Sustainable. We have all heard the term in recent years but what does it mean?  According to Merriam-Webster, sustainable is 1) of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged; or 2) of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods.

When this concept translates to construction, oftentimes it means designing a new building that incorporates sustainable design principles such as energy efficiency, increased daylight, water management, use of recycled materials, etc.  But what if the building itself could be a recycling effort?

Use of Existing Buildings
Existing buildings contain “embodied energy,” the energy that it took to produce all the materials used to construct the building. It is estimated that a new, “green” energy efficient office building that includes as much as 40 percent recycled materials would still take approximately 65 years to recover the energy lost in demolishing a comparable existing building1. From this perspective, it makes sense to reuse an existing building rather than use additional energy for a new building.

The use of existing structures also contributes to the efficiency of infrastructure, using what is already in place rather than expanding the footprint needed to service buildings.  Certainly, the redevelopment of an existing building comes with its own challenges and there can be higher maintenance costs, but the incorporation of sustainable design strategies can help keep those maintenance costs in check. Cases also show that the cost can be the same or less to renovate as to build new.

Maintaining Integrity of the City
The use of existing buildings not only contributes to sustainability in terms of energy efficiency, but it also contributes to the sustainability of a community as a whole. It maintains the character of the community through the preservation of its architecture.  Particularly in areas with empty buildings, the investment often encourages further development in the same area which can lead to revitalization of the neighborhood. It is also shown that renovating an existing building to be more energy efficient raises its value, eventually contributing to added property values in the surrounding areas.

As architects, we see the added value in existing buildings in that they each have their own unique character and feel, and there is the opportunity to use that as part of what the building will become.

A City like St. Joseph, with its rich architectural heritage, is fortunate to have an abundance of existing buildings ready for reuse. River Bluff Architects is firmly committed to sustainability; we believe in this principle of reusing existing structures as a method of sustainable design. When one looks at the efficiency of using existing structures, the energy saved, and the overall contribution to the wellness of the community as a whole, it becomes the ultimate large-scale recycling method!


1Richard Moe, “Sustainable Stewardship,” Traditional Building, June 2008, as quoted in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Smart Growth and Sustainable Preservation of Existing and Historic Buildings,

Sara Markt, AIA
Project Architect

Sara received her Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Kansas. As a project architect, she oversees projects from design through construction and also helps with daily operations of the firm. Her project experience ranges from residential, to commercial and educational, and she has a particular interest in historic preservation.