Old Can Be the New Green – Commercial Buildings Can, and Should, Become Sustainable

What makes an older commercial building worth preserving? Is renovation really less expensive than replacing? Can an older building become sustainable -“ and what does that mean, anyway.

Corp! talked extensively to nationally-known preservation architect Gene Hopkins, FAIA, a partner in HopkinsBurns Design Studio, who is involved with a number of historic restoration projects from Mackinac Island to the headquarters building of the American Institute of Architects in Washington D.C. and was just named Michigan’s Architect of the Capital.

Adaptive Reuse

Gene Hopkins

“For the most part,” Hopkins says, “it’s better to preserve and adaptively reuse a commercial building that’s contributing to its community, has good construction to begin with, has, or had, good detailing, and there’s a warmth to it. New is not always better.”

There are practical economic reasons for working with existing buildings. “The federal tax credit is at 20 percent and when added to the tax credit in Michigan, for instance, that was just passed at the end of the year, it can mean another 15 to 20 percent on top of the federal, so when you invest a dollar you get 40 cents back. That’s huge.”

Hopkins points out. “The more that people understand how to capitalize on that -“ that it’s not just additional paperwork that can encumber their project -“ they’ll see how much of an advantage it is to reuse an existing building. It’s a lot easier than going through the bureaucracy, the zoning, the real paperwork involved in trying to tear down a building and build something new. It’s just easier to reuse what’s there, with perhaps minor modifications or additions to it and still bring about what needs to be accomplished as a renewable resource.”

Sounding more like an economic ecologist than a preservation architect, Hopkins ticks off some bullet points that show why preservation and reuse is preferable to building new:

-¢ America produces 135 million tons of construction waste annually.
-¢ 40 percent of that waste is sent to landfills.
-¢ Methane produced from the decomposing materials such as wood and cardboard is 23 percent more potent than CO2.
-¢ Residential and commercial buildings alone produce 39 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in America.
-¢ Making buildings greener is the cheapest, quickest, and most significant way to make a dent in greenhouse gas emissions.

Double Platinum
The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification process by the U.S. Green Building Council has done a lot to raise awareness of green building techniques and sustainability. The Christman Building (formerly the Mutual Building) in downtown Lansing, Mich. is the new headquarters to the national commercial construction company of the same name. It has been rated by the Council as double-platinum LEED -“ the highest possible rating. Platinum is awarded for the building shell and the way it was restored and adaptively reused, while a second platinum is earned for the interior fit-out -“ using low VOC paints and finishes, control of energy usage, the culture of the offices and how they recycle -“ all adding to the sustainability component that have resulted in being awarded platinum in those two categories.

Christman had needed a new headquarters building for a long time, according to Hopkins, whose firm was the preservation architectural and design company on the project. “They had put a lot of money and effort into their old building, but it came to a point where they couldn’t do anything more with it. They decided they wanted to move -“ and there were a lot of alternatives for them to consider -“ but they decided to buy a historic building and turn it into their corporate offices.” Hopkins continued, “It is one of the premier projects in the country. For them it was about setting an example for the design and construction industry -“ it was about showing the creativity we have in the industry, in the trades.”

Christman’s preservation practice group has had some experience in sustainability, since it served as general contractor for one National Monument site as designated by the National Park Service in addition to 14 National Landmarks, 35 National Register buildings and a United Nations World Heritage site.

“Christman bought the Mutual Building,” said Hopkins. “It was on the National Register of Historic Places, but it had gone through a variety of owners, some of whom had neglected or abused it. But the qualities of the built materials, the quality of construction, had the potential of sustainability. It made this building very easy, for the most part, to adaptively reuse it as a state-of-the-art office building.”

Just because something is required for code compliance -“ such as for life-safety or accessibility -“doesn’t mean it has to be obvious. “The ornate historic stairway is what you see first, and the elevator we had to add is around the corner,” Hopkins tells us, “Accessibility for all is important to be sure, but it doesn’t have to compromise the historic aspects of the building. It doesn’t have to be the first thing you see.”

“You don’t have to replace an existing commercial building with something that’s technology-centric in order to have state-of-the-art amenities or energy-saving features,” Hopkins continues. “You don’t have to make a choice of one or the other. The Christman Building has operable windows to improve ventilation and reduce energy costs. It has motion sensors for water and electrical devices so water runs only when needed and lights go on only when someone’s in an area.”

As one example of the building’s recycling, Hopkins says “We had to remove some marble wainscoting from portions of the building -“ and we reused it in the new bathrooms that we had to add to satisfy code requirements. It’s a matter of understanding what a building has to offer and being able to use it in a little different way, maybe in a little more contemporary way so people think they’re getting a newer building.

According to Gavin Gardi, Christman sustainable projects manager, “reuse of our historic building tapped its inherent embodied energy and resources, avoided suburban sprawl and contributed to downtown revitalization. Its location utilizes existing public transportation and parking facilities. Showers and locker rooms encourage walking and bicycling to work. The white roof and reduced exterior lighting reduce heat island effects and light pollution.”

Gardi went on to cite some specific figures: “Energy use is reduced by among other things providing daylight for 92 percent of occupants, adding high efficiency windows and Energy Star office equipment and appliances. There are individually controlled comfort conditions. The air distribution system maximizes efficient, healthy ventilation and provides 200-300 percent more ventilation than conventional systems. Low flow fixtures reduce water consumption by 40 percent.”

Hopkins’ design reused 92 percent of existing walls, roof and floors, and much of Christman’s former office furnishings and diverted 77 percent of construction debris from the landfill. New materials were regionally manufactured, contributing to the LEED certification.

Economics Always a Key Component
Architect Hopkins points out that there’s a large economic factor that is slowing an acceptance of retaining appropriate older buildings and making them sustainable for the future. “Until it gets to be more expensive to bury things in a landfill than to build new,” he says, “it’s going to be difficult for things to change as fast as they need to.”

The Mustang Lounge on Michigan’s Mackinac Island needed extensive restoration, all of which was done to preserve as much of the original as possible -“ while reducing very expensive trips to a landfill on the mainland.

A case in point is Mackinac Island. Hopkins’ firm supervised the preservation of the historic Mustang Lounge building on the equally historic island, where the only motor vehicles allowed are for emergency use only and the primary mode of transportation has four legs and eats oats.

“There’s no landfill on Mackinac Island, so anything that needs to be disposed of -“ including building materials -“ has to be loaded on a horse-drawn dray. Trash, including building materials that can’t be recycled, goes down to the docks where it gets hand-loaded onto a barge which then takes it across the water to St. Ignace,” explains Hopkins. From there it gets loaded onto a truck, then taken to a landfill and dumped. The costly process builds in an incentive to do whatever is necessary to not have any waste. Hopkins says that those economics inspire adaptive reuse of materials. “You try to reuse as much as you can of what’s there and if you have to take something apart to remodel it, you see if there’s anybody else on the island that needs it. You become more resourceful with your byproducts because it’s going to cost you. Studies show that about 60 percent of what goes into a landfill can and should be recycled.”

Christman used that approach on their “new” building, Hopkins says, “Yes, they had dumpsters onsite -“ but one was for metals, one for paper products, one for plastics -“ they were just big recycling bins. They got the workers to think about what they were doing and they got into the hang of recycling quickly.”

Corp! asked Detroit Free Press business and architecture writer John Gallagher about the viability of adaptive reuse to make older buildings sustainable. “We can say that adaptive reuse projects are very do-able, although they take patience and a lot of skill working with tax credits and the like. That said, this remains a challenging economy -“ and a very challenging economy when it comes to real estate -“ so I’m sure many projects are either on hold or, if they’re already open, hanging on for better days ahead.”

Sustainability Can Apply to Newer Buildings
One example of a sustainable project Hopkins is working on in an area that’s not as affected by economic conditions is the American Institute of Architects (AIA) building in Washington D.C. “It’s a 1973 building, it’s not historic yet, but the AIA wants it to be a prototype for integrating sustainability features into a modern office building. It’s built well, but like many buildings of its era, it has precast concrete panels, no insulation, quarter-inch plate glass, also not insulated, no operable windows in it at all. They wanted to know how to make it sustainable without sacrificing its architectural qualities because it is a good example of a modern building.”

The proposed changes to the AIA headquarters building in Washington D.C. include “light shelves” to bounce light into the interior of the building, as well as lighting/ventilation shafts carved into the building’s structure.

AIA members have designed many commercial buildings around the country that were built when technology trumped things like natural light and ventilation.

The AIA headquarters management asked, according to Hopkins, “How can we put in operable windows? How can we add a light shelf which will reflect light back into the building as was done back when buildings had to relay a great deal on existing light or else use candles or gas lights or poor-quality early electric lights? How can we create a light and ventilation shaft down through the middle of the building -“ again as they did it long ago when there wasn’t such a thing as air conditioning.”

“We showed them how it could be done,” says Hopkins, “while maintaining the overall integrity of the building’s original design.”

What about “Office Parks”
What about the “office parks” that have sprouted up throughout the suburbs?

“There’s a lot of discussion in the architectural profession as well as the construction industry about whether these work-meccas are going to maintain their viability and sustain themselves,” he replies. Are those glass boxes that seem to be the main feature of many of them reusable? “Surprisingly, many of them can be.”

“The big question,” Hopkins says, “is -“ from a context standpoint, does it make sense to do that because the building itself is really only one piece of the puzzle. It’s the people who have to go there, work or visit there -“ and are there appropriate amenities and services that allow the building to achieve more of a sustainable community around it. Are there sustainable ways for people to get there -“ light rail, alternate-fueled busses, charging stations for electric vehicles?” Hopkins asks. “Can they become ‘life centers,’ with retail, commercial and housing together in a little walking neighborhood community. So we’re looking at how to redesign, re-layout, re-think these suburban office parks to make them into a neighborhood community. If we can do that so people can live, work, shop, be entertained as they would be in a small town, then they can become viable, living centers. Not all of them. Some of them were just not meant to be for whatever reason -“ overly optimistic planning, too much dependence on a single tenant, even poor design or construction -“something like that. But I think a good majority of them may be.”

Tyson’s Corner, outside of Washington D.C. is like that. At one time the location of an earthen-works outpost of the Union Army guarding the Nation’s capitol during the Civil War, it grew rapidly starting in the mid-1960s to become a retail as well as commercial hub.

“They’re doing some real planning,” says Hopkins, “to make those office buildings, which house some pretty important companies, much more sustainable by incorporating new roads and traffic patterns -“ traffic jams were always a source of aggravation-“ integrating housing and other steps to get mixed use not only in the area, but within a single building.”

Mixed use is good for maintaining a community. “What it does, then, is maximize the use of that building. You not only have people working there during the day, but you have people living there at night, so you’re capitalizing more on your investment in the building because you’re using it now 24 hours a day instead of just from 8 to 5 -“ that’s an energy savings,” he continues. “A mixed-use building is always more viable than a single-use building. It can provide opportunities for younger professionals, as well as older people, to take advantage of that housing stock. The key, of course, is whether the market responds positively to that kind of environment.”