Adaptive Reuse: How can we make old buildings more sustainable?

One of the most important tasks engineers face today is the design of sustainable structures. Through form finding, use of efficient and/or local materials, and external systems, a plethora of new environmentally responsible buildings exist today. These advanced structures seem to be the answer to reducing the building sector’s staggering carbon emissions, but what about old, historic architecture? What role do these buildings play in our sustainable future?

Tearing down all structures that aren’t explicitly sustainable isn’t necessarily best for the environment, as additional energy is required for demolition as well as construction of a replacement structure. Furthermore, these buildings also hold cultural and historical relevance, acting as roots that tie us to the people and virtues who came before. Old post offices, banks, schools, office buildings, and retail locations may never find their place in history textbooks, but their vernacular styles, as well as the people and events that populated their interiors, make them worthy of preservation. Sustainable design isn’t restricted to the environment; social and cultural sustainability should also be of our concern.

In order to understand how to best include these buildings within our sustainable agenda, it is important to look at their current environmental impact compared to most infrastructure found today. According to the National Institute of Building Sciences’ Whole Building Design Guide, “historic buildings are inherently sustainable.” Adaptive reuse of old structures not only ensures the maximum use of material lifespans but also reduces waste. These claims are corroborated by life cycle analysis (LCA) tests, demonstrating that “reusing older buildings result in immediate and lasting environmental benefits.”

Though these structures may not be as energy efficient as new high-tech ones, LCAs found that performance is not overwhelmingly compromised, as many existing buildings already have sustainable features. With the lack of significant climate control technology at the time of their construction, the form and materials of many old buildings were inherently efficient, trapping heat in the winter and releasing heat in the summer. Features include thick walls, shutters, overhangs, awnings, and high ceilings for air circulation and light admittance. Therefore, these sustainable features will be retained when rehabilitating and renovating them for contemporary use. Thus, with their waste reducing benefits, as well as their current level of performance, the best way to make old buildings sustainable is to use them.

The original Frick Laboratory at 20 Washington Street. (Image courtesy of Denise Applewhite, found on Princeton University’s website

We can see adaptive reuse in action in the renovation of 20 Washington Street on campus. With the new Frick Laboratory (2010), this former chemistry building became obsolete. However, with its central location and “iconic collegiate gothic structure” that ties it to the rest of campus, 20 Washington Street is too significant to demolish, Shirley Tilghman, president emerita of Princeton explained while she was in office. Thus, the university decided to transform the building into the new home of the Department of Economics and the university’s many international programs and services, which are currently sprinkled across campus. With the help of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg (KPMB) Architects of Toronto and engineers Thornton Tomasetti, the renovation will focus on “[striking] a delicate balance between preserving the most appealing features of this building—its stone walls, wood-beamed lobby, leaded windows, and collegiate-gothic flourishes— and transcending its limitations—a gloomy interior, mazelike corridors, and a woefully inefficient mechanical system.” Essentially, the project involves maintenance of the gothic exterior, with a reimagined interior that is light, airy, and contemporary. Primary interior spaces, such as the entryway onto Washington Road and the second-floor library, will also be preserved. The only exterior addition will the entrance onto Scudder Plaza, which serves to separate the two departments housed.

Perspectives view of Southern Atrium, at the entrance to Scudder Plaza and interior perspective views (Image courtesy of KPMB Architects)

The renovation meets LEED Gold Standards with its reuse of a historical structure, including reuse of materials such as the stone exterior and interior woodwork, use of sustainable materials in finishes, stormwater management, and energy efficient temperature, lighting, and plumbing systems. The project is admirable as an act of sustainability and preservation. From this project we can see not only the feasibility and success of adaptive reuse, which can bring together a campus, supplement present sustainable features of older buildings with new technology, and allow for the modern and historic to exist in one structure.

A couple elements of the project prompt further thinking. Architecturally, what should the visual relationship be between the historic exterior and contemporary interior? Should there be connectivity, so that one experiences both the old and the new for a fuller experience of the building and its history? The reuse of wood and stonework seems to bridge this gap to some extent, and it will be interesting to see how detectable this link is when occupying different spaces. Or perhaps the exterior and interior should be experienced separately, such that the two distinct lives of the building are easily perceived? Structurally, how were the forms for the additions and renovated interiors chosen? Could large elements, like atriums, benefit from form-finding to make them more efficient alongside external systems and material choice? How can we create a form that is both environmentally friendly as well as achieves the desired architectural experience? These are all questions we need to consider in the adaptive reuse of buildings for sustainability and preservation purposes, and upon its completion this year, it will be exciting to see 20 Washington Street’s solutions to them.

Author: Katie Kennedy ’18


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