Posts Tagged ‘Demolition’

Lately I’ve been thinking about my mortality. A lot. In fact, I am pretty much always thinking about my mortality—it’s just a sweet, charming little thing I do. To exacerbate this, I spend most of my time trying to save buildings and the environment from being utterly destroyed. I think this is especially traumatizing for me with buildings, because we all hold onto the idea that like a paper cut, the environment can heal and regenerate itself. Buildings just die, either in a particularly public, violent way, or over an excruciatingly long period of decay. So, while I realize that buildings don’t have a central nervous system, I still feel utterly compelled to save them, even when I know that they will eventually die by bulldozer, fire, water, whatever. And so I’m compelled to explore this today, mostly because it’s interesting to me and because I understand that if a preservationist doesn’t understand their own preservation philosophy, whatever remains of it will be utterly compromised because, well, it’s easier to compromise when you don’t know why you believe what you say you believe.

Hi, I'm moisture infiltration. I will eventually kill every building that government officials and wars happen to miss.

So I’m going a little deep here today, folks. I’m thinking about the phenomenon of “death anxiety” and how it relates to preserving structures and also, by extension, the environment. Back to the question of “why do we preserve buildings when we know that they will eventually die anyway?” Well, why do we fight to preserve our own lives when we know that while that ginseng may help us remember who we are a little longer, our body is in a constant state of decay? We can stave things off for a bit—slap on a new coat of paint and do a little repointing when we break down or look a little old—but really, well, you get the point. We’re going to die. In fact, we’re probably going to die sooner than the brick two-flat we live in.

So this brings me to culture because decay logic just confuses me more. I don’t think we should ever think about preservation without thinking about culture. Sure, it is also important environmentally to reuse, repair, keep stuff out of landfills and stop using crazy amount of energy to create replaceable, throw away items or entirely new buildings when a viable structure already exists. But once we realize that everything eventually decays, we look to culture and symbols to immortalize us. Culture gives us a sense of place and meaning. We have flags, religious beliefs, social mores, clothing, language, and yes, architecture that will represent a big part of who we are long after we are gone.

Maybe you don't know why I matter, but you totally know I matter. Weather done taken its tole on me, but clearly everyone will be sad when I'm totally gone and people will be SUPER PISSED if anyone tries to obliterate me. Also, I apparently know how to talk!

These symbols are a part of who we are, they externalize our collective believe system, and that’s why they are so important to us. And while this may seem simplistic—to hold onto icons as a physical manifestation of our belief systems—I think it’s incredibly important. These objects remind us that we are part of something larger, a kind of family. Our culture, and, by extension, our value system, gives us a road map for acceptable behavior, a system by which we can measure right and wrong and act accordingly. This is a large part of why I prefer to landmark districts over single properties—it’s an easier way to preserve cultural values and hence, actions. When you know your neighbors, you feel more responsible for them and act more in accordance with a more general system of values, i.e. you don’t let your property fall into disrepair or sell it to a developer who just realized that they can build a 3 story box on your lot that will break up your entire street line. A cultural value system also gives us a way to excel. A system of values that is shared by a group allows an individual to rise in the ranks, i.e. to have the greenest or best-restored house on the block. It fosters a healthy competition and holds up a system of pride and respect.

Now I know it’s easy to be all “but the mob mentality leads to extremism” and yadda yadda. I know. I get it. But this is the other side of the coin, and I think that is sheds some light on why, why oh why, many of us spend so much of our time fighting to save our physical environment. I mean, right? Symbolism? Values? Discuss.


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The other day I was visiting a friend and discussing possible options for her soon-to-be eco-friendly modular home. I went home afterward and stumbled upon a website about the demise of Coney Island while surfing the web for vacation rentals in New Orleans. And something clicked: deconstruction. A typical random chain of events ala internet, but seeing a bunch of constructed floats and ferris wheels reminded me of an old house catalog called “A Book of Plans.” This was a book that the Chicago House Wrecking Co. put out in 1913.

An old add from the Chicago Home Wrecking Co. in The American Blacksmith. You buy the materials, which were likely from the dismantling and deconstruction of local fairs, and receive A Book of Plans for free!

Around the turn of the last century, several pattern books were put out for homeowners to help them achieve their dreams. Books like Gustav Stickley’s “Craftsman Homes” were meant to make building easy and cheap for homeowners by cutting out the need for architects or craftsmen. Many people know of the Sears Catalog homes, but there were quite a few others models that took off as well. Some of my favorite older catalog companies, like the Chicago House Wrecking Co. also sold all of the wood and materials needed for their plans. By obtaining the rights to dismantle the Colombian Exposition and scavange other local fairs, homeowners were able to basically buy a giant doll house that they would then put together on site. I have to wonder how many people in the Chicago area are made with wood from the Columbian Exposition. I find this to be and incredibly cool thought.

Coney Island's Thunderbolt was demolished in 1995 to allow some executives to have a better view of a minor league ball park. Thanks, Giuliani.

I have no idea what happened to all of the materials that were smashed to bits at Coney Island, but I couldn’t find a single article about how any of it had been recycled. Please, if anyone out there does know, I’d love to hear about it.

Coney Island. Thor Equities must have felt something during this.

And word to all of the new green kit home companies that are sprouting up all over tarnation: amusement parks are going bankrupt on a daily basis in this economy. Get dibs and save some of that old growth wood!

A cottage from greencottagekits.com, which touts traditional homes looking towards tomorrow. Seemed like an interesting contemporary example of the kind of home the Chicago Chouse Wrecking Co. would have advertised.

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Ah, once again, I’ve had a milli-second of downtime this weekend, which has lead me to think about the philosophy of preservation. I went skiing out in Wisconsin and squealed with delight each time I passed a barn that looked like it was about to completely collapse. Drinking schnapps and hot chocolate in a ski lodge will make one reflect on their reactions.

Morley Baer published a book that looked at barns from 1951 to 1994 and showed off why rural architecture is so very, very breathtaking. That said, I would appreciate it if one of my readers would buy me California Plain: Remembering Barns. Thanks.

I spend my time saving buildings and arguing that we should reuse existing structures whenever possible for both cultural and environmental reasons. But one thing I wrestle with is the fact that culture is not a static thing that can be simply preserved three-dimensionally. Barns are supposed to be used and used and used until they almost fall over, and then used another 10 years after that until they finally do fall over. That’s part of the culture. And then the boards can be reused, etc. I am not against restoring barns by any stretch of the imagination, and there are some great initiatives out there (my favorite is called “Barn Again!“), and no doubt there is a preservation philosophy unto its own involving barn restoration.

A barn returning to the earth in Indiana. Look at those bones!

But I remember learning about various preservation philosophies throughout history and being especially drawn to John Ruskin, whose philosophy was that a building’s beauty increased with its age, and a building’s beauty was not fully achieved until it was in ruins. Watching a building decay is possibly the most beautiful thing in the world, at least in my opinion. You can see the construction, how the materials work together, how the wind and rain and sun have changed each part of the materials. You can see how time and the elements have taken a bright, rigid, angular structure and slowly, over decades, worn it down to rusted patinas and bent it into organic forms that will gracefully return back to where they came. I mean good lord, doesn’t that just bring you to your knees? I might have to start a campaign for human/old barn legal unions.

Paradigm Music & Coffee in Sheboygan, WI. 70% of the materials used to renovate the space were recycled--some from the owner's parent's old barn--and non-motorized transportation to run errands and pick up goods for the shop. (Photo from The Sheboygan Press)

From an environmental standpoint, well, deconstruction is clearly the smartest route in a situation like this. A friend was telling me that she was just visiting her friend’s new cafe in Sheboygan that is made up almost entirely of recycled materials, much of which were salvaged from her family’s dilapidated barn (see above). It’s really, really hard to argue that that isn’t a creative and inspiring thing to do.

For the 2009 international Solar Decathalon competition, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign students focused on midwest farmhouse forms and recycled barn wood.

We are constantly replicating existing architectural forms and styles, but usually using new materials. Recently, there has been a push to once again focus on deconstruction and materials reuse. Where does that leave the beauty of decay–will people still be able to squeal in delight and delicious horror while looking at a barn that is still in use and just waiting to crush someone? How should preservationists feel about the preservation of materials but not form? Should we just let some buildings die in a more natural way instead of always harvesting their organs, so to speak? Can nostalgia and environmentalism coexist, and where does preservation fit into the mix? I expect a full report on my desk next week.

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Thinking about replacing that leaded glass fan light above your door, but can’t quite afford a $16,000.00 Healy and Millet Sullivanesque stained glass window from the local architectural artifacts dealer? Before you run to Home Depot, pause, for there is hope.

We have a real problem with historic materials stock in the Midwest. We like to bulldoze, build higher and “better” on lots in areas with liberal zoning, and toss most of the crushed and mangled debris into landfills. It’s cheaper–even with landfill penalties–and it’s a heck of a lot faster, so why not?

attic salvage

A thoughtful rehab project in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood. Windows, floor boards, old growth beams and other features were taken from one part of the home and reused in another. This is a great option if you are doing a major rehab, but a large material stock would make this kind of work considerably easier.

Fortunately, the City of Chicago is requiring more and more construction and demolition debris be recycled. Contractors now have to keep track of how much waste was generated at project sites and meet the recycling goals set forth in a new ordinance. In 2006, the goal was to recycle 25% of the debris at a job site, in 2007, the goal was 50%. This number keeps going up, though much of the language of the ordinance is wishy-washy and seems to imply that contractors are encouraged to do these things, rather than harshly penalized for not doing them. Also, the ordinance only applies to new residential buildings with four or more units, new non-residential buildings that are more than 4,000 square feet, or buildings requiring a certificate of occupancy (for more on what requires a certificate of occupancy, see Chicago’s Streets and Sanitation Website: http://tiny.cc/OmBrh). Um, there are hundreds of thousands of single-family homes, two- and three-flats in this city. Why are they exempt?

The Preservation Resource Center warehouse in New Orleans has thousands of reclaimed architectural features from hurricane-damaged homes. Local residents can buy this stuff for almost nothing. Much of this is old growth cypress that can withstand future flooding better than any newly harvested wood.

And, of course, recycling crushed debris is different from deconstructing a building and using that material stock to restore existing buildings. Unless we have a large, local stock of historic architectural features like windows, doors, molding, etc, the cost to restore an historic building–well, it just doesn’t make economic sense. Preservation should not be elitist. It’s a total turn-off to many–potentially even those who can afford it–and only hurts the movement.

Fortunately, as of February, we finally have a warehouse to store these materials in Chicago at the ReBuilding Exchange, http://www.delta-institute.org/rebuildingexchange/about.php. This initiative will create affordable stock for homeowners, create jobs, and divert literally tons of waste from landfills. Other cities around the the U.S. have had such resources for years, and it has made a huge difference, not only environmentally, but by helping to maintain the historic character of these cities. Once that cornice is gone, it’s gone forever. Nobody is going to spend the money to replicate it.

Material stock warehouses are an absolutely crucial step to making preservation viable. Please donate your items, volunteer, and visit the warehouse to encourage these efforts further.


Chicago's ReBuilding Exchange. Let's keep it going. You can write off donations!

I mean, old growth lumber, claw foot tubs…what else do you want, people? Paul Hawken estimates in Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, that “For every 100 pounds of product, we create 3,200 pounds of waste.” If you really want to be green, reuse what we already have whenever possible, folks.

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What are the predictions?

As the green building movements continues to gain momentum, there is a growing perception that a “green” house is made of straw bales, powered by wind turbines, and surrounded by an endless green landscape. This kind of thinking can get us into a lot of trouble as it promotes sprawl, new construction (along with a need to build new infrastructures), and encourages building new, which uses a tremendous amount of energy and creates a whole lot of waste.

hotel sprawl

Is this green? Not so much.

According to a 2004 report from the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, by 2030, about half of the buildings in which Americans live, work, and shop will have been built after the year 2000. Instead of responding to growth projections through creativity and adaptive reuse, 82 billion square feet will be created to replace existing space. The largest component of this building will be residential, with over 100 billion square feet of new residential space created by 2030.

What should we do?

Nobody is disputing that buildings will need to be replaced over time, and that new buildings are sometimes necessary. But why not respond by downsizing our lifestyles a bit? Why not focus on creating jobs that will renovate and retrofit buildings with energy efficient systems? It’s less expensive and more sustainable. Though I would also like to caution against gut rehabs, which produces exorbitant amounts of waste, and let’s be honest, often divide living space into ridiculous little hamster cage layouts to tout more bedrooms in real estate listings.

vintage interior

Preservationists need to work with designers and promote vintage buildings as a outlet for creative and forward-thinking people.

Let’s jump on the “vintage is cool” bandwagon, which is still going strong. Get young designers to stage rooms that mix old and new and get these images spread across pages in magazines that 30-somethings are reading. Let’s do a little research and find out who is buying homes now, get a demographic down, and target it. So much energy is spend defending ourselves as preservationists. It’s time to be on the offense.

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I’m still working out the mission statement, so here are my rambling, uncensored thoughts on the purpose of this site.

I created this site because I wanted a forum for people to discuss the following issues and keep each other updated on new technologies, policies, and ideas. After studying and working in both historic preservation and environmental work places and on various projects around the country, I’ve learned that these fields are absolutely essential to one another. Different cities have different approaches and policies, but essentially they are the ying and yang needed to bring about a more sustainable built world. Unfortunately, there is still a whole lot of tension between these two worlds. What I have noticed most often is that preservationists fear green builders are too quick to bulldoze and build new, and green builders feel that preservationists are a roadblock to progress.

It’s all hooey, really. There is absolutely no need for tension here, and hopefully we can find some middle ground and (god forbid) foster creative solutions. This is not to say that these issues are not legitimate, because of course, they are. And, of course, economics play a major role in all of this, but this can be overcome. We won’t be able to come up with creative solutions to make both of these fields interactive and prosperous (there is so much room for job growth here it is staggering) until we all gain a better understanding of the incentives and barriers in related architectural fields. Once we understand how we are alike and different, and what works and what doesn’t, we can more easily work together to affect change.

But first, we need to get over ourselves and break down some of the barriers. So here is what we need to do first in order to stop slamming our heads against a wall:

  1. Preservationists have to stop being on the defense and be more proactive. We are all in love with architecture, materials and the building arts and need to a better job of getting people excited about these things. In the eyes of most designers and architects, we are still the lame, crotchety old ladies that started this movement, ala Ann Pamela Cunningham. We need young, innovative designers and this new architectural energy on our side, so it’s time to rethink how we’ve been doing things and edit those Secretary of Interior’s Guidelines already. Let’s show that we want progress too, and learn to play with the hip kids.

  2. Green building people need to acknowledge the importance of embodied energy and to stretch themselves to focus on how to be creative within existing walls. You don’t always need a blank canvas. And history is cool. Not just cool, it’s fascinating. Not to mention a heck of a lot greener to preserve in most cases as these buildings—even at 100—are more sustainable than most of the new architecture that is going up. Retrofitting is so often the greenest option, but we need new technology to help us constantly improve our energy and water reduction, and to work better within existing structures.

History, artistry, sense of place, dwindling resources, indoor and outdoor air pollution—these things matter and are not incompatible. We are all well intentioned, so lets cut to the chase and get some work done. Educate me, educate yourselves, educate each other. Then let’s combine forces and take over the world.

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