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Sustainable preservation certificate launches to address climate concerns

Whether living in urban centers or rural farming towns, people are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of climate change on their lives. That concern is accelerating the growth of “green” building and energy efficiency initiatives. But Katelin Olson, Ph.D., visiting lecturer in Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, says communities may be overlooking an equally important climate solution: sustainable historic preservation. By reusing the existing built environment, sustainable preservation is an essential tool for meeting climate goals. 

“The greenest building continues to be the one already built,” says Olson, who is a certified planner. “As we seek greater energy efficiency, it is tempting to think we can build our way out of our environmental crisis. But that’s not a financially possible or reasonable solution.”

According to Architecture 2030, the built environment contributes half of all global greenhouse gas emissions, and Olson says that even the most energy-efficient new building can take 70 years or more to make up for the embedded carbon emissions in the demolished building, the waste created; and the energy used in construction and materials. The EPA shared that twenty percent of global carbon emissions are related to new construction, while demolition accounts for 90 percent of the waste generated annually by construction, renovation, and demolition activities. Yet over the last few decades, historic preservationists and environmentalists have often appeared to compete with one another. Now, through the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, Olson has launched a new online certificate program through eCornell to demonstrate how sustainability, energy efficiency, and historic preservation can work collaboratively to address shared climate change concerns.

Historic preservation isn’t new, but Olson says that emphasizing its role within the wider sustainability conversation is novel to policy makers, architects, and city planners. To close the gap, the Sustainable Preservation certificate offers an overview of historic preservation, how to retain energy in historic buildings; how to assess the economic value of sustainable solutions; and how to successfully propose and incorporate those solutions into retrofits and rehabilitation plans. Courses go beyond materials and money to consider the importance of cultural, historic, and social sustainability in making better communities. 

The certificate also provides participants concrete steps to take during a time rife with rising climate anxiety. The ripple effect of more people learning and applying sustainable preservation—whether on village planning boards or in engineering firms—is that communities will no longer view buildings as disposable. Instead, they will push public policy toward reuse, recycling of building materials, and development that accounts for the energy already embedded in the built environment.

“As more preservationists, both professional and lay, learn how to connect sustainability and historic preservation, we can have a major collective impact,” says Olson. “Practicing sustainable preservation could make sizable, achievable reductions in our consumption of raw materials, carbon expenditure, and creation of waste.”

The Sustainable Preservation certificate program is now enrolling students from diverse backgrounds, including those with experience in municipal planning, historic preservation, environmental policy, architecture, engineering, and real estate development. View more information about the program online. 

Sarah Thompson is a writer for eCornell.


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