Preserve a McMansion to help combat climate change

As part of an argument against demolishing buildings, McMansions should also be preserved to help address ecological challenges:

Photo by Darya Sannikova on

Anyone interested in mediating the worst ongoing outcomes of the present climate catastrophe must also disconnect the idea of development from our notion that it proceeds only in cycles of demolition and new construction—a pattern that prevails because it is maximally legible to our existing structures of debt, financialization, and speculation. About 80 percent or more of a typical new house’s lifetime ecological and energetic impact comes through the operations of initial material extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and construction; and then of eventual demolition, further transportation, and decay. Sustainable buildings are therefore not new buildings—however fuel-efficient their machines and materials. Sustainable buildings are buildings that have been sustained. Merely by being seventy-five years old and in working order, Geller I was radically sustainable. For that matter, any dumb 1990s McMansion down the block is almost as ecologically precious as Geller I. That McMansion’s judicious conservation, too, is part of ecological stewardship.

This kind of conservation comes not by preserving any one house exactly as it is, but by shifting from a fantasy of perpetual newness or untouchable oldness to the best practices that Gropius and Breuer cherished in old New England farmhouses: renovation, addition, retrofitting, and all manner of adaptive reuse that allows ever more lively and dignified density. The model of development becomes less one of the sudden appearance and disappearance of structures, and more one of continuous emendation and repair. Not incidentally, this affords ever more innovative ways of living intergenerationally and integratively—rather than dwelling in the built residue of past generations’ conventions about how families and communities ought to live.

Demolition and rebuilding takes a lot of resources. Additionally, rehabbing existing homes can help keep the character of a neighborhood or community consistent.

The twist above is that this might be the preferred course for McMansions. Such homes are not usually renowned for their architectural quality. Critics are not fans of the ways in which they were constructed, their drain on resources, and their ongoing presence.

I have argued before that at least a few McMansions will be preserved, at the least to mark a particular era and design. Preserving them to help combat climate change moving forward might be a unique feature of this decade.

Should we take joy in photos of a dying suburban shopping mall?

One photographer has been chronicling the last days of a mall in the Chicago suburbs:

It can be a tough thing to see a historic building being demolished, but what about when a suburban mall meets the wrecking ball? After a 63-year run, The Plaza shopping mall in suburban Evergreen Park has been demolished to make way for a newer, more modern outdoor mall. While there are many like it, The Plaza was notable for being one of the early indoor shopping malls in the Chicago area, and despite its staying power, the mall had become underutilized over the last several years. So called “dead malls” are nothing new, and if anything, they’re becoming more and more common. With the age of internet shopping and the massive reverse migration of residents leaving the suburbs for the city, many suburban malls have fallen into disrepair and have few, if any, major anchor stores left. One photographer, Martin Gonzalez, has been keeping up with the demolition of The Plaza and has been posting photos over the last several months. Here’s a quick look at some of his images of the fallen Plaza mall.

The pictures suggest ruin and decay, images Americans might more commonly associate with places like Detroit rather than the suburbs. But, the question that starts this article gets at this issue: should we take pleasure in seeing the suburban shopping mall – example of American consumerism, tacky architecture, and the social lives of teenagers with nowhere else to go – destroyed? That this mall failed could be used as evidence that critics of the suburbs were right: the whole system was not sustainable. Yet, there is fallout from this: how will the land get used? What happens to those jobs? Where is the local money that used to be spent here now going? Does the demise of the suburban shopping mall lead to more concentrated and authentic spaces (perhaps the New Urbanist dream) or increased fragmentation (big box stores and online shopping)?

See posts from the last year or so – here, here, and here – about the struggles of suburban shopping malls.

Demolishing public housing as spectacle in Glasgow

Glasgow, Scotland is planning to blow up five 29-story public housing high-rises, the tallest buildings in the city, and broadcast the event live on local TV and set up a viewing in a nearby soccer stadium:

Glasgow has a novel plan for grabbing viewers for this summer’s Commonwealth Games opening ceremony: It’s going to blow up the city’s tallest buildings live on television. For the Games opener on July 23, Scotland’s largest city will demolish five towers (most over 290-foot high) in just 15 seconds, screening the explosions at the nearby Celtic Stadium.

This combination of celebration and mass destruction, announced Thursday, would be unusual in any circumstances. What makes Glasgow’s plans even stranger is that the towers being dynamited – part of a huge housing project called the Red Road Flats – were once the city’s pride. By uniting a cheering stadium crowd and TV cameras with explosives, the ceremony might come off as a sort of latter-day Disco Sucks, but for social housing…

Still, the city has been moving on. From the ’80s onwards, Glasgow started an ultimately successful re-branding of itself as a cultural and business center. The Red Road and its ilk became emblems of the run-down Glasgow that the city’s promoters wanted to forget. Demolition of the first few towers started back in 2012. Now the games will dramatize its final transformation in the most eye-catching way possible.

But is it really in good taste? This video, shared by the games organizers themselves, proves that many former residents still remember the place with affection. What’s more, the project isn’t totally uninhabited, as one tower, currently occupied by asylum seekers, will remain. For these people, witnessing a ceremony that enacts their neighborhood’s destruction as unfit for human habitation while leaving them on site, should feel uncomfortable at the least. A petition is going round against the plans, and there’s a sense among locals that they, rather than just the buildings, are the targets of a ritual purge to do away with a side of Glasgow officialdom would rather forget.

The whole process sounds similar to the demolition of public housing high-rises in American cities, starting with the Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis in the mid-1970s (a good documentary about it here) and accelerating with the HOPE VI program that began in the mid-1990s. Of course, the buildings tended to get blamed for the problems at the complexes when there was a whole host of other issues involved including deindustrialization and residential segregation.

But, it does seem a bit odd to make this such a spectacle. It is relatively rare to demolish large buildings so I could understand how that might be interesting. In contrast, while the demolition of Chicago’s public housing buildings drew attention (particularly the last high-rises at Cabrini-Green), it seemed like the general public wanted to move on rather than celebrate the demolition. Instead of publicizing the demolition, why not devote some air-time to showing how the city is trying to tackle the larger underlying issues (unless, of course, they are not and the demolition is meant to be a distraction from the true issues)? As the residents at Cabrini-Green who fought the city’s plans argued, what is the point of demolition if there many other options planned down the road?

Five case studies of major demolitions

Building large objects is often a Herculean task. But what about the demolition of bridges, dams, aircraft carriers, supercomputers, and rocket hangers? Here is some of the points for tearing down the Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland:

Control the Tension

The piers of the cantilever truss aren’t holding the bridge up. They’re holding it down. “This is like a highly strung bow,” says senior bridge engineer Brian Maroney. (A bow made of 50 million pounds of steel.) “You don’t want to just cut the bow because the thing will fly off in all directions.” So crews will first remove the pavement on the upper deck to lighten the bridge’s load and reduce the tension. Next they’ll isolate steel supports, jacking them out of tension until they can be cut without whipping apart. Then they’ll slowly release the jacks.

Cut the Truss Spans

Named for their length in feet, the 504 and 288 truss spans are not under as much tension as the cantilever, so there’s less chance they’ll explode in your face when you cut into them. Still, caution is called for: The 80-year-old steel is not like modern steel; crews must be prepared for differences in strength and hardness.

Cart the Pieces Away

The steel beams are coated with greenish-gray paint, under which is a coat of lead-based stuff. To avoid contaminating the bay, all that metal has to be trucked away and cleaned, after which it will be resold as scrap.

Build a Monument

The massive art-deco column of pier E1, near Yerba Buena Island, may be preserved as a monument to the bridge that served the Bay Area for 77 years. The E2 pier will also likely remain and be converted into an observation platform for the new span.

And then the piers still have to be demolished. Impressive operation all around. It would be interesting to see all of the costs and manpower associated with such demolitions.

Destroying city buildings with no debris

The New York Times highlights new techniques for “stealth demolition” so that large urban buildings can be demolished with little mess:

At times the techniques seem to defy gravity, or at least common sense, for although the buildings appear intact, they slowly shrink. The methods, which make for a cleaner and quieter work site, may eventually find favor in New York and other cities as aging skyscrapers become obsolete and the best solution is to take them down and rebuild.

The latest Tokyo high-rise to get the stealth treatment is the Akasaka Prince Hotel, a 40-story tower with a distinctive saw-toothed facade overlooking one of the city’s bustling commercial districts. Since last fall, its steel and concrete innards have been torn apart, floor by floor, starting near the top, by hydraulic shears and other heavy equipment. The building has been shrinking by about two floors every 10 days; this month it will be gone, to be replaced by two new towers…

The cap helps keep noise and dust down compared with more conventional methods of demolishing tall buildings, which involve erecting a scaffold all the way up and around the structure but leaving the top exposed. “All the work is inside the covered area,” Mr. Ichihara said. “The noise level is 20 decibels lower than the conventional way, and there’s 90 percent less dust leaving the area.”…

It is unclear whether demolition contractors in the United States will adopt any of the Japanese methods; even in Tokyo many buildings are demolished in more conventional ways. (With the new techniques, setting up the project can be more expensive, but the demolition often takes less time than with conventional methods.)

We put a lot of effort into thinking about how buildings are constructed but less effort in thinking about how to effectively repurpose them or tear them down. Perhaps the owners of many new buildings aren’t terribly concerned with the long-term prospects of a building but the buildings aren’t just about the initial occupants and become part of a community.

Just a quick thought: with the relatively slow pace of demolition, how many people who see these large buildings day-to-day notice the demolition? I suspect for some that the building will disappear and they won’t notice until the end.

Knowing when to fold ’em

The Washington Post had a fascinating article yesterday about how banks are responding to one city’s foreclosure crisis:

Cleveland — The sight of excavators tearing down vacant buildings has become common in this foreclosure-ravaged city, where the housing crisis hit early and hard. But the story behind the recent wave of demolitions is novel — and cities around the country are taking notice. A handful of the nation’s largest banks have begun giving away scores of properties that are abandoned or otherwise at risk of languishing indefinitely and further dragging down already depressed neighborhoods.

This closely mirrors the approach that Youngstown, another Ohio city, has taken to their dwindling population:

Even when the result is an empty lot, it can be one less pockmark. While some widespread demolitions could risk hollowing out the urban core of struggling cities such as Cleveland, advocates say that the homes being targeted are already unsalvageable and that the bulldozers are merely “burying the dead.”

However, unlike in Youngstown where that city is simply trying to shrink to a manageable size, the Cleveland demolitions are already leading to redevelopment:

The demolitions in some cases have paved the way for community gardens, church additions and parking lots.

For good or ill, this looks to be a growing trend for some time. The article notes that New York, Philadelphia, Georgia, and others have or soon will pass laws similar to the ones Cleveland used to authorize its land bank and teardowns. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of foreclosed property candidates:

At the end of August, the nation’s banks, along with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, had an inventory of more than 816,000 foreclosed properties on their books waiting for a buyer, according to RealtyTrac. An additional 800,000 are working their way through the foreclosure process.

H/t to the ABA Journal for the original link pointing me to the Post article.