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Building New Isn't Building Green

Why we have to rethink our dreams of building ideal homes.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

As a teenager, whenever I was faced with a long stretch of nothing to do (road trips, insomnia, school), I would spend my time constructing my dream house in my head. The mansion that slowly grew in my imagination was a mish-mash of Victorian-era styles I admired—Queen Anne, Richardsonian Romanesque, shingle style—though at the time I didn’t know their names.

Porches and verandas surrounded the house. It had several towers, oodles of dormers, a few chimneys, several balconies, and a carport with a roof. I pictured it on a Vermont hilltop surrounded by fruit orchards and very few neighbors.

While I still cherish this fantasy house and still visit occasionally, as I’ve gotten older, the appeal of actually building my own sprawling estate has faded.

Partly this happened after my wife and I bought our modest 1930s bungalow on a quarter acre with neighbors on every side—maintaining and paying for that helped convince me I wasn’t up to the upkeep of a castle. More significantly, though, when I returned to my home town after college, I saw that so many of the forests, fields and vacant lots I used to play in as a kid were suddenly occupied by monstrous, vinyl-clad McMansions. A multitude of other people, it appeared, had been having the same kind of daydreams as I had been having, and the results were not pretty. Instead of a small woods open to anyone who wanted to wander there, with trees that had character and colors that changed with the weather and seasons, there were now huge, pastel-colored private boxes with tiny windows sitting on a bed of emerald green grass. Often the multi-port garages were in danger of dwarfing the residences.

I was forced to rethink my ideal home.

*

Last fall, graduate students from the University of Notre Dame came to Northampton and conducted a charrette that explored different urban design interventions to fix the city’s problem with sprawl. In an introduction to their project, their professor, Philip Bess, presented a lecture reviewing the basics of urban design and also providing an overview of Northampton’s development over the past 50 years.

In one series of slides he showed how the city’s footprint had nearly doubled in size with new construction between 1950 and 2000, while its population had remained at about 28,000. Many of these new buildings were homes miles from the center of town, or massive one-story warehouses built where there had once been pastureland and meadows.

Another slide showed an illustration by the renowned urban planner Leon Krier that was entitled “Yale University Buildings: Age and First Major Maintenance.” It showed how buildings on the New Haven campus that were constructed in 1900 did not require substantial renovation until 90 years later. Citing a number of other examples, it showed that the more recent the construction, the shorter the time period between completion and renovation. The last item in the illustration showed that one structure finished in 1975 needed extensive structural work only 15 years later. Bess pointed out that the Yale Architecture Building was completed in 1968, but only 40 years later renovations cost the school nearly $100 million, far more than it likely cost to construct the building.

He also points to MIT’s Strata Center, designed by the acclaimed modern architect, Frank Gehry, which opened in 2004 and cost around $300 million. The architect said his fantastical building “looks like a party of drunken robots got together to celebrate.” Three years after opening, though, the party was over. MIT sued him, claiming that “deficient design services and drawings” caused leaks, cracks, mold, poor drainage, and falling ice and debris that blocked emergency exits.

A central tenet of new urban design is that from 1950 onwards, as more people began to own cars and the suburbs began to grow, the quantity of construction increased dramatically while quality declined. While homes became more affordable in the short term, they were far less durable and consequently far more expensive in the long term.

The decrease in quality is not merely a result of cheaper materials and building techniques. Rather, Bess argues, modern building culture suffers from the same problems as our modern economy. In a lecture on this topic, proposing a new building direction for the Notre Dame campus, he lists three cultural shifts in the modern construction industry that stand in the way of truly sustainable growth. First, builders (like most of us) are “integrally related to national and global financing mechanisms that seek and promote short-term profit rather than long-term value.” Most of the components in modern construction are mass-produced “novelties that promote speed of construction and short-term thrift over durability and long-term value.”

Finally, he sees the bureaucratic organization of modern construction firms as making what should be “an inherently cooperative activity” into one that is adversarial. “It requires architects to produce elaborate contract documents—literally hundreds of pages… in order to avoid lawsuits and legal responsibility; it requires a competitive bidding process that encourages cost-cutting and the sacrifice of quality; and it is characterized by byzantine codes that ostensibly exist to protect the public, but in fact empower not necessarily well-informed politicians” to frustrate efforts to create the kinds of sustainable neighborhoods that existed before assembly lines did. These traditional communities, he says, were built by architects and craftsmen who “were themselves part of the same community in which they built, and could somehow make good buildings [many of which still stand today] with about 1 percent of the paperwork required today to do inferior buildings.”

As Frank Gehry limply argued in defense of his problem construction in Cambridge, “These things are complicated, and they involved a lot of people, and you never quite know where they went wrong. A building goes together with seven billion pieces of connective tissue. The chances of it getting done ever without something colliding or some misstep are small.”

Bess sees the key difference between traditional and modern construction methods as lying in the relationship between a building’s structure and its enclosure, or exterior. Traditionalist don’t differentiate: it’s not just the interior walls and floors that support the weight of a building and make it strong; the exterior walls, windows, doors and roof are part of the equation, too. Modern builders see them more as independent of one another. The enclosure, as they see it, is not structural; builders don’t rely on the exterior walls, windows and doors for support, and as long as the base is firm the rest is cosmetic.

Many modern buildings include structural elements from traditional buildings as design elements, but they don’t serve the function that gave them their shape; underneath the decoration, the buildings are actually steel and concrete with prefabricated brick panels that are hoisted into position, bolted into the frame and then sealed with caulking. Rarely is an arch or a lintel in a modern steel-structure building actually supporting anything; it is there only for aesthetics. This approach allows for crazy buildings like Gehry’s that don’t adhere to gravity or logic, as well as some McMansions that look like classic buildings but are built at a fraction of the cost.

Traditional building materials include such things as stone, brick, timber, slate, clay roofing tiles, and high-lime mortar and cement. These are all relatively inert materials, Bess says, that typically require a lot less energy to manufacture than modern products and typically last a lot longer. The main ingredients in most modern big-scale construction—steel, portland cement mortar and concrete, and asphalt shingles—are “all relatively expansive,” expanding and contracting with changes in the weather. “Whereas traditional buildings make use of a relatively limited palette of inert materials bonded together,” Bess points out, “modern construction can be characterized as an assemblage of more expansive materials not so bonded together.”

These expansive, poorly bonded materials are particularly vulnerable to the elements, and after a few decades of freezing and thawing, water begins to seep into them. Decay ensues.

*

Steve Mouzon is an architect, the founder of the New Urban Guild in Miami, and a proponent of sustainable, green building. Among his many projects, he’s been the author of several books of house plans to be used in Florida and the Caribbean that are written for general audiences instead of architects and the construction trade. He believes that the modern focus on a building’s exterior has distanced people from the purpose of architecture, and he, like many New Urbanists, believes that before people can build green buildings, they need to reconnect with an understanding of neighborhoods and community that’s been lost. He refers to the bulk of what’s happening in the modern movement as Gizmo Green—focused on gadgetry and products, which aren’t very green at all. He advocates a return to traditional building and urban design methods that he refers to as “The Original Green.”

On his Website Mouzon states, “This notion that we can simply invent more efficient mechanisms, and throw in some bamboo to boot, is only a small part of real sustainability. First, we must build sustainable places, because it does not matter what the carbon footprint of a building is if you have to drive everywhere in order to live there.”

This emphasis on gizmos and un-holistic thinking about sustainable building is apparent in the U.S. government’s LEED (Land Environment Economics and Development) Certification program. The LEED system uses a checklist of green features, each with a different point attached, and certification is based on how many points a project scores. It doesn’t mandate any kind of paradigm shift from the current construction mindset, but instead offers a buffet of possible improvements that can be made to any building, regardless of how ill-planned it is. As one online pundit points out, a $395 bike rack system is worth as many LEED points as a $1.3 million environmentally sensitive heating system. While the LEED certification process undoubtedly gets people thinking about ways to build greener buildings, whether or not a construction job is LEED-certified doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot.

For example, in Village Hill Northampton, Northampton’s development on Hospital Hill, Wright Builders is constructing 11 houses, which it advertises as LEED certified—timber-frame houses with “environmentally-friendly features.” But before construction began on the new homes, there had already been a building on the site with masonry-bearing walls, high-lime mortar, slate roofs and heavy timber floors—truly green and sustainable materials made from local resources.

This building, the historic Northampton State Hospital, had been built 150 years before, and the builders intended it to last. Initially, the city planned to include the former hospital in a new, mixed-use, walkable village with housing, offices, and retail buildings that reflected the masonry construction already on the site. That would have made a New Urbanist proud. But plans changed. The site became less a village and more a housing development abutting an industrial/office park. Local politicians and MassDevelopment, the lead developers, operated, at least ostensibly, on the premise that potential developers—subject to the national and global financing mechanisms that, as Bess describes them, seek short term profit rather than long term value—would view preservation and reuse of the historic hospital as financially prohibitive. It was demolished at a cost of $5.5 million, paid for by taxes. The cost of demolition, in the estimation of some local architects, was about what it would have cost to renovate the building.

*

New Urbanists like Bess and Mouzon look to planners from centuries past for inspiration on how to build today in a way that satisfies human needs and desires for a comfortable place to dwell. Their goal is to build communities with homes that are affordable in a long-term sense, and that make as light an impact on the environment as possible. Bess contends the 1950s mark the break between traditional and modern, and Mouzon likes to refer to the period he studies as the “pre-Thermostat Age.” Both promote environments that offer transportation choices, basic necessities that are within walking distance, and a mix of civic and public spaces integrated with homes and businesses.

For Bess, a chief source of inspiration is the Belgian city of Bruges. The medieval city escaped serious damage in the two World Wars and still offers an example of a city that’s thrived pretty much intact for hundreds of years. Not only do the buildings still exist, but many of them are still used for the purposes for which they were originally built, such as hospitals and low-income and elderly housing. Bruges reflects the New Urbanist ideal of a walkable city perfectly, with nearly 25,000 of its 60,000 residents living within the 3-square-mile historic center. Just beyond the city limits are farms and pastures.

In his lecture, recommending an alternative to Notre Dame’s modern, cheap and now mostly dilapidated graduate student housing, he proposes building something akin to Bruges’ compact mediaeval cluster of homes with load-bearing masonry walls with pitched slate roofs. To avoid needing to rely on commercial building materials and techniques, he suggests employing graduates of the American College of Building Arts in Charleston, N.C., which he says is the “only program I know that is systematically training a younger generation in the traditional building arts.” He envisions creating a Notre Dame Guild for Traditional Architecture and Urbanism, which could both build this new community and be kept on to maintain it and build anew elsewhere.

Bess’ dream seems to me a perfect substitute for the one I spent my teenage years working on—rather than just one house full of exciting architectural possibilities, a whole community made up of small, beautiful buildings and interesting, well-used public spaces.

While perhaps the return of traditional craftsmen’s guilds building the Pioneer Valley’s homes and businesses with traditional techniques is unlikely in the near future, I believe that, to be true to a green and sustainable commitment, we can no longer afford to rely only on cosmetic tweaks to a modern building paradigm which has clearly gone astray and which figures so prominently in our economic future.

To set us on a path toward true sustainability, city leaders and planners need to stop looking for open spaces to fill and start considering infill to existing parts of the city. Instead of bankrolling new construction, they should focus on reuse of under-used or neglected building. Above all, historic, well-built buildings need to be recognized as the natural, eco-friendly resources they are, and new homebuyers should buy old homes and make them new.

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