Is Everything Old Actually Green?

nce upon a time, in the early days of the 20th century, man built things to last. Commercial and residential buildings were constructed with stone or brick and roofed in slate. Until fairly recently, nobody thought of them as being "green." Now, there is talk circulating among architects and builders who praise such old buildings with regard to the envionmental benefits of working with them.

The reason: high thermal mass in the form of thick walls that hold in more heat during the winter, and stay cooler during the summer than their later 20th and 21st century counterparts.

In an article written in the Fall 2011 issue of an environmentalist publication called Conservation Magazine (, this idea is explored by writer Sarah DeWeerdt. In "Everything Old Is Green Again," (, she states, "The most energy efficient buildings may be ones that are already built."

She quotes the U.S. Department of Energy as saying these buildings use less energy per square foot than those commercial buildings built at any later time until 2000. DeWeerdt then builds a case for focusing on retrofitting and renovating existing buildings to achieve the goal of being energy smart, energy independent, and environmentally sound.

Well, that all certainly makes a lot of sense from a number of viewpoints. First, there isn't a lot of revenue and profit being generated in new-construction markets, so it makes more sense to focus on renovation and retrofit. With the huge number of existing commercial buildings in the U.S. today, this is a formidable market indeed. It has been for decades.

The argument about older structures having more thermal mass because of what they were built from makes sense, too. I'm just not so sure focusing on buildings built in America prior to 1920 is the best answer. There are MANY more buildings that were built after 1920 that provide a bigger potential for energy savings.

In September 2011, Danfoss and the Alliance to Save Energy co-sponsored a meeting to address efforts toward an energy transformation in New York City. The focus of that meeting was to establish state and local policies to address energy efficiency and the untapped savings potential in the multi-residential- and commercialbuilding marketplace.

From benchmarking to energy audits, officials are evaluating existing-building envelopes, mechanical systems, hot water, lighting, power, elevators, escalators, etc. to identify potential energy upgrades. These activities and other regulatory steps being taken will have a greater impact than just targeting buildngs built before 1920.

Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, told attendees, that implementation of the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) and ASHRAE Standard 90.1-2007 statewide in 2011 could save $178 million annually by 2020 and $360 million annually by 2030 in avoided energy costs. The code could also help New York State avoid 30.6 trillion Btu and annual emissions of more than 2.14 metric tons of CO2 by 2030. And that is just in New York.

Older buildings do offer retrofit and renovation opportunities—I have no argument with that. I believe we need to focus on the bigger picture if, as a nation and as an industry, we are to tackle the energy challenge.

Is everything old actually green? I don't think so. Opportunities to address energy-conservation issues, customer cost problems, and make money abound. Being creative is key. But conservation for conservation’s sake isn't the answer. Your thoughts?

TAGS: Mike Weil
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