Division Street Demolitions Contribute to Environmental Degradation

by Scott A. Rappe, AIA

The recent demolition of three vintage buildings in the 1600 block of Division street is truly shocking. As society becomes more aware of its impact on the environment and its unsustainable consumption of natural resources, such waste should be met with outrage.

The premature destruction of these buildings is inexcusable, particularly in light of the fact that their owner, developer Joseph Freed and Associates, has stated that there are no specific plans for the properties. One of the great themes of contemporary life concerns the intersection of ‘rights’ and ‘responsibilities’.

Our consumption-intensive culture is on a collision course with our growing recognition of the need to protect our world. Our daily lives are filled with contradictions: we dutifully fill our blue carts with recyclables, but drive when we could just as easily walk; we dream of putting solar panels on our roofs, but leave the lights on in empty rooms; we buy organic food and cage-free eggs but stand by passively as buildings with decades of useful life remaining are demolished. It is time that we all recognize the tragic waste inherent in the wholesale destruction of such high-quality buildings.

These three buildings, all between a century and 120 years old, were perfectly salvageable; one even served as Alderman Flores’ headquarters through the eve of his recent re-election. Division Street is lined with similar buildings that have been profitably renovated and continue to get useful life from building materials manufactured more than a century ago. Stewart Brand, author of How Buildings Learn, has made an extensive study of the lifecycle of structures.

He noted how, over the life of a building, some components are subject to constant alteration, while others remain unchanged until the building is demolished. For instance, furnishings are rearranged annually, while wallcoverings and paint are only changed perhaps every five years. Partitions, door openings and trim are changed less often, perhaps on a ten to twenty year basis.

Mechanical systems, such as electrical, mechanical and plumbing tend to be serviceable from twenty to fifty years, while building envelope materials tend to be changed rarely, perhaps in the range of fifty to one hundred years. Structural systems tend to be the most stable and thus are seen as the essence of the original building. Once things like columns, beams, floors and bearing walls require alteration, the service life of the building is generally at its end. Fortunately, structural systems rarely, if ever, wear out or fail.

Almost without exception when buildings are demolished, one or more of these systems remain intact and serviceable. Stewart Brand’s observations are particularly prescient in the context of the growing interest in sustainable design.

The lifespan of a building generally far outlasts the purpose for which it is originally designed. Thus it makes sense to invest resources in each building system based on its expected utility. The structural system should be long-lasting and designed to allow flexibility in use far into the distant future. Conversely, the investments made in interior partitions and finishes should be in proportion to the more limited expected usefulness of these systems.

The builders of our vintage buildings seemed to have an innate understanding of this. The heavy masonry bearing walls prevent moisture penetration and provide thermal mass to moderate the temperature extremes of our climate. Their robust stone foundations easily accept the loads of new stories that are often added on top. Their old-growth timbers allow structural spans unthinkable with today’s lumber.

Their interior partitions are relocated or removed with ease. Their lath and plaster walls are easily repaired or replaced with gypsum board. Their high ceilings allow daylight to penetrate rooms deeply. The voids in frame walls and floors accommodate the electrical upgrades and ductwork that allow them to remain serviceable as technologies change.

Division Street is a shopping and dining destination in great part because of its vintage buildings and charming storefronts. A leisurely walk down Division Street will make clear the desirability of these vintage apartments and storefronts. Where nearly every old storefront has a thriving business, those in many of the new structures sit vacant month after month. Their looming lay-in ceilings and crass aluminum storefronts simply can’t compete with their more dignified elder neighbors. The often heard argument “It belongs to me, so I can do with it as I please” is losing legitimacy.

One may have the ‘right’ to tear down a serviceable and attractive building, but as ‘green’ awareness grows, those who do will increasingly be under pressure to justify this waste. Changes in social and cultural norms may eventually achieve what legal constraints never could.