Sunday, October 30, 2005

Eminent Domain, Embodied Energy, Sustainability, Design Standards

Preservation North Carolina held its annual conference in Gastonia and Shelby, NC this week, with a strong emphasis on the adaptive re-use of North Carolina's many disused mills.

I was only able to attend for one day of what looked like a great program, and only attended a session on Historic district Commissions run by Richard Dunker of the Institute of Government at UNC-CH, and a great lecture by Donovan Rypkema.

Here's the most interesting stuff I learned.

Most interesting public-policy fact: historic preservation & eminent domain

Municipalities in NC have the power under state law to use eminent domain in order to prevent historic buildings from being destroyed. So, for example, the city of Greensboro could buy the historic house on N. Elm Street that First Presbyterian Church plans to tear down in order to build a parking lot.

As if.

Most interesting idea: embodied energy

Rypkema briefly outlined the notion of "embodied energy" -- shorthand way of referring to all the energy that went into the making of a structure at all stages.

For example, an abandoned old mill has a tremendous amount of embodied energy, if you consider the energy that went into the making, transporting, and arrangement of the bricks; the growth, cutting, drying, transportation, and fitting of the timbers; the clearing and preparation of the site, the mining, transport, smelting, forging of metal pieces, etc. etc. etc.

Rypkema's point is that buildings -- even old ones -- are huge sinks of energy, and that's one reason it's often -- almost always -- more economical to rehabilitate them than it is to tear them down and rebuild them.

Contractors and builders will rarely admit this, however, because they can't make money from embodied energy: their profits depend upon the expenditure of more energy.

New buildings, Rypkema pointed out, are almost always constructed of materials such as plastic, steel, etc., that require more energy to manufacture than do their old-fashioned counterparts.

Window restorers like David Hoggard might want to use this concept in persuading people not to replace their old windows. Lots of people want to do so for environmental reasons; they don't want to waste energy in heating and cooling. David can now argue that (1) not only can he make their old windows weather-tight, but (2) they will be saving the considerably energy used in manufacturing / transporting new windows.

Best formulation: Sustainability

From Rypkema: "The ability to meet our own needs without prejudicing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

I like it because it makes clear that sustainable building and development isn't just for Birkenstock-wearing environmentalists.

Most surprising fact

North Carolina has over 60 cities that have historic preservation programs, and the number is growing. Richard Dunker says that he thinks the next big trend will be the adoption of design or appearance standards in cities. Many cities have already done so.

City council district 4 candidate Mike Barber might want to take note of this trend, since his campaign platform is based on getting rid of the minimal design and landscape standards that Greensboro now has.

I'm tempted to say that Mike's motto for Greensboro would be, "Come to Greensboro and build as ugly as you like!" but that would be a little unfair. I know Mike wants to make Greensboro "business friendly," and so do I.

Maybe the difference between us is that not only do I want Greensboro to be business-friendly, I also want businesses to be Greensboro-friendly, and I think we have the right and responsibility to ask -- even require -- that they do so.

1 comment:

russ said...

I like the "embodied energy" concept. It reminds me of a similar way of explaining why we value certain animals (for instance, a large predator like a lion, or a whale) more than others (like a rabbit or a mouse). It is not because of what the animal can provide, but because of the resources that the animal requires. The more they require, the more we value the animal (or house, or whatever).