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Why Existing Buildings Matter in a Sustainable Future

Transforming old spaces is a bonus for the tenants, the community, and the planet

The greenest building is… one that is already built.

Carl Elefante, the former president of the American Institute of Architects

In 2007, Carl Elefante, the former president of the American Institute of Architects, wrote those words. They’ve since become a rally cry in the world of sustainability. For those looking to spark conversation about climate change and livable communities, the use of existing buildings is a key talking point. Buildings are more than their four walls and a roof. More than their monetary value. Buildings tell stories. They hold opportunity. They shape our communities.

Take a look at an organization like The National Trust for Preservation. They’re dedicated to preserving historic places because they believe these structures are key to a sustainable future. Their research shows that preserving these buildings unlocks huge potential while improving health, affordability, and well-being at the same time.  

New construction and the environment

A staggering 1 billion square feet of buildings are demolished to make way for new builds every year. While new buildings can look and feel good, they come at a high cost to the planet. The construction industry is the number one consumer of global raw materials.  It produces 40% of solid waste in the United States. Every year North America generates 100 million tons of construction waste. 

Even if you try to build sustainably, new energy efficiencies can be misleading. Preservation Green Lab’s study, The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse shows this. A new building that is 30% more efficient than average will take 10 to 80 years to overcome the negative climate change aspects of its construction.3 That’s an awfully long time.

Combatting these troubling statistics isn’t impossible. Prefabricated construction technology moves part of the building process from the field to the factory. In a controlled environment, precise measurements minimize offcuts. Then when elements are assembled in the field, there is virtually zero waste. When you take the sustainable aspects of off-site construction and pair it with the environmental potential of existing buildings, something amazing can happen.

Existing buildings make strong neighborhoods

Old buildings provide cultural touchpoints. They give neighborhoods a sense of character and identity. As National Trust writes, they bring a sense of stability in an ever changing world.” Office design and furniture company Henriksen/Butler experienced this firsthand. They used DIRTT to transform what had been the legendary Gambler’s Bookshop into their new design studio. Though it had been neglected for years, the building carried intriguing stories of high rollers coming in for the latest news. Stories intrinsically linked to Las Vegas’s history.

Henriksen/Butler updated the Gambler’s Bookshop in Vegas

IMAGE CREDIT: Nicholas Swan

“If we hadn’t taken over, the building would have been brought down,” says Heather Bressler, VP Henriksen/Butler Nevada. The stories would have come right down with it.

As Henriksen/Butler began to invest in this neglected building, the rest of the not-so-great neighborhood followed suit. As properties raised their game, the neighborhood began to evolve.

That brings us to economics. Great businesses and ideas attract more great businesses and ideas. One revitalized building could have a powerful domino effect on a neighborhood and community.

Preserving architecture

As the new owners of the Gambler’s Bookshop explored the building, they found gorgeous bowstring truss hidden behind the drop ceilings. Old buildings often have materials that are no longer used in construction, or architectural details you don’t see in new spaces.

DIRTT is uniquely capable of fitting into these details without touching or compromising them.  With DIRTT, the Henriksen/Butler team could build up the walls without disturbing the bowstring truss ceilings. By bringing in bespoke ceilings, raised floors, solid and glass walls, “we’ve created this cool meld of modern with a building built in 1955,” says Bressler.

The updated interior preserved the vintage bowstring ceiling

IMAGE CREDIT: Nicholas Swann

But DIRTT also provided solutions to challenges that came with building in an older space. “The bow(string) truss ceiling made acoustics a problem,” says Heather. DIRTT’s patented Sliding Glass Door made offices acoustically sound, while letting in plenty of natural light.

H/B Build Las Vegas

IMAGE CREDIT: Nicholas Swan

H/B Build Las Vegas

IMAGE CREDIT: Nicholas Swan

Using tech to realize dreams

When it comes to mapping onto an existing building, technology can make the process and the result exceptional. Designing in our proprietary software, ICE®, allows for a precision fit down to ¹⁄₁₆ of an inch. Perfect for the old buildings that often come with unexpected surprises. And ICEreality® allows teams to fully visualize how the new look will fit seamlessly with the existing building.

The greenbox-is showroom in Hartford, Connecticut is a prime example. As an interior construction company, they needed a space that was exceptional. The team visited the building and loved how open it was. They saw huge potential. “When I walked into the space, I knew exactly how it was going to look once we build it out,” says Dan De Clerq managing director of greenbox-is.

greenbox-is before renovations

IMAGE CREDIT: greenbox-is

The new and improved greenbox-is

IMAGE CREDIT: Heather Conley Photography

But the fact that it used to be a gymnasium as part of the school meant that it was going to take a bit of work. On top of that, the building had historic elements that restricted how they could renovate the space. Local building codes prevented greenbox from putting up anything close to the window that could be seen from the outside.

This proved to be a source of inspiration rather than a limitation. Using the existing windows allowed greenbox to build vignettes that told their story. Running full-height DIRTT walls around the exterior made the columns look deeper than they really were. It also gave the building a unified look. The resulting space gave greenbox the tools they needed to truly connect with their clients. And, it won an American Institute of Architects award too.

In the end, DIRTT provided unparalleled fit and finish to the space. And ICE software gave everyone involved confidence that the project that would be exactly what they needed. The combination of an old-school building and cutting-edge construction tech was a perfect match.

Historic elements inspired columns at greenbox-is

IMAGE CREDIT: Heather Conley Photography


IMAGE CREDIT: Heather Conley Photography


IMAGE CREDIT: Heather Conley Photography


IMAGE CREDIT: Heather Conley Photography

References and Further Reading

The Journal of the American Institute of Architects: Existing Buildings: The Elephant in the Room ↗ 

National Trust for Historic Preservation: The Ten Principles for ReUrbanism: Reuse and Reinvestment in the 21st Century ↗  

National Trust for Historic Preservation Preservation Green Lab: The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse ↗  

International Finance Corporation: Construction Industry Value Chain ↗ 

Sustainable Brands: PlanetReuse: Redirecting Building Waste from Landfill to LEED Projects ↗

Corporate Knights: Why the key to successful, future cities lies in the past ↗

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