If recycling 1,344,000 aluminum cans matters…

Posted June 4th, 2015 by maryalbro and filed in Executive Director's Blog



The 2005 demolition of the J. Allen Smith House in Knoxville, TN (shown above) inspired a successful historic properties redevelopment program there


The 1772 Foundation has remained committed to historic properties redevelopment programs (revolving funds) making fourteen grants, totaling $867,400 in 2014.  Another eighteen already have been awarded in 2015, totaling $998,000.

Our belief in the multiplier effect of revolving funds remains strong.  And, we have come to understand that engaging in this type of proactive preservation does more than increase the capacity of an historic preservation group to protect more square feet or a greater number of buildings.  Historic properties work brings new people and new energy to our cause.  By being in the fray, we open doors that have been closed for too long in our field.  We begin to matter to a broader audience.

For one thing, being truly active in communities brings historic preservationists into the robust world of environmental activism.  We all know, as preservationists, that the greenest building is one that is already built. When a revolving fund saves a building, like the Anna Clapp Harris House in Boston, it has made an environmentally correct choice.

Donovan Rypkema, principal at Place Economics in Washington, DC, states it this way in his excellent piece: Economics, Sustainability and Historic Preservation:

“In the United States, we collect almost one ton of solid waste per person annually. Around a fourth of the material in solid waste facilities is construction debris, much of that from the demolition of older and historic buildings. We all diligently recycle our Coke cans. It’s a pain in the neck, but we do it because it’s good for the environment. Here is a typical building in an American downtown – 25 feet wide and 120 feet deep. Today we tear down one small building like this in your downtown. We have now wiped out the entire environmental benefit from the last 1,344,000 aluminum cans that were recycled. We’ve not only wasted an historic building, we’ve wasted months of diligent recycling by the people of your community.”

In 2009, Historic Boston restored the Anna Clapp Harris House in Dorchester with help from the North Bennet Street School.  The Sustainability Lab at MIT chose to measure the carbon impact of this particular restoration- would it have been greener to tear down this historic building and replace it with a supposedly green building- gold or platinum LEED-certified?  The answer was surprising and can be seen in the YouTube post “HBI Carbon Calculator” that uses the Anna Clapp Harris House for its case study.  The study finds that the “point of indifference” or the point where the new green building would actually be more environmentally friendly is nearly a century.  There is a lot of embodied energy in historic structures but we, as preservationists, have not been successful at making this connection for our colleagues in related fields.

We have seen that, when historic preservationists move into proactive properties work, they are able to cross-pollinate their efforts to save beautiful historic properties with other groups whose goals clearly overlap with ours.  For instance, Smart Growth activists believe in precisely what environmentalists and historic preservationists do- walkable cities, using resources wisely, places with a “sense of place” and compact built design.  The opportunities for collaboration between these fields are astonishing.

The positive impact preservation-minded developers have had on historic structures alone is enough to warrant 1772’s continued interest and funding, but we have been equally inspired by the opportunities that become available when preservationists become more integrated with our sister fields of smart growth and environmentalism.  We have a very deep need for this hybrid vigor in our field.

We all know “old buildings matter.”  Saying this isn’t enough.  Active historic real estate work, especially when carried out in cooperation with our colleagues in the environmental and smart growth fields, brings new energy and vitality to our work.  It shows why historic buildings matter to all of us, not just those who call themselves preservationists.  Our friends who care about the environment, walkable cities and thoughtful urban landscapes do not typically call themselves historic preservationists.  We hope that our ongoing commitment to proactive historic properties efforts will show how preservation matters to all of us and how it can serve our common goals.