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More Constructive Ways To Build a City

Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page B08

As an architect, I am ambivalent about the loss of the former Washington Convention Center, which was torn down on Dec. 18. On the one hand, demolition is cause for celebration, as it signals new development.

On the other hand, at 800,000 square feet, the old convention center took many years and many people to plan, fund and build, and in less than 30 seconds it was rubble. Granted, it was no architectural masterpiece, but after only 22 years, had the convention center really outlived its usefulness? And if so, was the original multimillion-dollar investment commensurate with the 5,000 or so events held there during the center's lifetime?

The cycle of construction and demolition can signal a healthy economy, commonly measured in the number of "housing starts." The annual value of U.S. construction is nearing a trillion dollars. However, new buildings often begin falling apart before the paint is even dry.

Building fast and cheap made some sense during the baby boom, when the demand for housing exceeded the supply. But what should have been an interim strategy has become the norm, and today planned obsolescence is typical in both residential and commercial development.

In addition to the human consequences, construction can be detrimental to the environment. In this country, buildings account for about a third of all raw material use, waste, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Excessive construction also encroaches on habitats and disrupts water systems by covering the soil with impermeable materials. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has estimated that the amount of concrete in the continental United States, if collected in one surface, would cover an area the size of Ohio.

Excessive demolition contributes to overtaxed landfills by producing unneeded waste. Even recycling materials can do more harm than good. Ninety percent of the materials from the old convention center reportedly will be salvaged for reuse. Much of the concrete, for instance, will be crushed and used for the parking lot that will occupy the 10-acre site until a mixed-used development gets underway there. Yet the energy required to pulverize concrete solves one problem by creating another. And because the parking lot will be temporary, all this material will be torn up again, so nothing is gained.

These problems can be combated in two ways. First, build for longevity, not obsolescence. Second, build for disassembly, not demolition.

Building to last includes using durable materials and methods. Most of Washington's beloved landmarks have lasted centuries. Some live on because their use has not changed -- a president still occupies the White House, and Congress still meets in the Capitol. Some buildings outlast their original use and evolve to accommodate new ones. The National Building Museum occupies the 1880s Pension Building, and the 1839 Tariff Building is now the Hotel Monaco. Designing today to be flexible for the future can mean the difference between life and death for a building.

Of course, it would not be practical to build every structure to last forever. But knowing that buildings may be taken apart some day means we can put them together with that in mind. Rapidly renewable materials such as bamboo and even linoleum help avoid a scarcity of resources. We also can design fabrication methods that allow materials to be removed easily and reused without undue effort, cost or energy. Why nail a board when it can be fastened with clips and later removed with no defects?

Architects need to think ahead, and demolition crews need to replace the wrecking ball with a lighter touch. With better planning, we can build smarter.

-- Lance Hosey

is a Washington architect.


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