Preservation vs. LEED

night shot of Beacon Hill street in Boston

   There has been a major conflict brewing for quite some time between preservationists and the LEED rating system. LEED is being used as a tool by architects to justify the destruction of historic buildings because they aren't as energy-efficient as the new buildings designed to replace them... so the preservationists may emerge as the most vigorous opponent to LEED and the US Green Building Council that created it.

   How could things have possibly gotten so convoluted? Preservation should be considered the foundation act of sustainability, because if you don't preserve something, it is not sustained. Using the plain-spoken meanings of the words, "preservation" and "sustainability" should be nearly synonymous. Yet the "preservation" camp and the "sustainability" camp are beginning to lob verbal hand grenades at each other. How can this be?

   The main culprits are the architects using LEED rather than the USGBC, it seems... Here's a series of factors that show how each contributes to the problem:

   1. LEED is style-neutral. It mandates neither Modernist-styled architecture nor traditionally-styled architecture. Most people don't realize this because almost all of the LEED buildings published are Modernist ones, but if you get under the hood of the rating system, you'll see that it's so. I designed Katrina Cottage VIII, which would have been either LEED Gold or LEED Platinum according to where it was installed in town, had I gone to the expense of rating it.

   2. LEED credits are entirely additive, which means that you simply get points where you choose, add them up, and that's your rating. This means that each credit is fairly small, since they all add up to 100. So you only get a couple more points for preserving an entire historic building as you do for installing a bike rack.

   3. The architects' incentive is to get the largest fee possible. Because it's almost always more expensive to demolish an historic building and build a new one than it is to restore and re-use the historic building, the architects are financially prejudiced against saving the historic building.

   4. The following fact is swept under the rug by almost everyone, but it's essential to get it on the table if we want to understand the entire dynamic: Modernism is anti-historical and anti-traditional. It's not considered a subject for polite conversation in many circles, but Modernism at its core is about destroying old (and similar) buildings and replacing them with new (and unique) buildings. There are occasionally Modernist architects who are exceptions to this rule, but they are infrequent.

   Here's how it all comes together: The architects have found LEED, because it is style-neutral, and because it is established on today's moral high ground of sustainability, to be the perfect vehicle for achieving their theoretical and financial aims. This is all so wrong... flying the flag of sustainability while destroying things that have been heretofore sustained for a very long time. But what can we do?

   1. The LEED standard needs to be modified to recognize the full sustainability implications of preserving an historic building. It's not just the fact that there's tremendous embodied energy and resources already in place. It's also the fact that an historic building, by its continued existence until today, has proven something that new buildings cannot prove for a very long time, and which most of the new buildings will never last long enough to ever prove: that the building is lovable enough that people have preserved it until now. If a building cannot be loved, it will not last... and what's the carbon footprint of a building worth once its pieces are carted off to the landfill? Nothing at all. A building cannot be sustainable if it is not lovable.

   2. A discipline of high-performance historic buildings needs to be developed very quickly. The current perception is that the "drafty old piles" could never be so efficient as the gleaming new things, so why bother? But that perception can be dispelled if there is a compelling body of evidence to refute it. Preservationists should be at the forefront of this effort. Some would say, and the Original Green seems to agree, that traditional buildings before the Thermostat Age were always green. This is so... but with the caveat that our ancestors had much wider comfort ranges and tolerances. True sustainability cannot be achieved without expanding the comfort range from its ridiculous 2-degree window today, which guarantees that a building must be conditioned all the time. But it's unlikely we can open the window of the comfort range as wide again as it was for all of human history until the Thermostat Age, so that means that the historic buildings must perform at a higher level than they have ever done before, even if they were built before the Thermostat Age. Solving this problem is of utmost importance.

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Friday, March 20, 2009 - 01:21 PM

Chad Cooper

Great post Steve.  One question: In the hotter climate zones, for Mid & Hise-rise buildings, isn't it more difficult or more restrictive with respect being able to adjust to a broader range of climate comfortability?  In Low Rise and buildngs of lesser stories, one can open a window to take advantage of breezes in order to offset a higher general temperature inside.  Whereas in Mid and High Rise buildings, opening windows is much less likely.  Is this a fctor in your mind?

Friday, March 20, 2009 - 03:07 PM

Steve Mouzon

Good point, Chad... matter of fact, high-rise buildings have lots of sustainability problems. For example, even the most high-tech glass in the world today is not as efficient as a simple 2x4 stud wall with fiberglass batt insulation. But cladding 80-story buildings with heavier materials has its serious problems... including high-rise architects' immense infatuation with glass curtain walls. In an uncertain future, the ability to open windows and to adjust the air and heat flow (in both directions) should be considered an essential requirement of all buildings.

Thursday, May 7, 2009 - 02:19 PM


I agree that the LEED rating system needs to be modified to take into account historic preservation.  One thing that would help would be to have negative numbers included.  I was thinking that achieving a LEED rating for a building was similar to scoring a touchdown in a football game and each of the points earned would be like a play on the field.  If you have to demolish a building to clear the building site and that building could have otherwise been renovated, it should be like taking possession of the ball in the other team's end zone.  The project should start off with some negative number that puts it below the zero base line.  The value of the negative number should be dependant on the size of the building demolished and the quantity of materials salvaged.

Thursday, May 7, 2009 - 02:20 PM

Michael Rouchell

The anonymous comment above was by Michael Rouchell.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009 - 08:21 AM

Steve Mouzon

EXCELLENT, Michael!! I've been struggling with how to do that, as I've been working for some time on a counter-proposal to LEED. The negative number approach solves a key aspect of the problem. I'll post this just as soon as I can get the diagrams drawn.

Thanks very much!!

Thursday, May 14, 2009 - 10:00 PM

Michael Rouchell

Steve,  I am not that familiar with how the LEED rating system works, but if the goal is to achieve 100 points and you start off at 0, then the obvious thing would be to provide a baseline of 0 if your building is on a vacant piece of land, -50 if your project requires a demolition, and a 50 if you choose to do a renovation.  This would give the renovation project a clear advantage over the new construction and a substantial head start over the demolition/new construction.  But then these base lines may not be entirely fair either.  A project could be considered a "renovation" even though it proposes to demolish everything, leaving only the exterior walls temporarily shored up until the new construction is built behind the facades.  Thus it wouldn't be fair to provide the same head start as a true renovation that proposes to retain all the interiors.  Similarly, a demolition may be necessary if the existing building's size and construction type is smaller than the proposed building or is an unsuitable construction type.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009 - 07:07 PM

Steve Mouzon

Michael, that's enormously helpful... thanks! And take a look at the recent Down the Unlovable Carbon Stair-Steps blog post, which continues this discussion.

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