New and Old in Harmony

People often feel torn between the desire to preserve the architectural heritage of the past and to protect the environment of the future. Fortunately, these two goals are not really in opposition and, in fact, can be very complementary with one another.

The US Green Building Council (USGBC), which is the primary organization dedicated to promoting efforts to build in a sustainable way, has recognized the value of old buildings by awarding credit in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) process for reusing old buildings, saving architectural components and for renovating in urban settings like Newport. Now in its tenth year of existence, the USGBC has been continually improving their standards to reflect advances in energy efficient technology, but also in an increasing recognition of the importance of preserving a community’s cultural heritage and all the “entrained energy” that is present in existing construction.

The USGBC is currently rolling out a new certification process called “LEED V3”, and a new set of exams to certify individuals as LEED AP’s (Accredited Professionals). Although these standards are just becoming available, it is clear that the connection between preserving existing structures and building in a sustainable way is only going to get stronger as time passes.

According to the Energy Information Administration, the vast amount of energy that is used by US residential and commercial buildings in 2007 was a staggering 50,000 Trillion BTUs!   This mind boggling quantity is nearly double what is used for all forms of transportation combined. Developing (and retrofitting) buildings to be more energy efficient is one of the most important things that can be done to fight global warming and reduce dependence upon foreign powers that control 80% of the world’s oil supply.

That is not to say the issue of transportation is not important too and the best way to address the huge amount of energy used in transportation is to create more mixed use zoning so that residences, retail and restaurants can help reduce the serious damage and high cost of vehicles needing to make long commutes.  No amount of improvement in fuel efficiency is as good as helping to eliminate the need for a car all together for simple errands.

It is not only the USGBC that has recognized the central importance of preserving architectural heritage and concentrating development in urban areas. One of the state organizations that helps guide economic development, GrowSmart RI, has this past week lobbied for the restoration of the Historic Tax Credit and is calling for stimulus money to be spent in making cities better rather than building new roads that will ultimately increase sprawl and gasoline dependence. The group’s principle is a simple one: make urban assets more concentrated to help keep rural assets from being destroyed. Their model for development is not so different than what Newport looked like a hundred years ago: mixed-use buildings and neighborhoods that are friendly to pedestrians and which require a minimum of driving.

So “what is old is truly new again” as Newport’s model of compact, colonially scaled buildings and pedestrian friendly neighborhoods is being offered by many smart organizations as the means by which the entire country (and even the world) can create economic opportunity and help avert environmental catastrophe in the future.

 Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA is an historian, educator and practicing architect who lives in Newport. He is a LEED AP (Accredited Professional) and is a contributor to GrowSmart RI. This article was initially published in ARCHI-TEXT, in Newport This Week, April 1, 2009.

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