Vani at Shape of Now makes a convincing argument for rehabilitation of existing structures rather than constant new construction, an excerpt:

Modern construction methods are incredibly wasteful of resources. Up to 25 percent of the total waste generated in the United States, India, and other countries is directly attributed to building, construction, and demolition activities. These — often hidden — waste products can be environmentally hazardous and polluting, both as solids and in the atmosphere.

Externalities strike again! Working on major construction projects, I’m constantly amazed at the massive amounts of materials wasted, often in the name of labor saving. For instance, all the slabs in one buildings I’m working on have ~20% larger rebar than they actually need so that holes can be drilled anywhere later without the contractors needing to add plate or angle reinforcing underneath. It’s much more material-efficient to just reinforce openings where they occur, but the added time to install reinforcing later or to carefully plan opening locations and reinforce beforehand makes it cheaper to just increase the reinforcing everywhere. It saves the contractor and owner money, but wastes a lot of steel.

That time trumps material/energy efficiency is why it’s so much cheaper to just build new buildings. As Vani says:

…adaptive reuse is much more labor-intensive than new construction, because it involves the reconditioning the existing structures to adapt to modern day requirements. This dependence on human resources encourages the local community to participate and potentially revives a vernacular rhythm in architecture. This activity can remind us that vernacular architecture is one cornerstone of our identity.

Identity, lacking a clear economic value, is often ignored and few developers see past the “labor-intensive” (read: $$$) part of the sentence. For localized construction efforts at the family or neighborhood level, sweat equity can certainly bring projects down to the cost of materials (which if of the “found” variety, can be nothing), but this usually means structures built without professional assistance — structurally unsound, lacking in basic utilities.

As some sort of crazy commie, my solution tends to be that design and construction assistance should be a free service available to all. Families could take their ideas to a sort of Free Design Clinic, get guidance and materials from professionals, and then go start their projects. Sort of like the community design centers try to do, but more DIY.

More realistically, it would be possible to create market incentives for material efficiency, which goes hand-in-hand with adaptive reuse (since not demolishing is the most efficient of all). Maybe the carbon tax and trade schemes suggested as anti-climate change initiatives would have this effect as building materials became more expensive to produce. I want to believe that a green capitalism is possible, but remain skeptical.

2 comments to Adaptation

  • Hi. Thank you for endorsing my writing, and agreeing with me.

    I enjoy your blog a lot, and make it a point to visit it at least once a day if not more! The title of your blog ‘After Corbu’ brings back a lot of nostalgic memories to me, since I lived almost 25 years of my life in Corbu’s town Chandigarh and even ‘studied’ architecture there! It feels like home here!

    Thank you!

  • I’m flattered that you visit so consistently! I get your posts via rss, and enjoy your writing style a lot.

    It’s very exciting that you lived for so long in Chandigarh as I imagine you’ll have a lot to write about the town that I can compare to what I’ve read — much of which seems to be critical of Corbu’s designs.

    I’m sure that living in a place, people alter/improve it to make it an enjoyable, positive space, but what’s your opinion on how the original design helps or hinders living there?

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