Reusing buildings should – and must – be the next Big Thing

Sustainability awards and standards touted by professional architecture organisations often stop at opening day, failing to take into account the day-to-day energy use of a building. With the current format unlikely to change, how can we rethink the way what sustainability means in architecture today? The first step might be to stop rewarding purpose-built architecture, and look instead to the buildings we already have.

In their first set of guidelines, the engineers drafting LEED criteria ignored existing buildings altogether. Adaptive reuse has not been on the radar, at least until recently. That huge blind spot has lingered in the AE professions, though not among conservationists in the global community.

In 1990 the American Institute of Architects formed its Committee On The Environment (COTE) with widespread support from its members, but for more than a decade climate change remained a secondary concern among most architects. But message boards among AIA Fellows have followed the recent announcement by climate scientists that the earth is likely to warm so much that sea levels will rise and species will perish—so the discussion within the profession is heating up as well.

As announced in Architect, the official magazine of the organization, AIA members now have a set of metrics with which to measure the “green” performance of new buildings, and awards for buildings that follow those standards, putting it on an equal footing with LEED in that regard.

More aggressive advocacy of re-use

There are reasons for the leading advocacy organisation in our industry to be more aggressive in pushing government leaders to support infrastructure, energy and sustainability policies that will confront this crisis head-on.

Are a few Net Zero energy buildings better than dozens of reused historic loft buildings with improved thermal performance in their windows, walls, and roofs? Low tech improvements such as organic gardens and rainwater cisterns gave a flagging school a whole new theme for its education programs, outstripping the high tech features of an SOM-designed Federal Courthouse costing millions and achieving LEED Platinum status.

It hardly seems as though the AIA looked critically at the national and global effects of these design metrics, as engineering firms such as London’s Arup Associates did recently.

ARUP backs buildings re-use

The Brits suggested in 2008 that only 15% of global architectural construction before 2050 be devoted to new buildings, with the rest going to the reuse and energy-conserving renovations of existing ones.

Consider the economic boon to the U.S. if 85% of construction were devoted to existing infrastructure improvements such as energy retrofits to multi-family housing in large cities. The AIA lobbying platform is vague about the benefits of this kind of sustainability spending, turning a blind eye to the positive effects of such investment in Europe and Asia.

It’s time for architects to develop a clear infrastructure/reuse agenda and head for the offices of senators and congressmen with hard-hitting legislative proposals.

Just as preservationists should pursue reuse instead of harping on pure restoration, architects should be shifting their attention toward additions and renovations rather than showering praise on high tech green machines.

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January 23, 2019
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