Q+A: Jim Burton on telling the story of Virginia architecture in Venice 

The Venice Biennale signifies a lot in the architecture world, raising topics that might be prescient or provocative and, through its curatorial lens, suggesting a new direction for design thinking. As part of the broader festival, the European Cultural Centre’s Italian section has hosted an annual exhibition called “Time, Space, Existence,” and invited firms from around the world like Berryville’s Carter + Burton Architecture to participate. This year, Jim Burton, AIA and his design team planned and shaped an exhibition installation called “Tectonics and Craft for a Critical Regionalism,”  a display that chronicles both the firm’s history, its methodology, its influences, and the practice of sustainable architecture in Virginia and beyond. In this interview, Burton talks about the exhibit and its implications for the bigger project of “critical regionalism,” first theorized by Kenneth Frampton and continued by firms like Carter + Burton.

“We do work within an eight-hour radius [of Berryville], but most of our projects are in and around Virginia,” says Jim Burton, AIA, Managing Partner of Carter + Burton Architecture. “Virginians have always wanted to connect with nature, and we enjoy working with those who are seeking that.” Photo courtesy Carter + Burton.

What story are you telling in Venice about architecture in Virginia? What’s the opportunity for your firm?

With this exhibit format we  are trying to bridge between education and practice to help share new and old knowledge about materials, building science and context while assuring there is a craft and beauty that will be appreciated and preserved as a form of sustainability. This celebration of those who have helped inspire and make the work possible has been a reminder of how research and design can evolve over time, while showing respect for  timeless truths about  architecture and collaboration.

With a focus on culture being the other half of sustainability, we reached back to early work to tell the story about detail discoveries in design/build experiments with recycled elements, site-harvested materials and micro-climate contexts. We also included our  wider history of  working with clients and craftsmen including an early Eco Modern house featured in the Washington Post in 1999 all the way up through newer designs under construction now. While there is a trend toward prefabrication and automation, we hope to show it can be relevant to provide energy efficient, loose fit, site-specific designs considering local, diverse and essential materials while supporting a local craft pool and the culture it comes from. We also enjoy celebrating the use of original art, custom rugs and furniture while balancing with the use of modern interior design classics. We have already seen responses from potential and new clients who are interested in some of the newer systems featured in the exhibit such as our use of CLT panels. 

ECC Italy’s exhibition’s permanent title, “Time,  Space, Existence,” is a heady rejoinder to the mission of sustainability. How do you anchor sustainability in a way that expresses what’s happening here in Virginia?

We have tried to focus on sensible tactics like using broken massing with shade buffer porches in wide open southern sites for ventilation and sun control while superinsulating more compact designs in northern wooded or shady mountain top lots. 

For six years running, the European Cultural Centre has hosted “Time Space Existence,” featuring exhibits by architects, artists, and designers at Venice’s Palazzo Mora. Rosa Leonie, photographer (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Master campus plans, urban, suburban and exurban transformation projects featured in our exhibit also show expressions of  specific conditions for creating place making including exterior rooms developed with landscape architect Gregg Bleam of Charlottesville. A palimpsest strategy is often used to bring in controlled light and materiality while showing remnants of the old balancing with the new rather than erasing the past altogether. Working with built-ins and furniture by Mira Nakashima is also a highlight that shares a more universal beauty found in natural material expression.  

There’s another layer to this sustainability, which is that you have to work with new systems as the industry evolves. There are SIPS panels, which have been around for awhile, and there are CLT panels and others now. The building envelope technology continues to evolve with industry leaders like Dr. Joe Lstiburek of the Building Science Corporation and George Swanson, who co-authored the book Breathing Walls. As material qualities and the climate  change, it becomes important to collaborate with specialists and learn from industry mistakes. We have had the privilege of working with Lstiburek on projects and in a new architecture education book.    

Does this participate in, or even expand, the “critical regionalism” concept as Kenneth Frampton conceived it?

I will say that the details we’ve been experimenting with and addressing have been in a microclimate approach rather than a purely “regional” approach — we’re discovering things such as timbers milled on site have responded well against twisting and checking.

Some builders or artisans bring an exceptional skill level that becomes local lore when we are lucky enough to find them and work with them in a collaborative way. Because our designs do not look sentimental to a region, it may be harder to typecast or label the  “ism”  in this discussion.

How do Virginia’s biomes define its diversity? 

We do work within an eight-hour radius, so we are up in Buffalo, New York, and down in parts of North Carolina, but most of our projects are in and around Virginia. Virginians have always wanted to connect with nature, and we enjoy working with those who are seeking that. We see a wide range of microclimates in Virginia. For example, sites south of Front Royal can be several degrees hotter than sites closer to West Virginia and Maryland. We have a site in Warren County near Browntown that is seven degrees cooler, and the wind continues to blow almost year-round up there. Our High Knob mountain top sites in Warren County have shown weather patterns similar to climate zones seen in northern Pennsylvania and New York.  

The four-season beauty also can be unforgiving, with high humidity and heavy rain in shoulder months. Good detailing and planning with old and new knowledge can ensure comfort as people seek to live in the type of landscape that resonates with their instincts the most. We work hard to respect the qualities of the place and help people experience these places in a fun and exciting way.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Learn more about Carter + Burton’s exhibit.

William Richards is a writer and the Editorial Director of Team Three, an editorial and creative consultancy based in Washington, DC

ArchEx will deliver on networking, “serendipity,” and a new night for Visions

By William Richards

If you’re lining up your Q4 commitments, put Architecture Exchange East 2023 (Nov. 1-3) on your radar in Richmond. You’re not going to want to miss it this year, says AIA Virginia’s Executive Vice President Paul Battaglia, AIA, thanks to new networking opportunities and a new night for Visions for Architecture. “ArchEx is about accelerating your learning by offering some very unique experiences to forge stronger connections to your colleagues,” says Battaglia, “and we are stronger together as a design and construction community, which has never been more important than now—in today’s economy at this critical time for the environment.” The main thing for the annual convention, he says in this exclusive interview, is about being open to what’s next—and there’s only one way to find out what that might mean.

What’s your baseline for understanding ArchEx in 2023? Why is going to be an important event?

People can get their learning credits in lots of places—and that’s just a fact. But, what’s also a fact is that you can’t get them in quite the same way as you can at ArchEx. It’s one of the things that excites me as a member. If you practice architecture in Virginia, if you teach design in Virginia, and if you supply architects with products and services, this is really the only place you’re going to strengthen your position as a design thinker on behalf of your business. Or, even just on behalf of yourself, frankly.

OK, Paul, but you are the Executive Vice President of AIA Virginia. Aren’t you supposed to say that?

I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t, but I have to tell you that I really believe architects, educators, product manufacturers, and AEC industry insiders in Virginia are really looking for something different—and I believe ArchEx is going to deliver. Registration opens next month and we’re really excited to let people know about it.

ArchEx is about remembering what a convening force design can be. We’re going to double down on our expo floor and really make that hive of activity a driver of networking.

ArchEx is also about providing a platform for cutting edge research and practice to flourish. The sessions we’re considering this year are really top notch. I can’t really tell you about them now—not yet—but I’m really pleased with how timely they are for this place and time in Virginia’s scene, and how compelling they are for any time, really—and that’s about finding those threads that knit together the work across generations and also the incredibly diverse markets across the state.

I think I hear you saying that ArchEx isn’t just for one type of person. Is that right?

Yes, and what strikes me is the range of things that architects are interested in doing—and what they have done, certainly—but what they are trying to get into, riding that edge of their experience and wondering what’s possible with this product on the expo floor or that talk they just heard in a packed room.

When I think back over all the years I’ve attended, the best times were the unpredictable times—the serendipity of sessions or conversations that lead down a road you hadn’t anticipated. Sometimes that happens in the lobby when I’m looking at a project exhibit. Sometimes it’s an off-handed comment made by someone next to me in a session. Sometimes it leads to a contract. Sometimes it leads to a new job. 

I think there are a lot of people interested in that kind of serendipity. 

What are some of the ways you’re considering that inclusive chance for everyone to find the next thing?

ArchEx is about a dialogue across experiences. We have members who have been practicing for 30 years who are really passionate about making a positive difference for their firms and for the next generation of architects. We have members who are hard-charging graduates who are on a licensure path—sacrificing a lot of their time to pass their exams—and ArchEx has to be there for them, too, offering ways to enrich that experience. It also has to offer them ways to network, too, and forge those relationships that really make a difference in the long term.

What’s one of the things that you’re changing this year?

We’re moving Visions to Thursday night, too, instead of on the final day of the convention because we want it to be a more inclusive event. I think a lot of people in the past wondered about the benefit of tacking on that extra night—on a weekend, to boot—and so by moving Visions up in the conference to Thursday, we feel we can bring more people together to celebrate their colleagues. 

Whether it’s Visions or not, everything we’re doing this year is meant to bring people together and remind them that this is an opportunity for them to fulfill their goals. It’s also an opportunity for them to find new goals. For me that’s about being open to possibility, and it’s a really good time to be open to possibility in Virginia architecture right now. 

Registration for Architecture Exchange East begins in just a few weeks! Stay tuned and follow AIA Virginia on Facebook and Instagram to be among the first to know when registration opens.

Op-Ed: MLK Library is a civic hub (that also happens to have books)

By William Richards

It wasn’t much of a surprise when Mecanoo and OTJ Architects’ renovation of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in downtown D.C. received accolades after it reopened in 2020. The $211 million project was honored for myriad reasons—as an example of a sensitive intervention within an iconic envelope, as a creative solution to some internal circulation challenges, and as a successful modernization of the library typology. 

What I don’t think was talked about enough was the particular audacity of improving a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe design. It’s the kind of audacity that was only implied by most of these honors or talked about only obliquely by jurors, but it’s perhaps the most daunting thing you can ask an architecture firm (or two) to do: take on the Cartesian (and Miesian) orthodoxy like David took on Goliath. 

It’s no small task to say the least.

Sure, we’d all seen the renderings before and during the renovation, and, sure, they looked great, but what would it be like when the library opened? Would it feel like the old MLK Library felt? (This was an unwelcome prospect for some who’d long felt it was a tarnished masterpiece.) Or, would it feel different? (Again, an unwelcome prospect for others who were fond of its maladaptions.) 

Over the years, I’ve spent dozens of hours looking at the Washingtoniana Collection or looking through microfiche newspapers upstairs. The routine was the same each day: arrive and scoot through the lobby to the elevator—no time to waste. On occasion, though, I’d stop to watch what was going on in the lobby, and usually a lot was going on in what had become a kind of community center through the decades—unprogrammed, lightly monitored, a respite from summer’s sun or winter’s bite. It certainly didn’t feel like a library on the ground level and, in the north and south sections off the lobby, it seemed airy and bright in the same way that the Seagram Building lobby or Crown Hall both feel airy and bright. It felt special to be there.

Upstairs, though, was another story before the renovation. Cramped spaces created by weird, temporary walls and interminably dark corners made it feel unloved and decidedly unspecial. Of course, the darkness suited my microfiche reading just fine, but the entire scene offered nothing of the kinds of library experiences we crave—or demand—because of the likes of Henri Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, or the public libraries designed by Carrère and Hastings in New York, or McKim, Mead, and White in Boston, or OMA in Seattle. In these places, you ascend from the street, and even transcend the mortal coil. In D.C., the movement from the street into the elevators and to a ratty rolling chair wasn’t as graceful.

The public doesn’t always expect a grand civic experience at the local tax office or even at the local city hall, but they do expect that public libraries should honor their purpose. Maybe we’re spoiled thanks to Andrew Carnegie’s legacy of funding more than 1,600 public libraries nationwide (not to mention another 100 academic ones), some of which have a grandeur all their own, such as the central Carnegie Library in D.C., designed by Ackerman and Ross that the MLK Library replaced. Nevertheless, the public library in America long ago transcended its status as an amenity and reached the vaunted status of a right—a right of access and a right to the dignity of learning. In Carnegie’s time, that meant books and periodicals. In our time, that means far more.

The new, 450,000 square-foot MLK Library is a thoroughly modern civic hub (that also happens to have books). It has a recording studio and a dance studio. It has an auditorium that seats nearly 300 people, and a fabrication lab that accommodates 3D printing, circuitry, and sewing. Galleries, gardens, and a green roof offer flexible spaces and helped the design team realize a LEED Silver certification. It’s the only library Mies ever designed and the only central library D.C. will ever need—for a while, anyway.

Last week, I promised to take my teenage daughter record shopping to mark the end of the school year, but I also convinced her to take a detour with me despite the words “library” and “let’s go.” We watched people doing library things. We played with the card catalog kiosks. We watched a small stage go up for what would probably be a book reading or lecture. We took some pictures. We watched people discover the new stairwell and delight in going up and running down. We basically just hung out, doing things that were unrelated to reading, and we enjoyed it. 

Is there any audacity in doing those things in a Mies building? Probably not. But, there is a sense that the library’s doors are always open, whether you’ve come to read or study or write (or attend a lecture, or even dance or sew). Reflecting on Mecanoo and OTJ’s renovation, which received an AIA Virginia Award of Honor in 2022, they’ve done more than modernize the city’s crown jewel. They’ve reestablished something that Washingtonians have come to expect and deserve, which is the dignity that only a public library can confer on the public. Dare I say they did it better than Mies could have? 

William Richards is a writer and the Editorial Director of Team Three, an editorial and creative consultancy based in Washington, DC.

WM+P’s Alastair Reilly: We’re “building a material bank” at Apex

Apex Clean Energy’s headquarters tells two stories. It’s a mass timber anchor for Charlottesville’s future in net-positive energy and it’s a beacon for a design firm’s legacy at sustainability’s vanguard. The firm, of course, is William McDonough + Partners (WM+P), which celebrates 30 years in Charlottesville next year. In that time, it has also helped a lot of corporate clients and has made an incalculable impact on the physical footprints and ethical imperatives of the international corpocracy whose influence is great, but whose responsibility—many feel—is greater. WM+P has also invested a lot in research outside of client development to maintain its leadership in advancing the circular economy, decarbonization, or material science. So, when Apex approached the firm in 2017, it wasn’t much of a stretch for a clean energy company to sign on for a 187,000 square-foot net-positive cross-laminated timber building—especially since it meant improving an unloved piece of blacktop on the south side of town near the train tracks. WM+P principal and Design Partner, Alastair Reilly, AIA (whose portfolio includes NASA’s Sustainability Base, YouTube’s headquarters, and Park 20-20 outside of Amsterdam) reports it was a great partnership from the beginning. “With Apex, we always wanted to go beyond business as usual—and so one goal was to reduce the weight of the building by reducing the amount of concrete. Of course, a mass timber structure reduces a lot of weight, so it seemed like the right solution for that and a lot of other reasons, too,” he says. “Despite the additional cost associated with engineered wood in a tenant/owner-driven building on a developer’s budget, we firmly believe it has paid off. We view this as an undeniable, no-brainer idea. It begs the question: Why aren’t more people doing this?”

What was the brief from the client?

Apex came to us in 2017 as a renewable energy start-up and they’ve grown to more than 200 employees—but they were spread out in three different buildings downtown in Charlottesville. Our initial goal was to help consolidate their operations into a single location near downtown with convenient walkability. At that time, there wasn’t much Class A office space in Charlottesville, and now there are three similar buildings in the area.  Regardless, ACAC Health and Wellness, and Riverbend Development were the owners of the existing parking lot site, and partnered with Apex to develop their new offices. We’d just come off a mass timber project in Northern Virginia for HITT Contracting, a research and collaboration space, so in our initial meetings with Apex, our goal was not only to achieve net-zero energy consumption but also to surpass it and incorporate the use of mass timber.  We had previously worked with Walmart on their headquarters campus, where we gained valuable experience in implementing mass timber construction.

McDonough, as a firm, has been around long enough to have seen mass timber’s fullest historical trajectory, and all of the hurdles it has cleared. But the firm has also long talked about trees as metaphors for buildings. How does the firm’s philosophy map onto mass timber’s future?

As you say, we have a long history of thinking that way. Our [Adam Joseph Lewis] Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College was constructed using glued-laminated timber, or glulam, which we would refer to as heavy timber—and that was 25 years ago—taking into consideration the carbon impact of the wood. It was one of the first Net-Zero Verified buildings  and predated LEED. The big thing we’re seeing with the commercialization with cross-laminated timber, or CLT, is the change in the manufacturing process. Instead of  seeking the largest old-growth trees, we now prioritize fast-growing timber to produce a technical product from a natural source—taking something natural and adding glue to create a valuable asset. This pertains to the embodied carbon aspect. On the operational carbon side,  another crucial aspect of working with Apex, is  their deep concern for operational carbon. Right now, the PVs cover 25% of the building’s energy needs, resulting in a 70% improvement in efficiency compared to a baseline building. 

One of the Cradle-to-Cradle dimensions of this project is the possibility of disassembly and reuse later. How will those upstream decisions make a difference later?

This aspect is of utmost importance, and wood offers a distinct advantage—it is inherently designed for disassembly. We spend a lot of time thinking about the future, creating commercial buildings that can be easily adapted to residential housing which is needed now more than ever. Designing for next use is about extending the use period. In the long term, if disassembled, it becomes a valuable material asset—we refer to it as “buildings as material banks.” The beams retain their structural integrity, just like steel, and consequently hold value in the marketplace. Our focus is on designing for long-term flexibility. Systems can be adapted and upgraded. The building’s skin can be improved. The windows can be upgraded.

One of the advantages of prefabricated CLT panels, as Apex has, is the ability to assemble them quickly on site, which reduces the overall construction time. As easy as that sounds, did you encounter any challenges you weren’t expecting?

We underwent construction during a very wet winter cycle. We initially built half of the podium vertically on the east side, and then proceeded to construct the remaining podium on the west side. Despite these circumstances we managed to achieve zero waste on-site and did not require staging. Trucks arrived with panels and delivered them directly to the appropriate floor, resulting in a 50% reduction in crew needed for installation. Also, this resulted in less construction traffic for the neighborhood.

In its modules and predictable forms, low-rise mass timber buildings are usually overlooked from a design perspective. What does design mean for a delivery system and structural system that is so prescriptive? 

We are currently working on a multi-family mass timber project in Charlotte and there’s a transition, as you say, when it comes to design. In Europe,  there is a prevalence of  module-based and box-like designs for non-residential projects. However, in the United States, we are witnessing greater flexibility and creativity in this regard. For instance in California, we’re designing YouTube’s headquarters , a new CLT building that echoes the coastal savannah ecosystem. On the residential side, I am seeing a surge of creativity in multi-family projects, much like the innovative use of CLT seen in single-family homes in Maine and New England, inspired by the European model. While cost isn’t as much of a premium these days in the design phase, the pre-engineering aspects still entail substantial upfront work and cost.

Having Apex as a client, who expressed their desire for a building that goes beyond an all-glass design, has been fantastic. William McDonough has consistently emphasized the importance of building like a tree, even going so far as to say we must be like a tree—creating fuel, purifying water, and providing a habitat. I believe that is the purpose of architecture, and it is certainly what we strive to achieve.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

William Richards is a writer and the Editorial Director of Team Three, an editorial and creative consultancy based in Washington, DC.

Project credits: Apex Clean Energy Headquarters

Architect: William McDonough + Partners

MEP engineers: Staengl Engineers

Structural engineers: Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, Structural Engineers

Civil engineers: Collins-Engineering

Mass timber fire engineering consultant: ARUP

Contractor: Hourigan

Interior architects for Apex Clean Energy office space: FORM Architects

Quinn Evans renews Pope’s Constitution Hall for another century of concerts

Members of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) have been architectural patrons in Washington, D.C. since 1905 when Edward Pearce Casey’s design for their Memorial Continental Hall was completed one block north of the National Mall. Locals know its central meeting space, genealogy library, and museum from DAR’s annual open house, and for almost 120 years, Memorial Continental Hall has been the center of the organization’s activities, debates, and votes. 

Locals also know the adjacent Constitution Hall, designed by John Russell Pope in 1924 and completed in 1930, as the scene of hundreds of concerts, comedy shows, military band performances, and upwards of 40 graduations each year for area schools. Its National Register nomination notes its original purpose for DAR’s annual congress was surpassed soon after it opened by its new status as the “unofficial cultural center for the Nation’s Capital.”  Even today, if you live within 50 miles of it, you’ve probably been there at least once to enjoy something from one its 3,702 seats (making it the largest concert hall in the District). 

Once powered by the sun, the existing laylight has been retrofitted with 972 LED lights manufactured by Folio in Brescia, Italy, which use a small amount of electricity while providing the soft, diffused luminescence the hall requires.

Quinn Evans worked with DAR for more than 10 years to restore and refresh elements of Memorial Continental Hall and Administration Building and, starting with a 2014 feasibility study, Constitution Hall. The team restored the U-shaped lobby and upgraded its mechanical systems, restored the stage area, and restored and upgraded the auditorium, itself, including structural reinforcements, safety measures for riggers above, and basement and backstage dressing rooms for visiting acts that might host a church choral group from Cincinnati one day and Bob Dylan the next and then Tina Fey and Amy Pohler the week after.

Pope’s edifice is striking for its perfect Neoclassical temple front that rises above 18th Street. The drama of approaching from the south at an oblique angle is heightened by the road’s gentle elevation change and the facade offers a strong counterpoint to the stripped down Classicism of the Department of the Interior’s flank across the street. The drama that most will remember, however, is inside the main hall as part of a $18 million restoration by Quinn Evans, earning it a 2022 Award of Honor for Historic Preservation by AIA Virginia.

“The goal was to be as accurate as we could be in the restoration, but also provide the kind of flexibility that contemporary performances need,” says Katie Irwin, AIA, a senior associate at Quinn Evans and project manager for the Constitution Hall renovation. “The client’s values really aligned with Quinn Evans’ values in the work we do and in terms of wanting to be great stewards of historic properties.”

As part of the hall’s upgrade, Quinn Evans was able to stash a fully accessible platform for riggers to hoist lights and speakers above the laylight. Courtesy Quinn Evans

Perhaps the most noticeable difference for concertgoers who’ve been attending shows there for the last 20 years will be the resurfaced coved ceiling, which gently meets the flanking walls of the auditorium. It was rebuilt and resurfaced to gently bounce uplighting while also focusing the eye along its lines towards the stage. It also frames the laylight in the center of the ceiling that’s been framed by a grid. Once powered by the sun, the existing laylight has been retrofitted with 972 LED lights manufactured by Folio in Brescia, Italy, which use a small amount of electricity while providing the soft, diffused luminescence the hall requires. As part of the hall’s upgrade, Quinn Evans was able to stash a fully accessible platform for riggers to hoist lights and speakers above the laylight. The added bonus of using LEDs is that lighting technicians can adjust it to suit different moods, as the performer on stage or the event requires. 

“It’s a complex system that has a daylight mode and a starlight mode, so it can twinkle, too,” says Anne Kopf, AIA, an Associate at Quinn Evans and project architect who led construction administration on-site and managed the design and engineering teams on the project.

To that end, there are a few other theaters in town of the same vintage that are on the National Register of Historic Places. The Warner Theater opened in 1924 (as the Earle Theater) has a capacity that’s about half of Constitution Hall’s, and remains a popular venue for artists as diverse as P.J. Harvey and Animal Collective, the horror film director/composer John Carpenter, or–this month–a mariachi band from Tecalitlán, Mexico. There’s also the Avalon in Chevy Chase, which opened in 1922 with an original capacity of 1,200 (today, as a cinema, it’s closer to 450), and continues its centenary celebration this year with the latest Wes Anderson film and a documentary about Vermeer. 

DAR’s Constitution Hall is a different caliber, though, whose exterior makes most (if not all) of the lists of notable architecture in the city, but whose auditorium is on par with the Kennedy Center or Carnegie Hall. “You don’t have a space like this anywhere else in DC,” says Kopf, “and it’s a major draw to attend shows, but the space itself—the restoration—is part of the draw.”

William Richards is a writer and the Editorial Director of Team Three, an editorial and creative consultancy based in Washington, DC.

Project credits:

Architecture Firm: Quinn Evans

Owner: Daughters of the American Revolution (Stephen Nordholt, Representative)

General Contractor: The Christman Company

MEP Engineering:  Greenman Pedersen Inc. and Loring Consulting Engineers

Historic Paint Finishes Specialist: Artifex Ltd.

Structural Engineer: 1200 Architectural Engineers

Theatrical Lighting and Theater Planning: Schuler Shook

Lighting Design (Phase 1 – Lobby): Gary Steffy Lighting Design

Acoustical Consulting: Jaffee Holden

Life Safety Engineering: GHD

Stage Mural Recreation: Holly Highfill

Photographer: Ron Blunt Photography

How viable is sustainability for downtowns and design budgets?  

The focus today on adaptive reuse as a strategy for decarbonization is still subject to the economics of running an architecture firm and contingent on market forces and their players like developers, investors, owners, and operators. Commonwealth Architects Principal Lee Shadbolt, AIA, and Principal Emeritus Robert Burns, AIA, say that the value proposition of adapting an old building for new uses remains strong for their clients who are “bottom-line oriented,” but in approaching the question of embodied and operational carbon, they say, “you have to think about the quality of the existing building stock that’s left, which is different across Virginia. There’s not a single solution.”

At this point, and considering the digital tools to evaluate existing building stock, how would you say adaptive reuse has changed over the last decade

Lee Shadbolt: The adaptive reuse projects that were near the central business district in any town and any city—if they were a good project, they were probably already done about 10 years ago. The good projects downtown are done. Now we’re seeing another set of buildings coming up that have reached their 50-year threshold for historic tax credits, and they’re not old like we think of as historic architecture—they’re Modern architecture. They present another set of rules, especially for our firm, for another set of different materials. 

How are you talking to clients about the material realities—meaning the literal performance of materials—of projects that are 50 years old versus 100 years old, say?

Robert Burns: A lot of our clients tend to be bottom-line folks—especially if they’re developers. In terms of materials, it’s the same discussion for those younger buildings as it is for older ones—what can we do to extend the life of certain materials? When is it more cost effective to replace something? What do you replace it with? In some of our historic work where we are inserting contemporary fabric, we make it clear what’s new and what’s historic. 

Lee: It really depends on the situation. We have one job now where we’re looking to convert an office tower into a hotel. The hotel chain came back and said they wanted to replace the old, single-pane windows. We said we can’t do that—they are the “contributing factors” and historic characteristics. We have another job with a curtain wall, which is in good shape, and we’re just going to add another pane of glass. There’s a third case, which was an old warehouse—a manufacturing plant for tobacco—and the windows had been replaced with glass blocks 30 years ago. So, we went in and put back steel-sash windows, which were the original windows before the glass blocks.

How does Commonwealth Architects see trends unfolding across Virginia for existing buildings, especially considering the pressures of climate change in such an ecologically diverse state?

Lee: We’ve seen, in the Tidewater region, the demolishing of a lot of historic buildings rather than adaptively using them. Petersburg has the best building stock in the state, but building new things there isn’t economically viable. Richmond? If there was low-hanging fruit in the past, in terms of readily and easily renovating or restoring an old building, it’s been done. Danville, Lynchburg, and so on—all different stories—but it’s been done there and there’s not a lot left to work with and the days when you could buy an old warehouse for $25 a square foot and convert it are gone.

Robert: Our cost-conscious clients seem to be a lot more interested in the energy efficiency of their buildings than they used to be, especially since a lot of the costs of certification for LEED and others have come down. Before the rise of a lot of the energy efficiency focus, they could care less—it was always about first-cost—but we are seeing a lot more owner-operators now, too, who are a lot more interest in energy efficiency. 

Lee: We always ask a question of our owner-operators about their future tenants about how they think the upfront energy upgrades would cost them in five years, and then they always discover that it’s only a few more dollars a month. So, that’s satisfying to make that argument early and succeed. It sets the tone for the whole project. 

Robert: As the demographic of downtown residents has trended younger and younger, I find that they’re interested in the greenness of a building. Richmond is talking now about doing away with required parking for downtown condominiums and apartments, primarily because their residents don’t drive cars. Now, that can be argued in a lot of ways, but it’s undeniable that the people who move downtown now are interested in sustainable design. Developers are smart and if they know that, they’ll start to leverage it. 

Lee: We’re getting closer—and the threshold is lower to get over now to send a message that sustainability is viable. With multi-family, you’re getting younger folks, but you’re getting empty-nester baby boomers, too. I was recently in a seminar when someone on the panel said, “The thing you can do to live longer is to be around people and be engaged.” That’s the opposite of moving to a golf course community or moving to the mountains away from people. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

William Richards is a writer and the Editorial Director of Team Three, an editorial and creative consultancy based in Washington, DC.

Design Dialogue: New calculator compares carbon savings for existing and new building

In December, Architecture 2030 launched a calculator to estimate the operational and embodied carbon emissions of a project in two scenarios: reusing it and upgrading it or replacing it with new construction. Dubbed the Carbon Avoided Retrofit Estimator (CARE) Tool, Architecture 2030 hopes to underscore the carbon savings that can be found by adapting existing buildings for future use in contrast to the widespread assumption that new construction is always appropriate. 

Users can enter general project information, as well as climate and electricity grid information (or ask the tool to use default values for each municipality). When entering project information, the tool adjusts your ratios to make it foolproof and fast to enter information (i.e. if you tell it you’ll be using 25 percent refurbished finishes for the interior, then it automatically sets your new finishes to 75 percent). 

As you enter information, the tool also automatically builds your comparison on the screen to show how small or large adjustments can impact the bottom line. Architects and owners can use the estimates to apply for competitions, obtain grants, or reach required targets. The tool also assists policymakers and preservation officials by offering a data-backed, apples-to-apples picture of a situation they can leverage to influence decisions by appointees or non-experts.  

But, the front line of the CARE Tool’s potential remains architects, designers, and planners who specialize in sustainable design to weigh-in on the CARE Tool, its use, and their experiences. Inform spoke with area professionals who tested the CARE Tool about their impressions. In this Design Dialogue, area architects talk about their experience with the CARE Tool, as well as their hope for its use and application. 

Michelle Amt, AIA, is the Director of Sustainability and Inclusion and Associate Principal at VMDO Architects. “From an inclusion standpoint, the tool helps find value in buildings that aren’t necessarily deemed a ‘contributing structure’,” she says.

“I’ve used the CARE Tool on a few projects to check the scale of the environmental impact and payoff period for buildings. To renovate or build new is about so much more than functionality. It’s about accessibility, heritage, and climate action, too, and so now we are able to define climate action as total carbon. It’s one of a couple of quick calculators out there now that look at total carbon emissions. Up until about five years ago, when people talked about emissions in the built environment, they were really talking about operational carbon. But, the conversation progressed to talk about the energy of materials. So, that was a great development, but the conversation has also become more complicated. Clients who know a little about embodied carbon would get bogged down with, “Well, does it make sense to save this building? Replace it? How do I figure out how to invest here?” But, until now, nothing has really dealt with the existing stock of buildings out there as well as the CARE Tool. Unless a building has a designated historic benefit, it is usually deemed cheaper to demo and build anew.”

Patrick Farley, AIA, is the founder of Patrick Farley Architect and splits his time (and practice) between Afton and Richmond. “I found a tool like this to be useful because it helps lots of people see how front-end decisions can have consequences.”

I have an existing building on a farm in Charlottesville that we’re converting, breathing new life into it and expanding it—so there are existing conditions, but there are new aspects to it. I used it as the basis for a trial run with the CARE Tool, and I didn’t have all the information I needed for my project, so I used some other industry data for similar buildings of the same type, and I was able to come up with a picture of the future of this project, from a carbon point of view.

I was one of the first signatories to the 2030 Commitment, and I support the mission, still, to bring greater awareness to the broader, climate-related challenges we’re facing with alarming regularity. I’ve done energy modeling through the years, but less and less so as time has gone on because I’ve relied more on my expertise and intuition. But, I found a tool like this to be useful because it helps lots of people see how front-end decisions can have consequences later—and it reminded me of energy modeling, in a lot of ways. It triggers awareness, even if not a lot of people will want to dig into the numbers to the degree that the tool allows. 

But, there are subtleties to this, too. I was one of the earliest solar panel adopters, and I’ve used it throughout the years, and at this point I can say that just because solar panels are involved doesn’t mean a project is going to succeed in limiting its carbon footprint. If there’s a second version of this tool, it would be a way to account for this reality. Some sort of account of how marketplace products and their production represent a more complex supply chain. 

Learn more at caretool.org