C-BIP Studio Part I

March 28, 2012

or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Retrofit

A current architectural fad (if I may call it so) is to tout the advantages of retrofitting older buildings for new uses, rather than tearing down and building new. Many reasons are given: saving historic buildings is inherently valuable or preserves our history and culture; 80% of the US building stock was built in the past 50 years, so it’s important to address these (mostly energy-inefficient) buildings; it’s more environmentally sound to retrofit than to build new, once you account for embodied energy of materials; and it’s often cheaper than building new. One of the philosophies of my current studio, the Columbia Building Intelligence Project (or C-BIP), that I appreciate is that retrofitting buildings in NYC is taken as a given: your project is a retrofit, end of discussion. Further, most of us have taken the view that energy savings is at most a bare minimum, a minor issue; of course the retrofit must reduce energy usage, but what is it “really” doing? Our team, for example, is grappling with issues of inclusionary housing, elder care, increased density and its implications structurally and programmatically, maximizing value (financially and socially), and what it means to upgrade entire blocks of similar building types instead of individual buildings.

Recently I heard Michael Kimmelman, the NYTimes architecture critic, speak at GSAPP in a conversation with my history professor, Gwen Wright. They remarked how Kimmelman, who many expected would write up buildings as precious artifacts given his art criticism background, is now being criticized for writing mostly about urban issues from the “man on the street” point of view. His recent article about a retrofit of a Paris housing project is in a similar vein; he asks residents what they think of the project (mixed feelings, of course) but ultimately decides in favor of the strategy. He reviews the same statistics I did above, providing a survey of the how and why of retrofit as well as what its effects were in this case. (I think he’s also trying to respond to the recent discussions around demolition versus preservation of “urban renewal” housing projects in general, see also his article on the Pruitt-Igoe controversy in response to this recent documentary.) I really appreciate his focus on this issue, as well as his acknowledgement of architecture’s strengths and limitations in solving difficult social problems.

My point in all this: I think it’s about time we stopped worrying about justifying retrofits, and started worrying about doing really good ones. Architecture school right now, or at least this one, seems to be mostly about individual artistic endeavor, as it has been for quite a long time now. Projects where your individual creative voice is obscured, or where you didn’t imagine the entire project ex nihilo, don’t qualify for design awards. As is starting to be the case with “green design,” where reductions in energy use are expected rather than avant-garde, I hope “the retrofit” will come to be seen as a standard base upon which your architectural creativity should operate. This will probably require a move away from the standard studio/school model… but at least in C-BIP we’re giving it a try.

Expect more C-BIP commentary to come!