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(or Anything new can do, Old can do better)

By Kathryn Rogers Merlino, Assistant Professor

American conservation efforts began in earnest during the 1970s when the phrase “Reduce, Reuse & Recycle” was first introduced.  A fact often neglected is that the slogan was actually designed as a waste hierarchy of classified management options in order of their environmental impact, created at a time when environmentalists were raising concerns about the basic practices of waste management based on our previous disposal mentality.  Reduce first, Reuse second, and Recycle third.  The concept is parallel to the concept of ‘prevention is better than the cure’ in the medical field and promotes waste avoidance first, then reuse and recycling with disposal (landfill) as a last option.

As Americans, we love to recycle.  We are proud of it, and it shows.  Great strides have been made in recycling in the U.S. over the past few decades as our recycling rates have increased from 10% in 1980 to 34% in 2010.  However, we are also consuming much more, and it shows by what we toss out into either the trash or recycling bin.  In 2010, Americans produced 4.4 pounds of waste per capita per day, compared to only 2.68 pounds per day in 1960.

So even while we are recycling much of what we do consume – up to 50% currently in Seattle –there remains great opportunity in strengthening the first two tiers of the waste hierarchy; reduce and reuse. Although recycling does keep materials out of a landfill, it does not address the root problem of consumption, and it cannot be assumed that recycling is a better alternative to waste.

Lander Hall: One of the many buildings that has disappeared around west campus.  Is demolition and reconstruction preferable to redesigning the existing?

When it comes to buildings,  recycled and salvaged materials are an excellent environmental alternative, yet there is also great opportunities for whole-building recycling;  building reuse.  Buildings are often  easily considered disposable and replaceable for something new, something different, or something ‘greener.’ Today there is an estimated 300 billion square feet of existing building stock that represent an important resource in this country, one third of which will be torn down by the year 2035, if current rates are any prediction.  If trends continue, less than half of those rebuilt will most be considered ‘green,’ which often justifies the redevelopment as one of the factors. In then end, the EPA states that an estimated 30-40% of construction and demolition (c&d)  material goes into landfill.

One alternative is to reuse our existing building stock with high performance retrofits.  Sustainably adapting existing buildings is recycling at its best . Of course new, green buildings will always be an important, yet there may be greater environmental benefit to transforming what we already have.   Building reuse along with energy efficient retrofits can reduce environmental impacts through reducing energy consumption and resource extraction, and reusing the expended resources already in place.

A 2012 study by the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab came up with this same conclusion by comparing environmental impacts of new and old construction of six building types across four climate zones.  The study found that for most building types, it takes from 10 to 80 years for a new building that is 30 percent more efficient than an average-performing existing building to overcome, through efficient operations, the negative climate change impacts related to the construction process.  The key variable centered on material choice and amounts, which suggests that design decisions are the key component for successful reuse of existing buildings that result in both energy and material savings. Choosing where and how to use materials is a critical component of design, and suggests that design is an important component in successful building reuse projects.

Around the Pacific Northwest recently,  a solid body of design work has emerged that mediates between historic preservation and sustainability in design that celebrates both old and new.  These projects fall in neither the historic nor environmental ideological camp, but in-between, carving out an architectural language of transformative design. These projects suggests that through good design, our resource of existing building stock can be transformed into renewable, resilient buildings.

New ideas with old buildings is the new preservation.   In our vast stock of existing buildings there is opportunity for us to see  existing buildings not as targets for demolition, but to view them with an eye toward reinvention.

McKinstry 2012_554
The Spokane & Inland Empire Railroad Facility (SIERR) building, now home to McKinstry, reached LEED™ Gold Certification, and is listed in both the Spokane and National Registers for Historic Preservation. McKinstry collaborated with the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation throughout the project to ensure that preservation guidelines were met, but also encouraged the Trust to move their thinking forward on the preservation benefits of energy efficiency. Some features include the full restoration of 160 windows and skylights, returning the facility to its original day-lit state.


The interior of the SIERR Building, Spokane.


The Kolstrand Building in Ballard diagram shows new structural additions to the existing building. Graham Baba architects used a variety of sustainable strategies under extremely tight budget constraints. For example, despite the water view to the west, west windows are carefully sized to reduce solar heat gain. The project creatively reused salvaged and reclaimed materials throughout the project as partitions and finishes. When the basement bathrooms were cut out of the budgets, the architecture firm spent a weekend with reclaimed materials constructing it themselves.


Upper floor office in the Kolstrand Building, Seattle.


Hotel Modera in Portland by Holst Architecture included retrofitting a 1950s motel, and reclaiming a space previously occupied by cars into a popular outdoor space for the hotel and restaurant.


Hotel Modera’s ‘living wall’ in the common space outside the entry.

Rice Fergus Miller Offices, Bremerton, Washington took an abandoned 1950s Sear’s auto center warehouse and transformed it into their office spaces. Some key features of the design included rainwater harvesting, local and FSC wood sourcing, onsite solar with more to be added, natural daylighting improvements, passive ventilation and occupant monitoring through web based dashboard system.


Interior of the Rice Fergus Miller Office with restored clerestory and a Big Ass Fan to aid in ventilation when needed.

Selected Sources:

[1] D&R International Ltd., “Buildings Energy Data Book 2011,” (U.S. Department of Energy, 2012).

[2]This number reflects material use only, and does not consider non-food or fuel resource extraction. United States Geological Society, “Factsheet FS-068-98 Materials Flow and Sustainability,”  http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/fs-0068-98/fs-0068-98.pdf.

[3] This concept of hierarchy was first introduced in European waste policy in the European Union’s Waste Framework of 1975 and formalized in 1989 in the Commission’s community strategy for Waste Management For more see, Velma I Grover, “The Waste Hierarchy,” Public Service Reviw 1, no. 55 (2006).

[4] EPA’s Solid Waste and Emergency Response Team, “Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States:Facts and Figures for 2010,” (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Protection Agency, 2011).

[5] Arthur C. Nelson, “Towards a New Metropolis: The Oppportunity to Rebuild America,” (The Brookings Insitution Metropolitan Policy Program, 2004).

[6] Environmental Protection  Agency, “Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States Facts and Figures,” (EPA, 2008).

[7] Preservation Green Lab, “The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse,” (National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2011).


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