Sustainability, Preservation and Craft

Compton House (1913), Eugene Bradbury, architect. Before and after. Photographs courtesy Bill Emory.

By Daniel Bluestone

To construct its building, the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, with the advocacy and support of VMDO, demolished Eugene Bradbury’s 1913 Compton House, one of Charlottesville’s finest twentieth-century residences—a house that modeled the relationships of climate, land, history, and building in its design. As it stood before the wrecking ball, the Compton House had 4,600 square-feet of solidly constructed space that could have been adapted for re-use at around $200 a square-foot and easily incorporated as part of the approximately 30,000 square-foot building that now occupies the two-acre site. Instead, the client and architect incomprehensibly opted for demolition and new construction costing around $400 a square-foot. VMDO’s award-winning new headquarters for the Jefferson Scholars Foundation at the University of Virginia, for an alumni association that funds student scholarships, combines wood, slate, brick, and striking asymmetrical rooflines. It has the look of a ski lodge at the base of U.Va.’s Observatory Hill (awaiting only the construction of the chairlift). While the building may use local materials and utilize rainwater to flush toilets, the basic fact of its construction was stunningly wasteful of historic and environmental resources. In claiming the mantle of green architecture, the building’s designers have thrown the debate about sustainability and historic preservation into high relief.

Jefferson Fellows Center for the Jefferson Scholars Foundation in Charlottesville, VMDO Architects. Prakash Patel, photographer.

This should cause us to consider what we really mean by “green.” The project squandered historic resources, tax credits, and embodied energy as well as millions of dollars that had been contributed by past alumni to support student scholarships. It also squandered an opportunity to rise to the challenge of preserving our way out of the current environmental crisis by making dramatic new spaces that sustainably combine what we have with what we need. Surely in this day and age, our sense of architectural “excellence” and ethics needs to extend to such concerns. We cannot build our way out of the growing environmental crisis. We do not build enough new buildings in a year, a decade, or a generation to make a dent in energy consumption, resource depletion, or environmental pollution. We need to preserve our way out. Historic preservation and adaptive use, not new green building, should properly be conceived of as the keystone of sustainability.

American society has made great strides in recycling bottles and cans and paper; what preservation now presents is an imperative for creatively reclaiming and tapping the embodied energy in the largest of human products—buildings, towns, cities, and their attendant infrastructures. This is not to trivialize the extraordinary gains made by architects and engineers in producing greener buildings and systems. But, we ought not to lose sight of the more pressing issues in sustainability that are related to stewarding the embodied energy of existing buildings and communities and working creatively to adapt older places for modern uses. Imagine a world in which architects and developers needed to justify abandoning or demolishing existing buildings and neighborhoods in environmental terms. In the last decade there has been a growing coalition of interests between historic preservation and green building. Architects are already deeply immersed in existing places; something close to 70 percent of architects’ billable hours involve existing buildings. But this work often falls short in terms of craft and the full dimensions of sustainability. Both preservation and architecture have been challenged to fundamentally rethink their guiding principles.

In November 2008, when Richard Moe, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation addressed the United States Green Building Council, he declared, “I know that there have been tensions between our two fields, [but] be assured that preservationists are committed to reexamining our practices, committed to thinking critically and creatively about how they can be improved to reflect the realities of the climate-change crisis.” Still, USGBC has taken only small steps towards the preservationists’ position that new buildings rising from sites where wasteful demolition has taken place should receive LEED rating demerits.

There are still huge gaps in the LEED system as it relates to preservation. The balance has not fundamentally shifted within LEED towards a serious life cycle analysis that places a premium on embodied energy in existing buildings. Historic preservation should develop its own metrics and protocols that address performance and energy issues within historic preservation. We need to focus on material performance, water, and energy use and production. The award-winning work of Philadelphia’s KieranTimberlake is an excellent model for this effort. The firm’s contributions to several of Yale University’s residential colleges combines an extraordinary sense of craft with design that increases density, presses into vital service underutilized spaces in basements and attics, back alleys, and center blocks, improves modern circulation, and does it in a way that is not banal in relation to the iconic form of Gothic and Georgian design at Yale.

The New Haven work is resourceful and fresh and modern in a way that gets residents and visitors looking more intensely at the original architecture while participating in a far more sustainable form of development. Many architects and developers in the green building community have used sustainability and energy metrics in an attempt to roll through what they view as historic preservation “roadblocks.” They assert that preservation’s curatorial sensibility as it relates to original fabric and historic character is compromising efforts to increase energy efficiency and to cut down on greenhouse energy emissions. Historic preservation should take advantage of this challenge to become much more articulate about the significance of its core values and commitments. In April 2010, the Steven Kieran delivered the Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company preservation lecture at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture and outlined the tremendous challenge of operating in the “gray area”—a spectrum that stands between historic resources (like Monticello) that should not be modified and buildings that can be demolished without loss. We need to bolster the appreciation of this flexible middle ground where changes can be made to both the interior and exterior of existing buildings to accommodate new programs and green building system while also asserting environmental values and the rights and responsibilities of historic stewardship.

Daniel Bluestone is Associate Professor of Architectural History and Director of the School of Architecture’s Historic Preservation Program at the University of Virginia.

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3 Responses to “Sustainability, Preservation and Craft”

  1. Your article is timely and on target. Any pre-existing structure represents an investment in embodied energy and, if well designed and of historic or artistic significance also, can prompt successful additions and alterations. Both the sustainability and preservation communities need to recognize their common ground in this challenging new area, and show a bit more flexibility. I argue along similar lines in my recent book, The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism, and Historic Preservation (W. W. Norton & Co., 2009). Thank you for this article and please continue to develop this theme.

  2. Well said and great example. I’ve been promoting the idea of someone in the preservation field developing a competing metric to Leed. Hope you will do this.
    And I’ve included a good example of green preservation in my recent book The Battle For Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. After all, if the Empire State Building can do it, what is the question?

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