it makes sense to recycle buildings

'The greenest building is the one that is already built." It's an adage that sounds familiar, like it's been around forever, but it turns out these sage words were uttered just a few years ago. In coining this phrase,

By Teresa Earle

Special to the News

2It’s an adage that sounds familiar, like it’s been around forever, but it turns out these sage words were uttered just a few years ago. In coining this phrase, Washington, DC, architect Carl Elefante fuelled a movement that is challenging conventional thought about eco-friendly construction and mobilizing support for heritage preservation.

Tearing down old buildings and replacing them with new “green” structures isn’t as sustainable as people thought. Toronto-based architect Catherine Nasmith, president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, has become a vocal advocate of protecting heritage buildings for their sustainability values.

“It costs about the same per square foot to repair and put a building back into circulation as it does to build a new building,” says Nasmith. “It’s not cheaper, but there’s a lot of myth out there that it’s more expensive.”

“If you’re thinking about the environment,” preserving it takes roughly twice as much labour but very little material, so you’re spending the money on people. That’s got to be good for your economy and the environment.”

The relationship between heritage preservation and the environment is one that is gaining recognition around the world.

While new buildings are highly resource-consumptive and are rarely expected to exceed a life span of fifty years, older buildings are well built, were designed to last a long time and are already there. The argument that an existing building embodies significant energy is also gaining a lot of traction in the discussion about sustainable communities.

“Embodied energy is defined as the total expenditure of energy involved in the creation of the building and its constituent materials,” says Donovan Rypkema, principal of PlaceEconomics, at the 2008 Heritage Conservation Conference in Ontario.

“Razing historic buildings results in a triple hit on scarce resources. First, we’re throwing away thousands of dollars of embodied energy incorporated into that building. Second, we’re replacing it with materials vastly more consumptive of energy. Third, recurring embodied energy savings increase dramatically as a building life stretches over 50 years.”

The Heritage Canada Foundation estimates that 20 per cent of Canada’s landfills are taken up by construction and demolition waste.

“We’re killing ourselves to keep white paper and pop cans out of the garbage, and yet we’re completely blind to the big stuff,” said Nasmith. “We don’t have the resources in the world to keep tearing buildings down and starting over.”

But economic and environmental considerations are just part of the equation. The ‘traditional’ reasons to restore and reuse buildings are as compelling as they always were. Heritage structures maintain a connection with our past, are integral to pride of place and help lay the ground work for vibrant, revitalized neighbourhoods.

“It’s cultural,” said Nasmith. “If it’s a building people are attached to, if it’s part of the terrain, the community and the cultural memory, we don’t like to lose these things. People get a sense of permanence – of anchoring and place and time – by having these buildings in their communities.”

Many Yukon communities are benefiting from decisions to reuse heritage buildings. In Dawson City, Parks Canada continues its restoration work always with an eye to finding the most appropriate use of a building, which often involves securing a like-minded tenant. The agency owns about 30 properties in town, and Parks Canada curator Paula Hassard says that rehabilitating and renting these buildings is an important goal.

“When something is being used it’s being better cared for, so we’re trying to identify and market those opportunities. We still need to have our homework done, but Parks Canada is a lot more open to these ideas than people might think. Often it’s about having buildings in good enough shape, but also finding partners committed to working on it with us.”

The message is getting out there: Yukon historic buildings have already been repurposed for activities ranging from the arts (Old Firehall on the Whitehorse riverfront) to accommodations (Bombay Peggy’s Inn in Dawson) to retail (Log Skyscrapers in Whitehorse) to visitor attractions (Binet House in Mayo).

While tourism and posterity are more obvious benefits of building preservation, the evidence is mounting that the sustenance of our communities depends it too.

For more information on Yukon’s historic places, please go to

This article is part of a series

produced by the Yukon Department of Tourism and Culture with the

support of the Government of Canada, Historic Places Initiative.