Traditional Building

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My first blog entry sparked some interesting responses from friends and acquaintances in the trades as well as trades education. My favorite came from Simeon Warren, dean of the American College of the Building Arts. He related what one of his students said: "We are not trying to preserve the buildings. We are trying to preserve the trades." From one perspective it's marvelous to hear that from a college student, but from another it's a grim reminder of a truth that is so embedded in our culture that it's invisible for the most part – that traditional buildings are easily recognized while traditional building is not.

Rather than getting bogged down in semantics, let me explain what I mean. Last summer, I was lucky enough to be involved in a hands-on field school, a collaboration between the Preservation Trades Network and the University of Florida, in the Holy Cross historic district in New Orleans. We had eight graduate students, all of whom were in academic preservation-based programs. Part of the field school dealt with sustainability, and we had the opportunity to work on houses owned by the Preservation Resource Center that were being restored with a focus on making them "greener." Having had way too much input from the "green" movement and wishing there were a greater understanding of the importance of sustainability by the use of traditional materials and methods, I took the opportunity to present my thoughts to the students.

The houses we were working in retained their original double-hung wooden windows, and most of them hadn't had any real maintenance for years, maybe decades. The glazing compound was dried and cracked or missing, the panes were loose or broken and the wood was missing most of its paint. I asked the students what they thought should be done with them to make these houses "greener." Without exception, they said the windows should be replaced with new energy-efficient windows. We discussed the fact that these new "green" windows would very likely be made of toxic vinyl (the standard big-box fare typically being used in the Katrina recovery efforts) and that there would be carbon impacts attached to both the manufacturing of the new window as well as placing the old one in the waste stream. We talked about what would need to be done to the new windows in 20 to 30 years in the harsh New Orleans climate; they would more than likely need to be replaced because they couldn't be restored, and now we had two more carbon impacts to deal with.

One of the students asked what the alternative to this endless cycle was, and I suggested that maybe we should consider restoring the old windows now and then restoring them again when they needed it since they could be rebuilt because they were made of wood. They agreed that if that could be done, it probably was more environmentally responsible, and that when the cost of the replacement windows (you know why they're called replacement windows, right?) was figured in and added to the cost of the energy in manufacturing and transporting them, it was likely the new windows weren't really "greener" than the old ones. I asked: "Why do you think people replace the old windows instead of restoring them?" Because that's what they know how to do.

Now I'm sure I'm going to get some flak from someone about the fact that not all replacement windows are toxic and that good wooden windows are available, and I will agree completely. My point is the knowledge to restore old windows is not a commodity like the ability to razor knife a new "flanged" window out of a cardboard box and slap it in the hole where a historic window used to be is. The existence of the "holistic" tradesperson, as my red mason friend Gerard Lynch reminds me, is not something that most people realize was a part of who we were only a few generations ago when rebuilding windows was common practice. Why is that? Good question, and one I will discuss in my next blog.