Conservation Is Cool

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In my last blog, I promised to write about ten trends in the traditional building industry, which were the subject of a speech I gave recently. These trends are observations, really, based on my conversations with the readers of our magazines, visitors to our Web sites and attendees at our conferences.

The ten trends each begin with the letter “C”. Conservation. Compatibility. Content. Control. Competition. Capacity. Certainty. Choice. Cash. Confidence. I’ll start with the first one, conservation, and address the remaining nine in subsequent blogs.

Conservation is a new recession ethic, which will stay with us even after the economy improves. It not only includes the conservation of resources—sustainability, that is—but it also speaks to the way many people are thinking and feeling.

Sustainability is here to stay, especially in the non-residential building sector. Consumers are less willing to spend on green features in new houses because green standards for residential construction are confusing to homeowners and because conserving cash trumps saving the planet. But homeowners are conserving in other ways in which saving energy means saving money. Tax credits have helped. And homeowners are renovating their houses, instead of building new ones, right-sizing remodeling projects in the process and often paying cash rather than taking on another loan.

LEED is the clear standard for sustainability in non-residential building. Institutions are mandating it, including government and educational entities. The Government Services Administration (GSA), for example, employs a director of sustainability, who tells me the GSA manages 430,000 buildings and has spent $5.5 billion on green upgrades to them, thanks in part to the Economic Recovery Act.

Existing buildings in the U.S. account for 300 billion square feet, which represent an enormous amount of embodied energy. For every square foot of building material we conserve, we save about 8 gallons of gas. So, saving 300 billion square feet of existing structures equals saving nearly 2.5 trillion gallons of gas.

This is why Carl Elefante, of Quinn Evans Architects, says, “The greenest building is the one that’s already built.” Jean Carroon, of Goody Clancy Architects, adds, “Old buildings are the new economy.”

The economic downturn has forced our return to a culture of thrift. The U.S. savings rate is up to 4% (from less than zero in 2006). This manifests itself in a number of ways, including making more of what we have and even extending to a consumer behavior called “materialistic disenchantment.” One New York architect told me her wealthy clients have “luxury shame.”

The good news about conservation is that people want durable materials. Sustainability in traditional building is defined by long life. The gizmo greenies might still be wrapping skyscrapers in glass powered by HVAC systems on steroids, but the original greenies want buildings with natural materials that are often locally produced, thermal massing, operable windows, overhanging eaves and design well suited to the site.

These traditional building practices are back in vogue, even as a plethora of energy fashion products hold out the promise that bad buildings can achieve good performance.

Poverty is good for preservation, and conservation is here to stay.