The Breakdown: Why Re-Use Existing Buildings?

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old town community illustration

By the end of the decade, we will see 1.3 million new homes and 550,000 newly built units in the United States every year. Add in all of the commercial buildings, and that amounts to plenty of new real estate. But what if we opted to reuse existing buildings rather than construct new ones? Read on to learn more about the case for real estate recycling.

It’s makes less environmental impact

There’s a perception that new buildings are greener because they’re built in a much more eco-savvy time. It’s true that modern buildings are generally more energy-efficient and made from more sustainable materials, but this doesn’t tell the complete story. Innovative research from the National Trust for Historic Preservation found reusing buildings is almost always much more environmentally friendly than demolishing old buildings and constructing new ones of comparable size.

It can take up to 80 years for a new energy-efficient building to offset the environmental impact of its construction. It takes between 20 and 30 years to offset these carbon emissions in most cases.

Much can also be done to make existing buildings greener. For example, it’s possible to add solar panels, apply low VOC paints, as well as install rainwater tanks. Retrofitting just one percent of Portland’s office buildings and homes over the next decade would bring its county 15 percent closer to its CO2 reduction targets.

It can create new jobs

In February 2014, unemployment in the United States reached 6.7 percent. That’s nearly a full percentage point higher than the 5.83 percent average we’ve seen between 1948 and 2014. With so many people out of work, the boost to employment reusing old buildings provides is important to consider.

While construction of new buildings creates jobs, rehabilitating old buildings creates 50 percent more. Over the last 32 years, historic rehabilitation has created two million American jobs. These jobs range from construction of strurdier support structures, to engineering according to updated codes, to electricians and plumbers needed to re-wiring and re-plumbing of these buildings, to administrative staff to manage the projects, and beyond.  Just think how many new positions would result if the practice was more widespread.

It can rejuvenate a city

Historical buildings have a special place in the hearts of Americans, connected to a sense of history and shared heritage. Because of this, revitalizing a building can do more than just breathe new life into the bricks and mortar. It can actually rejuvenate an entire city just in the way its citizens feel about living there.

And on a surface level, older buildings offer a more varied look to a city street and layout. They hold character and architectural craft that gives a city and communities a sense of place, and personality. There are lots of examples of this we can point to today.

San Francisco Ferry Building

Consider the case of the San Francisco Ferry Building. It was a transport hub when it opened in 1898, but fell out of favor once the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges opened in the ’30s. By the ’50s, cars were the transport of choice and the Ferry Building seemed obsolete. It was cast into the background when the Embarcadero Freeway was built across its face in 1957.

San Francisco Ferry Building

San Francisco Ferry Building, 2008 (image:JaGa)

Yet when an earthquake damaged the road 35 years later, San Francisco got the chance to see the Ferry Building and its potential once again. After major restoration, it reopened in 2003. Today, 10,000 commuters pass through and tens of thousands more flock to its famous farmers market every week. In 2010, the American Planning Association named it one of 30 Great Places across the United States.

Restoration in your city

As the world embraces green living, it makes a lot of sense to restore heritage buildings, or re-imagine their use,  rather than tear them down. The presence of historic buildings can help build a sense of community, and empower citizens to take other actions that are positive to their environment as a whole to help sustain their sense of belonging in a place they call their home.

What buildings in your city do you cherish, and why?

What are some ways you can think of where you live in re-using older buildings rather than tearing them down?

Tell us about it in the comments section.


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