Insights on Preservation

Pelicans and Preservation by Paul Muller

A message from the Executive Director

Pelicans and preservation, they have both been on my mind recently. The people who value historic preservation do so for a variety of reasons. To some of us it is about keeping the connection to important ideas and events alive in the modern world. Others are driven be the vitality and richness historic buildings bring to cities and neighborhoods. Whatever the reason there is an underlying common element: the desire to care for our resources in a responsible way, the commitment to future generations that that we will be good stewards during our watch.

The current catastrophe in the Gulf highlights the link between preservation of buildings preservation of the planet. Theodore Roosevelt elegantly articulated the responsibility to future generations. He was speaking of natural resources but the obligation applies equally to historic resources.

As I watched the oil gush from the bottom of the gulf I was struck by tragic coincidence of the pelican’s plight. Roosevelt’s first wildlife reservation was Pelican Island on the east coast of Florida in 1903 with his famous “I so declare it” statement. While he went on to create hundreds of wildlife preserves during his presidency, fourteen stretch along the Gulf Coast in the direct path of the oil spill. These unique environments serve as breeding grounds for migrating birds and have helped bring the brown pelican back from dangerously low population levels. They were removed from the endangered species list just last year.

How does all this connect to preservation? We have been saying the preservation is the original green and now we have the metrics to support the position. Buildings are the largest contributor of CO2 gas emissions into the environment and account for the majority of fossil fuel consumption. We can also now count the embodied energy in an existing building. When this investment is discarded (demolition) the cost we should tally is not only the cultural value that is destroyed and the landfill volume that removes area from useful purpose, it also should include the original energy investment. When this “embodied energy” is considered the replacement of a well constructed historic structure with a new, energy efficient building takes years to provide a net environmental benefit.

Making our current buildings more efficient is a much more powerful and immediate way to right the world. Cities will also be an important part of the solution to our un-stainable energy strategy. CPA has an important role to play in promoting the thoughtful reuse of buildings that can provide decades of useful service.

When you consider the connection between use of our natural resources and our built resources it is hard to understand Greenacres Foundation’s desire to demolish the James N. Gamble House. Greenacres director says that they are planning to demolish the house because keeping it would not support their mission. Conservation, stewardship of resources and respect for the environment are part of their mission. If they tear down this highly significant historic structure I think they might want to consider removing from their mission statement the conservation and stewardship references.