So let me put out today's thought experiment: why should we ever build another new building? Ecologically, new buildings are a resource problem, even if they're more efficient than what they replace. (I don't have the data to support this, but Jeff Stein told me the other day that 60% of the energy a car will use through its entire service life is used in its manufacture and pre-sale shipping. I have to believe that buildings are somewhat similar... you'll never be able to LEED your way out of the energy spent in materials and construction.)
The national stock of buildings has some baseline level of vacancy. If you include general excess supply, buildings in transition between owners or tenants, and periodic regional development exuberance, there is always going to be some percentage of built square footage not currently inhabited. If you also include cities that have been discarded, the percentage goes way up (for instance, Detroit has gone from nearly two million residents to fewer than a million, but most of the buildings are still there). The English government has a study available that shows commercial and industrial vacancy rates between 5% and 30% in different cities. Boston's central-business-district vacancy rate last summer was about 12.5%.
So what would happen if we declared a national moratorium on new construction and just used what we had? Rehab permits would remain fully available, but new buildings (either teardowns or greenfields) would be prohibited. Here are a few things that I think would happen:
- Our national energy use would decrease significantly. First off, the aforementioned problems with embodied energy of materials would be avoided in large part. But we'd also recognize that our buildings would have to last longer, and we'd start to retrofit what we had rather than waiting for its tax amortization to dwindle to the point where it made financial sense to knock it down. We'd also spend less money commuting to ever-more-distant suburban retreats (or bring meaningful employers to underutilized big-box sites in the burbs).
- We'd have to think differently about cities. We'd recognize that we could no longer run from our perceived problems or reclaim another 150 acres of corn for a subdivision. When Oregon instituted its Urban Growth Boundaries in the 1970s, it brought about a fairly sophisticated public conversation about the nature of community, because people had to acknowledge that they lived in cities and would for the foreseeable future.
- We'd have to reclaim wasted places. Our uninhabited downtowns, those as large as St. Louis and as small as Bartlesville OK, would be re-colonized. (This would also allow us to think smarter about transit; what exists is usually more centralized and compact than what we've been building.)
- The profession of architecture would have to rethink its purpose without the crutch of sculpture to lean on. The question of form would for the most part become irrelevant; habitation, client effectiveness, and social issues would be made foremost.
- With one stable variable (the form of the human environment), we'd be able to come to much more solid understandings of other variables (racial discrimination, school funding, transit use, globalization, and an infinite number of other issues). The shape of the landscape would become the fixed point against which the others could be measured.
Anyway, I digress. My purpose for this blog post is one particular aspect of the thought experiment. If we built no new buildings and thus couldn't teach form, what would we teach? Would architecture, as a profession and as an academic subject, be immediately obsolete?