True Green Cities / Pondering Modernism in a Modern City

The Noguchi-designed Sculpture Garden in Houston's Museum District activates the district's streets which are lined with iconic museum buildings.

The Noguchi-designed Sculpture Garden in Houston’s Museum District activates the district’s streets which are lined with iconic museum buildings.

It’s been three years since I launched Barbara A. Campagna/Architecture + Planning, PLLC and while many things have changed, my goal to work on “greening what’s already here” continues to be met, often in places I never expected.  Many people are finding new ways to integrate historic preservation and green building practices, which makes my new venture a delightful and intellectually inspiring one.  This is blog five of my anniversary week.

Houston

The Docomomo US Conference was held in the inspiring campus of the University of St. Thomas designed by Philip Johnson.

The Docomomo US Conference was held in the inspiring campus of the University of St. Thomas designed by Philip Johnson.

Houston is the largest city in Texas and the fourth largest city in the United States with over 2.1 million people.  I have been invited to speak in Houston four times in the past three years and find myself enjoying and admiring Houston more and more every time. Houston was the site of the second annual Docomomo US conference this past March and I had the honor to speak on a panel about sustainability and modernism.

Passive Design and Modernism in the Sunbelt

Early office buildings in Houston originally had overhangs to protect the glass from the sun.

Early office buildings in Houston originally had overhangs to protect the glass from the sun – such as this one to the right.  Professor Sabatino discussed the transformation of Houston’s buildings in his presentation and seminal article attached in this blog. 

Our panel included Carl Stein discussing the themes from his book Greening ModernismProfessor Michelangelo Sabatino discussing passive design approaches in Houston’s modern skyscrapers and me discussing the control of humidity in modern buildings.  Traditional historic buildings (built before 1945) were often built in ways that recognized the high degree of individual controllability that buildings that respond to their climate and region can have.  Traditional and vernacular buildings, constructed before fossil fuels were in widespread use, required active participation of building occupants to manage and control their comfort, health and productivity.  But how do you control interior environments when the windows do not open, the curtain wall is sealed or there is no mechanical ventilation?  This topic explored sites across the country that encounter high humidity – from the summers in the Midwest to the summers in the South East.  Buildings such as Philip Johnson’s Glass House, Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey House, an O’Neill Ford house in San Antonio and NCPTT’s headquarters in Natchitoches, LA were reviewed.  These presentations were videotaped and will be posted on this site once they are up.

Remaking the of Epitome of Suburban Sprawl Into an Urban Oasis

This wing of Houston's Museum of Fine Arts is the only museum building in America designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.  His classic glass box design requires full curtains lining the interior curtain wall to allow the installation of art work.

This wing of Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts is the only museum building in America designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. His classic glass box design requires full curtains lining the interior curtain wall to allow the installation of art work.

Something’s happened to downtown Houston in the past five years.  A light rail opened.  Vacant downtown office buildings have become lofts and boutique hotels.  A Brutalist theatre is receiving a LEED Gold makeover.  The museum district is a real neighborhood which can be reached from downtown for $1.25 on the light rail.  The museums include buildings by Mies van der Rohe (a wing of the Museum of Fine Arts, the only museum he designed in America), Rafael Moneo (another wing of the Museum of Fine Arts), Venturi Scott-Brown and Associates (Children’s Museum), Ralph Appelbaum Associates (Houston Holocaust Museum), a Noguchi-designed Sculpture Garden, and Gunner Birkarts (Contemporary Arts Museum). A new Steven Holl museum is also in the works.

The Alley Theatre, a Brutalist landmark in downtown Houston designed by Ulrich Franzen, is undergoing a LEED Gold Rehabilitation.

The Alley Theatre, a Brutalist landmark in downtown Houston designed by Ulrich Franzen, is undergoing a LEED Gold Rehabilitation.

Just a 10 minute walk towards downtown is a secondary Museum and university district called Midtown with masterpieces by Renzo Piano (the Menil Collection and the Cy Twombly Gallery) and Philip Johnson (University of St. Thomas and Rothko Chapel). The Docomomo US Conference was held at the University of St. Thomas and the Menil Collection, inspiring places to discuss modernism.

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True Green Cities / Celebrating Three Years – The Greening Plan

The Lee H. Nelson Hall was originally built in 1923 as the Women's Gymnasium for Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, LA.  Now the headquarters of NCPTT, a greening plan has just been completed for it.

The Lee H. Nelson Hall was originally built in 1923 as the Women’s Gymnasium for Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, LA. Now the headquarters of NCPTT, a greening plan has just been completed for it.  Photo courtesy NCPTT.

It’s been three years since I launched Barbara A. Campagna/Architecture + Planning, PLLC and while many things have changed, my goal to work on “greening what’s already here” continues to be met, often in places I never expected.  Many people are finding new ways to integrate historic preservation and green building practices, which makes my new venture a delightful and intellectually inspiring one.  This is blog four of my anniversary week.

This past year I received federal trademarks on my logo, tagline – “Greening What’s Already Here,” and the name of my sustainability management plans, “The Greening Plan.”  I have been working on several “greening plans” with my colleague Gordon Shepperd and his firm Apollo BBC in Houston.  One project, the greening of the Lee H. Nelson Hall in Natchitoches, Louisiana, is being looked upon as a model for existing and historic buildings.  Our team will be presenting the project at Greenbuild in New Orleans this October.

Lee H. Nelson Hall

The rear of Lee H. Nelson Hall.  The interior and exterior of the building, the landscape and the operations of the facility have been evaluated in The Greening Plan.

The rear of Lee H. Nelson Hall. The interior and exterior of the building, the landscape and the operations of the facility have been evaluated in The Greening Plan.  Photo courtesy NCPTT.

The construction and operation of buildings accounts for almost 50% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.  But reusing and retrofitting our existing buildings can reduce these emissions dramatically.  Historic and existing buildings, such as the National Center for Preservation Technology & Training’s Lee H. Nelson Hall, are seeking to improve their maintenance programs and capital improvement approaches by combining time-tested preservation methods with green building practices.

Setting up the whole building blower door test, 2nd floor historic gymnasium space, Lee H. Nelson Hall.

Setting up the whole building blower door test, 2nd floor historic gymnasium space, Lee H. Nelson Hall.  Gordon Shepperd of Apollo BBC explains the process.

The Lee H. Nelson Hall project team is integrating the use of green building tools and LEED rating systems with preservation planning methodology to improve the energy and resource use of the site and lower the bottom-line. The guiding premise for this project is that its recommendations should meet energy and sustainability goals while preserving the character-defining and historically significant features. One of the major goals of this project is to reduce energy and resource use while saving operations’ funds, a goal that most buildings aspire to.  By using the greening of their headquarters as a transparent model process, which can be shared with the field, NCPTT is leveraging their significant place in preservation research while demonstrating how to be a better steward.

Conservation of water at Lee H. Nelson Hall is one of the key issues being examined in the project.  Management of humidity in the summer is another key issue.

Conservation of water at Lee H. Nelson Hall is one of the key issues being examined in the project. Management of humidity in the summer is another key issue.

The building was originally constructed in 1923 in Natitoches, LA and designed by the New Olreans firm of Favrot and Livaudais as a classroom building and activity center for the campus of what is now Northwestern State University (NSU). Once the Hall was no longer large enough to serve the student body, it was closed. After 30 years of use as a storage facility, a new department of the National Park Service, the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, was located in the building in 2001. The purpose of the project and the process is to develop a road map for greening the maintenance and operations procedures of all existing and historic buildings. By using the growing body of sustainable preservation case studies, understanding the original character-defining features of the building and integrating the necessary envelope, systems and site improvements with acknowledged green building practices, NCPTT has decided to use the LEED EB: O&M rating system (targeting LEED Gold), often called a cyclical maintenance plan on steroids, as the metric to guide both the maintenance and capital improvements approaches at the site.

The Greening Plan

The NCPTT and design team spent two days in two separate eco-charrettes at Lee H. Nelson Hall.

The NCPTT and design team spent two days each in two separate eco-charrettes at Lee H. Nelson Hall.

A series of eco-charrettes, energy audits, a sustainability management plan and LEED EB:O&M, are being used to improve the resource use and efficiency of the site. The first goal-setting eco-charrette was conducted in January 2013 and the full sustainability management and LEED plan completed one year later. Using their historic building as the test case for this greening process, NCPTT and the design team is demonstrating that the use of green building analysis tools in conjunction with preservation methodologies can lead to a plan for efficient environmental actions that improve long term stewardship; and will show how new technologies and reactivation of original design features can together provide innovations in green building design while debunking the myths that historic buildings cannot readily achieve LEED certification.  A website is currently being developed for the project and will be unveiled soon.

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True Green Cities / Celebrating Three Years – How Green Is Modern Heritage?

Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, is a modern masterpiece of town planning and Brazil's specific type of modernism designed by Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa.  Photo copyright UNESCO.

Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, is a modern masterpiece of town planning and Brazil’s specific type of modernism designed by Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa. Photo copyright UNESCO.

It’s been three years since I launched Barbara A. Campagna/Architecture + Planning, PLLC and while many things have changed, my goal to work on “greening what’s already here” continues to be met, often in places I never expected.  Many people are finding new ways to integrate historic preservation and green building practices, which makes my new venture a delightful and intellectually inspiring one.  This is blog three of my anniversary week.

The Sustainability of Modern Heritage

The Shoreline Apartments in Buffalo, NY were designed by Paul Rudolph and built from 1972-1974.  They are currently threatened with partial demolition.

The Shoreline Apartments in Buffalo, NY were designed by Paul Rudolph and built from 1972-1974. They are currently threatened with partial demolition.

A topic I’ve been spending more and more time on is the sustainability of modern heritage.  In the past six months I’ve been teaching a graduate seminar on “Preserving Modern Heritage,” spoke about controlling humidity in modern architecture at the Docomomo US annual conference in Houston and was invited to speak at Greenbuild Brazil on this same topic in August.  While many of our traditional buildings are inherently green, many of our modern heritage buildings (sites from the early twentieth century to 1975) appear to be inherently “less green”.  Almost 60% of our building stock was built in this period and these buildings were typically the most energy-inefficient ever built.  These are the buildings that may be the biggest contributors to climate change. If we want to manage climate change, we need to address these buildings.  As we begin to acknowledge the significance of modern heritage and look to ‘green’ sites from that era, we find ourselves confronting questions and developing solutions reqarding authenticity, building fabric and energy efficiency that in many cases are the exact opposite of how we approach our traditional buildings. We are entering new territory with these buildings.

Preserving and greening modern heritage presents architects, engineers and preservationists with exciting challenges and fundamental dilemmas. What are the aspects of modernism that make it one of the most difficult periods to evaluate and retrofit?  These aspects include questions of authenticity, the use of experimental materials and techniques such as glass curtain walls and concrete panels, the use of hazardous and toxic materials like lead and plate glass, the ability to build disposable buildings and materials, the construction of the largest buildings and complexes ever built, and maintaining some of the most energy inefficient buildings ever built.

The Pope-Leighey House, a Usonian house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and currently located in Alexandria, VA after two moves, was designed originally in 1947 with many passive design features.

The Pope-Leighey House, a Usonian house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and currently located in Alexandria, VA after two moves, was designed originally in 1940 with many passive design features.

According to the Department of Energy Study on commercial buildings in 2003, the most energy efficient commercial buildings in the country were built before 1920 and after 1990, which would lead us to surmise that the most inefficient buildings in the country were built in the years in between.  And given the fact that 85% of our commercial building portfolio in the United States was built after 1945, the assumption can then easily be made that buildings from the modern era are the biggest problem we have from a climate change standpoint.  Many would like you to think they’re also the biggest problem we have in terms of aesthetics.  Not only culturally, but also physically, the distance between past and present has become ever shorter, making preservation efforts increasingly more urgent while at the same time appearing far more dramatic because they are often experienced within the same generation as a building’s construction.

Modern Challenges

Do we need more time to appreciate buildings of our own recent past?  We will be confronting these challenges more and more as our building stock ages. Some of the key themes include:

Experimental Materials & Assemblies: 

The Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, CT, designed in 1949 by Philip Johnson is one of the world's modern icons. The replacement of the original plate glass has long been a topic of conversation.

The Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, CT, designed in 1949 by Philip Johnson is one of the world’s modern icons. The replacement of the original plate glass has long been a topic of conversation.

Glass curtain walls, precast wall and ceiling systems, concrete structure and panels – all have one thing in common – they were experimental materials and assemblies.  The excitement of designing and building something completely new often superseded the rigorous research needed to confirm the longevity of these materials.  Now, decades later, they may be crumbling and impossible to restore.  Should we be forced to replace them in kind when they never worked or can we redesign and reinstall replacements that will work better but might look differently?

Sealing Buildings with Curtain Walls: 

The Farnsworth House in Plano, IL, designed by Ludwig Mies van de Rohe and opened in 1951, has one operable hopper window and one door on opposite ends of one another.

The Farnsworth House in Plano, IL, designed by Ludwig Mies van de Rohe and opened in 1951, has one operable hopper window and one door on opposite ends of one another.

In this same period we seemed to decide as a culture that operable windows were old fashioned and unnecessary.  So we started hermetically sealing our buildings, and installing curtain walls and windows that couldn’t open.  How do we remake these features so that they improve our energy use, controllability and comfort but do not endanger the historic integrity of the buildings?

Hazardous & Dangerous Materials:

Hand in hand with experimental materials went materials that were dangerous and toxic.  Floor tiles made with asbestos.  Curtain walls out of plate glass.  Sealants with asbestos and sometimes lead.  The list goes on.  Should we be restoring dangerous materials such as plate glass?

Disposable Approach to Construction:

It was all about excess during this era.  Why build a building to last when we could just replace it when we tired of it?  While most of the primary resources at our historic sites were built to last, that does not mean we may not encounter other resources at current or future sites that just were not built to last.

The Glass House was designed with a radiant heating system and no air conditioning.  The house is ventilated and cooled in warm weather by opening the doors on each of its four sides and lowering the shades as the sun hits the building.

The Glass House was designed with a radiant heating system and no air conditioning. The house is ventilated and cooled in warm weather by opening the doors on each of its four sides and lowering the shades as the sun hits the building.

While many of these questions suggest that modern heritage is unsustainable, more and more research is showing that many of our modern buildings actually were built with passive design features and sustainable approaches.  Future research and case studies will start to dispel the fact that all modern heritage is unsustainable.  It’s how we manage and maintain these buildings in many respects that is the culprit.

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