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Valuing older buildings: Architecture professor’s book argues for reuse rather than wrecking ball

UW News

In her new book, Kathryn Rogers Merlino, University of Washington associate professor of architecture, argues for the environmental benefit of reusing buildings rather than tearing them down and building anew.

“I was trained as both an architect and architectural historian,” Merlino says, “and have always been drawn to older buildings and the layered narrative of history they embody.”

Her book, “Building Reuse: Sustainability, Preservation, and the Value of Design” was published this year by UW Press. Merlino discussed the book, and the topic of building reuse, with UW News.

Merlino-bookcoverWhat are the central ideas of the book?

It draws from three main concepts, she said. “First, I believe most of us are attracted to older buildings. This is a major driver of why we travel — to learn about cultures. Older buildings can teach us so much about the past. I think the patina of age and the combination of styles and textures in older buildings intrigues all of us.”

The second and perhaps the most important idea is sustainability. Here in the environmentally progressive Pacific Northwest, Merlino said, “We are so good at recycling and composting on a daily basis, but it’s surprising that we have no cultural ethic about reusing our largest manufactured goods — our buildings. We quickly demolish buildings in the name of new, ‘green’ structures, rather than looking for the possibilities of how we can work with what exists. To me there is an inherent conflict in there, and I think we can do better.”

Tearing down buildings and “throwing away the energy and materials embodied in them” is contrary to our values as sustainable builders and environmental stewards of our community, she said. Sustainability is particularly relevant “in a city that has been leading development nationally for the past several years.”

The third idea is that architects have the opportunity to use their knowledge to change the culture around building design “and embrace adaptive reuse as much as we embrace designing new structures.

“I’m not arguing that all buildings are worthy of preservation and reuse, but I think a change in discourse is necessary. Currently we have one way buildings can be saved from the wrecking ball: through historic preservation designation. While this is necessary and applicable for many buildings, it’s a challenging process, and it doesn’t apply to the majority of our building stock — such as the vernacular, everyday buildings that have plenty of good use left in them.”

If a building is not deemed historic, she said, “that can be used as an argument for demolition. Failed historic designations are used to justify demolition all the time. So I think we need to fundamentally shift our perspective on what constitutes ‘significance’ in our buildings.  I think all of these things need to be reevaluated if we are going to have truly sustainable buildings.”

Read the whole interview at UW News >