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Sustainable Development and Historic Preservation

Green building is not a synonym for sustainable development. Sustainable development has three elements – environmental responsibility, economic responsibility, and social/cultural responsibility. Green buildings and their corresponding technologies make an important contribution to environmental responsibility, but have nearly nothing to do with the other two.

Historic preservation, on the other hand, is simultaneously environmentally responsible, economically responsible, and culturally responsible. In fact historic preservation may be the single course of action of any type that is responsible on all three levels.

Tearing down historic buildings adds to the landfill (over a quarter of which is already filled with construction debris) which is environmental, economic and cultural irresponsibility.

Throwing away historic buildings is at the same time throwing away the energy embodied in those buildings. The green building movement focuses primarily on annual operating costs of buildings. But the energy consumed in constructing a building is 15 to 30 times its annual energy use. And building new is always using materials vastly more consumptive of energy in their manufacture than the materials in historic buildings.

The very definition of sustainable development is “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” An historic building once razed can never meet the needs of future generations – the polar opposite of sustainable development.

To read more, review Donovan Rypkema’s remarks from the opening plenary session during the Traditional Building Exhibition and Conference.

Donovan Rypkema is principal of PlaceEconomics, a Washington, D.C.-based real estate and economic development-consulting firm. The firm specializes in services to public and non-profit sector clients who are dealing with downtown and neighborhood commercial district revitalization and the reuse of historic structures. In 2004, Rypkema established Heritage Strategies International, a new firm created to provide similar services to world-wide clients. He also teaches a graduate course in preservation economics at the University of Pennsylvania, and writes a blog on the economics of historic preservation.


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