According to the great Gore Vidal, the sweetest words in the English language are “I told you so!” and here’s where we get to use them.
We’ve always argued that in most cases the best building is the building that is already there. In sustainability terms, at least, the reasons for adaptive reuse of existing buildings seem obvious. Even if the proposed new building is greener than green there will still be a considerable CO2 cost in the new materials, and since many modern building materials only have an expected life of around 25 years there is a considerable future CO2 expense as well. Long lasting but expensive traditional building techniques and materials rate better than cheap modern materials – in other words don’t let accountants design your building, it will cost the earth in the long run.
But we’ve never found figures to back our assertion. Well, now someone has proven it. In a report that has got a bit of coverage in the UK (here, here, and here) the Empty Homes Agency has done research to show that reusing existing buildings is greener than building new “green” buildings.
The report, compiled by the Empty Homes Agency with help from the Building and Social Housing Foundation, indicates that the embodied carbon – the carbon released as a direct result of building a new home – accounts for nearly three times as much as the building’s lifetime emissions.
The agency claims that building a new home emits more than four and a half times as much carbon dioxide per square metre as refurbishing an existing one. As much as 35 tonnes of carbon dioxide could be saved by bringing an existing home up to scratch – equivalent to driving a car from London to Sydney and back seven times. Over 50 years, this means that there is almost no difference in the average emissions of new and refurbished homes.
One of the implications is that in a world desperate for a few instant solutions, a moratorium on demolitions, the restoration of empty buildings and the restriction of new building to greenfield sites must suddenly look appealing. It would be interesting to speculate on the effect this would have on the dynamics of the future metropolis – cityofsound, Geoff Manaugh, where are you?
Now the other thing we have been saying is that there will be a world wide ban on coal mining in under ten years – you must remember we live in an area completely economically dependent on coal mining yet the local government strategic plan for the next twenty years does not even mention climate change despite our attempts to raise the issue. Since the European Union, (the world’s biggest economy) is now threatening the US and China with trade sanctions if they don’t get moving on greenhouse emissions, the coal mining ban is looking increasingly possible. Perhaps we should make a long bet on it.