New Ideas for Improving Existing Buildings

I’ve always been told I would love Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C., because of my passion for history. After years of hearing about the beauty of these cities, my husband and I visited them—with a one-day stay in Beaufort, S.C., in between—during a weeklong vacation in September. We took historic walking tours, a carriage-ride tour, even a boat to Fort Sumter. By the last day, my husband was asking whether he had to go on yet another historic tour but I couldn’t get enough. I loved the fact that I could imagine the cars away and visualize what it was like to live in the Low Country before the Civil War and after. I was grateful these cities’ historic districts are strictly guarded by commissions to ensure their picturesque structures from a bygone era remain intact.

Then I returned home and read Paul Lukes’ “Special Report”, titled “Rational Historic Preservation”. Lukes, owner of Seattle-based PAUL LUKES: Building Envelope Consulting Services LLC, describes his 11-year involvement with the Alaska State Capitol, Juneau. The concrete frame structure, which was completed in 1931, was experiencing severe degradation. Lukes notes: “The severe leakage plaguing the portico ceiling did not originate with its roof, but rather resulted from the downward migration of moisture within the building’s multi-wythe exterior masonry walls above, which—reflecting construction methods of the time—did not incorporate through-wall flashings or weeps to capture and drain water out of inherently absorbent masonry. Instead, the builders attempted to rely on the masonry thickness and mass to limit infiltration to the interior. While this ‘mass masonry’ approach may suffice for many exterior detailing conditions in much drier climates, it has little chance against Juneau’s 220 days of precipitation annually.”

Lukes and his colleagues proposed solutions to the state government. The “Maximum Preservation” option—at a cost of $18 million—would have probably given the building another 40 years before another round of costly repairs would be required. A more radical option—at a cost of about $22 million—was the complete reconstruction of the building’s exterior to match as closely as possible to the original design while enhancing the cladding’s performance and correcting the technical flaws inherent in the existing design. Find out which option the state chose by reading the story.

Lukes’ article convinced me that the concepts of preserving and improving our existing building stock are not mutually exclusive. I support enhancing performance of existing buildings as long as design and construction teams remain true to a historic building’s appearance. In fact, Lukes and his team reconstructed the capitol’s original roof-level cornice, which had been removed decades before. The new cornice not only brought the building closer to its original appearance, but also helps protect the new masonry from weathering.

Similar to how historic preservation and energy efficiency have appeared to be at odds, building owners and tenants historically haven’t been motivated to work together toward more efficient buildings. This “split incentive” occurs because of the assignment of capital expenses and operating expenses in a lease. Andrew Feierman, who works on the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Market Transformation’s market engagement team, is motivated to remove the “split incentive” from leases. He explains the benefits of green leases in “Business” and notes more than 30 “Green Lease Leaders” have been recognized by IMT and the Washington-based U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Alliance, providing tangible examples of sustainability helping to meet business goals.

Philosopher George Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Lukes and Feierman underscore in their articles how we can easily correct our past mistakes made within our buildings and continue progressing toward a better built environment.

About the Author

Christina A. Koch
Christina A. Koch is editorial director and associate publisher of retrofit.

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