Modern Luxury, a new oxymoron

I was reading an article (Everything Old is Green Again) in Conservation Magazine the other day which confirmed something I have suspected for quite a while – older buildings are often more energy-efficient than any built today.

The story uses the example of the Monadnock Building in Chicago, once the largest office building in the world. Completed in 1893, Monadnock had very thick brick walls (around 2m wide) to keep heat in during winter and out during summer, transoms and bay windows to allow natural light in, and windows were usually positioned to allow cross-breezes.

The Monadnock Building in Chicago - energy-efficient before it was on trend. (Photo Source: Wikipedia)

These features were very common to most commercial buildings of that period, before we decided that quicker, cheaper construction meant more cash to go around the table.

US Energy Department buildings data shows that pre-1920 commercial buildings use less energy per square foot than those built at any other time during the 20th century.

Studies in the UK and Canada have shown that newly-built, supposedly energy-efficient buildings, can take 35-50 years to recover the carbon footprint created by their construction. One can only imagine how long non-energy-efficient homes take!

Another UK study  (discussed here) found that constructing a new house created more than 3 times as many carbon emissions than renovating an existing house.

(N.B. For the record, I am ambivalent towards “carbon counting” – I think it is dangerous to limit the true environmental effects of an activity to a single value, but I do think the notion creates enough awareness to get the point across in some cases.)

Not only is the energy-efficiency of these older buildings sustainable, but their foundations often are too – think how many pre-1900s buildings are still standing all around the world. In Australia, every city and most regional towns have a handful of sturdy elders, usually courthouses, town halls, banks or government chambers. Most are still being used daily, surrounded by the constant renovation and rebuilding of shabby modernist structures.

The Queensland Club in Brisbane, built in 1884 on a spacious knoll overlooking the Brisbane River, is now crowded on all sides by offices, apartment blocks and roadways.

Every house or apartment I have ever lived in was built after 1950. Every one of them has suffered from inefficient temperature control, termite invasion, cracking walls, or ageing plumbing or wiring. The house I am renting now is only 5 years old – it is icy cold in winter (the gas wall furnace either blows cold air out the bottom or fills the house up with suffocating heat, depending on its mood) and it turns into a stifling sauna in summer. The roof and driveway drainage were designed only for terminal drought conditions; the exposed windows seep water during heavy rainstorms; the untacked carpet edges are lifting in the corners of most rooms; and the en suite bathroom is designed to encourage mould, mildew and general scum.

Our constant demand for new homes and our perceived entitlement to “bigger and better” (bigger lounge rooms, bigger patios, bigger garages, more bedrooms and bathrooms…) means that quality is once again forsaken for quantity…and the ongoing costs to maintain this philosophy takes “carbon footprint” to a whole new level.

More glass means more light and heat reflected into the atmosphere (and more energy spent controlling indoor temperature); more exposed paint means more peeling surfaces to repaint; more render means more cracks to repair. I could go on.  

My rental house, like so many other modern houses, has all the trappings of “modern luxury” but upon closer inspection, the façade of indulgence hides a foundation that is inefficient, uneconomical and unsustainable – poor drainage; positioning that maximises house area but poorly utilises the local climate and natural block dynamics; cheap fittings that need to be replaced every few years; poorly designed space that leads to unhealthy indoor microclimates and inefficient temperature control etc.

New houses and housing developments are springing up across the urbanised world, reclaiming ever more of Nature. New, even taller, skyscrapers are appearing on every city skyline, hermetically sealed with thousands of watts of air-conditioning. How many of these buildings will still be there in 20, 30 or 100 years time? How much more time, money and gratuitous “carbon” will be spent on maintaining them during their lifetime?

In America, entire neighbourhoods of older houses are being bulldozed in cities like Buffalo, Philadelphia and Detroit, whilst new developments encroach further into the wilderness in other parts of the country. Thousands of homes have been left vacant because of demographic change in some areas – residents move on to bigger, better cities to live in bigger, newer homes and the older homes are left to be used and abused by drug addicts, gangs and squatters.

The only solution, according to municipal authorities, is to smash it all up and start again.

Our desperate need for lives filled with luxurious superfluity (more, bigger, better, faster, louder) will give us just that – more repairs, more energy, more expenses, faster depreciation, more landfill, more health problems, more maintenance, more cleaning…and poorer quality ecosystems.

There is a new push to remind us to “reduce, reuse, recycle” architecture as well as consumables, and curb the prolifically carbon-hungry construction industry. The hype around “sustainable building” has jettisoned us unwittingly into the realm of waste and excess.

The focus needs to return to preserving, restoring and reusing existing buildings and materials as much as possible. If new buildings need to be built (and in many cases, they do), we need stringent planning and construction specifications to guide their construction – recycling construction materials where possible; using local materials; avoiding reclamation of flood-prone natural drainage areas because the town is desperate for new homes; positioning buildings correctly on the block to benefit from seasonal sunlight patterns; and utilising freely-available natural energy cycles to our advantage.

© Manu Saunders 2011

Relevant information:

National Trust for Historic Preservation (US) (in particular, report on Building Reuse)

2 thoughts on “Modern Luxury, a new oxymoron

  1. Ian Lunt November 26, 2011 / 10:25 AM

    Thanks for another great post. A couple of years ago I stayed in a brand new hotel in China, built really quickly as part of their current building boom. Once I got over the luxurious gold trimmings it was amazing how many doors didn’t close properly, taps didn’t work properly etc etc. In another 20 years they will have huge social and environmental costs to deal with the legacies of the current building race, on a scale that will dwarf the problems here at home. Cheers Ian 


  2. manuelinor November 26, 2011 / 8:17 PM

    Thanks Ian.
    Yes, it’s all about “instant gratification” with no plan for the future…reliving the “Gilded Age” at a whole new level!


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