Saw the New Page about Recycling Buildings

by Viva

Visitor Question: I was doing a search and I found the page about recycling buildings. I guess it is new because when I was doing a paper about this topic last semester, I didn't find it. The question I still wonder is whether the energy cost of converting a building isn't pretty high. Most people, when they do a building over, want amenities like granite counters and things, but stone is pretty heavy to transport. What is your answer to that?

Editors' Reply: Yes, the page is new. Your point is a good one, in that people could recycle a building in a way that is very environmentally unfriendly. They could add cabinets, paints, and carpets that are newly manufactured and that produce unhealthy toxins. They could purchase many furnishings or decorative items that were transported to the site through the use of plenty of fuel.

However, in general, the use of an older building saves considerable energy. Remember that the demolition of older buildings subtracts from the life of sanitary landfills, and requires energy to haul away the debris.

Then when we consider the energy required to produce and bring new materials to the site for complete new construction, the energy burden is substantial. A granite countertop or two won't shift the equation, even if the mining, transport, and finishing were energy-intensive.

We hope that with the emphasis on green construction and sustainability in general, people would seek furnishings and fixtures that have been made from recycled materials, which may be difficult or easy depending on the item.

But it's becoming quite easy to use low-VOC paints, which release far fewer toxins into the air in the first few months of the life of the painted surface. (VOC stands for volatile organic chemicals.)

Carpeting and countertops made of recycled materials now are becoming readily available. When a material is recycled, generally at least it represents a lesser use of energy than manufacturing something new.

Granted, it's possible that some supposedly green products required just as much energy use, or even more, than a non-recycled product. At this stage of our development, it's appropriate to be skeptical and ask questions.

Then another aspect of your question is taking into account the energy usage in the first few years that the building is used.

Newer heating and cooling systems in the U.S. are much more efficient than those that are ten years old. Mostly because of laws, new appliances also are most energy-efficient.

But thanks for the thoughtful question about recycling buildings through re-using the building for a purpose similar to its previous use. This contrasts with adaptive reuse of older buildings into a different land use that is more economically feasible.

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