Preserving old buildings: the Elefante in the room

The next time someone gloats about their shiny, brand-new green home, or their super-duper sustainable building - tell them this. "The No. 1 fact is that if all the new buildings that we make are completely wonderful and are totally carbon free.

The next time someone gloats about their shiny, brand-new green home, or their super-duper sustainable building – tell them this.

“The No. 1 fact is that if all the new buildings that we make are completely wonderful and are totally carbon free, it doesn’t reduce our carbon footprint, it just reduces the growth of our carbon footprint.”

In other words, you can’t build your way to sustainability. The less we build, the more green we become.

This is the wisdom of Carl Elefante – an architect who specializes in preserving historic buildings.

“If we want to reduce our carbon footprint, we’ve got to do something about the buildings that are here,” said Elefante in a phone interview from Washington, DC.

He’s a principal there for Quinn Evans Architects, a firm with a growing list of 100-year-old to not-so-old buildings he’s helped redesign for minimal environmental impact.

But despite being at the centre of American power – where the potential of oft-touted “green jobs” rests – Elefante says the US government still doesn’t get the awesome power of recycling old buildings rather than building new ones.

“In the 2011 budget, the Obama administration has decided to cut historic preservation funding to almost zero,” he said. “There’s a complete lack of understanding of how sustaining the existing building stock is a really critical component of sustainability. Period.”

There is, to some extent, a perception problem. It’s easier to imagine a more environmentally sound future by developing new energy sources, new technologies and, following the logic, new construction.

Look around you. Can you imagine the future of green architecture in the abandoned Canadian Tire building? Or what about abandoned apartments in Faro? Or permafrost-twisted homes in Dawson?

Well, through Elefante’s eyes, that’s exactly where the future lies, and he’ll be visiting Whitehorse on Thursday night to explain how it’s done.

Consider the facts. In the United States, there are approximately 65 billion square feet of non-residential buildings, says the US Department of Energy. And between now and 2030, there is expected to be a building boom that will create another 28 billion square feet of buildings, according to research done by Architect Magazine. And, of the 65 billion square feet of building that currently exist, 54 billion square feet will be substantially modified.

To put this in perspective, in the next 20 years, four out of every five existing buildings will be renovated and two new buildings will be added, said Elefante.

That just doesn’t jive with a society that wants to use less materials and to lower its impact on the environment.

The goal, then, is to renovate old buildings so that we create value with what’s already here. That means counting every little detail that could make a house drafty and being a stickler for stronger sustainability standards, like the popular Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) benchmarks.

The S.T. Dana building, at the University of Michigan, was preserved by Elefante’s firm in 2004.

The 100-year-old structure was renovated with wood cultivated from sustainable forests, a low-energy radiant cooling system and flooring made from recycled rubber.

“That’s the 101 of how you make a historic building incorporate sustainable design features,” said Elefante.

The Yukon, with its heavy transportation costs and many historic sites, seems like the perfect place to help pitch the preservation movement.

Preservable buildings fall into two general categories: traditional buildings and modern buildings, said Elefante.

“Traditional buildings I would define as a building built long ago enough so that, if the power failed, you could still live in that building,” he said. “And a modern era building is the opposite in that if the power failed, you couldn’t use it.”

Beginning in the 1940s onward, architecture evolved with a dependency on electrical grids and lifestyles based on easy oil consumption.

“These are buildings that were built to be addicted to fossil fuels,” said Elefante. Without oil or electrical heat, these buildings get cold, dark and stuffy fast.

“For generations, what was the energy input needed? It was called the fireplace,” said Elefante.

So in that sense, the oldest buildings are easier to renovate than modern ones, he said.

But it’s difficult to apply blanket principles to preservation because Elefante’s job is to meld a building with its surroundings in economic, ecological and esthetic ways.

“Where you are, it’s mostly about staying warm,” he said. “Where I am, it’s mostly about staying cool. (You have to look at whether) you’re taking advantage of the inherent temperature of the ground, etc.? There are all these questions related to whether you’re using the natural settings.”

But some generalities, like the importance of building a strong envelope, exist. The relationship between the interior and the exterior of the building has to be carefully managed, as does the efficiency of energy-consuming systems.

“And it’s not just those systems in themselves,” said Elefante. “It’s the avoidance of those systems. How many months of the year do I not need those systems?”

The big problem is making renovation and repair more lucrative than building from the ground up. In some cases, that’s easily solved with government subsidies. But the financial system is also rigged to ignore the real value of an old building.

“If you look at material value that you have invested, that’s an investment that can be of value for hundreds of years, and yet we really have a tendency to kind of ignore that and just think in terms of the 20-year or 40-year mortgage,” said Elefante.

If you put a real price on old buildings, and architects designed new buildings with the same seriousness that they make buildings hurricane and earthquake proof, there might be a breakthrough.

“The true value is hidden because people are not paying attention to those elements of true value,” he said. “(Buildings) are built for multi-generational value.”

Preservation and environmental design bloomed as fields of study when Elefante studied architecture in the 1960s; there is a feeling that the merger of the two is only coming of age now.

“If you look at preservation economics and you look at new building economics, what you find is that with new buildings – it’s about a 50-50 ratio of how much money you spend on labour or material,” said Elefante.

“With preservation, it’s typically a two-third and one-third split; one third is cost of material and two thirds is labour.

“In the economy that exists today, in relevant language, that means good jobs,” he said.

“It’s job creation. It’s well-paying, good local jobs.”

The US-based National Trust for Historic Preservation recently unveiled the Pocatino Proclamation, a set of principles to help unify the practices of preservation experts.

As the movement grows, Elefante hopes that the logic of preservation hits fewer tin ears in the future.

“Put it all together and preservation economics make a tremendous amount of sense in our green economy,” he said.

Elefante will present Renewal and Transformation on Thursday, February 25 at the Beringia Centre from 7 to 8 p.m. Admission is free.

Contact James Munson at

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