Pairing old wisdom and new tricks to make a super-sustainable landmark

When we think of green or sustainable buildings, we tend to think of innovative architecture and cutting edge technology. What if we told you that sometimes the greenest buildings are the oldest? This year for Earth Day, we’re sharing the many ways in which our historic building is eco-friendly and energy saving! And not every sustainable element is brand new – some of the ways we’re sustainable go back all the way to 1887.

Preservationists love to cite architect Carl Elefante, who said “The greenest building is one that’s already built.” What did he mean? Older buildings couldn’t rely on the elaborate (and costly) heating and cooling systems we have today; their design and layout had to specifically address keeping inhabitants comfortable in any climate. So historic buildings were naturally built to retain warmth in the winter and provide ventilation in the summer. Materials on the roofs and facades of buildings were chosen with this in mind, and building layouts prioritized cross-breezes for warm months and heat retention for cold ones. So even before sustainability was in vogue, an old building like ours had a leg up on working with our environment.

There’s another innate environmental aspect to preservation, too. Forgoing demolition and new construction costs is a huge benefit to our environment. Choosing to restore and redefine the use of the building has negated the costs of a major new construction project. According to the US Energy Information Administration, the construction and operation of buildings is responsible for 48% of all energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions per year. Every new building that is saved, adapted, and reused in some way represents a massive savings in energy and materials. Think about all the wasted material that must be thrown into landfills when big buildings are demolished. To save a building is to save a trip to a landfill.

Terra cotta details on the buildings facade.

Just like Elefante said, older buildings were specifically designed using materials and methods meant to work with the climate. Our facade’s intricate Gothic, Roman, and Moorish details are made from terra cotta. Terra cotta (meaning baked earth) is extremely sustainable – it is a natural durable material that has, in our case, lasted over 130 years. It has needed repairs, but not replacement. In addition to repairing the original terra cotta during restoration, the brickwork was also repointed using lime instead of the original cement mortar. Lime uses much less water than cement, making it more environmentally friendly. And it’ll last longer than cement, because it is a natural and porous material that works with the elements instead of resisting and eventually breaking against them.

The building’s slate roof is another early construction method meant to reduce the effects of weather. Slate is reflective, so it reduces heat retention; it is fireproof; and less expensive over time than fiberglass or asphalt shingles which need to be replaced every 40 years (whereas slate may last 120!). The original builders of Eldridge Street did use slate on the roof, but over time some ill-advised repairs were made – two layers of asphalt shingles were nailed to the original slate, causing irreparable damage. The decision to restore the building’s slate roof was an easy one, and once again it is sustainable and durable. The use of these materials eliminate waste and the environmental tax it takes to replace lower quality materials.

But sustainable practices weren’t only used outside! Up in the building’s main sanctuary, one of the most striking elements is the amount of natural light. Architects purposely set the synagogue back from the lot line in order to allow windows, and light, on all four sides. And it’s not only on the walls! Soaring clerestory windows and ceiling skylights allow light to stream in from above. In total, the sanctuary contains over 60 stained glass windows including two massive windows on the east and west walls. It creates a beautiful effect, but it’s sustainable, too – the space requires very little electricity to remain bright on a daily basis.

Pie-shaped windows at the clerestory level and tall panels of stained glass windows line both the north and south sides of the building, flooding the space with light. The tall window panels all open, admitted a refreshing cross breeze. Photo: Brian Kutner.

Green practices were an important part of our restoration and renovation of the building, as well. Our visitors center had to be entirely built anew and is only about a decade old. But preservation and sustainability still reign! The floor tiles in that modern space are made from recycled broken glass found in the main sanctuary during restoration. These salvaged materials insured less waste, and it also allowed us to incorporate even more original and historic materials into every inch of the building.

These floor tiles in the modern visitor center were made from historic glass salvaged from the deteriorated sanctuary.

And when new materials were necessary during restoration, we did our best to ensure that those were sustainable. For example all wood that is not original is Forest Stewardship Council approved, which means that it is sourced from sustainable forests which rotate, replant, and track all wood that is used. When we needed to replace original insulation inside the walls, we opted against traditional fiberglass insulation. Instead, the walls of our building are insulated with recycled blue jeans!

Even in 1887, our synagogue building has been a symbol of melding old-world traditions with new possibilities. By combining these old and new technologies, the museum has created a more sustainable system. We’re honoring the historic integrity of our landmark building while using new green technology to honor our planet’s future. It’s something we’re proud of on Earth Day, and every day!

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