Friday, June 6, 2008

No New Buildings

I was talking with a friend at work the other day about studio education, and was reiterating all the stuff you're tired of here -- architecture as something other than art, the degree to which we already have research-based answers to many of the most important architectural questions, and so on. And she asked me what we'd do about teaching form. And I replied (somewhat abruptly, although she forgave me), why should we care?

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:
  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
Now, I know that this isn't realistic. I know that some places that had no surplus building stock would be prohibited from economic recovery or new social services (Middletown Springs, VT, for instance, has fairly few empty houses, and Norm's gas station just burned down). We'd have to get a tribe of lawyers to figure out all the exemptions for replacing buildings destroyed by fire and weather and irreversible decay, and we'd probably start a creative new arson industry to boot. But I think that we're good at seeing the problems created by big changes in habits, and much less good at seeing the problems created by continuing to do what we've already done.

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?

1 comment:

Ken Ballard said...

Very interesting.....
I think that, although we (architectural education) may cease to "teach" design, the industry may better served to start emphasizing the other 85-95% of architecture… the nuts and bolts of what we do. It amazes me still that a billion dollar project that is so design heavy can survive when the driving factor for the project stemmed from the program and function of the facility. I believe that in order for the design to truly be good that, the function, program, constructability, costs don’t play second fiddle to the “design”. If more designers become architects, I feel that buildings automatically become better designs, better spaces… better places.

I usually disagree, but here I think that there are plenty of other “areas” to be taught… that should be taught along with design. It may be at the fault of the industry that the other 85-95% is not being taught in school, because what is expected out of school is design and the work world will take care of “nuts and bolts” of architecture, yet everyone wants to hire some one that knows how to put together their design.

Great subject… I cannot wait to get to talk about this with you in person.