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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."

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Bike Sharing Thrives, Even in Mexico City's Chaotic Streets

Five years ago, it would have taken a brave soul to ride a bike in downtown Mexico City. Not anymore, thanks to a wildly popular bike share system.

Five years ago, it would have taken a brave soul to ride a bike in downtown Mexico City, a place often associated with nightmarish traffic (the average commute is one and three-quarter hours each day) and poor air quality. But the city has made dramatic strides to promote cycling, from Muévete en Bici, street closures on Sunday mornings that attract more 15,000 cyclists each week, to a commitment to build 100 miles of bike paths by 2012, to the launch of a world-class bike share system, ECOBICI.

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Chart: There Is No "War On Cars" in New York City

Local media is calling it a "war on cars." This chart shows that if it is a "war," the cars are winning.

"The city’s war on automobiles has just gone aerial," crowed the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post in January. "Some might say there is a 'war on cars' going on in New York City," whined the Rupert Murdoch-owned My Fox News New York last Fall.

The media—particularly the Rupert Murdoch-owned media—loves for there to be a "war on" something or other that embodies the conservative status quo. A few years ago it was the "war on Christmas." Now it's the "war on cars."

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Residents of Transit-Oriented Development Say "No" to Transit

What happens when a neighborhood is transit-ready but its residents are transit-averse?

See that expansive patch of grass? That's where the light rail was supposed to go. But the residents of King Farm, a 440-acre community in the outer suburbs of Washington, D.C. who knowingly moved into this transit-ready development have decided they don't actually want the transit. In fact, a city council member and King Farm resident said the proposed light rail (which the community was designed around) would bring "no benefits" to the neighborhood while being "incredibly disruptive."

Such a reaction doesn't come as a complete surprise. A few years ago, I sat around a table with developers to plan a new housing development in Florida. Some of us were eager to make that community less car-dependent, others less so. My colleague and I presented several design options that would encourage people to walk and get to know their neighbors. One was the creation of a central location where residents would come to pick up their mail; another was a neighborhood cafe as an alternative to the proposed drive-thru Starbucks in a strip mall on the outskirts of town. As we were showing renderings, we were interrupted by a member of the team who said with no small hint of frustration in his voice, "Sorry, but you can't design for the way you want people to behave."

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A Sprawl Fighting Fixit Guide

Galina Tachieva, author of The Sprawl Repair Manual, rethinks the suburbs-from empty big box retailers to bubble era McMansions.

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