Traditionalists be forewarned: This is not a historic preservation story. This is a lesson in adaptive use in the most extreme form, with an environmental focus. I’m hoping to spark a conversation about the broader meaning of “preservation”.
I like to save things—to refinish, reuse, recycle, repurpose, and re-imagine almost any material or tool that might have value. This inclination is most likely traceable to my Idaho roots. My Uncle Arnie taught me carpentry. He put me to work deconstructing redwood decks and hardwood floors in our town, pulling nails and screws, scraping and sanding to restore the beauty of good, old wood. We built an entire cabin out of salvaged materials. We kept the family farmhouse—a former fruit-packing station built in 1912—in great condition and improved it over time by refinishing and strengthening. The family house is in better shape today than ever before.
Not every building can or should be saved, but I agree with architect William McDonough who says that Americans tend to treat buildings like tents—we put them up and tear them down like they were disposable. I love historically significant buildings for the stories they tell, for the connections they make to those who have gone before me. There is also beauty in the prosaic and the everyday, so I bristle whenever I hear about the demolition of perfectly good buildings.
A recent report from Terrapin Bright Green makes the case that midcentury high-rise buildings are for the most part not worth saving. The report, which has a catchy name, Midcentury (un)Modern: An Environmental Analysis of the 1958-73 Manhattan Office Building, was sponsored by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and the Real Estate Board of New York, among others. The website Arch Daily called the Terrapin report a direct challenge to the Green Lab’s life-cycle analysis, The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse.
A direct challenge? Not exactly. The Terrapin report, which is a case study of a single Manhattan office building, is more nuanced. It concedes that many midcentury buildings can be improved and reused and raises many salient points about the tradeoffs of substantial alterations and retrofits versus demolition and new construction. It also makes a number of unwarranted assumptions. The authors make the case that the total energy consumption of a new, larger, energy-efficient replacement building could make up for the impacts of demolition in less than three decades. That’s not a small number—it’s consistent with the findings in The Greenest Building, but the Terrapin report glosses over the fact that 30 years of carbon emissions multiplied across hundreds or thousands of buildings is substantial. Additionally, the report is based on a reasonable analysis of one building, but assumes that the results are applicable to all buildings, which is inaccurate. My skeptical self says the report is basically an argument for upzoning and demolition to drive new development. I won’t go into further detail—it’s a short report and highly readable, so I encourage everyone to read it. (FYI: Two NTHP researchers who are primary authors of The Greenest Building peer reviewed the Terrapin study.)
It has me thinking, though, about midcentury high-rises in general. Specifically, how they relate to historic preservation, both formally (in terms of architectural significance) and more generally (in terms of environmental and economic value). What should be saved? What can be saved?
Since the Terrapin report uses a single Manhattan office building as the case study, I decided to find a case study that makes a counterpoint to the opinion of Terrapin’s Bill Browning, who says, “The tragedy of these buildings is that they can’t be adapted.” Really?
I didn’t need to look far. SERA Architects, just down Interstate 5 in Portland, Ore., recently completed a green retrofit of a 1974 International Style building, the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building. Located in the heart of downtown Portland, EG-WW is an 18-story, 525,000-square-foot facility that is home to more than 16 federal agencies and 1,200 federal employees.
SERA stripped the old building down to the concrete core and shell, and built a new LEED Platinum icon around those old bones. Retrofitting the building was not easy. The project summary says it all:
How do you transform an aging 1970’s office building into a high performance green building (HPGB) in 49 months, with a budget based on a repairs and alterations project? The challenges included reducing design from 24 month duration (typical GSA facilities standards) to 14 months; meeting ARRA and EISA performance criteria, and completely replacing all building systems and envelope with a budget set in 2005.
But they did it. A primary reason for success was the team’s use of an integrated delivery model that enabled rapid decision-making and excellent communication among all members of the team.
The building is expected to achieve a 50 percent reduction in energy use compared to the old building and a 60 percent water reduction compared to a typical building compliant with Oregon code. The facility is designed to meet the Federal Guiding Principles for High Performing Green Buildings and the Obama Administration’s directives for agencies to lead by example in environmental, energy, and economic performance. EG-WW is expected to achieve LEED Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for its use of cutting-edge sustainable design and technology.
There is a very important implication of this story: The alternative to retrofitting these mid-century buildings is demolition and replacement with larger buildings. That often means demolition of not just one building but many—entire blocks being leveled to accommodate larger footprints. What does this mean from a carbon perspective? What are the implications of one demolition on the surrounding community of buildings—will one demolition set off a domino effect on others that might have architectural and/or cultural relevance? How does block-scale demolition impact the look and feel of a neighborhood? To me, these are very much preservation questions.
As for mid-century high rise buildings—EG-WW demonstrates that they can have new life! Are there others? I’m hoping people send other examples of substantial alterations and retrofits that transform “buildings that can’t be adapted” into icons of reuse.
Editor's Note: For more on this subject, see a recent blog post by former National Trust Architect Barbara Campagna.