Working With What You Have

Tall glass buildings, white paved wide streets, winding rivers and green parks with large trees surround you as you head out into the city. It’s a beautiful blue day, with a few fluffy clouds dotting the sky along with the rows of flying cars going by. You pass by many other pedestrians who also decided to take advantage of the fresh air and sunny skies and head towards the grocery store – a giant vertical farm located a few blocks from your apartment complex. Children are playing in the nearby park, splashing in the artificial pond while their parents look on, sitting on park benches shaded by the trees. The tall gleaming skyscrapers reach up high into the sky without casting an overwhelming shadow upon you, and you smile as a light rail glides silently on the suspended tracks above. Yes, this is the life, a city free of pollution, easy access to public transportation, well-maintained utilities and infrastructure, and state-of-the-art sustainable structures.

Too bad it’s not going to happen. At least, not in the way that we are always presented in movies and pictures. Take a look outside your home. Whether or not you live in the heart of an urban center, you can be pretty sure that transforming where you live right now, to the futuristic paradise that you imagined will take many years, and a lot of overhaul. That blacktop street has to be remade, that ugly building needs to be demolished, that shady gas station isn’t making you feel any more safe, and the constant sound of cars going by is making it impossible to get a good night’s sleep. In order to get to that pleasant picture in your mind, you’d have to take everything down and start from scratch, and as much as any architect or planner would love that, starting from scratch is highly improbable. Some designers have been lucky to be able to start from scratch, such as Norman Foster’s City of the Future, or Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City. But what figuring out how to build a perfect city isn’t that relevant when we already have thousands of cities already built. The focus should be on how to transition from the now to the next.

Madsar City
Masdar City

Yet starting from scratch is what so many architects like to do. After all, architects are supposed to build new buildings, and that requires an open plot of land to work with. But much of the urban world is already built (at least, in many western countries) and there is very little free space to work with. Many cities already have well established infrastructure systems and buildings and a complete overhaul is impossible. I’m not just saying that Architects do this, any futurist who imagines a completely renewed city is fooling themselves, at least in my opinion. There’s simply no way we can get from where we are now, to something that’s one hundred percent planned for optimal living. It’s extremely costly, not just in terms of money for demolishing, but also in terms of embodied energy that was required to already make all the buildings that we already have. Sure, they may be old looking or not be the most efficient, but it required energy and materials to build those buildings, and we shouldn’t leave them to waste.

So instead of imagining completely new buildings or city plans, I would suggest that the focus shouldn’t be on new construction, but on retrofitting old buildings with state-of-the art technologies, let’s keep the already constructed shells, but update the innards. The city can take a renovation, it requires less money and preserves the historic and cultural essence of the city. This article explains that one study found that it is almost always cheaper to retrofit a building than construct an entirely new one, not to mention the added environmental benefits. There are plenty of buildings out there that lie abandoned, having outlived their intended purpose. But we can always renovate them, give them new life so that they can continue to be relevant in our society. Sustainability doesn’t just mean having the most efficient technologies and state-of-the-art buildings, it also means that we work with what we have, and have a minimal negative impact on our surroundings. I’m always glad to see projects that repurpose old buildings and structures for more relevant purposes. A great example is the High Line in New York City. It used to be an elevated freight rail line before it was decommissioned, becoming a depressing shadow over the streets of New York. It’s now being turned into a unique community park that will sure to be the center of attention for both residents and tourists.

The High Line
The High Line

It is my firm belief that sustainable architecture shouldn’t just incorporate new buildings, indeed, I think the main focus should be to retrofitting old buildings so that we aren’t wasting the energy that was used to build them, or the land that they take up. There’s still the issue of certain infrastructural systems such as roads and pipes as it would require a lot of work to re-design and layout networks that span the entire city. But some say it is pretty necessary as cities become more advanced. But in terms of buildings, I think there should definitely be an emphasis on working with what we have and improving what we already have and then using that as a base to transition us to a more appealing city. Sure, new buildings look cool and may incorporate a lot of sustainable technologies, but are it really worth it when there’s an empty abandoned warehouse that could have the exact same technologies with an already built shell? Sure some work needs to be done to make it more appealing to the eye, but it can just be seen as a unique design challenge. And challenges provide a great environment for great ideas to come forth.

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