St-Anns-warehouse Brooklyn via wiki

Why Reusing Buildings Should Be the Next Big Thing

At the inaugural Rio Conference on the Global Environment in 1992, three facts became abundantly clear: the earth was indeed warming; fossil fuels were no longer a viable source of energy; and the built environment would have to adapt to this new reality. That year I published an essay in the Journal of Architectural Education called “Architecture for a Contingent Environment” suggesting that architects join with both naturalists and preservationists to confront this situation. Preservationists subsequently suggested that the profession consider adaptive reuse of historic buildings in its sustainability strategies, because reuse saves energy wasted in new construction, and generates less construction refuse as well. In their first set of guidelines, the engineers drafting LEED criteria ignored existing buildings altogether. Adaptive reuse has not been on the radar, at least until recently. That huge blind spot has lingered in the AE professions, though not among conservationists in the global community.


In 1990 the American Institute of Architects formed its Committee On The Environment (COTE) with widespread support from its members, but for more than a decade climate change remained a secondary concern among most architects. But message boards among AIA Fellows have followed the recent announcement by climate scientists that the earth is likely to warm so much that sea levels will rise and species will perish—so the discussion within the profession is heating up as well. As announced in the November issue of Architect, the official magazine of the organization, AIA members now have a set of metrics with which to measure the “green” performance of new buildings, and awards for buildings that follow those standards, putting it on an equal footing with LEED in that regard. A splashy cover story made it clear that the COTE “top ten” awards would feature prominently in subsequent issues of the magazine.


With that in mind it’s worth looking at these award winners from a more objective point of view than that of cheerleading editors paid by the AIA to promote its messages. Moreover, there are reasons for the leading advocacy organization in our industry to be more aggressive in pushing government leaders to support infrastructure, energy and sustainability policies that will confront this crisis head on.


The good news is that several of the award winners were for adaptive reuse of existing buildings rather than new construction. A school, a brewery, and a museum were among the vintage buildings that were given new “lives” through reuse or modernized systems. There was even an award for an energy-conserving retrofit of the historic Renwick Gallery in Washington, a Victorian building with wonderful materials but serious challenges to any HVAC conversion. There is nothing sexy about ductwork and high-tech heating, ventilation and air conditioning, but it can make a life or death difference for a historic structure. It was progressive simply to admit that our engineer colleagues were being creative here.


From what I could glean from the tables evaluating the ten projects, the adaptive reuse schemes were working to conserve energy and promote sustainability. But one puzzling case was the Kieran Timberlake studio in the former Ortlieb’s Brewery in Philadelphia, a highly touted example of using sensor technology to maximize energy conservation by using passive ventilation. Witold Rybczinski evaluated its paradoxical strategy in a recent article, so I hastened to look at the data supporting claims that architects on the KT staff were willing “guinea pigs” in tests that eventually proved the efficacy of putting people under a top floor partially-glass roof and expecting summer temperatures to be mitigated by computer controlled natural ventilation. A cover photo for the magazine sent the message that a “smart” renovated building could do things that the old, un-renovated version couldn’t.


I remember the mechanical systems classes I took at Penn in the 1970s with Jim Timberlake and Steve Kieran, and the insistence of our professors that tons of air conditioning was the only means of providing “comfort” to users, under the preposterous ASHRAE standards for summer cooling (68-70 F. and 55% RH). Nothing could be better than a challenge to those outdated attitudes toward thermal comfort and the use of Freon-cooled stale air rather than naturally cooled fresh breezes. Lots of historic buildings do this quite effectively without mechanical fans by trusting in convection and using rooftop louvers or monitors.


William Turner Barn, near Gardner, Kansas, from Wikipedia Commons. Example of top ventilation using convection.

According to PR from the Philadelphia firm and one of its principals, the architects had grown weary of trying out their daring research on paying clients, instead electing to buy a building and use it as an in-house laboratory. (A private school in Washington, D.C. removed a “rainwater retention garden” from its front plaza and replaced it with a playground after disagreeing with the architects about its efficacy). But it hardly made sense to subject unwitting staff members to an experiment that looked foolhardy from the standpoint of tenth grade physics: heat gain under any glass roof will make plants happy but fry humans, which is why we call them “hot houses.” Adding a lot of proprietary sensors to the space didn’t promise to tell researchers anything that a dry bulb thermometer or underarm sweat check couldn’t, and it was hardly reassuring that the computer program for evaluating staff comfort was called ROAST.


In fact, a summer under the sun was indeed unpleasant for staff, despite hopes that opening and closing rooftop openings would control temperature and humidity. Even shorts and t-shirts didn’t help. After three years and hundreds of staff surveys, the principals admitted that their ventilation scheme was a failure and installed air conditioning in the top floor. A dual-mode system allows for natural ventilation in temperate weather but not during hot summer days. Apparently the principals looked at the old building in much the same way as they did their new designs—as a way of proving that new technology always outstrips the time-tested solutions of past designers. Their failed attempt was touted as a success when results were published—much like recent briefings from the White House Press Office.


Why create a cover story based on a questionable claim? Were other award winners as ineffectual as the brewery? Indeed, many of the projects in COTE’s first “top ten” boasted rather modest achievements, even under the basic criteria adopted by the AIA last year. Why give an award to a house not unlike one of Glen Murcutt’s Australian passive sheds when multi-family apartment buildings in many cities lie empty, crying out for innovative adaptive reuse solutions? Are a few Net Zero energy buildings better than dozens of reused historic loft buildings with improved thermal performance in their windows, walls, and roofs? Low tech improvements such as organic gardens and rainwater cisterns gave a flagging school a whole new theme for its education programs, outstripping the high tech features of an SOM designed Federal Courthouse costing millions and achieving LEED Platinum status.


If the Class of 2018 is any indication, COTE laureates aren’t as green as their wreaths appear. It hardly seems as though the AIA looked critically at the national and global effects of these design metrics, as engineering firms such as London’s Arup Associates did recently. The Brits suggested in 2008 that only 15% of global architectural construction before 2050 be devoted to new buildings, with the rest going to the reuse and energy-conserving renovations of existing ones.


Consider the economic boon to the U.S. if 85% of construction were devoted to existing infrastructure improvements such as energy retrofits to multi-family housing in large cities. The AIA lobbying platform is vague about the benefits of this kind of sustainability spending, turning a blind eye to the positive effects of such investment in Europe and Asia. It’s time for architects to develop a clear infrastructure/reuse agenda and head for the offices of senators and congressmen with hard-hitting legislative proposals.


Just as it took decades for the AIA to promote historic preservation as one of its core concerns, and more than a century to honor a living female architect with its Gold Medal, it has not provided critical leadership by advocating for the adaptive reuse of existing buildings. With a new Congress and perhaps a coming leadership change in Washington, our flagship organization has a chance to make amends for these oversights, and perhaps shift public attitudes toward the most challenging crisis in human history. Just as preservationists should pursue reuse instead of harping on pure restoration, architects should be shifting their attention toward additions and renovations rather than showering praise on high tech green machines.   

Featured image: St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, renovated by Marvel Architects and DBI Projects. Photo by Pavel Antonov. 


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