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Which Is Greener: A New Building, Or An Old One?


Portland is seen, around the country, as a leader in the green building business.

Last week, the Oregon Built Environment & Sustainable Technologies Center hosted a conference with almost 100 industry leaders.

The meeting concluded with a call to locate a national Green Building Research Center in the state.

Many say now is the right time — billions of stimulus dollars are set aside for the construction of greener buildings.

But some Oregonians say government support for new buildings will encourage the destruction of old ones — a practice that may not be sustainable.

Ethan Lindsey reports.


It’s a typically gray winter day in Albany Oregon.

The dull sky provides a contrast to the deep red brick and sparkling new paint of Albany’s restored historic downtown.

Mary Oberst: “So, let’s just pause and look at this building, which is beautiful. Oh wow, look at that brickwork at the top, those are called corbles, where the brick steppes out like that.”

Mary Oberst is the first Lady of Oregon.

She has used her high profile to help advance the cause of preserving historic Oregon.

TwitterFollow OPB's Central Oregon correspondent Ethan Lindsey on Twitter.

Take the Oregon Main Street program. It’s a state project, encouraged by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

And it pushes cities to redevelop their downtown cores.

But Oberst makes clear – its about more than history.

Mary Oberst: “It is way more than that, its for life, its for living. And I totally get that, a lot of people think, ‘Oh, Mount Vernon, a restored home of an old, dead, white guy.’ No, its for vibrancy, its for life, its for the future./We’re not building museums, we’re building places to live.”

Gary Van Huffel is the state’s Main Street coordinator.

Van Huffel and Oberst say historic preservation should be a priority when spending billions in "green" stimulus money.

They say that old buildings are greener than new ones, even— new ones that wear the "green" label.

Mary Oberst: “Old buildings contain a lot of energy. It’s called embodied energy. So, when you build a building, of course, you have all the materials that go into the building. You have the energy required to make those materials, the energy required to bring them to the site, the energy required to put it all together. That’s embodied energy. If you tear down this building, you are dissipating all that energy – and you’re filling up the landfill! Not green, at all."

Gary Van Huffel: “Plus, then you have to come up with new materials for the new building to replace the old one. And of course, there’s energy required to produce those materials and bring them here, and the energy to install and build the facility.”

But, there’s another side to the argument.

Just look to downtown Portland.

The city skyline is made up of brand-new towers, including many that developers point to as examples of "green" construction.

Johanna Brickman, the director of sustainability at architectural firm ZGF, stares up at what will be her new office.

Johanna Brickman: “Well, it’s 22 floors, but standing here, you’re craning your neck to see the top of it. And only from viewing it from the north are you really going to get a sense for the scale of the wind turbines in relation to the building.”

The building, in downtown Portland, will have wind turbines with 12-foot blades, recycled storm water in the toilets, and a reduced carbon footprint.

Brickman says redesigned historic buildings are certainly one piece of the puzzle.

But with old buildings, she says there’s only so much you can do.

Johanna Brickman: “This building for example, replaces a surface parking lot, which is not the best and highest use of this property, right? The amount of cars that come off the road because we have 17 floors of people working downtown and playing downtown, it’s huge.”

Still, some advocates of historic preservation are critical of the ways that architects measure sustainable design.

They say new construction is sometimes valued over refurbishing older buildings – what's sometimes called "adaptive reuse" in the industry.

Brook Muller: “I mean, frankly, a newer building is sexier than adaptive reuse,"

Brook Muller is a professor of architecture at the University of Oregon.

He says those priorities may be changing.

Brook Muller: “Let’s take a look at the economy right now. I think there’s this belt-tightening and we’re going to see opportunities with this existing building stock that perhaps we weren’t paying as much attention to those things.”

Back in Albany, first lady Mary Oberst says, in a way, both sides are correct.

She’s all for new, green buildings.

Mary Oberst: “But if you can reuse an older building, do that.”

And in this recession, billions-of-dollars are headed to building – and rebuilding.

That’s why the debate over old versus new is getting more attention than ever.

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