From Notre Dame to Yogurt Cups, Mary Warner, 2020.
challenge design history pragmatic historian preservation

From Notre Dame to Yogurt Cups: Toward a Grand Unified Theory of Preservation

This is a post I’ve spent years thinking about. When it comes to historic preservation, the focus tends to be on buildings and structures that are historically or architecturally significant. Through the National Register of Historic Places, there are 4 criteria under which a structure can be nominated: Those …

A. That are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or

B.That are associated with the lives of persons significant in our past; or

C.That embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or

D. That have yielded, or may be likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history.

While the National Register is specific to the United States, other countries also honor structures that are historically or architecturally significant. These are often the pretty or grand buildings or structures, places like the Maya site Edzna, the Roman aqueducts, the Taj Mahal, and the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. They’re the sorts of places that you know are important and worth preserving merely by being in their presence. It’s easy to make the case to save them.

It’s harder to make an argument to save more lowly structures like metal pole barns or an average house, or everyday items like single-serve yogurt cups. How can anyone seriously make a comparison between the preservation of Notre Dame and a yogurt cup? Watch me try.

The Value of Embodied Energy

Whether a monumental building or a modest plastic cup, each of these items contains the embodied energy of resources taken from the earth and the labor that went into creating them, from concept to design to construction or manufacturing. Sure, there are more materials within Notre Dame, from the stained glass rose windows down to the nails, but that doesn’t make the yogurt cup any less resource intense when you think about what it takes to transform petroleum into plastic and the volume of yogurt cups that are manufactured and discarded on a daily basis. In terms of its end-of-life effects on the environment, the yogurt cup taken en masse with all the other single-use plastics may have a larger negative impact than all of the materials used in Notre Dame precisely because of our laissez faire attitude about preserving them.

Turns out the petroleum industry knew full well that plastics could not effectively be recycled but sold the public on the idea in order to keep making money. The industry extracted a nonrenewable resource from the earth and transformed it into something that is extraordinarily difficult to break down. Plastics cause problems within the environment and for human health. Might that help us rethink preservation in terms of yogurt cups? Not for the cup itself but for the embodied energy it takes to create that cup and manage it after use?

Toward a Grand Unified Theory of Preservation

As I’ve been considering these ideas about preservation, I wanted to create a Grand Unified Theory of Preservation that could be applied across all types of human-made items and structures, no matter how small or large, regardless of whether they are considered “historic,” a theory that would also take into consideration Earth’s environment. Human beings are one part of a larger ecosystem and it behooves us to live lightly on this planet because it’s the only hospitable place we know of. With climate change, it is rapidly becoming less hospitable, so this is crucial work.

I was sidetracked for a long time in developing my theory because I was hung up on looking at each structure or item individually. Somewhere along the line, I had a breakthrough. While this has probably been discussed within the design community so that it’s not really much of a revelation, it feels like a major revelation to me.

Why not make my Grand Unified Theory of Preservation a set of design principles that would apply no matter what was to be created? The overarching goals are preservation of materials and embodied energy and the sensitive use of Earth’s resources for planetary and human health and safety. In setting preservation of materials and embodied energy the highest priority, we would also be preserving history because items and structures would be designed to last much longer than they are now.

Grand Unified Theory of Preservation: A Set of Design Principles

  • When selecting materials, default to renewable resources.
  • Pick materials that have the least transformation from the original resource. For example, a solid wood board versus chipboard.
  • Plan for whole-material use, with scraps and off-cuts being used for other products, rather than wasted. So, if you’ve got to use chipboard, make sure it was made from scraps. (I suspect a lot of manufacturers already follow this principle in order to save money.)
  • Choose easily recyclable or compostable materials. That means avoiding plastics for single-use items like yogurt cups. In the past, waxed cardboard containers used to be used for yogurt and cottage cheese. Why not return to it for its compostability? Metal tends to be one of the easiest materials to recycle.
  • Consider the longevity of use of the end product. Is it meant for one-time use, like product packaging, or is it meant to last hundreds of years, like dwellings or bridges, or somewhere in between, like electronics? Select materials based on longevity. For dwellings or other long-term structures, design them to be truly long-term. A 500-year or 1,000-year building should not be out of the question; a 25-year or 50-year building should be. (That link goes to a blog post I wrote that includes features for designing 500-year buildings. I wrote it in 2015. I told you I’ve been thinking about this for years!)
  • Use the fewest materials needed for what is being created.
  • Design for things to be easily repaired and/or deconstructed or dismantled so the materials can be reclaimed for other uses. Electronics are miserable for this. While Apple worked really hard to make its products intuitive for consumers to use, they also made them impossible for the average person to take apart and repair.
  • In order to make items easy to repair, there ought to be standardized construction methods. None of this screws-with-a-head-the-shape-of-a-flying-spaghetti-monster business. Manufacturers need to plan for consumers to be able to dismantle products with tools that are easily available.
  • Make products more affordable to repair than to replace. The concept of planned obsolescence has done untold damage to the planet. Enough of that.
  • Save petroleum-based plastics for uses for which there is no better alternative. Glass is a more inert substance, but it’s not the safest material to use in a shower, for example.
  • Use bio-plastics or plastics made of renewable and compostable materials rather than making them out of petroleum.

That’s what I’ve got so far for my Grand Unified Theory of Preservation. Some of these ideas came from discussing this with my husband, who understands the frustration of nonstandard parts and has learned a lot about preservation from furniture refinishing.

I’m certain there have to be designers, manufacturers, materials handlers, contractors, environmentalists, and others who have ideas to add to this list of design principles. Please feel free to share in the comments.

I’d love to be able to turn this into an elegant infographic at some point, but that’s going to take more thinking.

3 thoughts on “From Notre Dame to Yogurt Cups: Toward a Grand Unified Theory of Preservation”

  1. Very forward-thinkng Mary! Such ideas will gain more and more traction as time passes and climate change increasingly threatens life, in my opinion. I’ll be referring back to these ideas the next time I draft design guidelines. I feel like focusing upon embodied energy is more akin to conservation at this point, as opposed to the way we currently conceive of historic preservation. Post war resources (our current focus) don’t generally have the advantage of being very energy efficient, but they’re clearly very significant and worthy of preservation, in general.

  2. Thank you, John! I feel like being forward thinking is more about thinking deeply about what is happening, connecting the dots, and just laying it out as clearly as I can. Probably helps that I’ve been dealing with the practical aspects of all sorts of preservation for a couple of decades now. That’s given me the perspective of time and loads of observation over that time. Yes, embodied energy IS more akin to conservation, with conservation being an expanded notion of historic preservation. While historic preservation seems to concern itself with saving something “as is” and doesn’t always allow for changes needed in structures over time, expanding preservation to encompass embodied energy, seeing that energy as valuable, pushes preservation into conservation. With conservation, you actually want to plan for it ahead of time rather than simply react after the fact. This, to me, is why design of structures is so important. Can we design structures to be easily modified? To easily reclaim the embodied energy? To conserve? To preserve? And can we make them attractive enough that people will want to conserve and preserve them?

    I followed up this post with one tackling embodied energy in intangible things after feedback from David Grabitske, friend and history colleague. That post is here:

    Thanks for dropping by to read and leave a comment!


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