Adaptive reuse revisited

by John Neiuber

It was shortly after 10 p.m. on the night of this past January 21. The wind was howling. The house and windows were rattling. Our dog, Gus, who is never bothered by sirens, fireworks or earthquakes, was frightened, as were we. One particularly strong gust propelled Gus onto the sofa where he wedged himself between the seat back cushion and my wife, Karen. At 10:32 p.m. a loud thud shook the house, as the power went out. Upon investigation, an 80-foot tree had fallen across Seventh Street, east of Indian Hill, taking out the power pole and lines and crashing into the roof of a house on the corner. Soon, a police cruiser arrived, and the officer alerted onlookers to stay clear of the powerlines, while simultaneously shining his spotlight on two other trees. In rapid succession, the two equally tall trees fell, one smashing a vehicle in its path.

I have experienced a lot of Santa Ana wind events in my lifetime, but none come close to the wind event of January 21. We are seeing more and more severe weather events. Warming is melting the polar caps as oceans rise. Rain events are dumping unheard of amounts of water in a few short hours, and creating devastating floods. Tornadoes are moving into areas where few existed before, and causing widespread destruction. Drought and increased temperatures are fueling wildfires of epic proportions.

In April, we celebrate Earth Day. Earth Day began in 1970 and now, 52 years later, the need for us to be good stewards of our planet is even more imperative. The local steward of our little corner of the world is Sustainable Claremont. Organizations such as Sustainable Claremont, throughout the world and the United States, have embraced the concept of “think globally, act locally.”

It is also a concept that Claremont Heritage has embraced. Preservation is sustainability. In this column in 2015, we discussed architect Carl Elefante’s statement that “The greenest building is the one that’s already built.” A new building may be “green” in every sense of the word, but if the new building replaced a demolished one, all the embodied energy is lost, and it could take anywhere between 10 and 80 years for the new building to overcome the loss of the embodied energy in the demolished building. The 2015 column advocated for more adaptive reuse of buildings that no longer serve the purpose for which they were constructed.

In a 2013 column about adaptive reuse, we discussed reuse of buildings in Claremont as an effective way of reducing environmental impacts. Specifically, the column cited the effectiveness of the adaptive reuse of buildings in Claremont such as the Packing House, Padua Hills Theatre, The Back Abbey, the Old School House, Petiscos and the Village Theatre, among many others.

Bentley’s Market in 1940s Claremont.

And here we are in 2022. In February, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that we are falling far behind in the race against global warming. In an obvious understatement, one of the report’s authors said we must use every tool available to reduce carbon emissions to avoid “a sub-optimal future.”

Jim Lindberg, a senior policy director at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, wrote in “Avoiding Carbon: Mitigating Climate Change through Preservation and Reuse,” “The urgency of reducing embodied carbon emissions inverts common perceptions about older buildings and climate change. Rather than outdated structures that we hope to replace, older buildings should be valued as climate assets that we cannot afford to waste.”

Lindberg brings to the forefront once again the concept of building conservation and adaptive reuse as a carbon fighting tool. The carbon savings realized through reuse are even more important today. Building construction and operations are responsible for 40% of human produced carbon emissions worldwide. Lindberg proposes we take the following actions:

Expand preservation and zoning tools. Offer multiple designation and design review options to increase the number of buildings and neighborhoods protected through local preservation programs. Use adaptive reuse ordinances, conservation districts, and context-sensitive zoning to encourage reuse and discourage speculative demolitions in areas outside of historic districts.

Create more building reuse incentives. Reinstate a tiered system of rehabilitation tax incentives that includes older buildings generally, as well as those designated as historic. Support enhancements to the federal rehabilitation tax credit.

Prioritize materials conservation in rehabilitation. Add a new “reuse” treatment that prioritizes retention of structural elements and other high carbon building materials, while allowing greater flexibility to improve energy performance. Use this treatment for buildings in conservation districts as well as non-contributing buildings in historic districts. Allow rehabilitation to include use of modular, temporary elements that can be easily disassembled, removed, and reused elsewhere as needs change. Add guidance on how to responsibly deconstruct unneeded building elements. Recommend life-cycle assessment of the carbon impacts of all major rehabilitations.

Strengthen demolition review policies. Flip the demolition review policy paradigm. Instead of approving all demolition requests, unless a last-minute preservation alternative can be found, adopt policies that presume demolition permits will not be approved without documentation that replacement will achieve life-cycle carbon savings.

Add deconstruction to the preservation policy toolbox. Support adoption of deconstruction ordinances to require salvaging of usable materials in cases in which full building reuse is not feasible. Include deconstruction as part of a full spectrum of building and material reuse policies and incentives.

The IPCC states that at current emission rates, we will exceed our remaining carbon budget in less than 10 years. The only way to reduce the carbon footprint of construction is to conserve and reuse as many existing buildings as possible.

The IPCC also found that over the past 50 years, extreme weather events have increased five-fold. Early on the morning of January 22, the winds were still howling through Claremont. Karen and I were discussing the devastating weather events of late. She wondered if soon we would be living in domed cities. We are definitely not looking forward to a “sub-optimal future” and I am sure, if he were able, Gus would agree.


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