Adaptive Reuse: How can we make old buildings more sustainable?

One of the most important tasks engineers face today is the design of sustainable structures. Through form finding, use of efficient and/or local materials, and external systems, a plethora of new environmentally responsible buildings exist today. These advanced structures seem to be the answer to reducing the building sector’s staggering carbon emissions, but what about old, historic architecture? What role do these buildings play in our sustainable future?

Tearing down all structures that aren’t explicitly sustainable isn’t necessarily best for the environment, as additional energy is required for demolition as well as construction of a replacement structure. Furthermore, these buildings also hold cultural and historical relevance, acting as roots that tie us to the people and virtues who came before. Old post offices, banks, schools, office buildings, and retail locations may never find their place in history textbooks, but their vernacular styles, as well as the people and events that populated their interiors, make them worthy of preservation. Sustainable design isn’t restricted to the environment; social and cultural sustainability should also be of our concern.

In order to understand how to best include these buildings within our sustainable agenda, it is important to look at their current environmental impact compared to most infrastructure found today. According to the National Institute of Building Sciences’ Whole Building Design Guide, “historic buildings are inherently sustainable.” Adaptive reuse of old structures not only ensures the maximum use of material lifespans but also reduces waste. These claims are corroborated by life cycle analysis (LCA) tests, demonstrating that “reusing older buildings result in immediate and lasting environmental benefits.”

Though these structures may not be as energy efficient as new high-tech ones, LCAs found that performance is not overwhelmingly compromised, as many existing buildings already have sustainable features. With the lack of significant climate control technology at the time of their construction, the form and materials of many old buildings were inherently efficient, trapping heat in the winter and releasing heat in the summer. Features include thick walls, shutters, overhangs, awnings, and high ceilings for air circulation and light admittance. Therefore, these sustainable features will be retained when rehabilitating and renovating them for contemporary use. Thus, with their waste reducing benefits, as well as their current level of performance, the best way to make old buildings sustainable is to use them.

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The original Frick Laboratory at 20 Washington Street. (Image courtesy of Denise Applewhite, found on Princeton University’s website

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