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Reframing the Urban Pattern

Accounting for 40 percent of energy consumption in the United States, residential and commercial buildings are a focal point of energy policy, research, and data. Since 1950, the United States has been making strides toward creating a more efficient energy system. Most of this progress, however, has overlooked the ability to retrofit and renovate the structures that still stand today, with many city planners opting for complete demolition and reconstruction

In the past two years, at least ten landmarked buildings in Greenwich Village alone have been scheduled for demolition. City leaders, hand-in-hand with developers, are prone to lean towards one “quick-fix” solution when faced with dangerous conditions or disrepair. One particularly relevant example of this can be found at 14 Gay Street

14 Gay Street, Spencer Means, 2017

For years, violations at 14 Gay Street continued to be overlooked by the city agencies responsible for maintaining the structure of the building. These oversights, and the eventual mishandling by new ownership, are ripple effects of a growing preference for demolishing and rebuilding, rather than restoring. What many are coming to realize is that not only does this preference result in displacement, increased cost of living, and gentrification, but in climate damage as well. 

With this knowledge, it’s important to reframe the original processes of landmarks preservation and Sara C. Bronin of the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy notes that some historic buildings are considered too expensive to maintain or “too expensive to bring up to code.” Bronin also states that retrofitting historic buildings can be hindered by inflexible efforts to preserve the original character. Updating landmarks preservation policies to provide leeway in maintaining energy efficiency while also enforcing structural upkeep — something being done in New York City — is essential. But greater emphasis on the environmental benefit of reuse and retrofitting rather than demolition is also essential, and sorely lacking in our current discourse.

Grainger, 2022

One popular tool that has started to gain traction in framing the issue is the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). The LCA has concluded, through multiple studies, that the solution we need today is not the construction of a newer building. According to this research, the timeline to introduce more contemporary, “greener” buildings has passed. In other words, the positive impacts of these eco-buildings won’t be felt for 10 to 80 years. In contrast, efforts to retrofit our historic structures can create the more time-sensitive, reduced emissions our planet needs today. 

Usage of the LCA provides insights into the three categories of a building’s energy consumption: embodied energy, operating energy, and building transportation energy. By analyzing the full life cycle and make-up of our historic buildings, it’s clear that not only do these structures avoid further resource consumption, but they also require far less “embodied energy” in demolition and reconstruction. Additionally, the resources that were used to construct these original buildings were far more “durable and long-lasting,” relying on a passive design. 

Tools like the LCA, and continued discourse on this subject, could prove fruitful in making a real impact on the environment, as well as the buildings themselves. Reviewing the life cycle of some of our most endangered buildings and introducing an alternative to razing and reconstructing could entirely rewrite the current procedures of development. As we continue to live with and try to adapt to climate change, preservation could be the key to noticeably reduced emissions and waste. 

Research on this subject was completed by the Preservation Leadership Forum and The Kleinman Center for Energy Policy.

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