Periodical: Harvard Design Magazine
Construction focuses on two site scenarios; an open site with minimal clearing before beginning construction and a site that has an existing building that must first be demolished. Aside from often being cheaper, the former option is also the easier option. This mentality has prompted increasingly unprecedented levels of construction every year, even in those of a slowly growing economy following the recession. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Developments estimates over 1,103,000 residential construction permits will be issued in the 2015 calendar year, a 5% increase from last year (US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development). This rate is implying an unsustainable trend; discarding older buildings in favor of their newer counterparts. This is where a third option prevails: an existing building subject to adaptive reuse. The modification and ultimate reuse of existing buildings in an urban context is pivotal for sustainable growth of New York City in both the immediate and long term planning conversations.
Between the 1930s and 1960s, Robert Moses was responsible for creating much of the gridwork that still defines New York as a city today. In addition, he was responsible for the creation of countless projects, with a total cost of over $184 billion in today’s dollars, all of which were new construction (Goldberger). During this timeframe, Moses was not alone on widespread construction with many developers undertaking ever-larger projects and constructing sprawling projects as a result. This massive influx of buildings is now ageing and is currently in one of two states. The first state is that these roughly fifty-year-old buildings simply no longer exist. This is most common of properties that had fallen into disrepair or were no longer large enough to meet the demands they we facing and were ultimately replaced by a building that was able to meet those needs. The second state is that the building is still standing, often in its original condition or with minimal updates over the years and possibly uninhabited; both of these represent a misusage of resources. Buildings and construction represent the largest portion of the U.S. produced carbon dioxide emissions—greater than that of industrial and transportation emission, combined (Architecture 2030). Much of this pollution, as well as waste material not counted in the previous statistic, stems from new construction and demolition of buildings.
The basis for choosing adaptive reuse as opposed to new construction traditionally falls under environmental factors or historic preservation. Simply not constructing an entirely new building can push the break-even point of a net positive building ahead by decades. The average LEED certified building takes twenty to thirty years to offset the initial carbon footprint from it simply being constructed. By simply reusing a building that is already extant, the industry can drastically reduce massive energy waste. While there is always some construction to be undergone in any Adaptive reuse project, it will be smaller than beginning a new project from a ‘tabula rasa’ site. The inherent characteristics of the existing building can also bear significance to the community and neighborhood as a whole as well as retain certain features after being adapted to gesture towards its former life. Utilizing a new program to preserve a significant building enables the building to be ensured to be cared for and as a space for it’s end users (Schropfer). New York has need for adaptive reuse for both of these reasons. In a city with an ever-expanding population there is constant need for construction, something that often looks to the sky for solutions. Looking back to the ground and evaluating what existing resources are not being used, or being underutilized in the form of existing structures can massively cut away from the carbon emissions associated with constructing a skyscraper. In addition to avoiding the carbon cost, this can also save historic buildings of New York’s nearly four hundred year old history by brining them back to the forefront of the city with a new life.
There have been many successful examples of adaptive reuse within the heart of New York City, three programmatically different examples include; Westbeth, Chelsea Market, and the High Line. Each represents a different level of conversion, scale, and the difference in their start and end program. Westbeth is a housing complex geared towards artists. It has been so successful in its second life that the waitlist for an apartment is twelve years and the list has not taken any new applicants since 2007. The structure originally functioned as the headquarters of Bell Telephone laboratories for nearly seventy-five years until 1966. At this point of vacancy, Richard Meier was handed the task of converting this large office building into a communal housing and community gathering space. With minimal alterations Meier was able to create a space that shed the negative components of a bygone era, yet retain the history of the building and complete the project at a minute carbon cost in comparison to a similar new building. This represents one typology of adaptive reuse; private space converted into another private space. This is the most common form of repurposing spaces and is potentially the easiest as there is often not irreconcilable differences between programmatic and formal structures of the building and its new and old usages.
Within Brooklyn exists a similar condition that still remains in disrepair. The Brooklyn Army Terminal is an enormous sprawling building that stretches over five blocks of waterfront property. With heavily glazed exterior walls and regular and grandly sized interior courtyards, it would fit a variety of programmatic scenarios. Due to the massive influx of people into Brooklyn over the past few decades as well as the skyrocketing price of housing, private residences may be a suitable fit for the property. The existing features are already conducive to a program of this type and would allow for surrounding areas to be turned into a park, potentially in conjunction with the Brooklyn Bridge Park. By converting the government-owned building into private residences, there can be minimal modifications, potentially function as a source of income and revitalization for the community, and ease the need for housing in Brooklyn.
Another excellent example of successful adaptive reuse is the Chelsea Market in Manhattan. This is a large food-centric multi-usage space that centers around a former factory complex for the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco). Both programmatically and formally, the building has not changed greatly over its hundred-year history. Consistently producing and serving food, the building was adapted for reuse with minimal changes as evinced by openings simply knocked out of existing brick walls and largely preserved building skin. This not only keeps many of the elements associated with the initial food production areas, but also resulted in a building that was simply modernized to meet current standards instead of constructed from the ground up. In the years following the factory’s reconstruction, there have only been minor changes to meet specifications of tenants. This example features a transition of the building from one privately owned space into a mixed private and public usage space. This method of transition is one of the more difficult options, yet potentially the most rewarding. Returning a building that is intended to be private, often specifically geared towards a singular function, into public usage is difficult and often requires a higher degree of intervention. For some cases this may mean expanding spaces from an individual and personal scale, to a much larger group or community scale.
This concept of transitioning a private space into one with a mixed set of private and public functions is one that could be applied to the New York Dock Company warehouses in Red Hook Brooklyn. These two large buildings have been standing for nearly one hundred years, but have been vacant for the past thirty. Recently one building was purchased by Christies Auction House and is now used to store priceless works of art produced by Van Gogh, Pollack, and Brancusi to name a few. This development not only shows that the remaining property is prime for reuse, but also the ease with which the project was completed implies the potential for still vacant building to easily transition into its new life. This building could function as a mixed commercial, public, and office space building to serve the nearby areas of dense population.
A final, and very well known example of adaptive reuse is the Highline in Manhattan by Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro. This repurposing of an existing elevated train track into a park is one of the most well-known and public focused examples of adaptive reuse. This was a high profile project that was constructed over a period of years with a large amount of funding from public and private groups. The park now serves as one of the largest tourist attractions in New York City and has added miles of greenery as a means of promoting a healthy city and giving back more space to the public while not edging out any existing residents. The Highline exemplifies the high level of success adaptive reuse can achieve through transforming a private space into a public area. These projects are best suited in scenarios where public spaces are being underutilized and not cared for, yet are in a desirable area.
One instance of this transition of space from private to public is the proposed Brooklyn Field House associated with the development of the Brooklyn Bridge Park. This would take an existing warehouse bordering the park and convert it into a velodrome for both public use and competitions as a source of community unity and economic development. This would also programmatically enrich the parks offerings. The project was offered to be completely funded by an entrepreneur with and interest in cycling but was ultimately turned down by nearby residents against the project. The building is currently unused and surrounded by a major public transit corridor and the Brooklyn Bridge Park. Much as the high line connects the Chelsea Market and Westbeth, the Brooklyn Bridge Park connects all three of the proposed sites mentioned. This connection between public spaces and adaptive reuse spurring other instances of adaptive reuse gestures towards an overarching trend of more pedestrian cities and a new mentality towards urbanism.
While new construction may still be the first and only avenue many developers pursue, this too is not a flawless system. Jane Jacobs contends, “We expect too much of new buildings, and too little of ourselves.”, This statement is undoubtedly relevant to the question of urban re-use. Reinvesting time, planning, and resources into the second life of a building is pivotal to urban sustainability and redevelopment. New buildings have the same set of problems that an existing building may face, and also lack the innate historical integration into the site and have a lower potential for diminished environmental impact. Rather than a universal call to action, this should serve as a reminder. Carl Elefante said it most succinctly, “the greenest building is the one already built,”—no matter where it may be. There are situations where utilizing an existing building is not beneficial to the project as a whole, but far more times where adaptive reuse is simply an overlooked option in the planning phase. As New York grows to new heights in the coming years and decades, adaptive reuse my continually be considered as an option for environmentally responsible and culturally preserving development.
Goldberger, Paul. “Robert Moses, Master Builder, Is Dead at 92.” Editorial. The New York Times 30 July 1981: n. pag. The Learning Network. The New York Times, 2010. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/1218.html>.
Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House,Print.
Schropfer, Thomas. Ecological Urban Architecture: Qualitative Approaches to Sustainability. Basel: Birkhauser, 2012. Print.
“The Environmental Value of Building Reuse.” Preservationnation.org. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, 24 Jan. 2012. Web. <http://www.preservationnation.org/information-center/sustainable-communities/green-lab/valuing-building-reuse.html#.Vi1BZs7_T8E>.
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U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2012 Release, Table 18 Carbon Dioxide Emissions by Sector and Source; http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/index.cfm