February 18, 2008 Economics, Historic Districts, Technology, Vision and Style Comments (0) 1098

Friday I gave my first Powerpoint lecture on Barry Byrne, although I have given lectures on the only Prairie School architect to build in Europe for 10 years – it was all slides until a couple of years ago. Great audience for the break-the-box lecture series at Unity Temple and kudos to new UTRF Executive Director Emily Roth! Saturday, sold the house. Tomorrow, discussing The Modern with SAIC colleagues, then off to DC to meet with AIA on putting preservation into architectural curricula.

It is amazing how resistant some architects are to preservation. They see it as stifling creativity. Huh? Do you define creativity by how blank your slate is when you start? By how much you get to twist and reshape the world without input from others? Is that dumb or what? Isn’t it harder and MORE creative to devise an architectural solution in the midst of existing conditions? Aren’t there always existing conditions? I don’t get it, but maybe that is because I don’t mind formal and discursive oppositions taken by new architectural interventions into existing fabric. Plus, if blank slates are better for creativity, why does every bit of exurban landscape LOOK EXACTLY THE SAME? I suppose one answer is that architects weren’t involved, but that just begs the question Why Not? At any rate, many architecture schools teach no preservation even though three-quarters of all architectural commissions are for existing buildings.

This resistance is especially amazing in the new GREEN GREEN GREEN environment. How can you run out and get a LEED certification and use it to SELL NEW PRODUCT? How is selling new product sustainable? “I made it out of bamboo so it is renewable.” Yeah, well, I made it out of what was already there. “I used recycled materials” Great – how did they get there? In a fusion-powered truck? My materials WERE ALREADY THERE. Green may be the newest fashion but if architects and others want to prove that they are more than fashionistas they are going to have to embrace a sustainability you can’t buy at Home Depot. You can’t buy sustainability – you have to make it locally, ideally on-site. That’s called preservation.

There is a perception problem caused by numbers. In real estate, people value buildings and their systems and materials and finishes based on age, which makes sense for about 10 years. They talk about a new building as if it were 10 better than a building 10 years old and 100 better than a building 100 years old, but this assumes that all buildings at all times were created with the same lifespan. That is not so. In fact, buildings built before 1930 are generally designed to last for a hundred years or more, from the structure to the windows and doors. Buildings built before 1920 are also more energy efficient than buildings built between 1920 and 2000, on the whole. This actually makes sense if you study history. From 1945 to 1970 we had to build tons of buildings quickly. We had lost a generation of craftsmen, and we had gained a military industrial production system that could churn out cheap buildings quickly. These were not made to last – in fact, they were designed like other postwar consumer products, to become obsolescent so we would buy more and stimulate the economy. They were also built during a rare period in history: from 1945 to 1970 energy was cheap. Energy was not cheap in 1910 and it was not cheap in 1880. But it was cheap in 1960, so we switched from double glazing to single glazing, from plaster to drywall, from subfloors to plywood and from cavity walls to platform frames. The problem is arithmetic. Since we know that buildings 40 and 50 years old are inefficient, we think that buildings 90 or 110 years old must be more inefficient, when the opposite is true. The past does not work arithmetically. A building 100 years old can last twice as long as a building built 50 years ago. This even applies to systems. We have an older boiler heating our house right now and the heating contractor advised against upgrading it to the modern ones that operate at a low and high setting and are thus more efficient. Why did he do that? Because ours already operates on those more efficient settings! That was how they used to design boilers! Like double glazing.

Next time you try on your latest green fashion, see if the mirror isn’t reflecting more than a little history.

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