The Green Game
By Alana Coons & Erik Hanson
The San Diego Union-Tribune recently covered the 2009 Gold Nugget Awards, which are industry awards presented by the Pacific Coast Builders Conference, (PCBC) and BUILDER, a national magazine of the housing industry.
One grand winner was Front Street Homes, a three-unit townhome infill project in the Bankers Hill neighborhood, west of Balboa Park.
The jury commented according to the U-T that the project was "a very creative setup that redefines what's possible on a 50-by-100-foot lot, this year's Grand Award winner combines inspired architecture and creative floor plans to set a high standard for city living."
The contest drew fewer entries than usual. "But there was enough to signal some new trends," according to one of the judges, Jenny Sullivan. Let's hope that this project and others like it are not part of a trend.
The U-T continues, "A visit to the Front Street condos illustrates some of those small-is-good choices. They quote the builder/architect "The difficult thing was there was a narrow lot, not on the corner, an infill property," said architect David Hawkins, but "it could be replicated other places."
Only a short time before, an Irving Gill bungalow stood on this site as part of an intact row of Hebbard & Gill bungalows. It was demolished and this "infill project" replaced a master architect-designed home with a building that will not only never stand the test of time and is a worst case example of Green building but is poorly designed for the site, and should never have been allowed to impose upon the streetscape the way it does. It should have been set back to become flush with the streetscape.
The developer comments further in the article that he is determined to find other infill sites to prove his thesis: "You have the urban center and rural areas. I think in the future, this is where things are heading. I really think we are starting to look at alternatives, to skirt away from the car," he continued. "People want to live, work and play without having to go 45 minutes in their car."
Historic buildings often already have the attributes that are now promoted as green design. Operable windows that allow fresh air and daylight in, compact building forms that are more efficient to build and heat are all common features of the older home.
Historic preservationists know how traditional urban neighborhoods function from cultural, social, and economic perspectives.
Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation recently said as part of a speech delivered in Berkeley titled Historic Preservation's Essential Role in Fighting Climate Change, "Once the old building is gone, putting up a new one in its place takes more energy, of course, and it also uses more natural resources and releases new pollutants and greenhouse gases into our environment." Recent research indicates that even if 40% of the materials are recycled, it takes approximately 65 years for a green, energy-efficient new office building to recover the energy lost in demolishing an existing building. And let's face it: Most new buildings aren't designed to last anywhere near 65 years.
(Top left) This circa 1910 colored postcard shows three homes in a row in Bankers Hill designed by architects William S. Hebbard and Irving J. Gill. (From the left) Judge Monroe B. Anderson Residence, 1904, City historic site #198; Edward Grove Residence, "The Christmas Cottage," 1905, City historic site #336; Mary C. Johnson Residence, 1905, demolished without public review or notice in July 2006. Postcard courtesy Coons collection. (Top right) The recently intact streetscape has been vandalized by the addition of an out of scale, out of character stucco structure where the Irving Gill home stood only two years ago! Had this been part of a historic district, as it should have been, this could not have occurred. Right photo Bruce Coons; bottom photo Sandé Lollis
It's hard to hear the words "green" and "small is beautiful" associated with the Front Street Homes project if one knows more about the context.
This condo project involved the demolition of the southernmost of a row of three c. 1903-5 William Hebbard & Irving Gill designs. The Mary C. Johnson house, late of this lot, was the most Modernist of the three houses, with a unity of scale and design such that they were featured on tourist postcards, with the Johnson house in the foreground.
The award nomination papers surely had little to say about the visual scale and context of the condo project, as it's rammed in at the back in far too threatening a way to the cute Old-English style "Christmas Cottage" next door. Any photo including the next-door home would have shown this lack of context.
Developer Justin Elrod is searching for other infill sites in the area. He should look first at already existing vacant lots, where the embodied energy of the existing building has already been lost. There are several nearby to choose from, including some that used to hold other Irving Gill buildings. There are even some sites where this building would have been a positive feature for the locality.
In the opinion of many preservationists, demolition of an existing habitable structure should preclude the awarding of any LEED certification for environmental building methods.
The Mary C. Johnson house was not restored like the other Hebbard & Gills on the block, but certainly could have been. It was a habitable house in a walkable neighborhood for 100 years.
"Once the old building is gone, putting up a new
one in its place takes more energy, of course, and
it also uses more natural resources and releases
new pollutants and greenhouse gases into our environment." - Richard Moe
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