Constructing a new, energy-efficient building, even with many green bells and whistles, is more harmful to the environment than reusing an existing structure, according to a report released this year by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The group’s study, “The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse,” concluded that reusing and retrofitting existing buildings almost always offers environmental savings over demolition and new construction.
“When we say something is green and it gets some sort of accolade or LEED certification, in my opinion, what we’re really doing is simply smoking Marlboro Lights as opposed to Marlboro reds,” said Jeff Myhre of Myhre Group Architects. “We’re still smoking. We’re still paving. We’re still polluting. We’re still having an environmental impact on the planet, and that’s for any new building, period.”
Portland has many aging buildings ripe for adaptive reuse. The trouble is that many retrofits would trigger costly improvements, like seismic upgrades, that can outweigh a building’s potential for future revenue.
As of 1996, there were roughly 1,200 unreinforced masonry buildings in Portland that would be particularly vulnerable to collapse if an earthquake were to hit, according to a city survey. Some of those have since been upgraded, but most remain. Some industry experts think more needs to be done to encourage renovations.
“If you (help) owners to get some grants to help them offset some of those costs it would help a lot, because to be honest I feel bad for owners,” said Randall Toma of ABHT Structural Engineers. “They all want to do the right thing, but sometimes they’re just hamstringed by the costs.”
ABHT was the structural engineer for a $20 million project in 2009 that expanded the historic 42,500-square-foot Skidmore Fountain Building into an 80,000-square-foot, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design platinum-rated headquarters for Mercy Corps. Toma said up to a quarter of the total construction budget went toward seismic upgrades.
But environmental benefits of such projects can also be significant.