What’s the greenest building? An old one, expert says

Louisville, Kentucky’s NuLu arts district is bustling, in part because of its eclectic old and restored buildings.
Louisville, Kentucky’s NuLu arts district is bustling, in part because of its eclectic old and restored buildings.

Many of the splashy new skyscrapers underway in Charlotte are touted as energy efficient, but the keynote speaker at Friday’s U.S. Green Building Council North Carolina chapter’s gala has a slightly different message: The greenest building is an existing building.

Davidson native Gill Holland is known for adapting, renovating and reusing old buildings that are teetering on the edge of destruction. His projects in Louisville, Ky., have included the Green Building, a 119-year-old structure reborn as an energy-efficient, modern office and event space, and Civil War-era buildings in a thriving arts district called NuLu that are now home to local businesses and startups.

“Old buildings are inherently green. They’re made of bricks and wood, renewable materials,” said Holland, who is also an independent film producer. “The carbon footprints have been paid off.... The existing building is the greenest building there is, because it already exists.”

It’s a topic likely to resonate in Charlotte, a fast-growing city that’s not exactly known for a surplus of older buildings. And as development picks up steam, fueling the biggest apartment-building boom in history and a spate of new office buildings, older buildings in neighborhoods such as South End, Elizabeth and NoDa are being targeted for replacement.

That can hurt an area’s “sense of place,” often created after multiple generations have seen and come to love and appreciate an area’s buildings.

“If you’ve had three generations of people loving a building, it creates a sense of place,” said Holland. “I would respectfully submit Austin is not as cool as it was 10 years ago. They did tear down a little too much of the old, funky, difficult buildings.”

Still, he acknowledges that doing renovations and rehabilitation work isn’t usually as easy as tearing something down and building new.

“Fixing up old buildings is more of a challenge than building something new. You never know what’s hidden behind the bricks and the masonry,” Holland said.

And Holland isn’t a staunch preservationist either, at least not in the traditional sense. He does major renovations to the buildings he restores, sometimes changing them quite a bit, and said he hears from angered preservationists as much as from other developers.

“Do you have to save every old building? No,” said Holland. “The preservationists are often upset with me too.”

At the Green Building, in Louisville, Holland installed a green roof, planted with a garden, to help insulate the building. The building also has geothermal wells, recycled denim insulation and solar power generation. The Green Building is 73 percent self-sufficient, energy-wise, over the course of a year, cutting down on costs. He said most of the energy-efficient features will pay for themselves over the years, and that the building makes business sense as well as environmental sense.

“It just makes so much sense. It’s smart, it’s efficient,” said Holland. “We charge about double the square footage rent of any other building in NuLu, and we get it.”

He touts the local jobs generated from green retrofits – “You don’t send your building to Pakistan to get retrofitted” – and said older buildings provide something indefinable but necessary.

“People pay lots of money to go to Europe and walk around old towns,” said Holland. “There’s something about human nature: We do like old things.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo