by Julian Phillips
Boston is filled with historic buildings, some modern masterpieces, and richly developed neighborhoods that combine to reflect a dense architectural heritage. Existing buildings are the principal element where stories and histories of the past are anchored. These community buildings, neighborhoods, and landscapes embody the unfolding hopes and real experience of people who lived there, worked there, or built them.
The reason to preserve and restore buildings is simple. It is to conserve cultural, historic, and even natural resources. While we work toward the stewardship of energy and comfort in buildings by improving mechanical systems and tightening envelopes, architects have found that developers and clients are also positive about the potential for different uses to reposition existing buildings, sometimes radically.
Adaptive reuse serves as an exciting trend that transforms historic places into contemporary spaces. The transformation can act as a recycling mechanism for old buildings but has proven to be the basis of an artful contemporary architecture for today. Although the functions of these buildings are different, they serve as key markers for the stories of their past. Their introduction incorporates new technologies while their retention contributes to the reduction of newly embodied carbon, and thoughtful insulation and glazing reduce energy demand. Part of the advantage is reduction in new building while not wasting emissions from the original construction. The scale of these issues is especially significant when concrete and steel are involved.
Developments in technology support the maintenance of existing buildings in new ways that are better for our natural environments while their retention promotes a higher level of enjoyment and respect for existing places. The tangible resources of our profession have helped us to track (with greater accuracy) life cycle assessments of buildings through individual materials. These goals have become more mainstream with architects and their clients but should not distract from user experience goals.
Preserving the human connection to a space is a valuable attribute of improving user experience. New healthy environments promote more than just clean air. The restoration of buildings such as 808 Memorial Drive, a renovation of two 1970s-era occupied apartment buildings, not only provide improvements to the building envelope and mechanical systems but also restore the tenant community and identity with improved comfort and sense of security, improved circulation and accessibility, and new surface materials and lighting, in both the interior and the exterior of the buildings.
The resilience of an existing community can be tied to their emotional and functional connections to the existing structure. Building occupants’ participation in these projects has proven to increase the outcome of buildings simply because people value their connections to the existing space and want to see it updated for the better. Brand new buildings may be exciting, but familiarity is also a virtue of rehabilitation and that comes with existing settings for everyday life.
The level of agency and sense of ownership for occupants in an existing building is far greater than those of users who move into a new space. Whether the building is undergoing access improvements, energy reduction, or storm hardening, existing buildings are spaces of familiarity and the significance of seeing familiar places gain new life is indisputable. As the trend of adaptive reuse broadens nationwide to address mid-century modern building stock, it continues to strengthen our human connection to spaces that we share.
Julian Phillips, NOMA is a designer at Bruner/Cott in Boston and a Boston Preservation Alliance Young Advisors Board member.