January/February 2008 President's Note
Building on What We've Built
By Richard Moe | From Preservation | January/February 2008
On December 13, the National Building Museum presented National Trust President Richard Moe with its ninth Vincent Scully Prize, which recognizes exemplary practice, scholarship, or criticism in architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, or preservation. (Earlier recipients include the Prince of Wales, Witold Rybczynski, and Jane Jacobs.) At the ceremony, Moe delivered a talk on how preservation and "sustainable stewardship" can help fight climate change. Contributing editor Dwight Young spoke with Moe prior to the event.
DY: Congratulations on receiving the Scully Prize.
RM: I'm deeply honored. Vince Scully is an icon in our business, and he's somebody I've admired and respected for many, many years. To be in the company of the previous recipients means a lot to me—but I really see this prize as recognizing the National Trust and the preservation movement, and I'm simply the vehicle for that. I'm pleased to see that preservation is getting the recognition it deserves.
DY: Why did you choose sustainability as the subject for your speech?
RM: We've always regarded preservation as a sustainable activity because it's all about recycling resources. Even though it's not a new subject for us, we're giving it more emphasis now because of public concern about global warming, CO2 emissions, and energy conservation. We believe preservation has a role to play in all these issues.
DY: Isn't this an unusual subject for preservation to tackle?
RM: It is a little unusual, but let me put it in context. Preservation has always sought to expand its audience by emphasizing different aspects of its work. It started 150 years ago—people were interested in saving great cultural and historical landmarks like Mount Vernon, and we appealed to those interests. Later, the emphasis shifted to economic benefits, which we stressed in things like the Main Street program and the rehab tax credits. More recently, we've emphasized preservation's quality-of-life benefits by talking about the sense of stability and continuity that comes from preserving and enhancing well-built older neighborhoods. Now, following that same pattern, we're focusing on preservation's environmental benefits. Up to now, recognition of these benefits hasn't played a prominent role in the debate over global warming and energy conservation, and we think it should. It's all part of our effort to make preservation more relevant to more people—and to society as a whole.
DY: Someone has said that the greenest building is one that's already built. What does that mean?
RM: Any new building, no matter how much green technology it incorporates, represents a new impact on the environment. An older building represents a heavy prior investment of resources and energy. If you tear that building down, that investment is wasted—but if you keep the building in use, you're saving energy and conserving resources. That's what people mean when they call preservation the ultimate recycling.
DY: Isn't the lack of energy efficiency a big problem with old buildings?
RM: Not necessarily. Many of them incorporate features that we now recognize as environmentally friendly—like big, operable windows, shaded porches, and high ceilings. Also, most older buildings were built to last, which is the very essence of sustainability. There's a wide range of products on the market now that can help make buildings more energy efficient without compromising their historical character, and there's a large and growing number of rehab and reuse projects that offer good models of sustainable design and construction—like the visitors center at President Lincoln's Cottage.
DY: Is this what the National Trust's new sustainability initiative is all about?
RM: That's part of it. Our goal is to educate policy makers and the public about the importance of reusing existing buildings as part of our overall efforts to address climate change. We want to quantify the adverse environmental impacts that occur when sound older buildings are abandoned or demolished—and state those impacts in terms that are readily understandable.
DY: Can you give an example?
RM: Sure. The National Building Museum here in Washington, D.C., was built in the 1880s. It took energy to manufacture or extract the building materials and transport them to the construction site, plus more energy to erect the building. When you add it up, the total embodied energy in the National Building Museum is equivalent to nearly 1.2 million gallons of gasoline. If the average vehicle gets about 21 miles to the gallon, there's enough embodied energy in that one building to drive a car more than 25 million miles. If the building were demolished, all that energy would be utterly wasted.
DY: That's sobering—but what are we going to do with such data?
RM: We'll work to develop and enact laws and policies that encourage reinvestment in existing buildings and communities; we want to expand the historic rehab tax credit, for example, and provide incentives for private homeowners to employ green technology in maintaining and rehabilitating their homes. Also, we'll launch a major effort to make the National Trust website the "go-to" resource for advice and information on employing green technology in the rehab of older structures. And we'll seek to build alliances with environmental and conservation groups and professionals in the building arts to educate them about tried-and-true preservation practices.
DY: Sounds like a big job.
RM: I believe it's one of the most important things we've ever done. We can't build our way out of our environmental problems, but we can—and must—make better, wiser use of what we've already built. Preservation is sustainable stewardship: That's the message here.
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