Last October a symposium hosted by Boston Architectural College tested this truism of the sustainability movement. The argument advanced by those who advocate retrofit and recycling is that a thorough analysis of the cost of new commercial construction, from acquisition and the transportation of raw materials to the tightening of the final bolt, will reveal a higher environmental if not bottom-line budget cost. What’s clear to me and others—such as the urbanophile.com blogger Aaron Renn, who articulates in his article “Century of the City” (DesignIntelligence, January 2011)—is that this line of thinking represents a historic convergence of several powerful currents: the preservation movement, the rising cost of energy, and the fact that for the next 40 or 50 years today’s existing urban inventory will represent the bulk of America’s mid-21st-century commercial buildings.
One other current deserves notice: Increasingly, people hunger for a clear sense of place. Bostonians want their city to look like Boston, not San Francisco, and vice versa. This hunger can’t be blown off as a visceral fear of anything new. Cities as diverse as Denver (the thriving Lower Downtown district, or LoDo) and New Orleans (just about any city block or neighborhood) are marketing the economic potential of their older intact building stock. They’re being leveraged as powerful engines of revitalized, living downtowns. Call it the value of having a unique brand.
Also call it a historic opportunity for architects. Although many older buildings, especially those of the 19th century, had sustainability designed into them, the vast stock of 20th-century construction is ripe for a green revolution. This fact has not been lost on the Obama administration, which this year proposed incentives designed to encourage commercial building owners to increase the energy efficiency of their buildings by 20 percent over the next decade.
The AIA supports what the administration is calling the “Better Building Challenge.” It’s a win-win initiative for all—owners, who would have better control over the cost of operating existing buildings; the construction industry, which accounts for a substantial percentage of this nation’s GDP; cities, whose revitalized and sustainable downtowns would give them a competitive edge; and, of course the environment.
Are the greenest buildings already built? Not yet. But America’s architects are transforming the potential of today’s richest in-place resource into the reality of tomorrow’s economically vibrant, livable, healthy, and sustainable communities.
Clark D. Manus, FAIA, 2011 President