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Making The Rubble Bounce

Two articles came up in recent reading on more or less the same topic. First, “We Can’t Build Our Way To Net Zero” by Patrice Frey and Vincent Martinez. Second, “New Buildings are Terrible for the Environment. This Arena is Proof.” by Nate Berg. The first is an opinion piece with data references to back it up; the second is a case study of a specific building in Baltimore.

I’ve written on this topic before, both on my own and discussing other articles, and it feels like there’s nothing new to say. There is, and always will be, a need for new buildings. However, that does not mean that every project demolishing old buildings to build new makes a lot of sense. Much of the time, those make no sense in terms of the environment, in terms of economics, and in terms of the quality of space provided.

I’ll leave discussion of the environmental issues to Frey and Martinez. The economics are pretty simple: adaptive reuse is cheaper in itself than full demolition and reconstruction, is less likely to cause potentially-expensive problems with neighboring buildings and infrastructures, and is completed faster.

I have downplayed here the idea that “they don’t build them like they used to” but there is something to be said for that. There are a number of reasons that “pre-war apartments” are so desirable, but a major reason is that they are more pleasant spaces to live in than their modern equivalents. They have ceilings higher than the minimum of 8 feet, they have heavier floor systems that minimize sound transmission, they have masonry partitions as demising walls between apartments rather than gypsum board and stud (again, reducing sound transmission), they always have operable windows. They’re simply nicer than their current equivalent. Similar arguments can be made regarding offices and a number of other building types.

The picture above is from a Scientific American article in 1888 and shows the work of building the second New York Times building around the first. This was done largely to keep the presses operating during construction, but it’s a nice case study in alteration rather than demolition.

The title of this post may be unfamiliar to younger readers. It’s based on a comment from the Cold War, when the US and USSR had enough nuclear bombs to destroy the world several times over. The comment, regarding the need for new weapons, was “why make the rubble bounce?” I’m going to keep returning to the topic of reuse rather than replacement for the foreseeable future.