they factor in what is called "embodied energy," which is the energy used to build something in the first place. A building is the physical manifestation of all the carbon used to create it in the first place. Tear it down, you not only have a solid waste problem with all the debris (about 30 percent of waste comes from construction and demolition debris), but you waste all that embodied energy.
In May, Historic Seattle hosted a talk here by Donovan D. Rypkema, an economic development consultant based in Washington, D.C., whose company, PlaceEconomics, specializes in the revitalization of areas through preservation strategies. I missed it, but fortunately Historic Seattle posted the text on their Web site, and it is worth reading in full.
On the topic of "embodied energy," Rypkema points out that while the "green building" movement touts energy efficiency in new construction, it tends to ignore conserving energy that is already expended. "[T]he energy embodied in the construction of a building is 15 to 30 times the annual energy use."
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 houses built from? Brick, plaster, concrete and timber. What are among the least energy consumptive of materials? Brick, plaster, concrete and timber. What are major components of new buildings? Plastic, steel, vinyl and aluminum. What are among the most energy consumptive of materials? Plastic, steel, vinyl and aluminum. Third, recurring embodied energy savings increase dramatically as a building life stretches over fifty years. You're a fool or a fraud if you say you are an environmentally conscious builder and yet are throwing away historic buildings, and their components.
When you calculate embodied energy and building longevity, Rypkema says, it makes sense to save a less energy-efficient building that lasts 100 years than a 24 percent more-energy-efficient building that will last only 40 years. And much new construction, as you may have noticed, is not built to last. If you squint a little, some of today's instant townhouses already look like tomorrow's tenements.
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