A New Idea in Architecture? No New Buildings

The energy already embodied in the built environment is a precious unnatural resource. It’s time to start treating it like one.

In the mid-aughts, after acquiring an abandoned tech campus in Mountain View, California, Google tapped Clive Wilkinson Architects to fashion a new corporate campus—Googleplex 1.0—out of it. Courtesy Benny Chan/Fotoworks

At its Googleplex headquarters in Mountain View, California, Google has what is arguably one of the most sustainable corporate campuses in America. It has a new million-square-foot complex on a 42-acre landscape, featuring monumental futuristic buildings from Danish architect Bjarke Ingels and British designer Thomas Heatherwick. But these places are not the same place. Although the new campus has no doubt been developed with a sense of environmental duty, the radically sustainable campus is the one next door, which Google has been using since 2003. Foreseeably—and fortunately—they’ll go on using it. Built in 1994, it was once the corporate home of an earlier Palo Alto technology firm, Silicon Graphics.

There was nothing all that special about the generic campus of low-slung boxy offices and parking garages that Google first leased and then acquired in 2006. It was renovated and adapted with stimulating new interiors by Clive Wilkinson, alongside office landscape specialists DEGW, that reflected what was then an unusually nonhierarchical and experimental corporate culture. It was given rooftop solar arrays that provided as much as a third of its operational electricity. But what made that campus special from day one—and simply, radically, and inspirationally more sustainable by the day—is exactly that it was old. It had already been built. It was, in the language of the Valley, a legacy platform—with already irretrievable carbon and capital footprints. There was nothing photogenic or pharaonic about it. Instead, by working from the inside out, with smart strategies of adaptive reuse and technological retrofitting, the company was able to occupy those irretrievable footprints ever more deeply. The cost may be lost, but with stewardship and constant gradual adaption, the benefit persists—conceivably in perpetuity.

For the architecture firm Schaum/Shieh, reuse necessarily means embracing the “background buildings” found throughout American suburbs, like the strip mall. In Houston, Schaum/Shieh retrofitted a midcentury washateria into a series of storefronts, while taking pains to highlight the craftsmanship of the original build. Courtesy Peter Molick

This way of seeing sustainability in the already-built environment is informed by the concept of embodied energy: an accounting, derived from models of economic and ecological systems, of the total expenditure of energy in the material extraction, processing, transport, assembly, installation, demolition, and decomposition associated with the life cycle of any given artifact. “You follow the brick all the way back to the quarry and you figure out what’s going to happen to it in 100 years or 2,000 years” is how architectural historian Kiel Moe—author of Empire State and Building and the forthcoming Unless: The Seagram Building Construction Ecology—described the approach in a 2018 interview with the Yale University journal Paprika! “It’s understanding more of what materials can do and rethinking the thermodynamics.” “Materials,” he adds, “are just a subset of energetics,” the field of which embodied energy is an expression.

The building sector accounts for about a third of global fuel consumption, but its systematic energetic impact may be still greater. Because we sense the glow and hum of the machines around us, because we are accustomed to paying monthly energy bills and encouraged by the idea that adjusting the thermostat saves money—and, somehow, the planet—we may be more sensitive to running costs than to embodied energy. But, as Moe puts it in that interview, “that’s not really dealing with energy, that’s dealing with the fuel efficiency of a building, which is important, but missing the big picture.” Generally, around 80 percent of the systematic energy associated with a building is concerned with extraction and construction, manufacture and maintenance, demolition and decomposition; the remaining 20 percent is associated with lifetime operations like cooling and lighting. Some energetic models assume a 50-year building life span, and their resulting rubric is that the impact of a building’s making and unmaking approximates a third of its continuous effects over that period. All this means that incremental operational economies may matter far less, relative to the events of construction and destruction, than we might want to believe.

Average life spans of buildings in the developed world are declining, to around 70 years in America and as few as 30 years in Japan. This is not progress.

The 2016 IKEA building in Greenwich, London, was said to be, in the company’s publicity language, “our most sustainable store.” It featured rainwater harvesting from a planted roof and some 100,000 square feet of solar panels. But also, it required the demolition of a supermarket built in 1999. And not just any supermarket, but a lofty and pioneering structure by British studio Chetwoods that—with its landscaped berms and its passive and active solutions for cooling, heating, and daylighting—was exceptionally responsible for its time. It was the first such commercial building to earn an “excellent” rating from the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM), awarded by a British agency not unlike the groups that provide LEED, Passivhaus, or other environmental certifications, and was shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize. Even without such pedigrees, demolishing an apparently versatile structure after only 15 years of a conceivable 150-year life span undermines other gestures toward sustainability—and may constitute, as its designer Paul Hinkin said to Britain’s Independent newspaper, “senseless waste.” Maybe accommodating a furnishings purveyor to the shell of a former supermarket wouldn’t be as seamless as putting Google inside Silicon Graphics’ old offices, but surely Clive Wilkinson could have figured it out.

“Greenwashing” is the word for when enterprises not otherwise especially environmentally motivated encourage you, by a leafy logo or some tree-planting, to hope that they are. The types of certifications awarded to that demolished Sainsbury’s supermarket—and presumably to the IKEA that replaced it—can be problematic in their own way. They enable us to feel better about new construction, when perhaps we should learn to feel worse. Such certifications tend to privilege marginal improvements in operational fuel use over more complex energetic effects. The significant embodied energy and carbon dioxide emissions associated with aluminum, steel, and concrete have prompted forward-thinking architects like David Benjamin of the New York practice The Living to reconsider the nature of materials—whether buildings can grow like mushrooms or be outputted with the file-to-factory efficiencies of other serially manufactured objects. Recent innovations in lower-embodied energy materials—from using fly ash as a cement substitute to building big in timber, a renewable and carbon-sequestering material—offer new approaches to new construction.

In Bordeaux, France, the Parisian firm Lacaton & Vassal revamped several housing slabs by adding winter gardens along the facades. Courtesy © Philippe Ruault

But also, we might stop demolishing quite so much of the built environment that we already have. Average life spans of buildings in the developed world are declining, to around 70 years in America and as few as 30 years in Japan. This is not progress. New extremes of urbanization and ruralization require not just new buildings but new ways of building—with new models for financially servicing development that incorporate adaptive reuse, and new models for historic preservation that consider a conservation of energetics. We are accustomed to thinking of the natural environment as a critical resource—to be conserved and consumed with care. Maybe we can accustom ourselves to thinking of the unnatural environment in the same way. The most sustainable building on the planet may not be some new BREEAM- or LEED-certified construction, but something like the Pantheon in Rome. Amortized over the past 1,893 years of continuous use as a civic and religious gathering place, the environmental cost of shipping those stone columns from Egypt to Italy becomes very low indeed.

To be sure, not every building is as self-evidently lovable and durable as that old temple. In America, for example, the greatest unnatural resource is a host of thousands of dutiful, versatile, and serviceable background buildings constructed between roughly 1955 and 1995—Mountain View’s Silicon Graphics campus among them—that, because they are not as stylishly charismatic as those generally labeled midcentury Modernism or Brutalism, I have come to think of as Vernacular Modernism. European practices like France’s Lacaton & Vassal show how these kinds of old modern buildings, with their good bones, can be worked with. In a typical approach, Lacaton & Vassal (with Christophe Hutin and Frédéric Druot) updated some 500 units of not especially awesome early-1960s slab-in-a-park social housing in Bordeaux not by the brute force of demolition, but by meticulously adding an additional layer of rooms to the facades to provide winter gardens, sunrooms, and up-to-date services and envelopes. This surgical approach enabled occupants to remain in residency throughout construction—weaving together old and new, making and dwelling, while adding an elegant silvery shimmer to the facades. Although the tough-as-nails brick-and-iron building stock of a still-earlier century has long lent itself to repurposing, a recent project like Assemble’s deft 2018 reincarnation of an 1898 South London public swimming pool into the Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art shows that this can be undertaken in evergreen ways—in this case by reversing the locations of served and service spaces, and so turning the building back to front.

It’s noteworthy that these examples of best practices in the developed West are European, not American. Here, we seem to like the old to stay old and the new to stay new. Maybe under the influence of thrifty production designers of under budgeted science fiction movies from the consumerist 1980s—Mad Max, Blade Runner—we associate the creative reuse of old stuff with some kind of apocalyptic dystopia. With a poverty of means, not of the imagination. With the aftermath of the current climate catastrophe, not with its immediate mitigation—or even, now at the eleventh hour, with the prevention of its worst consequences. But maybe architecture can learn from information architecture, from the practices of all those Google engineers at their very best, to see all of the built environment as hackable, as fungible, as adaptable, as a code with an open source.

You may also enjoy “A Great Carbon Reckoning Comes to Architecture.”

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