architecture

Sustainability has become a core component of modern-day historic preservation activism. Indeed, we now recognize that the two are integrally related: there is no building greener than the one not built. By finding ways to creatively reuse and adapt existing structures to modern-day activities, we not only “save” our history, but also reduce the need for new construction.

Green and Main Pilot Project: Green and Main Pilot Project building before renovation.Green and Main Pilot Project: Green and Main Pilot Project building before renovation.As a designer, I often lament that the loss of historic building craft has had a negative impact on both the character and longevity of the structures we build today. It also has a negative impact on communities in terms of employment and multi-generational tradition. Renovation in general, and preservation in particular, are labor-dependent. That is, a greater percentage of the project cost in a renovation project is paid as wages rather than materials. Since wages equal jobs, preservation can be a great economic development tool. The Green and Main Pilot Project promotes socioeconomic sustainability by utilizing a broad range of skilled labor and specialized technical expertise. Even deconstruction of the interior is being performed in an intensively conscientious manner.

On a broad scale, preservation and renovation of existing buildings (particularly in urban areas) allow us to better utilize existing infrastructure and provide services more effectively to more people. Green and Main Pilot Project is reutilizing a building in a connected and walkable urban neighborhood, that is accessible by a variety of transportation modes. Because many older neighborhoods were developed in a time before widespread automobile use, they tend to be more compact and connected. In addition, an already-developed site allows for reuse of existing roads, sewers, and utilities.

At the individual building level, extending the useful life of a structure through renovation allows us to improve energy efficiency while also minimizing use of new-source construction materials. Preservation encourages adaptive reuse of existing buildings even as our needs and technologies change over time. The Green and Main building will be retrofit to a high level of energy efficiency while respecting the historic character-defining elements. For example, the historic storefront windows will be painstakingly recreated, though insulated glass will be utilized in place of the original single panes.

It is critically important for us to regain an understanding of how sustainable communities operate at both the individual building level and the broader urban scale. As a pilot project, Green and Main will serve as a brilliant case study. However, most of the projects I work on do not overtly address “sustainability” as part of their stated goals. Most of the people I work with simply love their homes and want to invest in the continued success of their neighborhoods. Sustainability is inherent in and inseparable from the act of renovating!

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Particularly in older Midwestern towns and cities, it is not uncommon to find rural anachronisms in the middle of otherwise urban settings.

East Grand Feed Mill Aerial Photo: Aerial photo of feed mill on East GrandEast Grand Feed Mill Aerial Photo: Aerial photo of feed mill on East Grand

Note that this facility is located in a residential neighborhood, where the train tracks cut through. The grain elevator was constructed in the early 1900s, as were most of the surrounding homes. It seems reasonable to believe that employees of the feed mill were able to live nearby and walk to work.

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Before diving in to the reasons the Des Moines downtown skywalk system should disappear, I'll first lay out the reason why it should stay: Iowa gets cold. It's no fun walking anywhere when the thermometer reads 10 degrees below zero, particularly if young children are involved!

That said, I think the skywalks are holding downtown back from a complete revitalization.

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