Sunday, July 7, 2024

The Imperative of Adaptive Reuse in a Disposable Culture

Commons Addition, North Eugene High School (2004-2024) by Robertson/Sherwood/Architects pc

I’ve outlasted several of the projects I worked on during my career. The Romania Subaru dealership that once occupied the property at 7th & Washington (now home to Five Guys, Jimmy John’s, and Starbucks outlets) is one such building I shepherded from design through construction. More recently, Eugene School District 4J demolished the old North Eugene High School. Robertson/Sherwood/Architects designed significant renovations and an addition to the school, which were completed in 2004, a scant two decades ago. Bittersweet is probably the best way to characterize being around to witness the razing of these projects. It seems their useful lifespans should have been much longer. Seeing this rapid cycle of construction/use/demolition, though not unique to my experience, reveals much about our contemporary culture and the broader architectural landscape.

It’s worth noting the transience of most buildings throughout history. Notwithstanding the notable and lasting architectural monuments many of us are familiar with, most human constructions have essentially been temporary solutions designed to serve immediate needs, as opposed to being built for the ages. In today’s world, economic pressures, technological advancements, and evolving aesthetic preferences continue to drive this mindset.

Romania Subaru (1999-2011)

The former site of Romania Subaru as it stands today.

Economically, the drive for profit and efficiency often eclipses the desire for permanence. Developers necessarily prioritize quick returns on their investments, influencing the design and construction of buildings wherein this goal is paramount. A knock-on effect is the premature demolition of structures to make way for new, more profitable developments.

Technological advancements also contribute to this phenomenon. Rapid progress in construction techniques and materials can quickly render buildings outdated, as can recognition of flawed design strategies (see the leaky condo crisis). So too can greater understanding of the threats posed by seismic events and climate change. The push for energy efficiency and smart technologies often makes older structures seem obsolete, even if they are still functionally sound. In this context, demolishing and rebuilding can appear more attractive than retrofitting and preserving.

Aesthetic preferences, too, evolve with time. Architectural trends shift, and what was once considered innovative can quickly become passé. The desire to stay current with styles and innovations leads to abbreviated cycles of construction and demolition, where buildings are regularly replaced to align with contemporary tastes.

Additionally, the sheer cost of necessary improvements can drive decisions to replace rather than renovate and reuse buildings. Cost-benefit analyses still too often reveal the expenses involved in bringing an older building up to modern standards exceed those of new construction. This financial reality further contributes to the preference for demolition over adaptive reuse.

Nothing is left of the original North Eugene High School.

This culture of impermanence has profound implications for our collective identity. Buildings are more than mere shelters; they express our values, histories, and aspirations. When we demolish structures we risk erasing important cultural markers and disrupting our connections with the past. The built environment becomes a fleeting snapshot of a moment rather than a lasting record of our evolution.

Historic preservation efforts, though commendable, often struggle against the tide of economic and technological pressures. We may spare iconic landmarks, but many buildings that hold local significance for a community face demolition. This loss can be particularly acute in rapidly developing urban areas, where the pressure to maximize land use is intense. A case in point that I documented back in 2021 was the demolition of the old Glenwood Restaurant near the University of Oregon campus in favor of a new student housing development.

Adaptive reuse offers a compelling alternative to the cycle of demolition and reconstruction. Repurposing existing buildings to serve new functions extends their utility while minimizing waste, resource depletion, and embodied carbon. Adaptive reuse revitalizes structures, allowing them to evolve alongside the communities they serve.

By reimagining and transforming existing buildings, we preserve cultural and historical significance while addressing contemporary needs. This approach aligns with sustainable practices, significantly reducing the environmental impact associated with new construction. Adaptive reuse minimizes waste by keeping existing structures out of landfills, conserves resources by reducing the need for new materials, and lowers embodied carbon emissions by reusing what has already been built. Additionally, adaptive reuse fosters creativity, as architects and designers find innovative ways to transform existing spaces.

This is far from a new idea. Stewart Brand published his seminal book How Buildings Learn back in 1994. He persuasively argued that architects should accept the inevitability of change and refinement, and design in a way that buildings can gracefully be adapted to different purposes. If architects do this—accept the reality of change as a constant—they will design new buildings without arrogance, buildings that are long-lasting, flexible, and adaptive to change over time.

Advocating for adaptive reuse is essential in promoting a sustainable future. So, rather than focusing on and lamenting the loss of buildings, I will instead champion the innovation and environmental benefits of repurposing existing structures. Every adaptive reuse project presents an opportunity to advance design, sustainability, and functionality in architecture.

Contributing to discussions and initiatives that promote a dynamic and sustainable built environment is crucial. The profession of architecture thrives on continuous learning and adaptation, reflecting its evolving nature. Emphasizing adaptive reuse not only preserves our cultural heritage but also paves the way for a more sustainable future.

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