New Construction Is Not Always the Answer
California, as with most American states, has a housing crisis. Unlike the rest of the country, it is actually working to ameliorate the situation, with private and public initiatives that critics can’t help but label inadequate. The Bay Area made accessory dwelling units legal by changing zoning laws, but that has hardly made a dent. Some cities are now pushing for additional upzoning to give developers more room to bring new buildings to market at lower rents. There are all sorts of studies, university sponsored or underwritten by the industry, that recommend more-or-less radical fixes for a seemingly unfixable problem. Environmentalists are naturally cast as villains because they don’t condone greenfield developments. And Californians are tough on their elected officials, as the current governor learned last year.
Amidst the fracas, UCLA planner M. Nolan Gray offered a recent essay in The Atlantic that settles the issue of whether or not to bring adaptive reuse to bear on the West’s biggest challenge—apart from global warming, earthquakes, forest fires, mudslides, floods, and the rest of the region’s plagues. As he writes: “In housing circles, one hears a lot of self-righteous discussion about the need for more preservation. And many American homes doubtless deserve to stick around. But the truth is that we fetishize old homes. Whatever your aesthetic preferences, new construction is better on nearly every conceivable measure, and if we want to ensure universal access to decent housing, we should be building a lot more of it.”
So, for Westerners who live in makeshift bungalows, trailer parks, trashy ’50s “dingbats,” and the odd crumbling concrete high-rise, it pays to build new and forget the Victorian painted ladies that made San Francisco a gay haven in the ’70s. San Francisco, the author argues, has more decrepit old houses than New Orleans or Charleston, South Carolina, because city fathers caved into historic preservationists back then, while they were also going easy on homeless junkies. Though I doubt he knows much about these two cities and their historic place in pioneering zoning and preservation law in the U.S., Mr. Gray feels sure that they got rid of extraneous housing stock without the nostalgia he sees affecting things in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where they “fetishize” old homes. New construction is “better on nearly every conceivable measure” than reusing old buildings, whatever their age and condition.
As one who has spent his career restoring and adding to historic houses, as well as researching domestic architecture, and who co-authored a book with Gordon Bock on the subject, I beg to differ. I am also surprised that The Atlantic published such a short essay on this complex and important subject. If one is going to argue so vehemently, one ought to do so in detail and have the facts straight; but Gray sees everything in black and white and uses facts sparingly.
When discussing the 20th century, one should also be aware that pre–World War II construction, despite its asbestos and lead paint, was among the most durable and well-engineered the world has seen.
It first pays to distinguish between the Eastern Seaboard and Southwest—where European colonists began building in the 16th century and left a considerable footprint on today’s cities and towns—and the Far West and Midwest, where building stock is younger by a century or more. When discussing the 20th century, one should also be aware that pre–World War II construction, despite its asbestos and lead paint, was among the most durable and well-engineered the world has seen—this according to many experts, including Henry Petroski of Duke University.
Fire safety is a red herring here. Developer McMansions from the past four decades are riddled with toxic substances, including flammable vinyl siding, and are apt to fall apart within a few decades due to poor construction. Though house fires can level a balloon-frame dwelling in minutes, very few were actually constructed in the U.S. before platform framing became the norm. Prewar apartment buildings in New York City have the highest value among all housing types and are the safest buildings once a few upgrades are made to sprinklers and building systems. The residents of London’s 1967 Grenfell Tower hardly felt safe when a fire began on the fourth floor in 2017 and spread up the exterior of the building, consuming a 2012 “upgrade” to the facade cladding. Unlike prewar buildings, it had only one central fire stair, since the brutalist structure was thought unlikely to need a second. So much of California’s housing stock is post–World War II that it does not make sense to claim it will resist fires or perform better thermally than East Coast buildings from before that time. Chicago, which endured the most destructive American fire prior to San Francisco’s, has an excellent fabric of brick, steel-frame, concrete, and wood-frame buildings that have never presented a major hazard. Miami Beach, on the other hand, allowed developers to build with nary a code restriction, resulting in apartment buildings that are now at risk of falling down due to poor design and aging, ill-maintained structures. (It looks as though San Francisco’s high-tech Salesforce Tower may go that way in a few years’ time.)
When costs are figured, it is essential to look not only at first costs in construction, as well as energy consumed, but also embodied energy and lifecycle cost projections. True, today it is still more expensive to renovate most historic buildings (especially smaller ones) than to build new, but only when ignoring data about the building’s original materials and its performance over a long period. Building anew creates more waste than any other human endeavor, so reusing any existing construction will reduce this contribution to landfills. It is also easier to design ADA accommodations, elevators, and super-insulating walls into new buildings. Better design standards, even in newer LEED documents, are making it easier to bring these improvements into old buildings. As government begins to address the infrastructure crisis, the market will soon reflect lower costs in renovation and reuse.
Sound attenuation is certainly a factor when people live in high-rises, or close to neighbors in a dense neighborhood. But city life is inherently noisy, and one can move to less-crowded environs if commuting is not an issue (which it usually is in California). Much prewar construction, with plaster partition walls, performs almost as well as highly-insulated gypsum board wall assemblies. Moreover, only luxury buildings commonly feature such sound insulation in all party walls, so one is not likely to find peace and quiet without shelling out extra cash.
Are new apartment buildings generally more pleasant, comfortable, and beautiful than old ones? Again, we can look at different regions and find varied opinions. In new towns out West, where there are fewer historic neighborhoods, it is likely the natives are used to well-landscaped and amenity-rich condominium complexes or gated communities that were built within the last few decades. Each entry into the market comes with extravagant claims, many now coded with “green” terminology, that will draw the most discerning buyers. As many who read Common Edge will know, cutting-edge design doesn’t always please the best-educated citizens of our divided nation.
In places with rich history and varied ethnic populations, there is substantial research suggesting that “traditional urbanism and architecture” attract high-income buyers and please virtually all homeowners, while new construction almost always falls short. The Congress for the New Urbanism publishes such research regularly, and several West Coast planners such as Peter Calthorpe, Stefanos Polyzoides, and Elizabeth Moule have designed successful communities based on CNU studies. In most cases, the new neighborhoods are inspired directly by old ones. Charleston’s Battery and Queens’s Forest Hills Gardens are still coveted places in which to raise a family, retire, or simply live the good life. Historic districts in Santa Barbara, Santa Fe, and Leadville are beloved places beyond the borders of California, New Mexico, and Colorado. Where would these states be without tourism?
Is it responsible to argue that by every reasonable measure new construction beats old construction? Apparently, Mr. Gray did not use every conceivable measure when making his case, so I can’t say I am convinced he is correct. I hope that critical readers of The Atlantic will make their own judgments based on wider evidence than he presented.
This does not mean that the U.S. won’t need 700,000 units of housing every year to fill its huge housing gap over a 10-year period. It simply means that those in the building, planning, and design professions should look to all appropriate solutions when addressing the crisis. In many areas new construction will be the only logical alternative, but when choosing dwellings, one size has never fit all inhabitants. In most urban areas there are redundant office buildings, warehouses, churches, and schools that citizens want to save if new uses can be found for them. With tax credits like those in the 1983 federal legislation prior to its Reagan-era amendments, and a robust infrastructure spending program, these buildings will be attractive for developers. Builders will make money on reuse and won’t need to build new housing in neighborhoods that people love to live in. It makes no sense to argue for urban renewal—destruction of old fabric for the sake of redevelopment—when so many excellent buildings stand empty in virtually every American city (yes, Mr. Gray, even Los Angeles).
If a building is clearly old, deteriorated beyond repair, and of little aesthetic merit, remove it. But don’t do the typical American thing and condemn it simply because it isn’t bright and shiny and new. There are adobes in New Mexico that have stood for four centuries, and which still provide comfortable and attractive accommodations, though the plumbing has been replaced a few times over the years. In a dry, mountain climate, these buildings outperform the best Net Zero houses, and they are planted like cacti in specific locales. People identify with them, treasure them, and take care to see that they remain in good use and repair. As Stewart Brand reminds us, most old buildings learn and adapt to changing circumstances—nothing good will come of destroying them.
Featured image via the Greater Syracuse Land Bank.