Sustaining Sustainable Preservation

Operating Manual for Spaceship *insert your address here*

Operating Manual for Spaceship *insert your address here*

Sustainability and preservation, with regards to the built environment, both aim to achieve the same goal: that is the stewardship of a finite resource. In the title of Jeffrey Chusid’s chapter in Pragmatic Sustainability he suggests that these two fields were at one point, and should again be, ‘Natural Allies.’[1] He argues that as early as the Roman period to preserve was to be sustainable and vice versa: they were considered logically one in the same. Preservation, in broad-brushed terms, tasks itself with taking care[2] of our built heritage, which can be considered finite as time approaches infinity. Although new buildings are built everyday, once constructed they become part of a stock of built heritage, a dynamic stock, which to reference Meadows’ bathtub analogy, is being filled and drained simultaneously; however, the second law of thermodynamics establishes that no building can last forever.

Similarly, Sustainability’s charge is the increased vigilance over the finite collective resource that is Spaceship Earth, to borrow Buckminster Fuller’s term for our biosphere and its resources. Unfortunately, unlike the hopeful promise of that book, there is no operating manual for neither of these fields nor their goals, only proactive hypothesis that nonetheless require reactive experimentation and adjustment. It is no coincidence then, as Caroon cites in the first chapter of Sustainable Preservation the widely circulated statistic that the built environment, has the largest impact on the non-built environment directly and indirectly, when all embodied energy is accounted for: material extraction, processing, packing, transportation, installation, demolition, etc. As we begin to quantitatively analyze these impacts, it would appear that preservation and sustainable design are in fact fated to be natural allies.

Despite the obvious direct relationship between that the largest, energy-dense volume of stuff, i.e. buildings, on the planet has to the largest negative impact on the environment, forward progress has been stifled by the faulty logic that preservation exists solely within the public realm and that sustainability, as popularized today under the ‘green’ umbrella by LEED, is primarily a private enterprise between the building owner/client and the architect or developer. Chusid also attributes this divide partly to the “disparate forms of discourse”[3] involved in the preservation and sustainable design fields, like oil and milk swirling around in the same glass but never able to coalesce due to their inherent properties. Sustainable design, including the adaptive reuse and renovation of historic buildings, has thusly evolved alongside a remarkably well-marketed, yet discriminant, growing economy of green stuff: triple-glazed windows, low VOC finishes and paints, recycled this and energy-saving that, et cetera ad infinitum ad nauseam. This rather gentrified microcosm has all but alienated a vast number of preservation and renovation projects simply due to lack of funds and professional expertise in their specification and installation. While LEED has in truth expanded the layman’s awareness of environmental sustainability, the ‘check box’ or ‘scorecard’ nature of this popularized green movement does little to measure post-construction efficiency. In other words, a 12,000 square foot summer home for a family of three on Marco Island could very well be considered green ‘on paper’.

An architecture professor of mine at the Illinois Institute of Technology once told me as an undergraduate architecture student that, “You simply cannot expect to solve a design problem simply by adding stuff.” Both LEED and its army of new vendors, manufacturers, marketers, and promoters have regrettably begun to emphasize the inappropriate notion that sustainability can be achieved by adding stuff to a design. This stuff has a cost, and typically the embodied energy of this stuff is much higher than anyone might expect, and when specified improperly or in instances when the result that would be otherwise achieved by the item could be achieved simply by opening a window for a few hours a day, has a doubly negative effect. This mentality furthermore distances occupants from their buildings in terms of repairability. I can’t help but recall this excerpt from an essay (now a book) entitled Shop Class as Soul Craft by Matthew B. Crawford[4]:

At the same time, an engineering culture has developed in recent years in which the object is to “hide the works,” rendering the artifacts we use unintelligible to direct inspection. Lift the hood on some cars now (especially German ones), and the engine appears a bit like the shimmering, featureless obelisk that so enthralled the cavemen in the opening scene of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Essentially, there is another hood under the hood. This creeping concealedness takes various forms. The fasteners holding small appliances together now often require esoteric screwdrivers not commonly available, apparently to prevent the curious or the angry from interrogating the innards. By way of contrast, older readers will recall that until recent decades, Sears catalogues included blown-up parts diagrams and conceptual schematics for all appliances and many other mechanical goods. It was simply taken for granted that such information would be demanded by the consumer. A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our mode of inhabiting the world: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them.What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves installing a pre-made replacement part. So perhaps the time is ripe for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favor: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world.

impact wrench drawing from Sears

impact wrench drawing from Sears

A great deal of active sustainability can be achieved passively by relinquishing some of this environmental burden from the industry to the occupant. Most historic buildings have a tremendous advantage in this regard, what Caroon calls “Passive Survivability.”[5] Taking advantage of the inbuilt features that were necessary for the use and maintenance of historic buildings in a pre-technological era, i.e. the passive ventilation, daylighting, and often water systems as a means to sustainably preserve might just be the best way forward. Each historic building is unique, each behaves differently as a system, and it is impossibly naïve to think that any universal method of preservation, sustainable or otherwise, will successfully apply universally.

Perhaps what is needed after all is an operating manual of sorts, specific to each historic building; created by thorough analysis of these individual structures, compiled and presented to the new occupant as an Operating Manual for Spaceship insert address here* complete with schematics and ‘blown-up parts diagrams’ to encourage self-exploration, tinkering, and acclimatization. This notion of occupant responsibility should be a preservation criterion unto itself, and could aid in the substantiated justification for or against the decision to preserve.

[1] Jefrey M. Chusid, “Natural Allies: Historic Preservation and Sustainable Design.” In Pragmatic Sustainability: Theoretical and Practical Tools (Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2010) p.172.

[2] I’ve used a loose term here to accommodate the various levels of preservation intervention, i.e. to accommodate the ‘scrapers’ and the ‘antiscrapers.’

[3] Chusid, 175.

[4] Matthew B. Crawford, “Shop Class as Soulcraft.” The New Atlantis Summer 2006. Accessed Nov 28, 2014 at

[5] Jean Caroon, Sustainable Preservation: Greening Existing Buildings (Hoboken, NJL Wiley, 2010) 10.


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