The Modern Mandate
Saving significant mid-century buildings has united preservationists and environmentalists
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 1/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
A rendering of an office floor at Inland Steel, where SOM's proprietary micro-perforated steel ceiling membrane integrates lighting, a chill-beam HVAC system, and acoustical dampening. Courtesy of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
With money tight and ice caps melting, preservation and sustainability experts have linked arms in proclaiming that the greenest building is one that's already built. The race is on not just to save these structures but also to ensure they're LEED-worthy. The "green recovery" part of President Barack Obama's public-works construction program might involve spending billions of dollars on measures that include retrofitting federal buildings to increase their energy efficiency. His plan makes good environmental sense and comes not a moment too soon for the General Services Administration's postwar properties, which are fast reaching the end of their service life. The GSA's typical glass-box structures lose up to 70 percent of their energy through leaky curtain walls alone.
The GSA jump-started its modernist initiative in 1999 after aficionados launched a protest over a proposed security upgrade to the Byron G. Rogers Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, a 1965 complex in Denver. Noted for a richness of materials and site-specific art, the 18-story tower, low-rise courthouse, and landscaped plaza ended up with a sympathetic new entry and sensitively restored public areas by Bennett Wagner & Grody Architects. The project featured low-emitting materials, adhesives, sealant, paint, carpet, and composite wood as well as 100 percent wind-generated power, which all added up to LEED Gold.
Salt Lake City’s Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building with seismic upgrades and energy-saving sunscreens designed by GSBS Architects and constructed by Reaveley Engineers + Associates in 2002. The building as it looked when completed by Deseret Architects and Engineers in 1963. Photo by J.A.B. Photography; both images courtesy of the GSA.
This new attention prompted the GSA to rethink the historical significance of agency buildings dating from 1949 to 1979, which make up 36 percent of its 1,565-property inventory, and figure out how to restore and renovate without muddling. (Many mistakes occurred in the 1980's, at the nadir of modernism's popularity.) Rogers set the standard for modernist preservation around the U.S.—a bar that is fast getting raised.
While Obama's plan would finally pay for what, up till now, has been largely an unfunded mandate for buildings to comply with federal energy standards, several high-profile modernist makeovers under way in the private sector are going super-green. Perhaps the most ambitious is the Studios Architecture transformation of AIA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Designed by Walter Gropius and his Architects Collaborative, the 1969 building is an energy sieve. However, it will be a model of efficiency by the time the renovation is finished in 2012, possibly achieving carbon neutrality by 2030. "We're learning that you can get a lot out of a little," associate principal Abram Goodrich says. "You don't necessarily need to turn something inside out to transform the experience and the performance."
The 1969 AIA headquarters, designed by the Architects Collaborative's Walter Gropius to complement the 1801 Octagon Museum, which shares the site in Washington, D.C. A Studios Architecture diagram showing how to improve energy efficiency at the AIA by insulating windows and adding aluminum shades. Photo by Dan Poyourow. Rendering courtesy of Studios Architecture.
Efficiency at the AIA will be enhanced by small, cumulative changes that respect the building's brutalist geometry—and don't jeopardize future landmark status. For example, in figuring out how to bring in natural ventilation and daylight, Goodrich was delighted to discover archival sketches in which Gropius had toyed with an idea Studios had already intuited: putting a skylight in a boardroom. Goodrich says he thinks of the changes not as correcting flaws but as "laying new objectives on top of what's there." Studios plans to go one step further, too: inserting shafts vertically through the center of the building to exhaust hot air via the stack effect.
It requires finesse to enhance performance while preserving a space that's landmarked or destined to be. In returning to restore Chicago's Inland Steel Building to its 1958 grandeur, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill is peeling back the lobby's 1980's wood panels, to reveal SOM's own black Belgian marble, and reproducing original fluorescent fixtures, except with neon. Interestingly, only the south facade is getting reglazed. The building was ahead of its time, and its insulated double-glazed curtain wall has held up well enough on other elevations, which pleases preservationists.
A rendering of the lobby's original marble at the Chicago Inland Steel Building, hidden for decades and now revealed to serve as a backdrop for a sculpture by Richard Lippold. Courtesy of Skidmore, Ownigs & Merrill.
The most innovative energy solutions are being incorporated on office levels. SOM has developed a proprietary micro-perforated steel ceiling membrane that integrates lighting, a chill-beam HVAC system, and acoustical dampening to achieve a 40 percent energy reduction overall—and, it's hoped, a triple-Platinum rating: LEED-CI, LEED-EB, LEED-NC. Besides saving energy, labor, and materials, the product makes for a cleaner aesthetic. "To get the highest degree of performance, I believe you have to look at an integrated, organic system in totality," SOM interior design partner and Interior Design Hall of Fame member Stephen Apking says.
To that end, SOM is setting the ground rules for work spaces at Inland Steel early on. Tenants must check their egos at the door, choosing among just three palettes for the antimicrobial carpet and sustainable wood veneer. "To participate in this building, they have to buy into it, eschewing old ideas about coming in and tearing everything out," Apking says. "It's about exploring new ways to look at colors and materials, having a joyful attitude toward the environment." And making a design as revolutionary in 2009 as it was in 1958.