Old is new

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The path to a sustainable, equitable world must flow through existing buildings. New construction accounts for only two to four percent of building activity each year, so to hit the Paris Agreement goals, meet crucial affordable housing needs, and enhance social and cultural well-being, we must look to the immense stock of buildings we already have. Existing buildings simply offer the quickest and most effective way to a better world with limitless opportunities for architects—to steward, to renew, and to transform.

The Paris Climate Agreement targets the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with the intent of achieving net zero emissions within a few decades. Buildings and construction together account for close to 40 percent of energy-related GHG. Retrofitting existing buildings is consistently flagged as the greatest opportunity for decreasing the impact of the building sector, and it is an opportunity we can capture now.

We can also capture and leverage the space within existing buildings, using them more successfully and efficiently to increase density and offer a range of diverse possibilities for housing and small businesses. Jane Jacobs wrote, “Cities need old buildings so badly, it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.” Studies have confirmed that neighborhoods with a mix of older, smaller buildings outperform districts with larger, newer structures—economically and socially—with a higher percentage of women and minority-owned businesses and affordable housing options.

Reusing and improving our biggest objects—buildings, themselves—addresses climate degradation more broadly because it avoids the substantial environmental impacts of replacing what already exists with something new. When we carry a reusable grocery bag or throw a can into the recycling bin, we are acknowledging that every new product, no matter how green, affects the planet through material extraction, GHG emissions, water and energy consumption, waste, pollution, and toxicity. Often, the burden falls on the most vulnerable populations in our society. As John Muir said, everything is connected to everything.

Reusing and improving our biggest objects—buildings, themselves—addresses climate degradation more broadly because it avoids the substantial environmental impacts of replacing what already exists with something new.

With more than half the world’s population now living in urban areas, heritage, which often relies on existing buildings, plays a fundamental role in providing a platform for social and economic development. Culture is key to what makes cities of any size attractive, creative, and sustainable. Maintaining cultural landmarks, heritage, and traditions defines the unique character of a city and its neighborhoods and fosters what psychologist Maria Lewicka calls, “place attachment”—or the emotional bonds we feel about particular places, which are a prerequisite of psychological balance and good adjustment. Place attachment gives us a sense of stability in an ever-changing world. It connects us across time to larger communities, past and future, and helps us feel like we belong. Without heritage, cities as vibrant life-spaces do not exist.

It is all too easy to focus only on the glitz and glamour of new construction, but if we are to creatively and persistently address goals for GHG emission reductions, and enhancing social and cultural wellbeing, we cannot rely on two to four percent of building activity. The path to a healthy, sustainable world is complex and certainly not linear, but it must flow through what already exists.

We have billions of square feet waiting to be transformed and renewed. This is the great opportunity. Let’s use make yesterday’s buildings work today and tomorrow. Let’s remake anew the old into, well, something new.

If you think cities should be more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable, check out the other essays in our Blueprint for Better Cities series, and learn more about AIA’s Blueprint for Better campaign.

Jean Carroon, FAIA, LEED Fellow, is a principal at Goody Clancy, a Boston-based firm committed to building social value through design. A former chair of the AIA Historic Resources Committee and 2019 president of the Boston Society of Architects, her practice focuses on the stewardship of existing places to shape a healthy resilient world.

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