Page B2.2 . 13 July 2005                     
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  • Ethics of Adaptive Reuse

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    Ethics of Adaptive Reuse


    Conserving Physical Energy

    Preservation, restoration, and rehabilitation in architecture cause much less destruction to our natural resources than new construction. To appreciate this, architects must be sensitive to the energy used in the production and assembly of materials needed for new buildings, from their origin to their end of life and subsequent reuse.

    Statistics reveal that building construction consumes 40 percent of the raw materials entering the global economy every year. Interestingly, about 85 percent of the total embodied energy in materials is used in their production and transportation. Even before they reach the construction site, building materials have consumed large quantities of fossil fuels.

    If all the hidden costs were spelled out in the balance sheet, the recycling of architecture would be perceived as the only rational strategy for the management of material resources. Then we could appreciate huge areas of abandoned and semi-abandoned built tissue as resources, not obstacles for future growth.

    Modern construction methods are incredibly wasteful of resources. Up to 25 percent of the total waste generated in the United States, India, and other countries is directly attributed to building, construction, and demolition activities. These often hidden waste products can be environmentally hazardous and polluting, both as solids and in the atmosphere.

    Demolition of existing buildings wastes the embodied energy as well as the energy consumed in tearing the building down, which can be considerable, given the quality and strength of older structures. Add to this the cost of incinerating demolition debris, and the wasteful use of land in fill sites.

    Designers sensitive to sustainable practices can establish a recycling program to reduce the amount of solid waste resulting from construction and choose materials which are themselves either recyclable or reusable.

    By contrast, adaptive reuse is much more labor-intensive than new construction, because it involves the reconditioning the existing structures to adapt to modern day requirements. This dependence on human resources encourages the local community to participate and potentially revives a vernacular rhythm in architecture. This activity can remind us that vernacular architecture is one cornerstone of our identity.

    Conserving Cultural Energy

    The evolution of our societies is reflected in our building types and styles. This relationship gives older buildings a character we value and identify with. However, the corporate mentality does not seem to appreciate the long-term economic value of buildings nor their cultural spirit. Such devaluation is part of so-called "globalization."

    The famous quote by Louis Sullivan, "form follows function," seems to have become an outdated philosophy, as has "form follows culture," by Indian artist Satish Gujral. Today's corporate approach to architecture often would suggest that these sentiments could be reworded as "form follows fashion." Many modern buildings do not reflect the richness and complexities of cultural evolution. Few contemporary designers seem to value the emotional spirit of architecture.

    When a building of historic merit is preserved or restored for adaptive reuse, its cultural energy is also "recycled." History brought back to active duty, and the elements of the built fabric walls, floors, windows, doors, and roof once again envelop a space to connect inside with outside to keep out the weather.

    Very likely, the old structure was strategically placed to get the best views and optimum orientation to the sun and wind and climate. It might have been built to ensure security of the occupants and to strike a balance between the built mass and the open spaces.

    Old buildings preserve the local culture and identity and create a sense of belonging. In a way, we recycle embodied human resource energy along with material energy. We bring alive the past to be a part of the future, creating important connections through time.

    Do we wish to erase the link by dumping the stone that has witnessed passing phases of humanity into some land-fill site? Or, is it truly "green" to avoid the landfill and grind up community memory into bulk aggregate? When do we start to value real architecture above a consumptive fascination with mere newness and fashion?

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

    Vani Bahl, Associate AIA, has worked on design and research projects in her native India and in the United States. Her work includes hotel design and planning, campus planning, housing projects, vernacular architecture, and historic preservation.



    ArchWeek Image

    A 15th-century stepwell, in the village Neemrana, Rajasthan, India. Such monuments are repositories of vast physical, human, and cultural energy.
    Photo: Vani Bahl

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    Highrises in India that imitate those built in the west waste energy and are guilty of "cultural assassination." Construction depends on expensive, imported technology, and such buildings can be kept habitable only by massive infusions of mechanical energy.
    Photo: Vani Bahl

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    Interior of an abandoned fort in Rajasthan, India. In recycled abandoned spaces, rich interiors come ready made.
    Photo: Vani Bahl

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    A ceiling in gold, at Qila (Fort) Muabarak, Patiala, India.
    Photo: Vani Bahl

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    The Stari Most ("Old Bridge") had been a landmark in Mostar, Herzegovina since the 16th century.
    Photo: Aga Khan College at MIT, courtesy WMF

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    When the Stari Most was rebuilt, it was given in the same form, tying into and taking advantage of the existing surrounding infrastructure.
    Photo: Adis Dziho, courtesy WMF

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    The Cannery in San Francisco, California retained its character and embedded energy when designed for adaptive reuse in 1968 by Joseph Esherick.
    Photo: Kevin Matthews, Artifice Images

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    The Cannery.
    Photo: Kevin Matthews, Artifice Images


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