Q&A: On design, delight, and long-term sustainability

Stewart Brand wrote, “A building is not something you finish. A building is something you start.” Jean Carroon’s book, Sustainable Preservation: Greening Existing Buildings (2010, John Wiley & Sons) cites this Brand quote (and a few others—his book How Buildings Learn continues to influence many). Clearly his words retain their power as we struggle to align values and value within our economic and social systems, such as they are.

Carroon has written a detailed and well-researched resource guide for those involved in preserving existing buildings, and aligning their work with sustainability strategies.  A principal at Goody Clancy, a multidisciplinary Boston firm, she has long been a passionate, articulate advocate for activity in this area, as her projects demonstrate—elegant and contemporary interventions that honor the historic fabric, whether it was built 100 years ago or 20. As our cities continue to grow and concerns about greenfield development and related infrastructure and mobility issues grow with them, we’ll need to pay more attention to our existing communities. Carroon’s book will no doubt help guide today’s practitioners and students. Recently I got to talk to the author and architect about her work, the book, and the fields of architecture and development.

Kira Gould: I prefer not to ask you to be reductive, but can you offer a brief definition of the intersection between historic/existing buildings and sustainability? What I’m really asking you is to define “sustainable preservation”, your book’s title.

Jean Carroon: I use the word “sustainable” to mean environmental sustainability. The title was driven by the publisher’s series about environmentally focused sustainability, but sustainability is really about holistic social, economic, and environmental stewardship; the stewardship of existing buildings and heritage are one part. The book addresses this and seeks to illuminate how much more we can and must do to decrease the environmental impacts of existing buildings.

KG: Do you think that the real estate community is coming around to value existing (and historic) buildings more than it has in the past?

JC: No. Economics will always be the driver. Until the economic system requires the true cost of new materials and addresses the environmental degradation they create, new will continue to be less expensive and preferred. This is exacerbated by policies and cultural attitudes that do not reward maintenance and stewardship, so saving existing buildings come with added costs. These are offset by things like tax credits for rehabilitating historic structures, but this addresses only a fraction of our current building stock. We continue to demolish buildings that could last for many more decades, even centuries. Extending the service life of objects as big as buildings avoids the substantial environmental cost of new materials at a moment in time when decreasing carbon impacts is critical. Policies need to recognize this. The assumption of consumption is still prevalent, even in the “green” world. That’s what got us into this mess.

KG: I love Stewart Brand’s notion of “long life, loose fit”.  I think this is something that many people practicing sustainable design find compelling. What do you think is important about this for those who are engaged in greening existing buildings?

JC: We can thank the AIA Committee on the Environment, which you once chaired, for bringing this important idea into the mainstream. “Long life, loose fit” is often interpreted to be about changing uses, and making it easier in new design to allow for change. Historic buildings frequently have changed uses, but it isn’t always easy and we often get hung up on “hiding” modern intrusions in order to make the old look untouched. Environmental sustainability and Stewart Brand’s own writing challenge this limited interpretation and implementation. If the building is going to last hundreds of years, we know that many of the systems inside it will need to be replaced frequently. We need to design to make replacement easier, allowing a loose fit of whatever the current technologies are instead of always hiding stuff which often does more damage to the original building materials. The question for non-historic buildings is balancing issues of demolition with new use in ways that can extend the service life easily into the next generations and allow new uses that require a minimum of new materials.

Trinity Church C Peter VanderwarkerKG: Your book includes an amazing project that you led for your firm: Trinity Church. The geothermal wells alone are impressive. Why did this client embrace sustainable preservation and what were the leading principles or drivers behind it?

JC: Trinity Church was an amazing client. They embraced holistic sustainability that balanced the stewardship of the building, the institution, and the environment. The ground-source heat pumps were first presented by the engineers, Cosentini Associates, because they solved the physical problem of locating traditional systems in this iconic building.  As the team developed the design, it became clear that the heat pump system met all three goals: building stewardship was achieved because the system only touches the National Historic Landmark when it enters the building at the basement level; institutional stewardship was achieved because the first cost was actually comparable to a traditional system and payback was calculated at a conservative 20 years; and of course, environmental stewardship was improved because it reduces the ongoing use of natural resources.

Trinity Church (above), Photo: Peter Vanderwarker.

KG: People often assume that working on existing buildings implies some lack of invention or even that there is no contemporary expression involved, but the mix of projects you include in the book defies that argument. Can you talk about the issue of stylistic impression as it relates to preservation and additions to historic/existing buildings?

JC: Out of the many hundreds of projects I looked at, I tried to represent in the chosen 50 building size and geographic diversity that included the mundane and the iconic, simple design solutions and grand gestures. Design is about creatively solving problems and the problems are sometimes more complicated when part of the puzzle already exists. “Preservation architects” often combine wonderful technical expertise with the ability to envision change in very exciting ways. I tried to find examples of that. I did not address the ongoing debates about the acceptable style of modifications that is of reviewed by local, state, and national historic commissions and federal agencies. I did try to let people know if the design had been reviewed and approved in a formal process. There are many articles about the “conflict” between historic preservation and green design. This makes me crazy. All design is about balancing “conflicts” and finding the most creative solutions.

KG: I’d like to ask you about a few other projects that you include in the book. I love the Leddy Maytum Stacy work at the Presidio. Can you talk about the significance of that?

JC: The simplicity of their work there is delightful and their buildings were educating the profession about green long before it became mainstream. The new design harkens back to the moral design that shaped many buildings, particularly hospitals, in the nineteenth century. Everyone has the right to air, light, and connections to nature, not to mention a non-toxic environment.

KG: To me, the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum is a compelling example of modern expression added to historic fabric, wrapped up in sustainability concerns writ large: not just energy and water and materials but sustainability of a community. What made you choose to include it here?

JC: The executive director, Jane Werner, and I were on a panel together a few years ago. I was most intrigued by the use of the new building as an art object which responds to the wind. Delight is an important part of long-term sustainability. The more I looked at the project though, the more I realized just what you have said that it is sustainability at its best, embracing and lifting up the community and the immediate neighborhood while completely understanding the importance of resource use reduction through material reuse large and small.

KG: There’s Larry Scarpa and Angie Brooks’ Solar Umbrella house in Santa Monica; a powerful contemporary design that is, amazingly, a renovation. What statement is that one making in the context of your book?

JC: It is great design. It is dramatic and in an eclectic neighborhood that isn’t frozen in time. It certainly would have been possible to green the existing house more simply, as the Gottfried Regenerative Home demonstrates, but the Solar Umbrella house presents many key issues in a beautiful, creative, and coherent way—use of durable, easy maintenance materials, alternative energy, passive survivability—without wiping away what was already there. Sustainability must lift up our souls and inspire as well as make it easier to live in a less consumptive way.

Jean Carroon, FAIA, LEED AP, is a Principal in Goody Clancy’s highly regarded preservation practice, based in Boston. She has earned national recognition for her expertise in applying sustainable-design technology to historic buildings, including more than a dozen National Historic Landmarks. She has directed the adaptive reuse and preservation of signature buildings in a broad range of sectors, including educational, civic, and cultural projects for clients such as Harvard University and the National Park Service. Carroon is a member of the advisory group of the AIA Historic Resources Committee and the National Trust for Historic Preservation Sustainability Coalition. She was one of 30- professionals who helped draft the Pocantico Proclamation on Sustainability and Historic Preservation.

Kira Gould, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, is a writer and director of communications for William McDonough + Partners. She is co-author of Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design. Follow her on Twitter.

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