Throughout the pandemic, the big question for architects has been how will we build in the post-pandemic world? The short answer is: an entirely new building isn’t always necessary. It’s the same answer we were getting at in response to questions about the future of architecture even before the pandemic. That’s not to say, of course, that we won’t be creating entirely new environments.
Confronted with large amounts of aging building stock in cities across the country and the globe, adaptive reuse made sustainability sense—environmental, financial, human, and community well-being. There was also something exciting about breathing new life into a piece of history and about celebrating and preserving the unique patina of a building’s past lives. All of this still stands, but with the fresh lens of the pandemic, the scales are weighted more than ever to the necessity of adaptive reuse.
College campuses were previously hives of activity, with students bustling shoulder to shoulder and faculty providing face to face instruction. Since the pandemic, most classes are virtual and hallways are silent. The normalcy of campus life will ultimately return, but likely by degrees and up to a point. The ways and amounts in which certain spaces are used may be reduced indefinitely, making building anew unnecessary and frankly unfeasible.
Pre-pandemic, when adaptive reuse was not necessarily a necessity, we began working with California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA) on transitioning a classic mid-century modern physical sciences building into a swing space for the University’s administrative and student services groups. The project involved seismic upgrades and creating an environment good enough to tide them over until they could build and move into a brand-new building.
“Instead, we asked ‘what if,’” said ZGF managing partner, Ted Hyman. Knowing that the most sustainable building is the one you don’t build, and that this 60-year-old structure held the amount of space they needed, the team presented a new, three-part vision to the client:
- What if we create the most sustainable building on campus, from environmental impact and energy usage to providing a heathy indoor environment? “This second part is really important post-Covid-19,” said Hyman. “We have designed many biomedical research laboratories over the years that often deal with harmful chemicals and pathogens in pursuit of lifesaving healthcare solutions. Maintaining air quality is crucial. We used the same technique here, decoupling ventilation and cooling in favor of a system that pulls in 100% fresh air from right outside, which is then cooled by chilled beams as it makes its single pass through the building. There is absolutely no recirculation of air, making it inherently safer than traditional HVAC systems that provide only 10% outside air.”
- What if we build a building that not only supports the programs, but also creates a healing environment for students? “Understanding that these students are mostly minority and, to a large extent, first generation college students in their families, many are dealing with issues they have never faced before—financial, health, housing, emotional, etc. And, in light of the reckonings on our health and on social justice that have gripped us this year, they are going to need that sort of environment more than ever,” explained Hyman. “We immediately drew parallels with our healthcare work, where we are accustomed to designing spaces that provide safe and supportive environments for people who are experiencing levels of distress and the teams who care for them.”
- What if we create an environment that is simply so good that they do not want to build a new building at all? “Would the thorough adaptive reuse of this building cost more than the original estimate for seismic upgrades and basic tenant improvements?” posited Hyman. “Yes, but when weighed against the cost of temporary upgrades plus development of a new building, the University quickly agreed to augment the budget and pursue this new vision.”
In the post-pandemic world, old is new again, again. Adaptive reuse and the vision to create powerful solutions to preserve and improve our existing environments—both built and natural—will be paramount. Simply put, architects and designers must, in the immortal words of Lil John, “shake what your mama gave ya.”