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What I Learned at AIA Atlanta 2015

If your primary interest is traditional building, the best networking at the annual AIA Convention is with the members of the Historic Resources Committee, the oldest Knowledge Community within the AIA. About 6,000 members of AIA identify preservation architecture as an interest and/or vocation. As such, they join the Historic Resources Committee (HRC), which provides information, education and networking for people like us.

This year’s annual 2015 American Institute of Architects Convention took place last week in Atlanta, poster child for the new south with a skyline devoid of traditional buildings. But if late midcentury modern architecture is your passion, John Portman’s mega modern buildings will speak to you.

At an AIA Historic Resources Committee luncheon, Portman architecture expert Dean Baker spoke to us, showing a chronology of John Portman’s work, much of it in Atlanta. Who knew that all those acoustically challenged Hyatt Hotel atriums were Portman’s idea? As Carl Elefante put it, “John Portman’s work is both powerful and anti-urbanist.” The best thing about modern architecture is that it’s falling apart, providing good jobs for preservation architects and contractors.

I found a collegial gothic architectural oasis on the Georgia Tech campus while attending “Exploring Preservation and Design at Georgia Tech,” organized by Jack Pyburn of Lord, Aeck, and Sargent. The campus has 12 historic buildings which provided a living lab for this session. The college campus is fertile ground for architects who integrate an historic-building “brand,” which the alumni love, with what students need: modern usage. The library is a good example as classical cherry paneled bookshelves must co-exist with minimalist computer stations. We learned that in Georgia Tech's preservation planning process, the building’s users--faculty, staff and students--have an important voice in how the old buildings are adapted in new ways.

Confronting Climate Change and saving our built heritage

A dream team of HRC members presented a sunrise seminar called, “Confronting Climate Change through Stewardship and Reuse.” Despite a 7:00 am start, this session was well attended. Peyton Hall, Architectural Resource Group, moderated a panel of three traditional building architects: Jean Carroon, Goody Clancy; Carl Elefante , Quinn Evans Architects and Ashley Wilson, the Graham Gund Architect for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and this year’s HRC chair person. Each chipped off a different piece of the sustainability stone but together these pieces made a rock-solid case for adaptive reuse.

Jean Carroon spoke first using holy-cow! power-point slides which documented the construction industry’s contribution to our consumptive culture. “In the past 50 years, humans have consumed more raw materials and created more waste than in ALL previous human history.” Construction materials top the list of materials consumed, many of which are bad for your health. In a pie chart titled “Human Toxicity,” Carroon quoted the EPA with data that ranks construction materials #1 in toxicity, followed by electric services and vehicle bodies. “Toxic chemicals show up in every human tested anywhere in the world, including newborn babies,” exclaimed Carroon, “because there are 300-500 million tons of hazardous waste per year.”

Jean Carroon is an unapologetic tree hugger who began her career as a white-water river guide. In a presentation that could charm a water moccasin, she associates the conservation of our natural environment with the recycling of existing buildings, both historic and otherwise, to conserve our built environment. “Building reuse offers greater environmental savings than demolition and new construction,” said Carroon. “It can take as much as 80 years for a new building to overcome the climate change impact created by its construction.” In conclusion, Carroon kidded, “I’m good at bad data.”

LCA Basics. Building for Economic and Environmental Sustainability Product-Level LCA

LCA Basics. Building for Economic and Environmental Sustainability Product-Level LCA

Whether you agree with her EPA data or not, it makes “radical common sense,” according to Ashley Wilson, chief steward for the National Trust for Historic Preservation sites. Wilson talked about the value of repairing traditional buildings; NTHP has 21 historic properties covering 4,190 acres. “Buildings which have a long life and loose fit can be maintained. This saves energy, money and jobs,” said Wilson.

It also saves space in our nation's landfills, which are as overcrowded as an Atlanta freeway. Replacement products are necessary, but what they replace is not biodegradable. Wilson cited data from the Preservation Green Lab, an excellent resource for traditional building professionals and historic preservation advocates. Green Lab is a good example of how the National Trust for Historic Preservation is transforming from a culture of “no” to an organization which provides research and solutions. Ashley Wilson is managing the compromises required to make preservation economically viable.

Creating a culture of Stewardship proposed ideas.

Creating a culture of Stewardship proposed ideas.

The “Stewardship and Reuse” seminar’s third speaker was the venerable Carl Elefante who is credited with the slogan, “the greenest building is the one that’s already built.” Elefante tied this session back to AIA’s theme, “Materials Matter,” with a discussion of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).

“LCA is being incorporated into a broad spectrum of codes, performance guidelines and design tools,” said Elefante. “Architects will need to know what goes into our building materials and how this affects human health and the environment.” Citing “AIA’s Guide to Life Cycle Assessment in Practice,” as well as data from the EPA Building for Economic and Environmental Sustainability, he showed how the “environmental score” of a building’s impact on health and the environment trumps the “economic performance score.”

Nowhere was the “Materials Matter” theme more evident than on the AIA Exhibition floor where half of the conference Continuing Education Credits were delivered via supplier education from the display booths. This made for a pleasant buzz on the exhibit floor which, while impressive, is short on products and services for traditional buildings. Exceptions were those suppliers who serve the particular needs and interests of preservation architect members of the AIA Historic Resources Committee. These companies not only exhibit at AIA but also engage with their brethren at the HRC happy hour and sponsor appreciation dinner. St Louis Antique Lighting is no stranger to historic buildings having restored chandeliers in a half dozen state capitols around the country. Ludowici Clay Tile is restoring the roof on St Bartholomew’s Church in New York, as soon as they get back from the AIA Convention in Atlanta.

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