Old buildings and the creative pressures of constraint

 Old buildings and the creative pressures of constraint

Sometimes, a famous quote says something so sensible, so obvious, that it becomes absorbed into common consciousness to the point that the original speaker gets lost in the mix. “The Greenest Building is…One That Is Already Built” was the title of architect Carl Elefante’s article for the summer 2007 issue of the journal of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It was a “Well, duh” moment for those of us engaged in sustainability-minded design and architecture, and it became an often repeated phrase within those circles.

Although it represented the most common of common sense, humans are still very human, and the results of our endeavors haven’t always matched our aspirations. Elefante has certainly seen a greater emphasis on historic preservation, which increases community character and pride, while offering opportunities to model future development after the personality of existing buildings and build sustainability into the resulting cityscape. Yet, thought leaders like him continue to observe a discouraging reticence to tackle the most vexing sustainability challenges in a forward-thinking manner.

Let’s reaffirm Elefant’s “Greenest Building” assertion and apply it in terms of economy. It’s naive to think money isn’t the way to policymakers’ hearts. It’s a beautiful economy that comes with preserving historic buildings. The building’s already built – that’s number one (duh). Then there is the tourism and community pride that comes with it.

Then there’s the economy that comes with constraint, which is one of our greatest tools as designers. Isn’t it interesting how having less to work with generates the biggest ideas? Take a look at this article to see how one company is making the most of old buildings that still have good bones. The constraints of an old building generate creative pressures for adapting the inside of that building. More for our purposes, old buildings in an urban environment exert constraints that encourage economy-building applications of multi-use and infill development. That’s the kind of green that can bring in a lot of green.

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