Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Problem of Material Ethics

March 20/28, 2009

The building industry has such a large impact on the environment in several ways - from the demolition of the site, to the actual construction and then to the operation of the building’s multiple systems. Areas such as material selections and the installation of certain objects (ex. plumbing fixtures, floor tiles) also contribute to the impact on the environment. It is a difficult line to draw since all areas relate to one another. But to expand into very broad terms, relegates it to generalized grand gestures and less of the specificity in the actual consideration of materials.

In my previous work at a historic preservation architecture office, we considered the intangible in conjunction with the tangible aspects of architecture – that to preserve the original material of the walls (by repairing rather than demolishing) is to maintain the craftwork/intent and the historic significance imbued in the overall structure. But there is a certain compromise in the renovation of these historic structures – where does it become absolutely necessary to recreate the element that was there before? Could something that looked very similar but of a different material be suitable? How much are we actually contributing or taking way from the historic significance of the property by this substitution? What of localism – what if something that was prevalent in the surrounding areas is no longer available and that to obtain that material requires an enormous amount of effort (eg. hardwood)? I feel that the overall gesture of preservation – the recycling of a historic structures sits very well with me, that I can not only believe in the reuse but also in the continuation of the past into the present. But it is in the details that make the work unsatisfying - that to maintain the historic significance is to disregard avenues where one could lessen the impact on the earth, for example, the choice to use a ‘greener’ mechanical system or to minimize the alteration on the historic fabric by choosing a more compact, less intrusive, and less ‘green’ system. Or that the desire for authenticity results in having to order a very specific type of wood from another country. How do we work within this existing framework and determine what can constitute material ethics? Where does one draw the line in regards for ingredients? How much should the intangible (cultural and historical values) affect the intangible? Or is the life cycle of the structure itself (continuing the life cycle of these structures/materials) overrides the need for that specificity? Does the larger picture justify this comparison?

In historic structures, there are varying degrees of intensity. On one side there are the house museums where everything is kept intact - the building’s original function is halted in time. The other side is adaptive use where the building’s function is changed to allow for new programs, new systems and new materials. I am more interested in adaptive use – I am more excited by the navigation of the historic integrity with the introduction of new material/program. Preservation to me at this point, has been always more about the intangibles values imbued in the tangible materials. Compromise is inevitable but compromise as I have seen it, has always come from budgetary, aesthetic and historic concerns rather than environmental ethics. I am mulling over how to reconcile or adjust one’s framework so that this concern for the environment, for our material responsibilities to that of preserving these structures for their historic significance.

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