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Posts Tagged ‘Recession’

Every time I turn on the radio, I hear about the importance of creating more green jobs. People in political positions that historically could care less about where we are getting our energy are now hollering for wind power (or whatever alternative energy source), not necessarily to help the environment, but to create more work for people. Either way, it is generally a win-win, with the exception of some greenwashing and the Nantucket situation I mention in the below caption. It is also a reminder of how building anything green is seen as the hope to get through this recession. Of course, we don’t always have to create jobs through building…there are a whole lot of other options for people in the building (noun, not adjective) trades, we just tend to forget about them because we’ve spent decades of bulldozing and building new because it was cheap, easy, and profitable.

Cape Wind, Inc. has won a long-time battle to build 130 wind turbines that would be 440 feet tall, taller than the Statue of Liberty. The turbines would be illuminated and spread over a 25-square mile area in the federal waters that lie in the middle of Nantucket Sound, the seascape that is mostly enclosed between Nantucket Island, Martha’s Vineyard, and Cape Cod. While I am naturally a proponent of alternative energy, surely this didn't have to be such a smack in the face of the 12th generation Native Americans, local residents and hertitage conservationists that have been clogging up meeting halls in protest of this for years. There are sooo many ways to skin this cat. For more on this issue, check out the Preservation Nation blog.

So this got me thinking about how we got through tough times in the past, namely a little known event called the Great Depression. While I survived my own great depression in high school by falling in love (aww, I AM pretty!) and finally chucking my Pearl Jam tape out the window, the U.S. Government had to be a little more creative. Enter the Historic American Building Survey (HABS).

In 1933, the National Park Service established HABS as a way to kill 2 birds with one stone: to mitigate the negative effects on U.S. history and culture caused by rapidly vanishing architectural resources, and to create desperately needed jobs for architects, draftsmen, and photographers at the same time. If you work in any kind of building field, you realize just how relevant this is today. An archive of historic architecture was created as a result of this initiative, and we now have a database of primary source material. Needless to say, many of these buildings—many of the earliest buildings that were built during a time when we were just trying to figure out who we were as a new nation—no longer exist outside of these records. The loss is devastating of course, but the way I see it, if I can’t still have my grandma around, I’ll at least be glad to have her photo at my fingertips.

I just wanted to take this opportunity to show off one of the drawings that my grad school class did for the Stephen Douglas monument in 2007, now in the HABS collection in the Library of Congress. You are welcome, SAIC HPRES class of 2008. You can search these archives online, and should!

Obviously many of these documents collected by architects and draftsmen in the 1930s were hand drafted plans of these structures, which is not something that we would likely do today due to time and materials needed. HABS now accepts (and actually encourages) CAD drawings, however, which, while not as romantic and fun to frame and hang in the living room, makes more sense as architecture firms want people who can work on computer drafting programs now. And what’s even cooler is that the National Park Service is also now using technology that can measure structures in unprecedented detail. Currently, Mount Rushmore is in the process of being scanned by ground-breaking 3-D laser scanning technology that can capture sub-centimeter details. Wow. This is part of a project called the Scottish 10 by Historic Scotland and the Glasgow School of art to scan a total of ten world heritage sites around the world. Let’s train more people on how to use this kind of technology and create another boom in heritage conservation in the U.S. while also creating more jobs.

Maureen Young from Historic Scotland preps one of the laser scanning stations to begin scanning Borglum's model in the Sculptor's Studio. Image and caption taken from the NPS website, photo by Amy Bracewell.

There is not only work in building new. Let’s move into the future by looking more closely than ever at the past.

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I’m all about finding the positive side-effects of the current recession, for example, now that I can no longer afford to go out to eat often, I have learned to cook like 5,000 more things and can wow my friends with my dazzling kitchen skills! Yes, so the recession has simply made me more lovable and you can’t put a price on that. And even though my own income is, well, let’s say modest right now, much of the work I AM getting is somehow the result of positive effects of the recession. Grants abound and conservationists, preservationists, and environmental advocates are all benefitting in some way. And I like to think the general public benefits from all of our efforts, even if they don’t know it yet.

A recent New York Times article explained how land conservationists are scooping up acres of land in places that were already purchased by developers to build on. Depressed real estate prices have effectively chopped the heads off of development projects all over the county. Because of this, state and local governments, conservationists, and non-profit groups like the Trust for Public Land are purchasing thousands of acres of open land that should have been protected in the first place. This land will now be “put aside in perpetuity for parks, watershed protection or simply preservation of open space.”

California's Bruin Ranch was once listed for $30 million, but the oak-studded, riverfront land could now be protected for just $13 million. The collapse of the housing market has had a silver lining for open-space advocates. Land conservancy groups are buying up whatever they can, but largely rely on donations to do this.

There have also been a considerable benefits in terms of building preservation. First of all, there are plenty of grants out there now, and will soon be more, to weatherize existing buildings. Also, because of the housing bust, homeowners are staying put more rather than take a huge loss on their home, and making existing homes more efficient. This lessens the demand for new construction, of course. And yes, I know, people are out of work as a result, but with billions of dollars being poured into programs like “Cash for Caulkers,” hopefully more construction workers will be trained on how to retrofit existing buildings. There is plenty of research out there now that shows how projects on existing buildings actually generate a lot more work than building new.

Main Streets like this one in Rockford, Michigan will be able to take advantage of beefed up preservation tax credits for restoration and repair projects.

An interesting article from a Real Estate news source talks about how Michigan’s Governor has signed legislation that will bolster the historic preservation tax credit to help downtown areas. Beyond the typical 20% tax credit, plans that cost $250,000 or less will receive additional funding. This will be a huge help to smaller downtown areas in the state and help increase local business as well as tourism.

Beyond this, I would venture to guess that building owners across the country would be more likely to pursue landmark designations in an effort to get that tax credit for repairs in the midst of a financial downturn. Hmmm, also more money for preservationists. Can you even imagine how much more land and many more historic properties will be left alone and/or protected because of this? I mean, it’s all pretty darned exciting, folks.

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I can’t even count how many times people say that being rich doesn’t mean being happy. Of course, most of us still spend a majority of our time complaining that if we just had XXX amount of money, our lives would be oh, so much better. In fact, today alone I heard three people say this, myself included, even though I had already been thinking about this blog entry.

I’ve been reading Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy and whoa, is it interesting. I’ve been meaning to read it for a while, but the word “Economy” made me hesitate—when I waited tables in grad school I had to go to the kind bartender Mary Ellen and ask her to calculate the change for me all the time. Calculus=not too hard, but when it comes to money, I am dumb as a box of hair. That said, I actually love this book so far, so don’t be intimidated by the fact that it revolves around economics.

McKibben talks about how off base we are in terms of what we place value on and how our market needs to be completely revamped. This is not a new idea, and it is certainly not an American revelation (quite the contrary). Different groups, universities, and economists around the globe are looking at how to measure a country’s progress or regress by the amount of pollution or disease, meaning places are more valued if they are less polluted and have a better overall quality of life. Some examples: in 2005, the Brits announced plans develop an “index of well-being”; the Director of Canada’s statistics bureau is trying to measure education, environmental quality, and ”community vitality”; and the Australians have an “inclusive wealth framework.” The University of Vermont is also at work on the “Earth Shareholders Report,” which holds to this really crazy idea that the planet actually belongs to all of us. It shows data and graphs of timber harvests and fish stocks to detail just how much of our investment depreciates annually.

Another important point is that we are plundering all of our natural resources and because of this, we simply can not keep getting richer and richer off of them. Economists will eventually have to start incorporating ideas of sustainability into their predictions and work—these resources are not endlessly sustainable and therefore we are endangering the ability of future generations to gain economically from them.

And then McKibben just spells it out, asking the question, “What does rich mean? Even if I am getting richer, am I getting happier?“ Of course anyone reading this is thinking, “well no, we aren’t.” And not only that, we are making less money overall and working harder than ever before (and as many of us know, with far fewer benefits). What does this have to do with preservation, you ask? Well, we have to look to the past to figure out what went so very, very wrong and why industrialized countries are showing steady declines in happiness polls.

Longer-term homeownership matters because we are way too disconnected from our communities, and in my experience, the most well maintained neighborhoods have people who actually CARE about their neighborhoods. This is good for safety, schools, community, and personal finances. We also have become such vagabonds, moving from place to place every 5 years, that I think this has honestly really decreased the amount of pride and happiness we have in our home, the place that we LIVE, because it is seen merely as a temporary investment. Of course, we also need to deplete fewer resources and make our homes more efficient vs. just trashing them.

Sometimes we need to step back and ask, 'will this purchase really make me happy?'

Beyond that, older neighborhoods tend to have a Main Street where people can walk and gather and get what they need and more available around them. You don’t have to drive everywhere. Some degree of density is key both environmentally, but also in terms of community and health.

McKibben borrows a quote that I am now going to borrow again: “if you market something a certain way, people will bid $1.50 for $1.00.” This is clearly what we have been doing with real estate, and unfortunately people are now really paying the price for it. There is also a passage that mentions that “short term behavior can get out of kilter with long term goals,” and I feel that the real estate boom in the 2000s has caused tremendous numbers of well built, historic properties to be smashed to bits and replaced with crap for the short term gain of a few. This is, of course, utterly irreversible and we’ll all “pay” for it when we look back and realize all the we have lost for…nothing really.

So I say let’s all wake up and be happy again. Let’s stop complaining that we didn’t have $100,000 bequeathed to us for no reason and pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. Know our community, get involved, and look out for each other. Walk to the local Main Street and spend $1.50 on $1.50 or better yet, get a little sentimental and take a minute to look around at what’s around us. It is likely way more than enough. So let’s all remember how to relax and be happy with all the amazing things that we already have, from the walls around us to the slippers on our feet, which, in this household, last a wonderfully (some might argue horrifically) long time.

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