The ultimate in 'green' construction

Preserving buildings saves more than just resources

What’s the greenest way to build? Using natural, renewable resources? Using salvaged building materials? Or using the same stuff you’ve always used, but which some corporate PR firm has managed to repackage as "green"?

These are all ways to profess greenness, some effective, some merely gestural. But by far the greenest way to build is to adapt structures that already exist — and that’s one avenue in which we Americans still fall woefully short.

We are, after all, a young nation built largely from scratch, and we consider it normal for our built environment to be constantly in flux. Here, it’s common for buildings to be destroyed after 50, 30 or even 10 years of use — and in the face of rapid social change, the expected life of new buildings will likely get shorter rather than longer.

One study has pegged the average lifespan of American buildings at just shy of 50 years. Compare this to the Old World, where a building’s life is measured in centuries rather than decades. The average life of an English building, for example, is 132 years. The typical lifespan of buildings on mainland Europe is probably even longer if we discount the effects of two world wars.