Living Green: Embrace embodied energy
by Christina Frankel
Jul 27, 2012 | 3305 views | 1 1 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
For some time, I’ve been working on a historical building in downtown Stockton, built in 1878. It was built in a time before cars, built before even the street was paved.

Original photographs of the street show men in top hats, ladies in corseted dresses standing still so as to not blur the photograph. Most people didn’t smile (dental hygiene was not a habit back them). Horses share the road with carts and people. All that survives from those shots is the building.

It has been through many changes since it was built. Right now, the building is in bad shape, unoccupied and unoccupiable. In an attempt to save the building, I have become a building detective — a forensic architect — looking for clues about what is its history; how was it built (no plans exist) and why, how and when was it remodeled over and over again.

What constantly amazes me is that despite the neglect, lack of maintenance, vandals, vagrants and pigeons roosting in the building, it stands stoically. And it is entirely due to how well it was constructed.

An example: The roof sheathing — the material covering the roof frame — is made with random widths of old-growth redwood. Just one board on this roof is 20 inches wide by 20 feet long. You and I have plywood or wood chips held together with glue on our roof and could hardly afford to put select redwood on our backyard decks, let alone use it as a hidden building material.

The building has great bones and tons of embodied energy.

Embodied energy, in simple terms, is the amount of energy embodied or stored in something natural or manmade. If it is natural, that includes considerations of how long it took to create, and whether it can still be created or grown, or is rare. What is the investment to replace the same thing in today’s costs? (This is assuming you can recreate that which is being thrown away or torn down. In most cases — like historical buildings — you cannot.)

Embodied energy is the core element to life-cycle costs and the reason recycling is so important. If you can buy something cheaply but it doesn’t last and needs to be replaced or repaired over and over again, its life-cycle costs add up each time more energy and resources have to be used to reproduce the same thing. If the item cannot be recycled, then its embodied energy is lost.

Remember, it is about not just the materials that go into the widget, but also the energy to take the materials to the manufacturing plant, the energy to make the widget, the energy to transport it to market and the energy to destroy the widget, bury it in a landfill or recycle it.

Take a material like glass: Glass uses a lot of resources and a lot of energy to produce, but it is endlessly recyclable and uses less energy to recycle and reform than to create new. If recycled, it has a complete life cycle — cradle to grave.

The point? We live on a planet with 7 billion people. We are not the most populous country, not the smartest, not the richest. We are, however, the most wasteful. As if the planet were our convenience store.

We need to start valuing resources as if they’re scarce, which they will be, if the world starts consuming at the rate of the U.S. We need to value the air we breathe and the water we use, for ourselves and for manufacturing. We need to truly value what we have already have — like the treasure of time in historical buildings — and use our intellect to repair our environs instead of decimating them.

• For a change: Buy products that can be recycled in packaging that can be recycled.

• To make a difference:

Fix it rather than toss it. Keep what you have working as long as possible.

• To make a stand: Calculate your footprint on the world. Are you a gas-guzzling Hummer or a fuel-efficient Mini?

• Christina D.B. Frankel has lived in Tracy for more than 22 years and is an architect and mother of three. Her column, Living Green, runs every so often in the Tracy Press. She can be reached at

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July 27, 2012
Amen. This is a good part of why I prefer to drive cars from the 1960s and or 1970s. They are actually built to last. Rather than having to buy a new one, shipped all the way from Japan, every few years you can do the environment a great favor by maintaining and continuing to use long lasting American products.

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