In “Building Reuse: Sustainability, Preservation, and the Value of Design,” Kathryn Rogers Merlino, director of the University of Washington's Center for Preservation and Adaptive Reuse in the College of Built Environments, challenges preconceived ideas of what green construction really means.
If you live in Seattle, you know what “façadism” means, even if you’ve never heard of it. It’s when a venerable old building is completely destroyed but for its outer shell so that a new building — usually a high-rise — can be built in its place. I can’t be the only one who looks at these lame attempts to hang onto architectural flavor and thinks, “Who do you think you’re kidding?”
Kathryn Rogers Merlino, director of the Center for Preservation and Adaptive Reuse in the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington, gets it. In her new book, “Building Reuse: Sustainability, Preservation, and the Value of Design,” she writes, “More often than not … the facade becomes visually engulfed by the new addition. If the alternative is complete demolition, then façadism supplies at least a weak sense of history and scale to the neighborhood, and no more.”
In “Building Reuse,” Merlino makes a diligent case for preserving older buildings rather than tearing them down, one that encompasses more than the buildings’ historical character or architectural merit. Merlino contends that “the greenest building is the one already built” — and cites some startling facts and figures to prove it.
“Every year, the United States demolishes 1 billion square feet of existing buildings and replaces them with new ones,” she writes. “When buildings are demolished, materials are typically either recycled or thrown out; a staggering amount goes into the trash. The result is that an estimated 43 percent of all construction and demolition waste in this country becomes landfill.” In an era when we routinely recycle paper, glass, metal and plastic, she says, we need to think harder about how much building debris we create and where it goes.
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“Building Reuse” sometimes feels addressed more toward architectural and urban-developer professionals than the lay reader, its prose a little dry and wonky. But as Merlino marshals her evidence, she might genuinely change your perspective on the merits of old buildings versus even the greenest new-construction project.
“Commercial buildings constructed before 1920 use less energy per square foot than buildings from any other decade of construction in the twentieth century,” she points out. That’s because in the era before cheap energy and indoor climate control, architects had to find other ways to make their buildings comfortable. “Some of the most sustainable characteristics of older buildings, such as daylighting, operable windows, and natural ventilation, were built into buildings from these earlier eras,” Merlino writes. In this context, “passivity” is a desirable trait. It means that for much of the year, a building can be comfortable for its occupants without any need for mechanical heat, cooling or ventilation.
Beyond that, suggests Merlino, the very fabric of an existing building — especially one that uses “long-lasting, durable materials” — should be regarded as a natural resource. In an era of anxiety over climate change and environmental depredation, developers need “to equate the preservation of buildings to the conservation of energy.” According to a study by Seattle’s Preservation Green Lab (now the Research & Policy Lab) of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, writes Merlino, “a new building that is 30 percent more efficient than an average existing building takes ten to eighty years to overcome … the negative climate-change impacts related to the construction process.”
In other words, an existing building doesn’t have to be an architectural landmark to be worth saving. “Modest, vernacular and often unremarkable buildings” have roles to play, too. “Building Reuse” closes with 13 “sustainable reuse case studies” that illustrate this. They include Seattle’s Supply Laundry Building and the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, plus fascinating examples of building transformations in Bellingham, Portland and Spokane. This is the best part of her book, pithily linking local urban histories to the stories of the buildings at issue — and, in the process, expanding your views on the whys and hows of building preservation.
“Building Reuse: Sustainability, Preservation, and the Value of Design” by Kathryn Rogers Merlino, University of Washington Press, 219 pp., $49.95
Book release at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 13, The Cloud Room, 1424 11th Ave., Suite 400, Seattle; free (cloudroomseattle.com).