Columbia Law School Center for Climate Change Law: Report Quantifies the Environmental Value of Building Reuse

Columbia Law School Center for Climate Change Law


Cullen Howe   By J. Cullen Howe, Environmental Law Specialist, Arnold & Porter LLP

Recently, the Preservation Green Lab of the National Trust for Historic Preservation issued a report that confirms the environmental benefit of building reuse.  The report concludes, among other things, that it can take between 10 to 80 years for a new energy efficient building to overcome the climate change impacts created by its construction.  The study finds that the majority of building types in different climates will take between 20-30 years to compensate for the initial carbon impacts from construction.  Thus, the study confirms that reusing and retrofitting existing buildings with an average level of energy performance almost always offers environmental savings over demolition and energy efficient new construction.

The report examines four environmental impact categories - climate change, human health, ecosystem quality, and resource depletion - and six building types:  single-family residential, multifamily residential, commercial office, urban village mixed-use building, elementary school, and warehouse conversion. The report used four cities - Portland, Phoenix, Chicago, and Atlanta - to represent different climate zones.

While the savings may be small on a building-by-building basis, they can be substantial when scaled across an entire metropolitan area.  For example, the report finds that if Portland were to retrofit single-family homes and commercial office buildings that it is otherwise likely to demolish over the next 10 years, the potential CO2 reduction would total approximately 231,000 metric tons, approximately 15% of their county's total CO2 reduction targets over the next decade.

While there seems to be a preference for new energy efficient buildings as a way to reduce energy use, this report shows that the greenest building may be the one that is already built.

Historic Buildings in Urban Setting

Reprinted with permission from Green Building Law Update Service.

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J. Cullen Howe is an environmental law specialist at Arnold & Porter LLP. Much of Cullen's work focuses on climate change, where he attempts to educate lawyers and the public at large on the enormous cooperation necessary to adequately address this problem. In addition to his work on climate change, Cullen is the managing editor of Environmental Law in New York, edits the Environmental Law Practice Guide, Brownfields Law and Practice, the Environmental Impact Review in New York, and has drafted chapters in the Environmental Law Practice Guide on climate change and green building. Mr. Howe is a graduate of Vermont Law School, where he was the managing editor of the Vermont Law Review, and a graduate of DePauw University, where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

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