While attending a United States Green Building Council (USGBC) meeting recently, someone mentioned that a local university was building to a 500 year standard. I had never heard the term prior, but the idea was all too familiar. The university was constructing buildings to last the next 500 years. This is incredibly difficult to fathom for many Americans. Our country has been inhabited by settlers for just over 500 years and no structures exist from those days. The Native Americans that lived on the land prior to settlers constructed cliff dwellings like those found in Gila National Park down in New Mexico or Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park. Many of these have been around more than 500 years, but are not inhabited today. As a curious side note, the Los Angeles Times recently ran a story about Chinese (upward of 30 million) that live in caves today. However, structures built shortly after European settlers landed did not resemble the sturdy stone buildings in the old country.
The reason the idea is familiar stems from my time living in Europe. To those who are familiar, many buildings in the city center of European towns have been in use for more than 500 years. While retrofitting for running water and electricity may have presented some problems along the way, these structures are solidly built. Why do we have such a different approach in this country? It’s understandable that the settlers did not have the infrastructure to build like they did in Europe. The legacy though seems to be that temporary structures are the norm. Even in Europe these days, buildings constructed in the last half century have been torn down to make way for greener pastures. A recent New York Times article looks at the rare exception, a building that was retrofitted (at a substantial savings, $15 million to renovate vs. $26 million to demolish and replace it.
The conversation in which the 500 year standard was mentioned also included discussion of the local public schools’ 100 year standard. I may not have thought about this again, except a local school (Gove Middle School) that is roughly 35 years old was just demolished. As it turns out, falling enrollment led to the school being shuttered several years ago and the property was sold to the hospital next door that needed to expand and update its facilities (though in the interim, the old school will serve as a surface parking lot; tune back next week for my thoughts on these paved paradises; my apologies to Joni Mitchell). A few months ago I wrote about how a 10-15 year old parking structure was torn down to make room for a massive hospital expansion in my neighborhood. The title of that piece (Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance, thanks again dad) hints at the foresight needed to entertain the notion of a 500 year standard; when we have what feels like a 50 year standard, if that, in this country.