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Comparing the Environmental Impact of Adaptive Reuse to New Construction

Recently, developers are increasing focus on adaptive reuse projects for urban investment opportunities. Driven by the millennial generation’s passion for walkable, centrally-located housing and workspaces, as well as by consumer demand for sustainable building practices, the popularity of adaptive reuse has skyrocketed in recent years.

However, like all trends, adaptive reuse has its detractors. Many respected minds in the building and design industry have raised questions as to whether or not renovation projects on historical buildings are really as sustainable as they’re purported to be.

The Costs of New Construction

In a simple, head-to-head comparison on costs, new construction is usually the cheapest option. However, it’s hard to do a “simple” comparison when you’re looking at energy as well as environmental costs.

When considering new construction versus repurposing an existing structure, it’s important to factor in the energy costs of demolition pollutants, landfill waste, and carbon emissions. Getting rid of a building creates a lot of trash—the EPA reports that 534 million tons of construction and demolition debris were created in 2014—but the environmental costs don’t end once the building has been razed. In 2009, new construction was EPA-classified as one of the top emitting sectors for greenhouse gases.

In addition to calculating construction emissions, energy-savvy contractors must also figure in manufacturing and transportation emissions because building materials will need to be created and trucked in throughout the span of the project.

Once you add everything up, the total energy costs of new construction can be upsetting. A chilling study released in 2012 by Preservation Green Lab (part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation) found that each new building releases a carbon load into the atmosphere that won’t be “paid back” for 10-80 years. Even the most energy-efficient projects create this kind of carbon debt, which is why experts agree that “the greenest building is one that’s already built.”

But as we said, nothing is ever simple when considering building costs. The Preservation Green Lab study also found that rehabbing warehouses into multifamily housing can actually be less energy efficient than demolition and new construction. Additionally, new, green buildings that plan for adaptive reuse capabilities in the future are likely to have an entirely different impact than traditional building projects. It’s all a comparison.

The Potential for “Building Recycling”

In contrast to new construction, renovating from the built environment can lead to a wide range of energy savings.

Adaptive reuse projects avoid the harmful demolition phase, and also have the opportunity to take advantage of energy savings by reusing fixtures and features that are already in structures. This reuse not only leads to fascinating design, it also reduces the carbon payback period as compared to new construction, due to the inherent embodied energy savings.

Additionally, adaptive reuse can be more sustainable than new construction because older buildings that were constructed before modern climate control features are often naturally sustainable. For example, their use of thick walls and awnings was purposeful to control temperatures, and high ceilings and large windows allowed for natural light. The architects and builders of those solid, well-built structures of yesteryear really knew what they were doing.

However, adaptive reuse isn’t without its issues.

Building and design professionals interested in working with the built environment must be careful to maximize their energy savings by choosing an appropriate site. Though renovating an intriguing building in good shape will typically offer outstanding sustainability and investment benefits, fixing up a badly maintained building can simply result in a waste of time and money.

From troublesome hazardous materials to frustrating out-of-date building codes, and aged safety features to difficult envelope vulnerabilities, renovation projects can have a lot of drawbacks. Developers must take the time to weigh all pros and cons of each project at the outset, as well as throughout construction, to ensure that their investment is a good one. After all, an unused or unusable adaptive reuse building will negatively impact the environment far more than an abandoned old building.

In Summary: Going Green Is a Gray Area

In addition to raising questions about environmental impact, adaptive reuse has also faced criticism for its high costs and potential degradation of the urban character.

It’s true that not all reuse projects benefit their surrounding areas or the interests of the community, but these complaints can be said of any large-scale commercial building project. It’s not uncommon that some architectural ambitions fall flat despite the good intentions of everyone concerned.

However, from what we’ve seen and experienced, adaptive reuse projects usually result in a positive impact. They inspire community participation, revitalize declining urban areas, and honor a building’s past by giving it a future.

As for the environmental impact of adaptive reuse, that can only be determined on a case-by-case basis; some projects offer clear environmental benefits to the building, neighborhood, and community, whereas others fall into more of a gray area.

Instead of assuming that all adaptive reuse projects are or aren’t sustainable, we recommend assessing each project individually. In addition to performing our own due diligence, those of us in the building and design industry must also work to raise public awareness of sustainability initiatives including LEED certification, green roofs, and other emerging choices and alternatives in the modern building and design landscape.

As always, it is up to us—the designers, the developers, and the contractors—to create a beautiful future from our vision. Let’s work together to make all of our projects and choices sustainable.

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