Let’s Get Metaphysical: Considering the value of soul in redevelopment

Not so long ago, in a conversation about technology and green building, there was mention of some high-tech green building models coming out of Europe. Models that, according to reports, perform so well that even if you factor the embedded energy of a previous structure torn down to accommodate them, they still come out ahead.

That’s a potential game changer, at least in terms of selling high-tech green, and I’m not sure it’s one that I welcome.

Let me set the context a bit. In the early days of green technology, it was not uncommon — especially as it relates to marketing — to focus solely on post-construction or post-install performance. Over time, however, such claims have been taken to task. Bamboo flooring, for example, performs a lot differently if you factor in the impacts of shipping it from Asia. It may still prove to be a decent environmental choice, but it’s not necessarily a simple calculation.

This more nuanced reality eventually became the basis of what I’ve found to be the preservation movement’s most compelling point of advocacy to-date: the greenest home is the one already built.

Lasting green. Click for source.

Lasting green. Click for source.

It’s a very effective message because, more often than not, it tends to be true. If you’re measuring environmental metrics, especially the ones particularly relevant to climate change, you tend to start off well behind the 8-ball if your first step is discarding an existing structure.

That’s not to suggest that environmental measures are the only measures that matter or even that they’re the only ones that contribute to sustainability goals. Not surprisingly, the issue is a lot more complicated than that. Nonetheless, it speaks to something people can easily grasp: preservation efforts tend to be green.

Not to get sidetracked

That’s why news of these apparently super-green buildings — ones whose performance is so strong that it can even compensate for removal of an existing structure and still come out ahead — was so off-putting.

My colleague mentioned that he found the renderings to be cold and impersonal, lacking any sense of humanity or craft. That is, their factory-precision was absent any sense of soul.

Soul. Something impossible to measure but equally impossible to deny. So much so that new traditionalists like Hope for Architecture’s Clay Chapman or the Original Green’s Steve Mouzon factor it — and the affection it engenders — heavily in their views looking forward. Says Mouzon:

“The assertion that these hyper-efficient houses out-perform old but lovable buildings that were there before them is fatally flawed, because it’s assumed that the new buildings will be there for a long time. But we have too long a track record of tearing down stuff that can’t be loved as soon as we can afford to.”

For many, it’s the identifiable work of human hands and the pockmarked evidence of human habitation that, at least in part, gives soul to our structures. If you consider such soul metaphysically, you might conclude that it carries some level of inherent energy — energy not currently calculated among the materials and labor embedded within a particular building.

A more precise measure of energy

Just as we’ve come, in time, to better calculate a particular product’s green performance across its entire life cycle, maybe it’s time for the conversation to evolve even further — perhaps even into the realm of the abstract.

Would Euro-sleek, super-green modular buildings still be able to compensate for the demolition of an existing structure if we considered soul among our energy calculations?

What would be the embedded metaphysical value of assessing a piece of land, then drawing out plans rooted in centuries of architectural practice? Or the cosmic energy inherent in hand-cut beams and artful masonry? How about the soul of previous occupancy — babies born within its walls, or relationships tested and restored through the decades? What is the soulful energy measure of sorrow? Or joy?

The unmeasurable contribution of our inherent humanity might not present particular value if you consider green solely in terms of seeking balance with the earth. But what if we further consider it in terms of seeking balance with the universe? If you tear down a storied and graceful historic building — hand-built and rooted in tradition, in which generations of people have crisscrossed into and through each others lives — and replace it with a high-performance, modular gizmo-green equivalent, how much embedded energy is lost if you also count the loss of soul?

I’m inclined to think plenty.

A lose-lose?

If I’m onto something, it may be considerably more difficult than suggested for a new, gizmo-green building — no matter how well performing — to compensate for total energy lost in the demolition of an historic structure. If Mouzon’s right, the environmental performance of that same gizmo building moving forward is further in question because, as something inherently unlovable, it lacks the stuff of longevity.

If we’re both right, it’s no small blow to the idea that mass-produced, tech-based sustainability will constitute our ultimate green achievement. In the grand — perhaps universal — scheme of things, it might even constitute a distraction. What do you think?

Scott Doyon

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  1. Very interesting topic to consider. On one level I can see the point. A soul filled building that is structurally sound should have every effort possible extended to find a way to re-purpose it instead of tearing it down. But, on another level, not every soul filled building is worth keeping. For example, someone may look at a building and say quaint, pretty looking building, lets keep it. The person living there may say, that all the parts are non-standard sizes that cost a fortune to maintain and the building is impossible to properly insulate and costs a fortune to heat in the winter.

    I do think that a “practical” soul calculation is worth pursing more as well as encouraging new construction that contains some soul. It seems like too much of modern construction is about speed and profit which results in little to no soul.

    • PlaceMakers says

      Thanks, Scott. I agree and wasn’t so much suggesting that the value of “soul” be the determinant in preservation but, rather, that it become a more considered factor — one to be taken with the other factors we weigh, such as cost or practicality of renovation, environmental impacts, comfort, convenience and even property rights and personal preference. More than anything, I think the overall preservation conversation suffers when we fail to acknowledge and value some of the things we can’t necessarily measure or quantify easily (or at all).

  2. I come from a theatre-making background. Many of my ilk have always believed that we make better work in buildings with a history than in the new high tech black boxes that local governments appear to love building across the land. My favourite example of this is Peter Brook’s occupation of the Bouffes du Nord. Thoughts about to why it’s more productive to work in the old rather than the new have wide variety – largely because saying ‘it’s the vibe’ is decidedly flaky. But perhaps that says it all. Some years ago I had one of those fleeting conversations during a residential conference with a researcher from, I think, RMIT University (Melbourne) who told me that he was part of a team investigating the emanations of old buildings – not in any mystical way but as part of a physical science-based investigation. I have not been able to find any record of this research since. There is something in this.

  3. George Siekkinen says

    An interesting essay and one that I find worthy of some thought. In considering the energy and resources equations for an existing building versus an entirely new building, I am drawn to the fact that the existing building was created at some point in the past and the energy and resource consumed for its construction are essentially “old” and I would think the climate impact factors from construction are essentially “old”; regarding an entirely new building and its construction, its impact is all brand new energy and resource consumption and brand new climate changing factors. I think the major point is that we need to put the “brakes on hard stop” regarding new climate changing factors. Given all this, I always try to think of an existing building first before considering new construction.

    What follows are some comments I submitted regarding the Pocantico Proclamation on sustainability and historic preservation some months ago:

    “…As a template for my decision-making, I have composed the several lines that follow. These can be adjusted and changed in working through a decision tree, but the end goals should remain the same in conserving natural resources and reducing fossil fuel consumption.

    “Every decision and action regarding the existing environment of buildings, infrastructure, and cultural landscapes considers the impacts on climate change and resource consumption.

    Before I consider building something new, I will try to find something existing that would serve the purpose or could be changed or expanded with minimal efforts and resources or consider whether the purpose and needs could be modified to fit what I have found.

    If I can not find something existing that will serve the needs I have, I will look for vacant or brownfield land in an existing community and work with that land in a careful and respective manner for its conditions and its context.

    If there is no vacant land within an existing community, I will look to existing developed land and determine if new activities can be added to that site without over-burdening it or if what exists there now is beyond its useful life and can be recycled.

    If the developed land has building stock of a low density and if it is within an urban context and has new infrastructure nearby that would support a higher density, I will consider whether there is a greater good to be achieved in recycling the low density existing building stock and redeveloping this site for a higher density.

    If there is no such vacant, brownfield, or developed land within an existing community that would serve the need I have, then I will look for land immediately adjacent to the community where such new infrastructure and change would be appropriate and would not degrade valuable natural resources.

    If there is no adjacent land, then I would try to find land currently with or planned for linking infrastructure to an existing community where the existing land is such that change in use would be considered appropriate and important natural resource values would not be lost.

    If I could not find such land and needed a free-standing site for the needs at hand, I would look for a brownfield site that could be developed and consider how to minimize the energy and resources needed to service it.

    Every I decision I make and the actions I do are evaluated against the template of how can I minimize my climate change impact and natural resource consumption.”

  4. Very interesting thinking. And there are many structures that have more character than anything that can be built new. That said it is costly to bring an old building up to code approved standards and as a result the price tag often becomes the decision maker. All that said I believe sometimes we invest to much thinking and dollars into preservation. How many buildings are here today from 300 years ago? How many buildings here today will be here 300 years from now?

  5. Troy Farwell says

    I think in the best of situations, our homes should bring us joy in good times and support in the bad ones. That being said, I think we should also strive to keep our footprints as small as possible for the good of all – not just for the good of people, but for all living things.

    I would never live in a new uber-euro-box. I like to live in my older home with my windows open, dogs running in and out, kids underfoot, friends always showing up. I like to have at least one renovation project going on – always making some change. Triple-pane glass and air exchangers won’t do me much good. The “life” or “soul” I want in my home isn’t very compatible with those solutions. We lived in a new, very efficient home for a while, and eventually found it unsatisfying.

    That being said, I want to be a good citizen of the earth – also a spiritual pursuit. So I have a 10kV PV array and auxiliary heat with wood pellets (I live in Oregon). With going to all LED lighting, hybrid water heaters and improved insulation, I’m getting really close to net-zero. We plan on living here for a long time – hopefully 20 more years.

    My point: Our spiritual needs and available technology do have intersection areas. They don’t have to be exclusive, and they won’t always match. For me, the path is to try to make thoughtful decisions.

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