Valuing older buildings: Architecture professor's book argues for reuse rather than wrecking ball

Author QA for "Building Reuse: Sustainability, Preservation, and the Value of Design" published by University of Washington press


  • newswise-fullscreen Valuing older buildings: Architecture professor's book argues for reuse rather than wrecking ball

    Credit: UW Press

    "Building Reuse: Sustainability, Preservation and the Value of Design," by Kathryn Rogers Merlino, architecture professor at the University of Washington, was published by UW Press

Newswise — In her new book, Kathryn Rogers Merlino, University of Washington associate professor of architecture, argues for the environmental benefit of reusing buildings rather than tearing them down and building anew. 

"I was trained as both an architect and architectural historian," Merlino says, "and have always been drawn to older buildings and the layered narrative of history they embody." 

Her book, "Building Reuse: Sustainability, Preservation, and the Value of Design" was published this year by UW Press. Merlino discussed the book, and the topic of building reuse, with UW News. 

What are the central ideas of the book? 

It draws from three main concepts, she said. "First, I believe most of us are attracted to older buildings. This is a major driver of why we travel — to learn about cultures. Older buildings can teach us so much about the past. I think the patina of age and the combination of styles and textures in older buildings intrigues all of us." 

The second and perhaps the most important idea is sustainability. Here in the environmentally progressive Pacific Northwest, Merlino said, "We are so good at recycling and composting on a daily basis, but it's surprising that we have no cultural ethic about reusing our largest manufactured goods — our buildings. We quickly demolish buildings in the name of new, ‘green’ structures, rather than looking for the possibilities of how we can work with what exists. To me there is an inherent conflict in there, and I think we can do better." 

Tearing down buildings and "throwing away the energy and materials embodied in them" is contrary to our values and as sustainable builders and environmental stewards of our community, she said. Sustainability is particularly relevant "in a city that has been leading development nationally for the past several years." 

The third idea is that architects have the opportunity to use their knowledge to change the culture around building design "and embrace adaptive reuse as much as we embrace designing new structures. 

"I'm not arguing that all buildings are worthy of preservation and reuse, but I think a change in discourse is necessary. Currently we have one way buildings can be saved from the wrecking ball: through historic preservation designation. While this is necessary and applicable for many buildings, it’s a challenging process, and it doesn’t apply to the majority of our building stock — such as the vernacular, everyday buildings that have plenty of good use left in them." 

If a building is not deemed historic, she said, "that can be used as an argument for demolition.  Failed historic designations are used to justify demolition all the time. So I think we need to fundamentally shift our perspective on what constitutes ‘significance’ in our buildings.  I think all of these things need to be reevaluated if we are going to have truly sustainable buildings." 

What are the environmental – and cost – benefits to building reuse? 

"Every building needs to be approached individually. Generally the big picture tells us that the construction and operation of buildings constitutes more than 40 percent of our total energy consumption, results in half our carbon emissions, and consumes 3 billion tons of newly extracted raw materials annually in our country. All of those numbers need to be reduced."

Merlino said that though "green" new buildings can be more operationally energy-efficient than older ones, retrofitting an existing building is nearly always more sustainable over time. 

"Studies have shown that if a building is demolished and replaced with an energy-efficient, or ‘green’ building of the same size, it will take in between 30 and 80 years to recoup that energy and carbon lost in the demolition and rebuilding of the new one. In other words, when new buildings replace older ones, they start with an energy deficit that takes decades to catch up to, no matter how ‘green’ they are." 

According to a federal study, you write, commercial buildings constructed in the United States before 1920 “perform at the same level as buildings from 2003.” In what ways? 

Merlino said the study examined energy use by commercial buildings for each decade of the 20th century and found that such buildings consumed more energy every decade until peaking in the 1990s as more than twice the amount found in the 1920s. 

"At the turn of the millennia, there is a sharp reduction in consumption, which was a result of stricter energy codes and new building technology that emerged from the knowledge we needed to build more efficient buildings." 

She said that though some older buildings are seen as energy-inefficient due to low insulation and single-pane glass, many are in fact just as efficient overall as newer ones, because of their natural light and ventilation without mechanical systems that require energy. 

"These are things we’re using again today, and are great characteristics to reuse in older buildings. In fact, we can now make them better. One of the challenges now is to look at some of our late mid-century buildings and learn how to make them operate at the levels we expect in our new buildings — and I think we can do this." 

Building reuse “had not always been at the top of the green movement’s agenda,” you write, though this is slowly changing. Why do you think this has been the case?  

"I think there are several reasons for this. Sustainable design has always been forward-thinking and innovative by nature. And energy-efficient structures aren't the majority of our existing building — so creating new ones made sense. 

"Additionally, the generation of architects practicing today were primarily trained on the tenets of modernism, and this did not promote using buildings from that past as part of the architectural toolbox. Individualism, uniqueness and modern, clean lines drove design ideals as did the idea that an architect is the sole author of a building. 

"Much of this is shifting, as things naturally do, but some of this sentiment still lingers in architectural training and practice. Plus, it’s hard, messy and complicated to work on existing buildings! You can’t just draw a new one on paper or your screen; you have to get to know the condition and form of the existing structure and work in tandem with what’s there." 

What are a few examples of successful building reuse in the Seattle area?   

Merlino lauded creative work done in the city, some since she finished the manuscript of "Building Reuse." 

"One of my favorites is Chophouse Row on Capitol Hill, which is a series of buildings that are stitched together with an inner shared courtyard and an outdoor 'mews' or alley space for retail. The exposed structure of the section that was removed acts as a frame for entering the courtyard and exposes the raw materiality.  

"In South Lake Union, the Supply Laundry Building is a welcome sight among the new buildings that dominate the landscape, and Westside School in West Seattle transformed a unique 1970s church into a thriving elementary school. I also love discovering new restaurants, stores or coffee shops artfully inserted into old buildings in neighborhoods around the city. This has an important place in our city; few small independent businesses could afford leasing space in new construction, so older buildings can also contribute critical economic value to the city.   

"The variety and texture of these places add great character to urban environments, and I doubt anyone would argue that we should tear every building down and build new because we need more square footage. Rather, I think we can be more strategic about our existing built fabric  and how a diverse building stock can contribute to smart growth, an interesting and diverse city, and be better for the environment, as well." 

As big box and other large retail stores close due to economic and lifestyle changes, might there be life yet for the buildings they leave behind? 

"This is a complicated problem that is really prevalent right now. According to a study from 2016, there are over 10 billion square feet of retail space in the United States. This equals approximately 32.5 square feet of retail per person and the parking lots for each of these retail centers is even bigger." 

But, this, too is changing, she said, providing a great opportunity to find creative uses for such buildings. 

"Each one should be considered in the context of what the community needs, modes of transportation, and whether it makes sense for that location. 

"And that’s really the point: While each building is different, they are all repositories of materials and energy. Seen in this light, existing buildings should be regarded not as targets for demolition, but as sites ripe for reinvention." 

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For more information, contact Merlino at krm@uw.edu or 206-685-2296.

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