Fifty Years of Landmarks

Above: 88th Precinct Station House at DeKalb and Classon Avenues in Brooklyn,1929, which received landmark designation January, 2014; constructed 1889-90, architect George Ingram; photo NYPL.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Landmarks Law. Since its passage, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has designated 33,000 buildings and sites, and by doing so it has given them protection against haphazard demolition. Real estate developers may bemoan the constraints upon their industry, but landmarking is an exercise in thoughtfulness that protects the future of New York City, and not for cultural value alone.

In order for a building or district to receive landmark designation it must have an architectural, historical, or culturally significant feature and be over 30 years old. Not all buildings came from the hand of a relevant architect, nor are there that many houses of a certain great Dutch land baron, but as New York City continues to grow, the value is in a process that considers all buildings. Buildings themselves contribute to the future; older buildings not only contain culture but also the embodied energy and materials of previous generations. 

Preserving a building is recycling on the largest scale.

The first step to sustainability is preservation. As we step forward into the age of megacities, issues of inclusion, sustainability, and efficiency come to the front of the conversation about the future of growth.

A study from the University of Toronto recently compared the resource use of global megacities, and the findings confirmed the common premise that density increases efficiency. But New York City proved to be the exception; with more electricity used than Tokyo (12 million more population), more water used than Guangzhou (80% of world textile production), and three times more solid waste than Mexico City or Tokyo produced in 2011. In fact, according to the study New York City is so inefficient that it offers no advantages over living in a smaller city.

[Editors note: New York’s measurements in the megacity study were taken at a wider scope than many other cities — Los Angeles, for example, apparently measured only LA County, while New York’s data included the city’s entire commuter-radius, far beyond the five boroughs and deep into suburban counties. City Atlas partner CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities provided New York’s data, and has been doing follow-up comparisons for better metrics and apples-to-apples matches between cities. Toyko’s efficiency advantage does seem to be consistent; it’s a vast city, but has lower car use and smaller apartments and homes.]

Preserving a building is recycling on the largest scale humans can achieve. A historic designation is, in a sense, a recycling of culture. The reuse or retrofitting of an old building is the recycling of energy. When you consider the amount of energy and materials it takes to build a new building, even a “green” building, it is almost always less efficient than retrofitting an older building. This depends on the building but many older buildings are constructed of denser materials. These brick and stone buildings are excellent at storing heat, which in the right climate leads to cooler days and warmer nights. The right climate tends to be on the warmer side, which if everything goes as predicted with climate change should be a large proportion of the USA. In these circumstances retrofitting makes sense.

New construction is a source of emissions, so attention shifts towards the carbon cost of buildings over their lifetimes.
Furthermore, building a new energy-efficient building can take from 10 to 80 years to offset the energy used in construction. If we are to reach the goal of only a two degree rise in global temperatures then to reduce our short term carbon emissions is essential. We cannot wait eighty years to “pay off” the carbon production of too many new buildings. With this in mind the Green Buildings Council recently revised LEED standards to more properly weight building reuse. The mindset is shifting towards looking at lifecycles.

If only it were so simple, to regard each pre-existing building as the best choice for the future. Since buildings represent such a large portion of carbon emissions the mandate would be clear, that we need to build less and rehabilitate what we have. Currently 61% of all building projects are retrofits in the US. This is for several reasons, foremost being the cost savings of high-efficiency equipment, which make retrofitting too good a deal to miss out on.

That leaves 39% of the market in new building construction. It is estimated that 40-48% of new commercial building construction is “green”. It’s interesting to note that in commercial construction valued over $50 million that number climbs to 71%. Whereas if you look at residential construction the numbers become a bit murky with 62% of firms reporting at least 15% of their housing projects to be green. It’s a bit difficult to get a clear sense of what that means.

Consider that in New York City, quite a few of these green residential units are luxury condos. Despite being LEED-certified, their energy usage may be higher than many older buildings around them. All of the technology and gadgets don’t make up for high ceilings when it comes to energy efficiency. The NYT noted this discrepancy with regard to several LEED buildings receiving failing Energy Star ratings (Energy Star is a much simpler analysis it looks at energy usage per square foot). This is partly to do with how LEED certification has changed over the years. Initially energy usage wasn’t figured into the model as heavily as it is now, but once a certification is given it stays for the life of the building. What is true of any building is that energy usage is tied to how tenants operate the building, and even a highly-rated building can suffer if the lights are left on all night.

Building reuse could be one of the many tools used to bring NYC in line with other megacities as paragons of efficiency necessary to sustain a vibrant society. In one case study building reuse met 15% of a region’s carbon reduction goals. Currently the only mandate for building reuse comes from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Last year there were 13,000 applications for landmark designation. In total four percent of the city is currently designated. It should be encouraged to use old buildings when appropriate. While real estate would most likely enjoy a less regulated market, it is necessary to curtail the influence money can have if we are to meet the goal of a sustainable NYC.

For an interesting look at the history of landmarks over the past fifty years visit Saving Place at the Museum of the City of New York.