Architect Jean Carroon says a healthy world values and uses what already exists—including buildings.

“I reuse buildings,” comments architect Jean Carroon when asked what it means to be sustainability-focused in the 21st century. “Why focus on the smallest objects? Let’s focus on our biggest objects, and reuse those.” With sustainability a hot topic, Carroon pushes the conversation beyond heritage to one of equity and stewardship by emphasizing the need to take a second look at existing buildings—from landmarks like Trinity Church in the City of Boston (National Historic Landmark), an ongoing, large-scale renovation and restoration project spearheaded by Carroon and the Boston-based firm Goody Clancy, to less recognized structures like a local theater or residential building.

Jean Carroon

Architect Jean Carroon

“We still have systems and attitudes that are quick to demolish and build something new, but it’s really all about existing buildings and we have to use what we have more effectively,” says Carroon while stressing that renewal must be extremely careful and never rushed. “Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what to do with the buildings, but if you hang around them long enough, they sort of sort themselves out.” Carroon’s projects focus on the reinvestment in history, structure, and relevance, while combining sustainability with restoration. For her, buildings are more than just structures, they are “art—building communities and lifting spirits.”

Carroon is a fellow of both the American Institute of Architects and the LEED program of the U.S. Green Building Council. She has served as a peer reviewer in the Design Excellence Program of the General Services Administration since 2008.

Many people look at heritage preservation/restoration as something that is preserving the past, but for you preservation/restoration takes into account the future. What do you mean by that? 

I believe we have a responsibility to prepare existing and heritage buildings for the future—examples are preparations for climate change, like flood protection, or increasing the size of downspouts to handle more rain, or moving building systems to all electrical, anticipating a greening grid.

Cabell Hall University of Virginia

New Cabell Hall | University of Virginia
The newly transparent stair and adjacent study rooms overlook and connect with the new garden.

You literally wrote the book on sustainable preservation, Sustainable Preservation: Greening Existing Buildings. In your words, what is “Greening existing buildings”? 

“Greening” is a term that many use to define making a building or object more environmentally responsible, but it is also about making existing buildings (and the world) healthier places to work and live. We really have to live differently on the planet not just in the micro but also in the macro.

Cabell Hall exterior before

Before image of Cabell Hall.

How can ways of thinking be implemented to become part of our natural way of thinking about urban planning? 

I think it is a very exciting time. The dire data of what we are doing to the planet and to ourselves (through toxicity of our energy sources, materials, and waste) seems to be gaining traction. The “sustainability” conversation is expanding, as it should, to be about health and well-being, tying into conversations about urban living, which is where the largest percentage of population will be going forward. Take a look at the Reurbanism Atlas (National Trust for Historic Preservation), which uses overlays of data to understand economic activity in relation to building age and building energy use. Our ability to analyze how we live is going to be increasing exponentially. We can measure what green roofs and green alleys can do for heat island effect. We can measure health impacts of transportation choices. We recently modeled the sun patterns and heat gain on an existing building and it allowed us to make smarter choices about windows, understanding that not all windows on the building had the same performance requirements. It’s very exciting. We’re also seeing an upsurge in analysis of environmental impacts from consumption and waste including building construction. I am very optimistic that this will inevitably lead to placing more value on existing buildings because a healthy world values and uses what already exists.

Perry Hall lobby

Perry Hall Lobby | Champlain College
Durable, easily cleaned materials and extensive strategic daylight and views were central to the design.

You mentioned that when you work on a project you have a master plan for the building for near future and long-term future? Can you give some examples? 

Actually, this is not always true. It depends on the owner. Trinity Church in the City of Boston has always done this; it is an example of true stewardship. After each phase of work for the church, they have asked us to create a master plan that looks into the future—roughly 30-40 years, but with the long game in mind. They are very aware that they are stewarding a building that we hope will welcome and inspire people for centuries to come.

Perry Hall Rear Additions Champlain College

Perry Hall Rear Additions | Champlain College
The two new wings flank the historic house and have views to Lake Champlain and a constructed wetland.

How can [the circumstances of] Notre Dame set an example for the future? 

The example should be one of thoughtful, careful research and decision-making. Most heritage architects I know are very concerned by the goal of completion in five years. There is a long path of evaluation and consideration of options, including material selections and building systems. 

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