The oldest wood building in the world, the Horyuji Buddhist Temple in Japan built over 1,300 years ago, exemplifies the potential longevity of wood structures.
Here in North America, wood structures over 100+ years are not rare. Yet today’s typical North American wood buildings have a useful life expectancy of just 50 years, and too often old wood buildings are demolished and end up in the waste stream.
Wood structural systems can meet longevity expectations (O’Connor et al., 2004) and we should extend their lifespans much longer. We should adapt, reuse, and retrofit them. So, as with masonry retrofits, renovating and reoccupying these old wood buildings is rightly considered an act of sustainability in itself. Using the existing structure can mean 50% to 75% less embodied carbon on day one of occupancy than a new building.
In the 21st century, our existing wood buildings also need to be made as energy efficient as possible to help fight climate change. Their operational energy use should be reduced to Passive House levels that can result in net zero emissions. This can be done safely and robustly, so there is no excuse for historic wood buildings to not aggressively address efficiency.
The approach to a retrofit project varies depending on whether or not the historic character of the building can be changed. Does the exterior need to be preserved? Can the building be wrapped from the outside? What’s the condition of the exterior and/or interior details? No matter the case, we can still make these old wood building enclosures very robust and efficient. We can make them Smart Enclosures.
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