Out With The Old, In With The New....Or Not?

In Maine, the operational costs and energy consumption of homes are higher because of the cold weather. Buyers interested in “green” initiatives should pay attention to reducing carbon emissions in real estate. Even in brand new "green" or energy-efficient homes, the embodied carbon is higher than an existing home. At Gray Fox Real Estate we think it is important to raise awareness to help our communities contribute less to the production of new embodied carbon.

Carbon can persist in the atmosphere from 20 to hundreds of years, embodied carbon has a substantial and lasting environmental impact that needs to be addressed by cities and the real estate community.

What is embodied carbon?

Embodied carbon emissions refer to the “sourcing of the building materials, construction processes, ongoing refurbishment and maintenance, and end of life.”(GRESB). According to Circular Ecology, embodied carbon cannot be reversed and therefore needs to be considered before the building of a new construction, especially since “buildings account for almost 40% of carbon emissions generated globally, making them one of the most significant contributors to our carbon footprint”(GRESB). There are also operational emissions which “link to the in-use performance of the building” which have decreased substantially in the last 20 years after efforts have increased to cut those emissions(GRESB).

The above graph from Northeast Sustainable Energy Association shows the life cycle of carbon from buildings. Once the carbon emissions are created during the extraction and processing of materials, it cannot be reversed and stays in those materials, whether the building is demolished or reused.

Rebuild or reuse?

As we learn more about the detrimental environmental effects of the processes used in building and renovating, the goal for many is to decrease our carbon footprint. With this in mind, what’s the best option when setting out to update buildings? Should a new building be constructed using new and efficient technologies or should an old building be retrofitted, reusing the foundation and structure?

While it may seem like new "green" technologies would be the best choice, new construction still has a large impact and can take “10-80 years to pay back the emissions generated”, according to the Institute for Market Transformation. Furthermore, updating an already existing building “generally saves 50—75 percent of embodied carbon.”(IMT).

For example, the United Nations decided to simply revamp and renovate their building in New York instead of building a new one because they found that after demolishing and rebuilding with sustainable materials and efficient systems, it would take 35-70 years to “offset” the amount of carbon emissions created by the new construction(IMT).

While state and local governments should continue to pursue and expand retrofit policies and programs to reach their climate goals; developers, designers, and construction teams should also prioritize building reuse over new construction because of the immediately realized carbon savings — something a growing amount of investors and private companies are paying attention to.
— Institute for Market Transformation

What can you do?

Consider your options and your impact. If you have the time and the money for it, purchase a fixer-upper, and renovate it using sustainable building materials. If you prefer to purchase land and build your dream home, make efforts to reduce your carbon footprint by using building materials like cork, bamboo, or Marmoleum and be sure to check out our blog post on sustainable building materials!

At Gray Fox Real Estate, our ultimate goal is to help you find the right property. We also want to do our part in limiting the environmental damages that are inherent in the real estate industry by raising awareness. Ask your agent to look for existing homes with energy-efficient upgrades, or homes with Green Certifications, solar panels, recycled materials, and energy-efficient appliances. Every effort counts!

Zoë Fluet

Zoë Fluet is the Director of Communications at Gray Fox Real Estate.