Archive for April 19th, 2009

My son, somewhat irritated, said to me, “You always do more than what is expected of you.”

May it always be so.

I was off to pick up six bags of litter.

It’s early afternoon on perhaps one of the prettiest days this year and I received a call from Tracy Wilson of Stewart Street. She called to to tell me that, because she was going to be out of town next week, she and her tenant had decided to clean up Evelyn hill. She had been hearing so much about the Spring Cleanup, she wanted to be a part of it, no matter what the predetermined timeline was. What wonderful news, but more importantly, what an inspiration.


I told her that, unfortunately, the gift certificates for the free lasagna dinner were only for the 25th, to which she replied that she had no interest in our offering; she was much more interested in seeing that hill cleaned up.

This unremarkable photo of a stretch of road on the West End is a direct result of Tracy and her friend. They picked up six bags of refuse which my son and I were happy (well, I was) to pick up in my van and haul away. Now, the only remains along this roadway are the browning leaves God intended for fertilizer.

Which moves me on to my second category: what are people thinking.

My next photo is of this lovely day at Sassafras Park, where perhaps 40 children and adults were enjoying the warming weather. The very first thing you see when you drive up is the garbage can overflowing and blowing down the hill, while people blithely walk past it and sit only a few feet away on benches provided at the playground. I was stunned. One woman actually directed her son to throw a cup into the can while I watched!


It is this total disinterest (pathological disconnect) that borders on the criminal. How can so many parents visit day after day and not take the opportunity to teach their children about civic duty and personal responsibility? How disappointing.

In the end, government can only do so much. The rest depends on us.

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Ethics of Adaptive Reuse
by Vani Bahl

Today’s renewed interest in “green” architecture should heighten attention to the ethic of preservation, as a cornerstone of sustainability. Now that the idea of recycling waste has permeated our culture, I believe we should adopt the slogan, “recycle wasted architecture.”

The case for adaptive reuse is not just nostalgic but economic. Construction costs are growing, we can’t afford to rebuild the environment every generation. By every accepted economic index, including increased tax revenues and increased business activity, recycling in architecture proves its viability.

For preservation to succeed, we have to shed our old habits of tearing down old buildings and starting over. Instead, we should see architectural residue from the past as a repository of vast physical, human, and cultural energy.

In Rajasthan, India, I have found numerous examples of 15th century structures that have been restored and reinhabited. The Neemrana Fort Palace, once a ruin, is now a heritage hotel. Other structures, reduced to near rubble, are crying out for new life. Though damaged, wall and ceiling surfaces can be restored, providing ready-made rich interiors. We can benefit from the several-century-old craftsmanship, preserving that human energy.

Preservation, restoration, and rehabilitation in architecture cause much less destruction to our natural resources than new construction. To appreciate this, architects must be sensitive to the energy used in the production and assembly of materials needed for new buildings, from then – origin to their end of life and subsequent reuse.

Statistics reveal that building construction consumes 40 percent of the raw materials entering the global economy every year. Interestingly, about 85 percent of the total embodied energy in materials is used in their production and transportation. Even before they reach the construction site, building materials have consumed large quantities of fossil fuels.

If all the hidden costs were spelled out in the balance sheet, the recycling of architecture would be perceived as the only rational strategy for the management of material resources. Then we could appreciate huge areas of abandoned and semi-abandoned built tissue as resources, not obstacles for future growth.

Modern construction methods are incredibly wasteful of resources. Up to 25 percent of the total waste generated in the United States, India, and other countries is directly attributed to building, construction, and demolition activities. These — often hidden — waste products can be environmentally hazardous and polluting, both as solids and in the atmosphere.

Demolition of existing buildings wastes the embodied energy as well as the energy consumed in tearing the building down, which can be considerable, given the quality and strength of older structures. Add to this the cost of incinerating demolition debris, and the wasteful use of land in fill sites.

Designers sensitive to sustainable practices can establish a recycling program to reduce the amount of solid waste resulting from construction and choose materials which are themselves either recyclable or reusable.

By contrast, adaptive reuse is much more labor-intensive than new construction, because it involves the reconditioning the existing structures to adapt to modern day requirements. This dependence on human resources encourages the local community to participate and potentially revives a vernacular rhythm in architecture. This activity can remind us that vernacular architecture is one cornerstone of our identity.

Conserving Cultural Energy
The evolution of our societies is reflected in our building types and styles. This relationship gives older buildings a character we value and identify with. However, the corporate mentality does not seem to appreciate the long-term economic value of buildings nor their cultural spirit. Such devaluation is part of so-called “globalization.”

The famous quote by Louis Sullivan, “form follows function,” seems to have become an outdated philosophy, as has “form follows culture,” by Indian artist Satish Gujral. Today’s corporate approach to architecture often would suggest that these sentiments could be reworded as “form follows fashion.” Many modern buildings do not reflect the richness and complexities of cultural evolution. Few contemporary designers seem to value the emotional spirit of architecture.

When a building of historic merit is preserved or restored for adaptive reuse, its cultural energy is also “recycled.” History brought back to active duty, and the elements of the built fabric — walls, floors, windows, doors, and roof — once again envelop a space to connect inside with outside to keep out the weather.

Very likely, the old structure was strategically placed to get the best views and optimum orientation to the sun and wind and climate. It might have been built to ensure security of the occupants and to strike a balance between the built mass and the open spaces.

Old buildings preserve the local culture and identity and create a sense of belonging. In a way, we recycle embodied human resource energy along with material energy. We bring alive the past to be a part of the future, creating important connections through time.

Do we wish to erase the link by dumping the stone that has witnessed passing phases of humanity into some land-fill site? Or, is it truly “green” to avoid the landfill and grind up community memory into bulk aggregate? When do we start to value real architecture above a consumptive fascination with mere newness and fashion?

Vani Bah!, Associate AIA, has worked on design and research projects in her native India and in the United States. Her work includes hotel design and planning, campus planning, housing projects, vernacular architecture, and historic preservation.

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