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Photo Credit: Detroit Urban Preservationists

The activity of historic preservation is being used across the country to drive growth in the economy, provide better access to jobs and ladders to opportunity, and to foster sustainability. If these outcomes sound familiar to you, they should. They are on the core list of objectives for Columbus as a SMART City Challenge winner. Let us take a closer look at each of these objectives and how they can be successfully met through the activity of historic preservation.

Smart City objective #1: Drive growth in the economy and Smart City objective #2: Provide better access to jobs and ladders of opportunity

To understand the role preservation activities play in economic growth we have to look closely at the data revealing the relationship between existing, older building stock and jobs. Even more important to our future as a city of diversity, tolerance, and opportunity, we have to look at the relationship between women and minority-owned businesses and existing, older building stock.

The Atlas of Re-Urbanism, produced by the Preservation GreenLab (launched by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2009) has created an analysis of building stock across the City of Columbus. The Atlas assigns a ‘character score’ to existing building stock across the city, high character being defined as older, smaller, mixed-age buildings. A low character score refers to areas with large, new structures. The Atlas then isolates critical data associated with high character building stock that provides us with valuable metrics when evaluating the true value of older, often historic building stock to our economy, our future growth potential and quality of life.

  • Here in Columbus, blocks of older, smaller, mixed-age buildings contain 43% MORE jobs in small businesses and more than twice as many women and minority-owned businesses than areas with low character scores.
  • High character score building stock contains 25,421 total jobs in small businesses vs. 17,737 in low character building stock.
  • High character building stock contains 21,293 total jobs in creative industries vs. 17,704 in low character building stock.

Seeing that the existence of older, smaller, mixed-use building stock plays such a crucial role in providing support to minority and women-owned businesses, and those in the creative sector (providing affordable ‘incubator’ space for entrepreneurs and start-ups), we can begin to see how protecting and sustaining such building stock drives future growth in our local economy.

Now that we understand the economic value of high character building stock to future growth in Columbus, the research also indicates a looming threat to our future growth: We currently have a limited supply of high character score building stock. 

Only 25.1% of Columbus building stock was constructed pre-1945. Only one-quarter of our building stock has the potential of a high character score! This clearly has the potential to directly impact our ability to provide affordable, unique spaces for emerging small and minority-owned businesses going forward, based on the data.

When we consider the future of Columbus, it is clear that building stock constructed pre-1945 and containing a high character score, form the building blocks for an inclusive, diverse, economically vibrant city, attributes we proudly profess here on a daily basis. Columbus’s high character score building stock, the preservation of such, is the key to sustaining our future by creating pathways for ‘kitchen table’ start-ups to gain a foothold, perhaps becoming the next L-Brands, the next Cardinal Health, the next successful national franchise or simply the beginning of a multi-generational small family business, rooted right here in our hometown.

Driving economic growth is a key objective of our SMART City. Preserving our limited supply of existing, high character building stock drives economic growth.

Now let us look at preservation and the Smart City objective #3: Foster sustainability.

First, with the often broad and confusing definitions applied to the term ‘sustainability’, let us agree that when we are speaking in terms of our existing buildings, ‘sustainability’ is best defined as the desired outcome of policies and practices aimed at reducing the built environments environmental impact over time.

If we are to measure the environmental impacts of our activities surrounding the built environment as a community, we must assess the environmental costs from three vantage points:

  •  Those associated with new construction (low character score building stock);
  • Those associated with restoration/retrofitting of existing building stock (high character score building stock);
  •  Those associated with the demolition of existing building stock. (loss of high character building stock)

It is widely thought that new construction is more energy-efficient and therefore more desirable than existing building stock from a sustainability viewpoint. This is an illusion. The data says so.

Let’s go full science, consider this: the carbon footprint of a typical German Village two-story, two-bedroom cottage if newly constructed today is approximately 80 tonnes (176,400 lbs) CO2e (CO2e, or carbon dioxide equivalent, is a standard unit for measuring carbon footprints. The idea is to express the impact of each different greenhouse gas in terms of the amount of CO2 that would create the same amount of warming). The upfront emissions from construction work take anywhere from 10 to 25+ years to be paid back in energy efficiencies of a new build. However, If one chooses to retrofit the same size existing home to create equivalent energy efficiencies found in a new build, the carbon cost is dramatically reduced to just 8 tonnes (17,640 lbs.) CO2e. To retrofit existing is the smart (SMART!) choice.

Imagine these numbers if we extrapolate them out and apply them to larger existing pre-1945 commercial ‘high character score’ building stock in Columbus. The result gives us a much more informed set of metrics when we consider the value of our existing building stock, including our designated historic structures, over new construction here in Columbus. Inversely, it magnifies the true cost we incur when we approve demolition of what remains of our high character score building stock. To do so not only inhibits our future economically (see above), but exponentially increases our carbon impacts. The very opposite of our Smart City objectives!

 Let’s dig into this just a little bit further. The term ‘embodied energy’ has been around for a long time. It refers to ‘the sum of all the energy required to extract, process, deliver, and install the materials needed to construct a building’. The research upon which almost all U.S. embodied-energy applications are based is a report created in 1976 entitled: Energy Use for Building Construction.

 The idea is that each existing building represents an energy cost that was incurred at the time of its construction. Additional research since 1976 allows us to now measure that cost in terms of environmental impact. The beauty of this is that we can analyze an existing building, say a typical German Village cottage and quantifiable measure what its construction cost was in terms of carbon footprint at the time of its construction.

Where this becomes relevant to the environmental impacts of the activity of historic preservation is this: an existing building, no matter the size, represents an investment creating embodied energy that has been made and has been recovered over the lifespan of that building. When we conduct a demolition of that building we lose the value of that investment. Completely. Worse, should that building be replaced with new construction, we incur a new embodied energy cost associated with that new construction, and the task of recovering that cost begins all over.

The most recent data available indicates that 534 million tons of construction and demolition debris was generated in the United States in the 2014 calendar year, more than twice the amount of municipal solid waste. Most important to our discussion is this: of that 534 tons, 90% is demolition debris while only 10% is construction debris. The burden demolition places on our solid waste landfills must be a consideration in a SMART city.

In addition, when we think of sustainability within the frame of actual building materials, it is a fact that the greenest buildings are in most cases the oldest buildings. There are two substances that may require remediation: lead and asbestos. The technology to encapsulate both have rendered them less of an obstacle to re-use of a building. Using German Village as an example, the materials used in the original construction of the typical home were not only predominately locally sourced, requiring little transportation cost (low-carbon impact), but raw, natural materials such as wood, stone, and slate.

When we consider the manufacturing processes of materials used in new construction, we encounter not only increased environmental cost but increased toxicity. Witness the cancer plumes downstream of vinyl production facilities in southern Louisiana and the known release of the carcinogen dioxin when vinyl is involved in a fire.

When we conduct a demolition in Columbus, we lose far more than an old building.

When we frame the concept of a demolition of existing and replacement with new construction in terms of potential economic growth and environmental impacts, we get a very clear, if not alarming understanding of the costs we are paying. It simply does not square for a Smart City to actively participate in un-smart preservation.

Columbus is seeking to attract the emerging demographic in growing a vibrant and diverse city. We must consciously work to provide live and workspaces that meet the value systems of that demographic. We must re-cycle our built environment, minimize our carbon impacts, and provide the psychological comfort and support found in time-tested architecture, rooted in shared history. This is critical to maintaining the quality of life in an urban environment, the primary goal of the SMART City challenge. But how? Here are some ideas:

  •  Buildings must be recycled.

Incentivize adaptive reuse and ‘sweat-equity’ commercial space for entrepreneurs, start-ups and small business incubators.

  • Emulate existing successful models.

Adaptive re-use examples that provide economic footholds for emerging new businesses. Detroit’s Packard Plant -A phased adaptive reuse of a 3.5 million sq. ft. industrial space; Rust Belt Market -A former manufacturing space adaptively reused as an artisan market; Budd Dairy -A local adaptive reuse project supporting small food vendors.

  • Develop baseline metrics for determining the true cost of demolition and replacement with new construction.

Develop protocol analysis of embodied energy in existing structures; obtain metrics on carbon cost of proposed replacement new construction and anticipated carbon recovery, stated in years. Demolition must be measured in carbon impacts with threshold requirements established in order to minimize both short and long-term environmental impacts, including landfill use. It is likely that when evaluated from a purely environmental impact analysis, the majority of demolitions of high character score buildings would be denied solely on the merit of the data.

  •  Promote and encourage the integration of existing building stock into new development.

This is not only a sustainability win but a winning strategy as we strive to attract new and vibrant businesses, led by socially, environmentally and culturally conscious individuals. Stated simply: nobody wants to be part of the problem, smart preservation facilitates being part of the solution.

 Demolition: It Is Not Just About Carbon Impacts

Cities contain two types of citizens, one perishable, the other not; One of flesh and bone, human citizens, and one of stone and steel, structural citizens. The flesh and bone citizen creates ‘city’ through daily behavior. The structural citizen represents the space in which these behaviors are facilitated, protected and sustained, across generations. Both exist in density.

Removing our high character score structural citizens, the very entities that physically define this place as unique, the physical presence that allows each and every one of us to benefit from their reliable presence in an unreliable world, put bluntly, is a form of urban suicide.*

Replacing such with the nothingness of surface parking lots, geography-of-nowhere generic architecture or replicable franchise’ does nothing to support a psychologically healthy environment for the flesh and bone citizens of a city. Instead, they reinforce the dilution of our sense of identity, the very stripping of our sense of uniqueness, forcing us into a bland conformity, void of any thread of relationship with our own recent and not so recent heritage. A citizenry that does not know where it is from will surely never know where it is going. To steal the past from a community inevitably results in the theft of its future.

Finally, the psychological response of the generation raised in non-descript ticky-tacky is to avidly seek out authenticity in all forms. If we choose to remove through demolition our opportunities for authenticity in the built environment, we will surely fall short of our goal as a SMART City to improve the quality of life for our current and future residents.

The activity of historic preservation, the recycling, and retrofitting of pre-existing, high character score buildings, fully supports the objectives of our SMART City initiative. Let’s work together to fully integrate preservation into this effort.


-Nancy Kotting

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*Note: The city of Columbus conducted 299+ demolitions in 2017. Many of these were deteriorated and dangerous residential structures and demolitions were required in the interest of public safety.