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Home arrowNews arrowAugust 26, 2011

Sustainability in Seattle Informs National Efforts

By Milford Wayne Donaldson, FAIA

Sustainability doesnít mean forgetting the past and building everything anew. In fact, historic preservation is essential to getting sustainability right in America.

Seattle is a model city for sustainability in many respects. The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) came to Seattle for its August 11, 2011, summer business meeting because of this. During this same week, the council examined the national investment in sustainability during a special meeting of our Task Force on Sustainability and Historic Preservation. This task force is focusing on local efforts with national implications.

The Seattle 2030 District was created through local initiative beginning in 2009. This public-private consortium now numbers more than 40 participants. They are dedicated to reducing building energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and water use while spurring growth and job creation through the green econom. By June 30, 2011, thanks to the 2030 District, Seattle became one of the first three cities selected as a partner in President Barack Obamaís Better Buildings Challenge. This Challenge aims to increase energy efficiency in the nationís commercial structures by 20 percent by the end of the decade. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the nationís largest membership nonprofit preservation organization, selected Seattle as the home for its Preservation Green Lab in 2009. The National Trust is one of the 23 members of the ACHP, an independent federal agency created by the National Historical Preservation Act of 1966 to oversee federal historic preservation efforts and policy. The Preservation Green Lab focuses on the reuse and retrofit of older and historic buildings as a key component of fighting climate change. We came to Seattle to learn from both of these efforts. We also came to stress that in many cases the most energy-efficient building is the one that is already built.

This is not a new concept. The ACHP, in the 1970s during the first widespread period of national fossil fuel concern, noted in a report that the tremendous investment in fossil fuels required to build historic structures and their support systems comprised a massive past use of energy that remains embedded in the existing built environment.

Ripping down old structures, shipping the rubble away, and disposing of it requires more energy to destroy what was previously created and therefore contained a great deal of embedded energy. The energy required to construct new buildings and their systems and transport their components to the construction sites is enormous. Yet, too many people think an existing building cannot be as efficient as an entirely new building. It may take four to five decades for the most energy efficient structure to break, even with the loss of energy contained in the old structure it replaces and the new energy required to create the new structure. Existing buildings generally can be retrofitted. The energy equation between existing and new construction then may stretch far longer than mere decades.

Further, consider how our culture suffers when people leave existing infrastructures to live in new construction at a distance from established communities. Existing neighborhoods deteriorate. New roads are needed. New utility corridors and lines are required. More gasoline is burned to commute to work. Old schools are closed, guaranteeing decades of busing children and burning fossil fuels to get them to and from school. Communities, not just structures, deteriorate when existing patterns of life are disrupted and established urban areas experience population and business reductions.

Of course, a city is itself a living organism. Some pruning will always be necessary and encouraging some new shoots is required to keep it healthy and growing. Historic preservation interests understand the need for a proper balance between old and new in keeping communities vital. However, a better future depends on the solid foundation of the past.

Seattle is informing the national discussion of sustainability and showing cities and towns across America how to create a better future. The historic preservation community is pleased to be an important component of that effort, and we commend Seattle for taking leadership on sustainability.

(Donaldson is the presidentially appointed chairman of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation since 2010, and the long-serving California State Historic Preservation Officer)


Posted August 26, 2011

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