Preservation architect Jean Carroon believes the United States – a country that accounts for five percent of the earth’s population but 30 percent of its resource consumption – must take a leadership role in reversing the trends of the past half century. And, given the fact that new construction accounts for half of that consumption, the best way to reverse this unsustainable trend is to start reusing and maintaining what we’ve already built, and building things that last.
“The greenest thing we can do for both our buildings and our world is constant, steady maintenance,” Carroon told a group at the recent Building Energy 2013 conference hosted in Boston by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association.
“It breaks my heart to understand that the politics of our world don’t support maintenance. They don’t fund maintenance; they fund capital projects,” she said.
While she appreciates the “reduce, reuse and recycle” mantra, she clearly has her favorite.
“My life’s passion is about making people remember that reuse comes before recycle on that list,” she said. “Why are we recycling aluminum cans when we could and should be recycling our buildings?”
Carroon, FAIA, LEED, is a principal in Goody Clancy's preservation practice, based in Boston. She thinks adaptive reuse all too often gets overlooked in the frenzy to construct green buildings.
“It is almost always better environmentally to reuse an existing building,” Carroon said. “When you’re re-using a building you’re doing that to avoid the environmental impact of all that goes into a building.”
Carroon said thousands of perfectly good homes are torn down every year to make way for larger new homes. But, she said, even if those new structures are built to LEED standards, it’s still a missed opportunity.
“I think our semantics are important and we need to start thinking in a different way. We’re not really asking how we can be greener. We’re asking how we can be healthier. We’re asking how we can make a healthier world; and health really is the umbrella that covers every decision we should be making.”
Carroon said the green building industry has been exploding in the past 10 years with a vast array of new technologies that are making energy-efficient retrofits easier than ever.
“I think the 21st century is going to be like a new industrial revolution,” she said. Boston’s historic Trinity Church, for example, was outfitted with a state-of-the-art vertical geo-exchange system in 2002. Comprised of six 1,500-foot wells drilled beneath Copley Square, the system reduced energy consumption by 25 to 50 percent and opened up 25,000 square feet of space in the basement of the church. Because most of the geothermal system is hidden below ground, it avoids the unsightly clutter of conventional HVAC units that might distract from the historic feel of the landmark.
Carroon has been working on the renovation of Trinity Church for the past 13 years. The project included the installation of a sophisticated stormwater management system, she said. The improvements have not only saved money and reduced energy consumption, but they have helped keep this valuable community asset viable for future generations.
“They have over 1,000 groups that use that space,” Carroon said. “It’s a very, very active urban church.”
Carroon said treasured historic landmarks aren’t the only kinds of buildings that can be re-used. In fact, she said, she’s come to appreciate “mundane buildings” for adaptive reuse projects.
“I have to admit, it’s because I don’t have to work with historic commissions,” she quipped. “It just makes it a different conversation. You’re allowed a little more freedom and there are fewer players involved.”
The Cell and Genome Sciences Building at the University of Connecticut's Health Center in Farmington, Conn., is a perfect example of “a big flat warehouse building, ugly as sin,” that Carroon said Goody Clancy re-designed in 2007 to 2010. The $52 million renovation earned the 117,000-square-foot building LEED silver certification and the 2011 Renovated Laboratory of the Year award by R&D Magazine. The magazine said the architects “brought daylight into interior corridors and reconfigured the floor plan to facilitate workflow and collaboration.”
“We just had this concept that you could organize the inside of it and daylight it so you would know where you were in the building,” Carroon said, “and it would all lead you to this central place where you would have the community and all the sciences come together.”
The drab 1970s-era building was transformed into a contemporary space with exposed infrastructure and minimal use of ceilings.
“Ceilings are really just a waste of material,” Carroon said. Entombing pipes, conduits and ductwork inside walls and ceilings only makes renovations more difficult and discourages the reuse of older buildings, she said.
“If we really want to take care of our historic buildings, we should actually be running everything exposed, knowing that in 30 years it’s all going to be replaced again. … Let’s make them easy to switch out. Let’s make these buildings future-ready so we don’t have to mess with them,” she said.
Carroon argues that buildings should be constructed with a “less-is-more” mentality.
“The solutions I love are those that give us the biggest bang for the least amount of materials,” Carroon said, “not the least amount of money.” And, she’s skeptical about so-called “zero-energy” buildings because many of them use too many materials or systems that can’t be maintained or have a short lifespan. She’s also concerned about the toxicity of modern building materials.
She favors double-hung windows protected by storm windows, wooden sills, awnings and other “passive” energy-saving devices. Some technologies are old, like rain barrels, and others are new, like high-efficiency faucets, but the key is to find durable, local materials that are easily cleaned and maintained for long life and functionality, she said.
“I am extremely skeptical about what we’re putting into buildings,” she said. “I’m extremely skeptical that everything we say is green is really green.”
Carroon sees the struggle to reduce consumption and toxicity as nothing less than a struggle to preserve humanity.
“We have seven billion people on this earth,” she said, “and in the last 50 years we’ve consumed more raw materials than in all previous human history …and it’s still climbing. The EPA says that material consumption creates about 41 percent of our carbon dioxide emissions, and that new construction is the single largest source of human toxicity.”
“This is not a pretty picture,” she said. “This is a moral issue if not an environmental issue. This is something we really have to take responsibility for.”
Carroon acknowledged that some progress is being made. She said the U.S. Green Building Council, in its latest revisions of LEED standards, is focusing more attention on the toxicity and embodied energy inherit in building materials. The U.S. Park Service is considering revisions to its adaptive reuse policies, and many cities across the country are putting restrictions on construction and demolition waste.
But, Carroon said, more needs to be done, up to and including the use of carbon taxes on new materials, the costs of which she said do not reflect the price of dealing with the environmental consequences.
“We have to level the economic playing field so that it’s less expensive to have someone repair something; so we have an incentive to repair and we’re not constantly in this up-hill battle about the fact that new is almost always less expensive than repair.”