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What It Means to Be Green

There’s a lot of talk these day about being environmentally “green”. So, what does it all mean and why should we care?

Well, we apparently do care. Gallup’s annual environmental poll in April 2008 showed that 83% of Americans reported they have made either major or minor changes in their lifestyles to protect the environment. 55% of this number was categorized as “minor changes” but it still astonishes me how far we’ve come.

Let’s be clear, nothing is greener than an old house or building. All of the quality material and labor that went into building existing structures has already been spent. In other words, the natural gas, oil & coal used to make the electricity to run the machines to fabricate the wood, stone, brick, concrete, shingles and glass has already been used.

By recycling, renovating, or finding a new use for an older structure, we are using a tiny percentage of the fuels it took to make that house in the first place. The primary goal of being green is to use products that: use the fewest fossil fuels to make, transport and operate; recycle existing materials; pollute the least; create the fewest health risks; last the longest (sustainability).

What’s fascinating about this is you’d think the green movement in America was a new idea. To the contrary, our historic preservation movement started it well over over fifty years ago. Both a desire to save our architectural heritage and just plain old cost effective, self sufficiency were and are the driving forces behind our main preservation ethic of saving and thereby recycling the original materials in our existing built environment. We’re grateful USGBC and it’s LEED rating program have finally joined our green movement and wish them great success.

What could possibly be more green than retaining original old growth wood windows, siding, trim, doors and flooring by continuing their use and keeping them out of our bloated landfills? The replacement window industry calculates they do about 8 billion dollars a year in gross business. Based on this number I calculate over 11 million wood window sashes made from precious old growth trees, needlessly end up in our landfills yearly.

New, less harmful techniques in cost effective lead paint removal, window restoration and weatherizing are starting to make a dent in the way LEED is rating existing and historic structures.

The least green endeavor is to build a new structure. New products by their very nature are rarely green. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t build new and innovative architecture but we need to re-evaluate some of the more common materials in our lives.

For instance, polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl). This plastic is in our cars, flooring, windows, siding, wallpaper, shower curtains, blinds, bathtubs, plumbing pipe, children’s toys and carpet to name a few. Yet, it is one of the least green materials on the planet. It takes petroleum (oil) and chlorine to make this product. The manufacturing process is highly polluting and toxic to living beings.

The center for Health, Environment and Justice has this to say, “PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic, commonly referred to as vinyl, is one of the most hazardous consumer products ever created. PVC is dangerous to human health and the environment throughout its entire life cycle, at the factory, in our homes, and in the trash. Our bodies are contaminated with poisonous chemicals released during the PVC lifecycle, such as mercury, dioxins, and phthalates, which may pose irreversible life-long health threats. When produced or burned, PVC plastic releases dioxins, a group of the most potent synthetic chemicals ever tested, which can cause cancer and harm the immune and reproductive systems.”

For years a small group of preservationist have been quietly, and not so quietly, restoring thousands of historic windows as well as training others how to do it. This has been mostly met with a collective yawn until recently. The National Trust has now decided that because window restoration is “green” they are going to finally get on board and really promote this essential aspect of preservation. Whatever the motive, we welcome you into the fold.

Finally, when old & historic property owners repair original materials instead of replacing them, they define what it truly means to be “green”.