Is it possible to create a sustainable old house? The common perception might be that only the newest technology and recycled materials makes for a sustainable home. We’ve probably all been in drafty old homes with inefficient heating that are not energy-efficient. However there is more to sustainability than a narrow focus on heating efficiency, a problem that can be easily corrected. And new products are not necessarily more sustainable than the materials already in use in vintage homes.
There are many aspects of sustainable design and all should be considered when evaluating a home’s level of sustainability. LEED for Homes, probably the best known certification program for sustainable homes, has 8 different categories that can contribute the points needed for certification. Two of these categories, “Location & Linkages” and “Materials and Resources” usually provide an advantage to the old home.
“Locations & Linkages” awards points for locations that have been previously developed or are adjacent to previously developed locations. Points are given for locations that are within 1/2 mile of exist water and sewer lines. Locations that are close to community resources such as stores, restaurants, churches and even open spaces also earn points. All are intended to encourage compact neighborhoods where residents are less dependent on automobiles and are more likely to walk or use mass transit thereby reducing their energy use.
Old houses usually score highly in this area while new homes are usually built farther out or require demolition of an older home. Old houses are usually located in older neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are usually in the denser parts of town. They were designed at a time when a personal automobile wasn’t the primary means of transportation so neighborhood amenities such as parks and stores are more likely to be within walking distance. They are also more likely to have better access to public transportation. Since these location characteristics typically result in shorter, or even fewer, automobile trips as well as more travel by foot or bicycle, less energy is used for day-to-day travel and less pollution is also the result.
“Materials and Resources” has a focus on the material resources used in the construction of a home as well as limiting emissions from the materials. The focus is on reducing materials use by using recycled content, reducing waste, or by simply using less. The energy used in the manufacture and transport of the material is also considered.
In all these areas an existing house will always be better than a new house. The materials in an old home are “recycled” through continued use of the home. Energy for transportation is zero because the materials are already where they are needed. Even if the materials released emissions when new the release has long since ended. And no new materials are used because the materials are already in place in the old house.
All of the materials and products in a home require energy in their production and transport. Energy is also expended assembling these materials and products into a building. This energy, referred to as embodied energy, has already been expended in the creation of an existing home and to not continue to use that home is a waste of energy in the same way that heat escaping through an uninsulated wall is a waste of energy. Worse yet is when a building is torn down since all the embodied energy is lost when the demolition debris are sent to a landfill and additional energy is spent in the demolition and transportation. Clearly maintaining, updating, and even expanding old houses saves more energy then starting over and building new.
Want a sustainable home? The best starting place is an old home. Then, to the extent possible, improve the technology of the home with better insulation and a high-efficiency HVAC upgrade. While it’s possible to build a new home that might use less energy than an old home, when all is considered, it would be difficult to be more sustainable overall than an old home.