Retrofits Always “Greener?”


As a new study from the Preservation Green Lab [part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation] shows, the answer is “a resounding ‘usually.’”

Turns out, the question of building reuse is much more nuanced and interesting than can be answered with an blanket strategy – which is not at all surprising. Whether an existing building should be retrofitted or demolished is a question of use [both previous and planned], climate, construction type/materials, etc – and also a clear understanding of carbon footprinting:

“Since it can take decades for a new building to “pay back” its embodied carbon through improvements in operational efficiency (see “A 2030 Challenge for Building Product Manufacturers,” EBN Feb. 2011), this study’s conclusions about carbon emissions should come as no surprise: based on climate-change considerations alone, almost every useable building in every region of the U.S. should remain standing—even if these buildings are not retrofitted to improve energy performance. Carbon payback time for the buildings studied ranged from 10 to 80 years.”

In any case, studies like this should have a big impact on how we think of using, and reusing, our existing urban fabric – both as designers, and as people with a vested interest in legitimate, effective responses to climate change.


The Trials and Tribulations of Collaboration

Collaboration and the workplace have been in the news lately—-see Susan Cain, “The New Groupthink” in the New York Times; Allison Arieff on The Atlantic website; and the panel discussion on The Not So Corporate Campus at SPUR (moderated by my grad school classmate). And the recent spate of articles have led to much debate in our very open office.


Of the recent stories, one of the most interesting–at least architecturally–is in the new New Yorker, where Jonah Lehrer writes on “Groupthink” and the magical place that was MIT’s Building 20. This building, designed in one day, was quickly and cheaply constructed by MIT to temporarily house the Radiation Lab (or Rad Lab). Over time more groups were thrown in there, and the underdesigned nature of the building led to fortuitous encounters by scientists lost in the corridors (the A wing leads to the B wing, which leads to the E wing—-and makes no sense!) and a wide range of intellectual breakthroughs—including Chomskyan linguistics, Bose electronics, and the first video game. The cheap, no-frills structure enabled users to remake the spaces to meet their needs. For example, in developing the first atomic clock, Jerrold Zacharias knocked out two floors to make room for three-story-tall metal cylinder. Walls were knocked down willy-nilly whenever one of the occupants wanted to expand his or her territory.


As Fred Hapgood wrote in his book Up the Infinite Corridor: MIT and the Technical Imagination, “The edifice is so ugly . . . that it is impossible not to admire it, if that makes sense; it has 10 times the righteous nerdly swagger of any other building on campus, and at MIT any building holding that title has a natural constituency.”

The RAND Corporation building in Santa Monica similarly encouraged chance encounters and led to unexpected collaborations. A mathematician drew a diagram of how to maximize interaction, and the building plan is a literal construction of this diagram—and an extension of RAND’s interdisciplinary research model. It’s pretty fascinating stuff. (Another one of my grad school classmates, Michael Kubo, wrote his thesis on the RAND building, and was lucky enough to raid their archives before the building was demolished.)


In an era of overdesigned buildings intended to spark collaboration, it is worthwhile to revisit these remarkable underdesigned spaces.

– Meera


PS The main point of Jonah Lehrer’s excellent article was debunking myths about brainstorming—basically, uncritical group brainstorming doesn’t work. Study after study has proved that people are far more effective at coming up with ideas when working alone. But physical proximity matters, too. In Building 20 and the RAND headquarters, scientists wandered out of their private offices and encountered people with different ideas, expertise, and experiences, which spurred creative thinking.

Dot stickers!


This winter the Queensland Museum of Art invited Yayoi Kusama to do an installation in the museum. The pattern-obsessed artist created a totally white room, and then invited children into the space and gave them colored dot stickers. Within two weeks every surface was transformed into an explosion of color.


This brought to mind our work on the Essex Street pedestrian mall in Salem. At public meetings we gave participants dot sticks with which they could “vote” on their preferred option.


The Yayoi Kusama exhibition might be a community meeting gone wrong—-or very right!

– Meera

Graphic Garages

Parking garages, environmental graphics, and color theory are three longtime Utile obsessions.

One recent project combines all three and came to my attention via the always-interesting Co.Design site. In Sydney, Australia, the graphic design/artist duo of Craig&Karl designed an immersive mural for an underground parking garage.


The Craig&Karl work brings to mind the Dutch artists Haas&Hahn and their exhibition at Storefront—by far the best designed exhibition at Storefront that I’ve seen.


Bright color palette, smartly applied = joyful spaces. It’s both not that complicated a formula, and surprisingly hard to pull off.

– Meera

Civic Rooms

As a fitting conclusion to the work of my students last semester – culminating in the publication of Civic Rooms for Rent (available from Lulu) – I attended two civic events within three days. The first was Mayor Menino’s State of the City Address at Faneuil Hall and the second was the official re-opening of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the last of a sequence of events celebrating the completion of Renzo Piano’s elegant new wing. Both events were held in significant civic rooms: Faneuil Hall, the uber-example of my students’ research, and Piano’s unorthodox music hall. Despite the stylistic differences, both events had similar characteristics: the scale of the spaces and particularly New England-ish arrangement of the seating (shallow tiers of seats ignorant of the location of the performance), the program for both rituals (foreplay provided by a convocation and a short performance by representatives of Boston’s “youth”), and the presence of the Mayor and more than a fair share of the City’s leadership (city councilors and department heads). I am happy to report that Boston’s civic life continues to be staged in significant architectural spaces!