Stevens & Associates and Hilltop Montessori School Wins Award for the Hilltop Arts Barn

S&A and the Hilltop Montessori School are proud to accept a 2016 Merit Award for Engineering Excellence from the American Council of Engineering Companies of Vermont for the Hilltop Arts Barn project. This complex design included an innovative structural use of premanufactured insulated panels to support high walls and large roof loads.  “Thank You” to everyone who helped to create this beautiful multipurpose space.


Techniques to Flood Proof Buildings

Please join Bob Stevens, P.E. as he presents “Techniques to Flood Proof Buildings” at the 2015 Downtown and Historic Preservation Conference in Burlington, VT on June 5th.

This presentation will review the risks, regulations and insurance requirements for buildings in flood prone areas. Engineering strategies for protecting existing historic structures will be presented as well as several case studies. In addition, take away practical tips for flood proofing your building that won’t break the bank.

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.”



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.)


Adaptive Reuse: Preserving Old Buildings for Future Uses

“Adaptive reuse refers to the process of reusing an old site or building for a purpose other than that which it was built or designed for,” according to The American Institute of Architects. In other words, it’s keeping the shell of an old building and redesigning the inside to meet changing needs. When adapting downtown buildings, creating mixed-use spaces is common, with retail and office space on bottom floors and residential space up top.

Very often, adaptive reuse projects include historic preservation requirements that limit what can be changed in the building. These requirements, the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, are tied to the historic preservation tax credits used to finance many projects. The standards state that, “A property shall be used for its historic purpose or be placed in a new use that requires minimal change to the defining characteristics of the building and its site and environment.”

Opinions vary on what makes something a “defining characteristic,” which means pursuing an adaptive reuse project can involve a little bit of negotiation between an owner, architect, historic consultant, and the National Park Service (which oversees the tax credits). Generally, things that can’t be changed include exterior details (which can be repaired or replaced with exact replicas) and interior details, such as tin ceilings, that mark the building as belonging to a particular time and place and are worth preserving.

At one of our projects, the Brooks House in Brattleboro, Vermont, many of the interior “defining characteristics” of the 1870s hotel had been removed during a renovation in the 1970s that turned it into apartments; most of the remaining interior elements were destroyed in a 2011 fire. The exterior, however, remained largely intact.

The owners of the building wanted to improve the access to the retail spaces on the first floor of the building, make room for a community college and offices on the second floor, and enlarge the apartments on the third and fourth floors. To accommodate these new uses in the building, we needed to completely remove most of the interior partition walls and construct an addition on the rear of the building.  The exterior needed to be preserved to meet historic preservation requirements, and the addition needed to complement, not compete with, the existing building.

When the building is complete, it will have another new life, and will continue to contribute to the vibrant downtown in which it sits. That is the power of adaptive reuse: making something new out of something old. We preserve history to create space for the future.






Adam Hubbard Leads Landscaping Workshop

Our landscape architect, Adam, led a landscaping and property improvement workshop for the Windham and Windsor Housing Trust homeownership program a few days ago. The program educates buyers and new homeowners about maintaining and improving their properties. Adam covered low-cost options for site improvements, including choosing and maintaining plants, building walkways and parking areas, creating patios and outdoor “rooms,” and providing adequate drainage to protect a home’s foundation and basement, as well as its landscaping.

Adam has a couple of tips for improving your home’s landscaping, but says that the single most important thing you can do is take care of your site. “A landscape looks ten times better if you’ve taken care of it,” he says. “You shouldn’t be afraid to try something—just make sure you do some basic maintenance, and it will probably turn out fine.”

He recommends using pathways and plantings to create spaces, or zones, which makes taking care of the yard easier. You can attack one zone at a time, and group plants with similar watering and light needs together.

For those on a budget, the Natural Resources Conservation Service is a very good source for plants—their annual plant sale allows homeowners to purchase good-quality plants at low prices. And the University of Vermont Extension offers expertise and advising on landscaping and other site matters.