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Listed Buildings and Sustainability

27 April 2021

The need for sustainable development now seems to have finally taken hold in the construction industry. There is already a wide range of certification and environmental labels, and a legal requirement for life cycle assessments is in the making. The demand in the market is already there and with good reason, as it can be documented that sustainability in addition to being common sense is also a lucrative business. But what about the cultural heritage?

The climate crisis and the loss of biodiversity are the two most serious crises of our time.

Once we have acknowledged this fact, there is really no going back. Or is there?

In our race towards the abyss, we now see the planet’s need for a slowdown, the first stop being 2030 and the second 2050. The construction industry alone accounts for about 40 % of energy-related CO2 emissions, so a sustainable approach must be applied to the greatest possible extent. And we are in a hurry, mind you.

Sustainability is defined by the ability to meet the needs of this generation without reducing the opportunities of the future ones. Recent times have taught us to run fast and always forward. We are optimising and streamlining like never before to sustain our needs here and now, while next generation’s opportunities seem to fade into the distance. Everyone has the right to a nice kitchen.

Out of the Lomborg philosophy and hockey sticks, however, new generations are materialising, and from children, as you know, you will hear the truth.

Just as broad the definition of sustainability is, just as ambitiously sustainability is sought to be quantified. We can probably all agree with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, while the actual work of translating the goals into usable indicators for the construction industry has proved difficult. The current standard for sustainability in the construction industry is therefore still measured on the three pillars of sustainability: social, economic and environmental sustainability.

Havnegade 23 dør

The most sustainable building is the one that has already been built

In Elgaard Architecture, we primarily work with listed buildings, which, seen in relation to the concept of sustainability, poses certain dilemmas. Common to the most widely used certification schemes for sustainability is that the cultural values / architecture is given very little weight. With a clear view to the social, economic and environmental pillars, listed buildings can rarely be optimised to a satisfactory sustainable level, as the listed values ​​will often be lost.

Conservation values ​​are linked to cultural history, and listed houses represent intangible values ​​that have proved ‘sustainable’ over time. The buildings each represent qualities that cannot be measured in relation to life cycle assessments, “total economy” and social sustainability.

Like sustainability, conservation values ​​are a woolly concept, but the overall goal is the same: That we build for posterity. Therefore, it may seem striking that within the concept of sustainability, the cultural values which cannot be inscribed in the three pillars of sustainability are not taken into account to a greater extent.

In our daily work with historic buildings, we experience how and why buildings after several hundred years still exist. The historic buildings have values ​​that extend beyond their time and have survived the general urge of being replaced for the sake of replacement itself. This applies to both cultural-historical and architectural qualities as well as technical construction. We are often dealing with buildings which are hundreds of years old and building parts that find new life through a new use.

It may therefore seem thought-provoking that today the construction industry seems to have rediscovered concepts such as design for separation and flexibility in the context of sustainability, as older building practices have always accommodated this. We have, so to speak, forgotten to benefit from the experience. Even today, new and better technologies can go hand in hand with the needs of the buildings, so that the buildings can continue to be of relevance in the future.

Values ​​can never as such come down to money exclusively; however, it has actually been documented that both sustainability and the built heritage make up healthy businesses.[1] At Elgaard Architecture, we also do not see any contradiction between sustainability concepts and the valuation of construction. We believe that the two concepts are inseparable if we are to make an effort in aiming for real sustainability.

When we restore, renovate or transform buildings, we therefore aim at preserving everything that makes them sustainable: The cultural identity of the buildings is in focus, while at the same time we are striving to meet the needs of present and future generations.

[1] Vores fælles skatkammer. Bygningskulturarven er penge værd. Realdania 2015