Renovation of historic buildings better for local economy than new construction

The East facade of the Hattiesburg train depot after renovation (left). Below is a photo of the depot before the renovation.

Which building is the most “green?” A new, tightly sealed, energy-efficient building using modern building materials, or a historic building that has been rehabilitated? If you consider the energy imbedded in an existing building compared to the energy costs of mining, harvesting, manufacturing, transporting and installing all new materials, a case can be made that historic buildings can trump new construction on the “eco meter.”

“I’m always having to debunk the idea that old buildings are less environmentally friendly and less energy efficient,” said Larry Albert, a preservationist architect with Albert & Associates, Hattiesburg, who is a member of the Mississippi Historical Society board of directors. “The amount of energy it takes to create a building is far more than renovating an existing building, and then you have the time and wasted energy from hauling buildings to the dump.”

There are also studies that show renovating exiting buildings is better for the local economy. With new buildings, most of the products are manufactured elsewhere and shipped in. Local renovations use more local laborers. “Economically it is better for communities to reuse existing buildings,” Albert said.

There can be a perception that old buildings without insulation are very expensive to heat and cool. But Albert said that isn’t necessarily true. His office building has high ceilings and four layers of brick in the walls that moderate temperatures extremes.

“In the summertime it is 95 degrees up where I’m changing the light bulb, but I don’t live up there,” Albert said.

Albert, who has a passion for preserving historic buildings, said there is also a negative perception that renovation costs a huge amount.

“I personally believe a lot of the poor information about old buildings comes from one movie that should never have been made, the “Money Pit” starring Tom Hanks. Everyone thinks old buildings are money pits. I’ve run into challenges, but for most buildings, that is not the case.”

Another common misperception is that you can’t buy and renovate a historic building and make it pay its way. Albert’s experience with purchasing and renovating three historic buildings in downtown Hattiesburg is different. He said he has been able to buy the buildings at a fair price, invest in renovations, and then lease the building so it is profitable and a good investment. When the owner also gets historic tax credits, it is an ever better deal.

It has also been true since the housing crash that it is less expensive in most cases to purchase an existing building rather than build new.

Before and after photos of the train depot interior Hattiesburg.

Albert makes the case there is another reason to consider historic preservation: Excellent architecture in buildings constructed by highly skilled craftsmen often using materials superior to what can be found today.

“The quality of the architecture of the past is so much better,” Albert said. “I have great appreciation for these old pieces of architecture. Why don’t we have that today? I hear it said over and over, ‘We can’t afford it.’”

The green building rating system LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environment design) in the past has not rated historic building projects very high. Albert said it used to be that you got one LEED point for putting a bike rack in front of your building, and only one LEED point for saving a 10-story historic building.

“There was a misconception in the early beginnings with LEED point accumulation that reusing an old building was not that big a deal,” Albert said. “It really is a big deal. Plus, it is our heritage. It is part of our history.”

While it can be extremely expensive to buy new windows that look the same as old windows, Albert said he has often found old windows can be restored economically.

“In my mind what you have with an old glass window is similar to when your great aunt leaves you an antique piece of furniture,” he said. “You may never see another piece like it. It is like antique furniture; it is precious. A hundred years ago they were still learning how to make glass, and couldn’t make glass perfectly clear. That is why you can see unique wavy lines in the old glass.”

Jeff Seabold, Seabold Architecture Studio, Jackson, is a fan of historic preservation, but said old single-pane windows can be a major energy drain.

“Single-pane windows are essentially a hole in the wall,” Seabold said. “The heat leaves, and cold leaves, as well. There is not much you can do about that. Some historic districts will allow you to rehab the windows, and others will let you replace them. You can match the existing window design, but they are very, very expensive. What some people have done, and I’ve had moderate success with, is adding a piece of glass or plexiglass on the inside of the window. It is not insulated, but it tightens the window up and increases the energy efficiency.”

Outside storm windows also help with energy efficiency, but they often are not allowed in historic districts.

Albert

Today builders want to make buildings very tight, particularly LEED buildings. But that can have a downside as some research has shown that new “green” buildings can have unhealthy levels of indoor air pollutants such as formaldehyde. That can lead to what is often referred to as the “sick building syndrome.”

Seabold said the physics of older construction is that buildings were designed to leak. “They were designed to breathe,” he said. “We have lost that science.”

A lot of historic buildings don’t have any insulation, but comfort can be managed in other ways.

“Our grandparents and great grandparents were a lot smarter than we were,” Seabold said. “They didn’t go punch a button on the wall when they needed more light. They didn’t go turn a dial to make a house hotter or cooler. They knew which windows, shutters and blinds to open and close to keep out the western sun in the summer and let it in during the winter. We kind of forgot those ways to deal with the changes in the climate.”

While some ventilation is necessary and good, no one wants huge heating and cooling bills. Seabold said insulation can be added inside when interior sheeting is removed. Fiberglass insulation is added and then sheetrock installed over it. It is also possible to have cellulose insulation blown in. But he cautions about adding insulation to a wall as it can change where the dew point falls.

“You have to be very, very careful so the dew point doesn’t fall inside the insulation inside of the building,” he said.

Most older buildings don’t have the crawl space to accommodate ducts for HVAC systems. A modern, energy-efficient option known as mini split systems are something to consider.

Seabold said mini splits are an inexpensive way to have a zoned system because each unit has its own controls.

Lowered ceilings are another option to increase energy efficiency, but be careful about code considerations.

Seabold recommends dealing with licensed professionals who have experience with historic preservation.

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