From Projects

Historic Preservation is Green

While the greenest building may be the one that’s never built, the next greenest may be the historic one that’s being rehabbed.

A couple of years ago, the National Trust for Historic Preservation released a study quantifying the environmental benefits of rehabilitating old buildings instead of construction new ones. The study concluded that it can take “between 10 and 80 years for a new, energy-efficient building to overcome, through more efficient operations, the negative climate change impacts that were created during the construction process.”

Renovation of historic buildings has environmental costs, too—the materials used in renovation take energy to make and put in the building. But the environmental costs are 4%-46% less than those incurred by new construction.

The study offers some caveats. Renovation needs to improve the energy performance of the building to pay off, and you need to be careful about the types of materials you use. Turning warehouses into apartments, for example, requires many new materials and may not offer any environmental benefits over building new.

Making an older building meet the demands of the twenty-first century isn’t a simple process. In the Brooks House, for example, we had to add framing to increase the available space for insulation. Many of the windows were replaced, and others (the ones that were especially important historically) were rehabilitated to make them more energy efficient.

Many of the features of historic buildings are inherently energy-efficient. Large, operable windows allow daylighting and ventilation, meaning you can turn lights and air-conditioning off more often. Massive brick walls take a long time to heat up and cool down, which means that interior spaces stay comfortable longer without air conditioning or heat.

Many historic buildings are located in neighborhoods and downtowns that were built before the automobile was invented. Historic buildings make up Main Street, the icon of mixed-use walkability in this country. Kaid Benfield noted recently that “Main Street is a terrific model worth preserving and emulating…It has a human scale, neither skyscrapers nor sprawl, but something in between.”

 

 

How Do You Decide to Save a Building?

Next month, we are going to a walk-through of 14 Mill Street in Bellows Falls. The Town is looking for someone to redevelop two buildings on the site, which is down a back street downtown. A developer would enter into a partnership with the Town, which would assist with grant funding and redevelopment, then sell the property to the developer for $1. So what does a developer consider in a situation like this? How do you decide to save a building?

First you look at the building itself. Will the building and its spaces work for your proposed use? Does it have enough parking or access for your needs? What are the floor-to-floor heights? How big are the rooms? What condition is the building in? Is it structurally sound?

The 14 Mill Street property has some lovely details, including brick work and large windows. Most of it is likely still sound, structurally, but some has deteriorated and is no longer safe. The building would not likely be suitable for retail purposes, since it has no street presence on the main square of the village, and vehicular access is a little tricky.

Next you think about the financing for the project. What sources of funding are available to you? Does the project qualify for tax credits? What about grants and loans? What can you count on for project “hard” costs (materials and construction expenses)? What about “soft” costs (designers, lawyers, etc.)?  What is the market like in the area, and what can you get for rents?

Although you would need a lot more detail on the building to know for sure, from first glance, we can tell that 14 Mill Street is in a New Market Tax Credit zone and is likely eligible for Historic Preservation Tax Credits. It may also be eligible for a Community Block Development Grant for Slums and Blight Development. You can assume somewhere around $200/ft2 for hard costs and another $50 or $60/ft2 for soft costs. We have a rough idea of square footage from previous work on the building, which means that we can guess that you would need to get $25/ft2 in rent to support those redevelopment costs if you didn’t have subsidies and tax credits. To make the project viable, you need to get the rental figure down to what the market will bear, somewhere in the $10-$12/ft2 range.

(Let’s take a minute here to remind ourselves that this is ALL guesswork, and that a full feasibility study would be required to make any of these numbers even close to accurate. We’d also like to note that we will be taking a deeper look at each of these funding sources in the future.)

So what’s the next step? A developer would go back after a walk-through and try to firm up the numbers above and analyze the building and its location. A call to an architect might be in order (that’s why we go to the walk-through) to talk about what’s needed for the building, and a rough budget for the project needs to be developed. Then the developer would submit a proposal, with budgets and maybe even rough design sketches, to the Town.  If they are awarded the building, they move on to a more complete look at the feasibility of the project, called a “feasibility study.” And then to design and construction.

 

 

 

 

Adaptive Reuse for Landscapes: The High Line

We most often think of adaptive reuse in terms of restoration of buildings, but the term applies to landscapes and other structures, too. The High Line in Manhattan repurposed an elevated rail track along 10th Avenue to make a park and walking trail through downtown.The project was completed in phases; the first segment opened in 2009, the second in 2011. A third section has been proposed. Before the High Line could be planted, the railroad tracks and support structures had to be renovated, their lead paint removed, and their aging structures properly bolstered.The landscape, designed by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, echoes the overgrown railroad tracks one can spot throughout the country. Wildflowers and grasses are interspersed between planks and walking paths. Trees provide color and shade, as well as bird habitat, both needed in urban environments.The width of the walking paths varies along the High Line, narrow walking areas opening onto wider gathering and resting spots. In this way, it is much like an urban street that opens onto a plaza, where you might be able to eat at an outdoor café. (Indeed, there are food vendors along the path.)Unlike other parks in New York, High Line does not try to separate visitors from the city, or necessarily provide a respite. It is in the heart of the city (it even runs right through some buildings), and allows access to urban sights and sounds.The High Line presents one answer for what to do with our country’s (and our region’s) aging infrastructure.

Traveling the back roads of northern New England, it’s not uncommon to find long-abandoned carriage roads taken over by the wildflowers and forests. What if we did that intentionally on the unused railroad track the runs so often through the back sides of our towns and villages?

In Brattleboro, we are faced with aging bridges into New Hampshire. Among the many discussions about those bridges and what should happen to them, perhaps we should consider using a High Line approach on the old bridges once they are replaced, allowing better pedestrian access to Mount Wantastiquet and the Connecticut River.

(Photos are from the Friends of the High Line site.)

 

Putney General Store Design Wins Award

We won! Stevens & Associated received an award in this year’s Engineering Excellence Awards Competition, held last month in Waterbury by the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) of Vermont. We received the Grand Award–the highest honor–for our work on the Putney General Store

After the Putney General Store burned in 2008, Bob Stevens, founder and principal of Stevens & Associates, was on the scene, examining historic timbers and existing loading patterns. Time was of the essence—the roof was unsafe and needed to be removed. The existing structure was inadequate, and fixing it while the building was renovated meant removing the first floor and shoring up the building.

In 2009, just as the renovations were being wrapped up, the building burned again, the result of arson. The building needed to be rebuilt from the ground up. Designed by Maclay Architects, the building looked almost identical to the historic structure it replaced. Like the old building, it was cantilevered out over adjoining Sacketts Brook. A steel structure with sunken concrete counterweights supports the new building.

Floodproofing was also integrated into the design for the building. The store straddles a dam, and the flood height is above the damn. Ground water is intercepted through the soil above the dam and is discharged below it. This prevents the damaging forces that water would create during a flood.

Stevens & Associates has won similar awards for other projects in the past, including the Brattleboro Transportation Center, the Wilder Building renovation, and the renovation of its own offices in the Cutler Block in downtown Brattleboro.

 

Putney General Store to Open Soon

The Putney General Store, which burned in 2008 and again (to the ground this time) in 2009, will be opening soon.

The Putney Historical Society, which bought the building in 2008, raised money to rebuild it not once, but twice. Stevens & Associates provided structural and civil engineering services to the project, and we’re very excited to see it close to completion.

The building has long been a big part of Putney’s downtown core – as a look at the images sent by historical society (to the right) shows. The rebuilt store echoes the historical original, from the symmetrical store windows to the hand-cut timber frame.

Visit the Putney General Store site for more on the history of the building and the rebuilding effort.

 

 

Checking In On Hilltop Montessori

Friday, October 7 was a nice, sunny, fall day here in Brattleboro, so landscape architect Adam Hubbard went up the hill to check in on one of our projects, the Hilltop Montessori School. Stevens & Associates performed civil engineering, site design, and landscape architecture for this project, which was completed in 2009. We wanted to return to see how the landscaping had grown in and how the circulation design was working. The short answer: beautifully.

Hilltop Montessori School accepts students from preschool through eighth grade, and has a strong focus on knowledge of the natural world. The school wanted a campus that would reflect the varying needs of its students; provide playing fields, outdoor play areas, and vegetable gardens; and be environmentally sensitive to the site and the world beyond it.

The result is a site design that keeps most student circulation away from vehicle traffic and guides students down carefully designed paths.

The constructed wetland, designed to filter and treat stormwater runoff, has grown in very nicely and is performing well. It offers educational and recreational opportunities for students, and offers a great view of our Vermont valley.