Another kind of recycling


Ever since the 1970s, the three R’s of the green movement were Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. It has served the recycling movement well, helping the planet through the recycling of aluminum cans, glass bottles and now, plastic.
A group of preservation minded planners, architects and activists are asking: Why don’t we apply the same green principles to old buildings?

In short, by not tearing down older buildings, that will divert tons of brick and metal from filling up our landfills. Preserving and adapting older buildings for new uses will increase their energy efficiency, reduce their carbon footprint and create jobs.

Just like when we recycle soda bottles and tires.

“We need to reduce, reuse and recycle when it comes to our buildings. Why not apply those three R’s to our built environment?” asks Chris Olson, president of the Alhambra Preservation Group.

For years progress was measured in how many old buildings are torn down and how many shiny new ones erected. This was the modus operandi of American commerce and it infected even architects and city planners. Preservations, on the other hand, have been singing the praises of historic structures but for cultural and aesthetic values. For example, they’d say nobody makes those Greene and Greene fitted beams and wood inlays anymore.

With the release of a documentary last year, “The Greenest Building: The Role of Historic Buildings in Creating a Sustainable Culture,” the preservation


movement is going green. Screenings across the country, including one in Alhambra Thursday night hosted by Olson’s group, are pumping up the environmental aspects of historic preservation.
More than 74 percent of the commercial buildings in the country were built between 1950 and 2010, according to Ralph DiNola, a green building consultant quoted in the movie. Over the next 20 years, he says, Americans will demolish and rebuild 30 percent of this building stock, he says in the film.

Even replacing them with environmentally friendly buildings may not be necessary, he says. In fact, when the overall environmental cost is counted, a brand new building will cost more in materials mined, energy used, and in the release of pollution and greenhouse gases that raise health risks and cause global climate change.

“We haven’t made that transition when we talk of historic buildings,” he said.

Jane C. Turville, the movie’s writer/producer/director says in her blog that cities must develop environmental stewardship along with building stewardship. One of the topics at Thursday night’s panel discussion featuring Denise Lawrence-Zuniga of Cal Poly Pomona’s John T. Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies; Victoria Deise-Wilson with The Ratkovich Co. and Peyton Hall, managing principal of historic resources with the Gamble House in Pasadena was how to make adaptive reuse more economically feasible.

Turville says laws that preserve historic structures must not be “just another hoop to jump through” for developers. “It should be everyone who values a community’s sense of place.”

Combining environmental stewardship – i.e. preserving our hillsides, our forest, restoring our rivers – with building stewardship – i.e. Old Pasadena, Old Town Monrovia – is what gives the San Gabriel Valley its sense of place.

The SGV’s sense of place, and that of Whittier with its green hills and historic buildings, make for a more liveable space. The quality of life is better here than say, in the San Fernando Valley or in the city of Los Angeles.

Monrovia’s oak tree ordinance and historic preservation laws have raised that city’s property values. Restoring Pasadena’s City Hall dome and Rose Bowl help keep up the Rose City’s unique identity. Olson is trying to get Alhambra to incorporate a historical element into its general plan. That way, property owners can take advantage of federal and state tax breaks when they improve their historic structures.

A greener region, combined with the restoration of historic structures, ratchet up our area’s quality of life, or as Donovan Rypkema calls it in the movie, our “sense of place.”

If preservation of both buildings and open space is not pursued, then we run the risk of losing our sense of place: “For the first time in human history, many of us are locationally indifferent,” Rypkema warns.

Steve Scauzillo covers the environment and the communities along the Puente Hills. He’s the current recipient of the Aldo Leopold Award for Distinguished Editorial Writing from The Wilderness Society. Follow him on Twitter @stevscaz/ or email him at

This entry was posted in environment, land use, Pasadena and tagged , by Steve Scauzillo. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steve Scauzillo

I love journalism. I've been working in journalism for 32 years. I love communicating and now, that includes writing about environment, transportation and the foothill/Puente Hills communities of Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights, Walnut and Diamond Bar. I write a couple of columns, one on fridays in Opinion and the other, The Green Way, in the main news section. Send me ideas for stories. Or comments. I was opinion page editor for 12 years so I enjoy a good opinion now and then.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *