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Reusing old buildings a great way to be 'green'

The Buffalo News recently ran a wonderful article on Buffalo's lag in environmental conservation efforts. Several fairly simple measures were discussed, from increased recycling to energy audits of city-owned buildings. Unfortunately, not many of these measures have been pursued by the city. Also unfortunately, barely considered is one of the greenest strategies of all: architectural preservation.

Preservation, at its most basic definition, is the reuse of the existing built environment. There are wonderfully successful examples all around us. Rather than bulldozing the disused federal post office downtown, the citizens of Erie County converted it into the City Campus of Erie Community College. Abandoned for years and barely standing when it was purchased, the Webb Building has been converted into apartments and a day care center.

Why is preservation so green? First, it is the ultimate in recycling. A story in the April 13 News stated that 40 percent of raw materials taken from the Earth are consumed in constructing new buildings. Rehabilitating old buildings requires minimal new materials.

New construction gobbles up more than just raw materials; it is also an energy hog. The energy needed to construct a new building -- extracting the raw materials, processing them into building materials, transporting the materials to the construction site and putting up the building -- is 10 times the amount of energy the building will consume after construction is finished.

On the other hand, an old building is, well, already built. Why throw away all of the energy that went into the construction of that old building -- what we call embodied energy -- only to spend more energy putting up a new building? Second, when a building is demolished, all of that steel, concrete and glass is typically carted off to the landfill. About 20 percent of the solid waste stream is construction waste, and that waste is highly toxic.

Many traditional building practices in old buildings and houses are green. Before electric lighting and air conditioning, office buildings were designed with light courts and skylights. Windows could be opened to catch a cooling breeze in summer. In traditional houses, covered porches reduce heat gain during the summer, and thick walls, attics and cellars help maintain constant interior temperatures year round.

Old buildings already are hooked up to water lines, electric lines and sewers. Old buildings usually are near public transit, reducing automobile dependency. Traditional neighborhoods mix stores, schools and places of worship with housing, allowing a short walk to the store or to school. Reusing existing buildings also means we do not have to consume more farm fields or forests for new developments.

As we think globally about the implications of global climate change and act locally to incorporate green strategies in revitalizing Buffalo, preservation is one of our smartest strategies.

Todd Mitchell is vice president of the Preservation Coalition of Erie County.

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