“The ultimate test of man’s conscience
may be his willingness to sacrifice something today
for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.”
― Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day.
Humans have been reusing and recycling hand-made goods for millennia. Patching and darning enabled people to extend the use of clothing and other items. Repair and maintenance were a way of life. And then came the Industrial Age and mass production. In only a few generations we have gotten used to cheap products that can be easily replaced. A paradigm of obsolescence and replacement has permeated every aspect of our culture, from the small (plastic spoons) to the large (grocery stores).
As individuals, there are some things we can easily control, like whether we recycle our plastic containers or say “no” to straws when we order a drink in a restaurant. But it’s less often that we have a say over whether a building is reused or razed. That doesn’t mean we’re not complicit when an older building is thrown away, however.
The City’s Historic Preservation department reviews between 400 – 600 demolition/alteration requests every year. This is only for buildings 50 years old or older. So the overall number of properties being demolished or substantially torn apart is much higher. (The Preservation department doesn’t stop buildings from being razed. It just checks to see if the property is eligible for historic designation first. A property owner is allowed to raze their building (with a demolition permit), but the City feels that they should at least know if they have the ability to get substantial tax credits for repairs and maintenance on their older building before they raze it, because once they do, those credits are lost.)
One third of all waste that ends up in the Larimer County landfill is from the demolition of older buildings and construction of new ones. As a society, we don’t value reusing or recycling buildings. We understand the value of recycling paper. We get that plastic bottles should be remade into playgrounds for children rather than ending up in the Pacific Ocean. But when it comes to throwing out entire building’s worth of wood, plaster, brick, plastic, metal, cement, tile, PVC pipes, glass, and linoleum…? We often just shrug. We say to ourselves, that’s just the price of progress.
As a society, we need to start thinking about the bigger picture. Reusing buildings is about more than just a bunch of looney old folks trying to hold on to the past. It is, first and foremost, about maintaining and conserving resources so that our children have a better future.