Blog: Patrick McCauley

With strip malls and big-box manses gettin' way long in the tooth, bygone architecture is the mod new style. Patrick McCauley, vice-chair of the Ann Arbor Historic District Commission, believes local historic districts are what's needed for more vibrant communities.

Post 3: Old Buildings Aren't Throwaways!

"Green" seems to be the hip word of the moment, and probably the only people you won't hear using it are the Republican presidential candidates (but that's the subject for another blog).  We need to face the fact that the planet is in trouble with dwindling resources, rising temperatures and sea level, and a growing population demanding more resources.  As Americans, we are the biggest consumers of energy and resources in the world, so we need to lead the way and change our lifestyle if we're ever going to put a dent in the environmental problems that we face.  We need to use fewer resources and leave a smaller carbon footprint. This is one of the main reasons why I am a historic preservationist. You don't have to be an environmentalist to realize just how wasteful it is to tear down a building and throw it in a landfill, and you don't have to be a historic preservationist to realize that something more than a collection of wood and bricks is lost every time a historic building meets the wrecking ball.  The way we approach the use of our older and historic buildings is just one symptom of our wasteful, disposable lifestyle, and one huge way that we can start doing the right thing for the environment is to STOP THROWING AWAY OUR OLD BUILDINGS!!!  

So how wasteful are we when it comes to the buildings we throw away?  The EPA estimates that 245,000 residential buildings are torn down every year in the United States, along with another 44,000 commercial buildings.  That's a lot of buildings!  I suspect that some were "beyond repair", but I would be willing to bet that most were just in the way of so-called "progress".  Construction, rehabilitation and demolition of buildings accounts for 136 million tons of waste per year in the U.S., which is nearly 40% of the solid waste we throw out.  A breakdown of this figure shows that 48%, or sixty-five million tons, is from demolishing buildings; 44%, or sixty million tons, is from renovations of existing buildings, and another 8% comes from the construction of new buildings.  According to the National Association of Home Builders, the construction of a new 2,000 square foot home results in 8,000 pounds of waste that usually ends up in a landfill.  

These statistics don't even take into account the energy that is used in the harvesting and manufacturing of the materials that go into new buildings, as well as the construction of the new building.  This is what is called "embodied energy".  The average house contains roughly 700 MBTUs of embodied energy per square foot.  So, a 2,000 square foot house would contain 1,400,000 MBTUs of embodied energy, or the equivalent of about 12,174 gallons of gas.  You can see where I'm going with this...a house that is already built has already used these resources.  A new house, no matter how "green" it is, will require more logging and mining of natural resources, and more manufacturing to turn these resources into building materials.  This all takes energy and it all leaves a larger carbon footprint.

Being a house painter and home restorer gives me an interesting perspective on the benefits of older and historic houses and the materials they are made of.   I get to see a house's problems up close and personal, often while on top of a 40-foot ladder. The "old growth" wood contained in a pre-1950s house was not only cut down long ago (so we've already paid most of the environmental costs associated with the harvesting of this wood), but it's also much denser and rot resistant and can withstand more neglect and harsh weather than the soft, low-density wood contained in newer buildings.  In other words, these buildings will last a lot longer than a new McMansion.  The durability of a building and its constituent parts over the long term (I'm talking 50 years or more) is rarely a consideration in the construction of new homes.  If it were, the windows wouldn't be made of plastic.

My house, which was built in 1845, is a great example of the durability of older houses.  It was termite  infested, had water coming into the basement, the gutters weren't working, and it hadn't been painted in a long while.  Basically, it was seriously neglected for the last decade or more. With further research into the house's history, I found out that it had always been in pretty bad shape.  The tax assessment from 1963 lists the house as being in "Fair" condition and the assessment from 1944 lists it in "35%" or "poor condition".  I even found a picture of the house taken in about 1900, and it was looking pretty rough back then!   The more recent termite, carpenter ant, and water damage wasn't enough to bring the place down because it's timber framed in old growth white oak.  These materials could never be replicated today because of cost and scarcity of this type of timber.  Sure, the way this house was constructed led to environmental degradation back then, but that's the point.  The damage was done then and doesn't have to be repeated today.  I take additional comfort in the fact that all of the wood was cut by hand and by a water-powered saw mill back in 1845.  Talk about "green", renewable energy!  Ha!

A frequent complaint about old houses is that they are inefficient, but should they be replaced with "green" buildings (you know, to save the planet and whatnot...see the stats above)?  Old houses can certainly be energy hogs, but they don't have to be.  A great example that has inspired historic preservationists and environmentalists alike in our community is the work of Matt and Kelly Grocoff, who live in the Old West Side Historic District. They have set out to make their 100+ year old house into the oldest "net zero" house in America.  This home actually produces more energy than it consumes!  I'm pretty sure the 3,000+ square foot "green" house around the corner from me doesn't do this, and the Grocoffs didn't have to tear down an existing 19th-century house to accomplish their goals like my neighbor did!  Basic things like insulation were the obvious place to start on a house like this, but they went further.  Solar panels on the roof, geothermal wells in the yard for energy efficient heating and cooling, motion censors on the lights to turn them off when you leave the room, and water-saving fixtures in the bathrooms.  The Grocoffs even repaired their original wood windows with new weatherstripping and storm windows to create greater efficiency.  Their original windows should last another 100 years or more with proper maintenance, and will be just as efficient as a more modern windows.  Best of all, they're repairable, unlike most replacement windows which will just end up in a landfill someday very soon when they stop working. The Grocoffs' work was all done while preserving the original and historic fabric of the interior and exterior of the house.  This month they were honored by the city of Ann Arbor Historic District Commission as the "Preservation Project of the Year" at our annual awards ceremony.

Rehabilitating and restoring our older and historic homes and neighborhoods is not going to save the planet alone, but it does go a long way toward creating a more sustainable model of living.  In Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and the rest of Washtenaw County, we are blessed to have intact neighborhoods that are filled with wonderful and beautiful historic buildings.  Let's restore these buildings and make them more efficient and livable before we put new "green" buildings in their place.  Instead of replacing things like windows, doors, and siding because they're old, we need to start repairing and reusing.  If a house part is "beyond repair", look into replacing it with more environmentally friendly salvage from places such as the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store, Materials Unlimited, or the Ann Arbor Reuse Center, rather than buying new. Can we afford to do otherwise? Not in the long run, especially with billions of people in the developing world yearning to live our middle class lifestyle.  It's just not sustainable.  We need to finally realize that the greenest building is the one that is already built.