This old house may be the greener one

The Darling House in Claremont, Calif. undergoing green renovations.

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Kai Ryssdal: In Chicago, Ill., today the talk is of kitchen countertops made from recycled soda bottles and insulation made out of old blue jeans. The Green Building conference started this morning -- the newest construction techniques and design methods that are gonna help save the planet. But there's a school of thought out there that, for buildings at least, new isn't as green as old is.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Eve Troeh reports.


Eve Troeh: The TV show "World's Greenest Homes" has the air of "The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

"The World's Greenest Homes": This 3,200-square foot weekender functions entirely on its own energy, thanks to solar power, a wind turbine and rain collection.

And that's how most people visualize a green building. Big, angular, new and armed with the latest energy technology. But some argue that's the wrong idea. Real green building looks more like this:

Bob Villa: Hi, I'm Bob Vila and welcome to "This Old House." I've got something to show ya...

Historic preservationists say renovating an old building is almost always better for the environment than framing up a new one. You don't add to sprawl by taking up more land. And, you don't waste all the energy and resources, like wood and metal, already in existing buildings. But people don't often equate old buildings with "going green."

Take Blenda Wright's historic bungalow in Claremont, Calif.

Blenda Wright: Hello, come on in.

Troeh: Thanks, and this is Greene and Greene Darling home, is that right?

Wright: The Greene and Greene Darling Wright home, it's been here since 1903.

To be clear, this Greene and Greene has no relation to today's concept of going green. At the turn of the 20th century, brothers and architects Charles and Henry Greene launched the Arts and Crafts movement. When the Wrights bought the house, they loved its built-in fixtures and old-growth wood beams -- but not the way it leaked air.

Troeh: Were you afraid that, "I'm gonna live in this drafty old house.

Wright: Yes!

Wright laughs

They hired designer Bill Baldwin to "green" the house without compromising the Greene and Greene aesthetic.

Bill Baldwin: They thought about harmony and balance and detail.

He combined that style with technology to make this the first historic home to earn a green rating from the state of California. There's no rain-collecting roof or solar panels -- that wouldn't look authentic. And besides, Baldwin aimed to prove that a "green" home doesn't have to look futuristic. He hid high-tech insulation behind the vintage wainscoting.

Baldwin: We did an inch of close-cell foam to seal it, then we...

And the warm glow from the stained glass lighting fixtures?

Baldwin: It's a flourescent light, so highly energy efficient, but until you look under the shade, you wouldn't know.

The house earned its credentials, imperceptibly.

Baldwin: The thing I'm most proud of is that you can't tell.

But that green rating important, says Scot Horst. He runs the most popular system for measuring the environmental impact of buildings. It's called LEED.

Scot Horst: Existing buildings that become LEED buildings also have a higher value, and value tends to incentivize buildings to stay around.

Meaning, they're less likely to be torn down. He says if you re-use a building, you do get points toward LEED certification. But it's a small percentage of the total points needed, says Emily Wadhams at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Emily Wadhams: We feel it sends a signal to the marketplace that reusing a building simply isn't that valuable or important.

She says it will always be easier to build in energy efficiency from scratch. But if renovation got more credit from the get-go, more people would do it. And the definition of "green building" might change from new, high-tech weekend homes to something like this...

Wadhams: The greenest building is the one that's already built.

In Los Angeles, I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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