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Cultural Heritage Protection & Embodied Energy

Embodied energy is fast becoming one of the most important energy/ carbon considerations in the built environment and is increasingly an important factor in Cultural Heritage Protection.

In particular, I am talking about protecting cultural heritage through an adaptive reuse methodology. The adaptive reuse approach works with the embodied energy of a historic building. It helps protect the building and the energy it took to build it in the first place. Working with a building's embodied energy ensures the climate isn’t taxed twice. In other words, it represents a contemporary response to cultural heritage protection which acknowledges climate risk and reiterates the social, economic and environmental viability of adaptive re-use as a warranted response to protecting vulnerable heritage.

In today’s climate-sensitive economy, custodians of the ageing and historic built environment are wrestling with the ideas, costs and practicalities of re-use and adaptation versus the risk of losing aspects of cultural heritage. Understanding the relationship between embodied energy and ‘conservation’ methods such as alteration or reuse will ultimately maintain a sense of place, save money, improve social well-being and safeguard the cultural heritage and the energy already invested, these are factors that are integral to any and all, government or private developer alike.

Determining the value of a building’s re-use or rehabilitation, maintenance costs, and overall energy benefits requires a process that provides a comprehensive assessment of the building. Embodied energy is determined by the amount of labour and energy consumed in the fabrication of a building, the harvesting of natural resources, the manufacture and delivery of materials and the installation of these materials /products. It also includes the energy required to demolish and remove building components. Embodied energy reflects a cradle-to-grave philosophy and is critical to any sustainable approach to managing and conserving our culturally significant built environment.

The constant cycle of demolition and rebuilding puts a huge strain on natural resources and energy usage; in terms of sustainability, demolition should be the option of last resort. In Britain alone, demolition produces a staggering 70 million tonnes of waste materials annually. Construction of new buildings uses approximately 4 per cent of Britain’s total energy consumption and generates 40 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. Up to 60 per cent of energy and resources used in construction is spent on the shell and core of the building, so retention of a building’s structure through conversion makes sound ecological sense…

Evaluating an existing building for reuse can be a complex balance of opposing values. Retaining existing buildings or their primary elements can save money, and the quality of the original materials may exceed current industry standards. Often, the elements that define the cultural and historic significance of a building are the components that ensure the highest value of embodied energy.

Suggested Reading List

ARUP Engineers: Transform and Reuse

Department of the Environment and Heritage: Adaptive Reuse: Preserving our past, building our future

Artwork by Loris Cecchini


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