New Building Law Seen As Threat To California History

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Interior of the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, Calif.

California is about to enact a law that requires new buildings to meet green standards. But advocates of historic preservation say these standards encourage the demolition of old buildings, while some environmentalists say the law isn't progressive enough.

In California, lawmakers have approved a measure that requires all new construction to meet significant green building standards. The law, which takes effect next year, is the first of its kind in the country.

But it's already under attack from a couple of directions. Some environmentalists say the rules don't go far enough, while some preservationists say the law could encourage the demolition of historically significant buildings.

Green House

Paul Song walks around a half-built modern home he and his wife are constructing for more than $1 million. The house is blocks from the beach in a very posh Santa Monica neighborhood.

Song, who is a doctor, points out the home's green features: things like nontoxic blue wood, a urinal that uses 100-percent recycled water and a floor heating system.

"All the floors are concrete, but in it is radiant heat that's going to be powered by solar," Song says. "Basically this floor will always be nice and warm for my wife, who has cold feet."

When the house is finished, it will be the first 100 percent energy-independent home in the city. It meets and even goes beyond eco-building standards set by the city and the state.

An Eco-Building Yardstick

And it will be certified as "platinum" under the U.S. Green Building Council's residential Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, rating system. It's the industry standard and is essentially a green points system.

"So you get a certain amount of points," says Sean King, the general contractor. "There's categories (such as) energy. Each category has a certain amount of points, and we have to achieve 100 points."

California state law requires all government buildings to achieve at least 50 points — certified LEED silver.

System Fails Historic Buildings, Critics Say

But preservationists say this point system, and the whole new push toward green, is leaving historic buildings out of the equation.

Specifically, the National Historic Trust says LEED points overvalue new construction.

Preserving an old building should get more points than it does, says Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy.

"If you save a historic building, you can get up to three points," Dishman says. "But if you use recycled carpet, you get one point. Is saving a whole building really the same as recycled carpet?"

Historic preservation advocates are working with LEED to up their points and promote other building standards that weigh preservation more heavily.

Old Vs. New

Dishman contends that old buildings are actually greener than new ones because of "embodied energy."

"Embodied energy is how much energy it takes to build a building," Dishman says. "So you have a craftsman home in a lovely historic neighborhood. You'll have the redwood that was trucked and shipped in. And then if you tear this all down, all that historic fabric gets shipped off to the dump."

In fact, Dishman says, some studies show that it can take 35 years or more for a new, energy-efficient building to recover the carbon used to build it.

And yet, that fact doesn't mean much. New buildings are more fun for architects to design and are just plain cheaper for developers to build.

Brenden McEneaney, Santa Monica's green building adviser, sees both sides of the debate.

"I think everybody would agree that historic preservation is important in and of its own right," he says.

But McEneaney says the problem is that historic preservation can be difficult and costly.

"You can't just sell people on a green level," he says. "This has to make financial sense as well. And to the market at large, that maybe isn't thinking first and foremost on a green perspective, that's where you have to be directing your efforts at."

Back at his home site, Song says that while his home will be brand new, he did his best to preserve some of the "embodied energy."

"What people won't realize when they just drive by the house is that we did the first 100 percent recycled demolition," Song says. "We tore this house down nail by nail, brick by brick."

Those nails and bricks were then shipped to build other homes in Mexico. And some of the old wood torn down will be used as new floorboards.

In this case, it's a compromise for both sides — just not on a budget that all homeowners can afford.

Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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