Why Historic Buildings Are Greener Than LEED-Certified New Ones

For buildings of comparable size and use, old buildings are almost always the greenest buildings.

Buildings eat up a huge amount of energy—about two-fifths of the country’s total use—so to suppress their appetite for power, efficiency entrepreneurs are churning out a suite of nifty technologies, like automatically shading windows, smarter thermostats, and high-tech heating and cooling systems. But a new report from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Green Lab concludes that constructing new, energy-efficient buildings almost never saves as much energy as renovating old ones.

Renovated buildings outperformed new buildings on energy savings in every category: single-family homes, multifamily complexes, commercial offices, “urban village” mixed-use structures, and elementary schools. Though the conclusion may seem counterintuitive in an age of ambitious LEED standards in many new buildings, consider that it uses more energy and creates more impact to construct an entirely new building than to fix up one of the same size for the same purpose. The only exception to the lab’s finding was converting a warehouse to a multi-family dwelling, which required enough extra materials that creating a new building was the greener choice.

The report doesn’t take into account the costs associated with renovations and new construction, but green builders say fixer-uppers are often the more economical choice, too. “It costs less to take an existing building and renovate that to build a new one, at least on the projects I’ve worked on,” says Helen Kessler, a board member of the Illinois chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. She cautions, though, that these comparisons vary from building to building: “There’s always an “it depends” about this."

One goal of the report was to make the case for building reuse as smart development practice, an option that is often overlooked. For green-minded preservationists, the data in the report gives heft to long-held beliefs: As TreeHugger’s Lloyd Alter puts it, “As a writer about sustainable design [the report] backs up the arguments I have been making for years, and as a preservation activist, it gives me and everyone in the movement the ammunition we need to demonstrate that old buildings are green.”

But the report’s data doesn’t offer any insight into a perennial problem with old buildings: They’re short. While it might make not make environmental sense to replace an old two-story building with a new two-story building, what if the replacement is an energy-efficient seven-story structure that's accessible via public transit? To address these questions, the report’s authors call for more research into “the relationship between density and environmental impacts as it relates to building reuse versus new construction.” That rather dry formulation glosses over a real point of contention between preservationists and advocates for density, who often support creating a LEED-certified 12-story building where a four-story charmer once stood.

But as Kessler puts it, there’s always an "it depends." In some cases, the space in old building can be put to better use: Ashley Katz, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Green Building Council, points to the Treasury Department’s newly LEED-certified historic headquarters, where renovations added 164 “workstations." And the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Kaid Benfield argues that more density doesn’t necessarily require building the tallest skyscrapers possible. “To increase density enough to make a difference, we don’t always need to maximize it,” he writes. “Much of the time a moderate amount of human-scaled urbanism will be far more appropriate than a high-rise.”

In cases in which there’s no question of trade-offs, though—if, for example, a family plans to knock down an old house to build a new one of the same size with all the latest efficiency accoutrements—renovating is always the better choice.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Rob Young


When former Pittsburgh Steelers' center Mike Webster committed suicide in 2002, his death began to raise awareness of the brain damage experienced by NFL football players. A 2017 study found that 99% of deceased NFL players had a degenerative brain disease known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Only one out of 111 former football players had no sign of CTE. It turns out, some of the risks of traumatic brain injury experienced by heavily padded adults playing at a professional level also exist for kids with developing brains playing at a recreational level. The dangers might not be as intense as what the adults go through, but it can have some major life-long consequences.

A new PSA put out by the Concussion Legacy Foundation raises awareness of the dangers of tackle football on developing brains, comparing it to smoking. "Tackle football is like smoking. The younger I start, the longer I am exposed to danger. You wouldn't let me smoke. When should I start tackling?" a child's voice can be heard saying in the PSA as a mother lights up a cigarette for her young son.

Keep Reading Show less
via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

On Tuesday morning, President Trump tweeted about some favorable economic numbers, claiming that annual household income is up, unemployment is low, and housing prices are high.

Now, just imagine how much better those numbers would be if the country wasn't mired in an economy-killing trade war with China, bleeding out trillion-dollar-a-year debts, and didn't suffer from chaotic leadership in the Oval Office?

At the end of tweet, came an odd sentence, "Impeach the Pres."

Keep Reading Show less

October is domestic violence awareness month and when most people think of domestic violence, they imagine mostly female victims. However, abuse of men happens as well – in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. But some are taking it upon themselves to change all that.

Keep Reading Show less

At this point most reasonable people agree that climate change is a serious problem. And while a lot of good people are working on solutions, and we're all chipping in by using fewer plastic bags, it's also helpful to understand where the leading causes of the issue stem from. The list of 20 leading emitters of carbon dioxide by The Guardian newspaper does just that.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via International Labour Organization / Flickr and Michael Moore / Facebook

Before the release of "The Joker" there was a glut of stories in the media about the film's potential to incite violence.

The FBI issued a warning, saying the film may inspire violence from a group known as the Clowncels, a subgroup of the involuntarily celibate or Incel community.

Incels an online subculture who believe they are unable to attract a sexual partner. The American nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center describes them as "part of the online male supremacist ecosystem" that is included in its list of hate groups.

Keep Reading Show less