Green Construction in Today’s Built Environment – FAQ by Randy Ruth

by Randy Ruth

When people talk about “green” construction, I often wonder what the environmental benefit of the construction is. Is it new construction? If so what is the environmental impact? I would hope that a perfectly good existing building wasn’t torn down to make way for supposed progress.

It is my belief that the greenest building is the one that is already standing and most likely played a role in a community’s development. It could be an old department store, manufacturing warehouse or barn. Sometimes plans call for only the façade of a building to be saved which helps keep the architectural integrity of a community intact. This can be a positive compromise because the more useful modernized building can be built and yet some historic fabric is retained to tell the story and retain the flavor of what the building was in its local context.

In the end, as long as something is retained for adaptive reuse, whether it is for aesthetics or the entire structure, there is a measure of success in reducing a “green” construction project’s carbon footprint.

In most instances, a building that has been saved from the wrecking ball is old. What does old really mean? Well that’s pretty subjective but I would like to think of old in the context of US building history as being pre 1930, or roughly 80 years and older. When an old building is going to be adaptively reused one way or another then appropriate materials should be used to fix what is broken with compatible repair materials. Using in-kind repairs will further promote the legacy and overall usefulness of a building for years to come while lowering its impact on the environment.

Old buildings are usually very strong and often made of brick and stone that has proven to stand the test of time. However it’s the mortar that binds those materials together and meant to be sacrificial. Mortar should fail first not irreplaceable historic masonry units. The embodied energy to replace a masonry unit is much greater than the mortar. Therefore, it is imperative that a suitable replacement mortar be used to mend what is failing and the mortar be weaker and slightly more permeable than the surrounding masonry units.

In the case of masonry mortar, lime is typically the binder in these old buildings and should be regarded as key to the dynamic that has allowed the building to be in service so long. Often the original mortar is still in place, proving its superiority and therefore should be replaced in-kind. The use of modern day Portland cement based mortars, which are stronger and denser when placed over the top of lime based mortars, are less sympathetic to the historic masonry and can trap moisture causing further damage to the historic fabric. The historic masonry units and adjacent historic elements can best be kept in conservation with the use of the right lime mortar. The correct Natural Hydraulic Lime (NHL) mortars when used where they are appropriate can become a compatible repair materials that is sympathetic  to the working dynamics of an historic masonry building. Secondly, NHL mortars remain reversible without damage to the building unlike the alternative which is the too over-used hard, brittle and dense Portland cement based mortars which are known to cause irreversible damage in conjunction with historic masonry fabric.

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