In 1970 I took the opportunity to participate in the first Earth Day while at Mercersburg Academy, at the urging of my friends. It was more of a protest than a celebration at that time, largely in response to a movement against pollution that had its roots in The Silent Spring, a book about poisoning our environment with DDT and other chemicals. Having grown up in West Virginia, I had personally witnessed the brutal effects of strip mining coal, and my father was a litigator that brought class action lawsuits against mining companies, so it didn’t take much convincing. Since then I have been devoted to the idea of creating architecture which healed, rather than damaged its environment.
About 100 years earlier the famous writer John Ruskin was leading a movement to preserve the pristine qualities of the English countryside against the noise and pollution of industrial railroads. This became a movement today called Romantic environmentalism, and the “back-to-nature” sentiments that find a contemporary voice in Wendell Berry and urban agrarians. This Romanticism is also an important aspect of today’s historic preservation movement, advocating the restoration or rehabilitation of existing buildings to give them sustainable new life.
Both of these strains of environmentalism have found expression in the U.S.Green Building Council’s LEED certification program, which sets high scientific standards for measuring and recognizing buildings and places that demonstrate leadership in environmental and energy efficient design (LEED). The goal is that of balancing today’s needs with those of the future, so that both can thrive. This is achieved by not wasting (i.e. preserving) today, and protecting the environment from being squandered in the future. Some call this sustainability. At Gunn Meyerhoff Shay we practice this every day.
Recently we presented a project which had to begin with the demolition of a dangerously polluted old building, to make way for a paragon of environmental responsibility. The old building was known to most people in Savannah as the headquarters for our electric company, SEPCO. When it was constructed 53 years ago, it was a symbol of the modern belief that the environment existed to be exploited, and the relentless demand from consumers for more electricity made from burning coal. Its design engineer, used to building such power plants, chose to fireproof and insulate this new office building with massive quantities of asbestos, which at the time was thought to be a miracle product. Since then asbestos has been proven to be a most dangerous threat to human health, causing lungs to bleed and never heal. For this reason, federal law requires that it must be completely abated in its breathable (friable) form wherever it is found and disturbed. This applies to any asbestos containing material that exceeds 1% of its composition. The old SEPCO building’s friable asbestos fireproofing is ten times that concentration, and covers over 44,000 square feet (about one acre) of surface area. The dangerous asbestos material includes the cavity between the exterior brick veneer and its backing structural walls, so that in order to abate it, those walls will have to be removed, and the building will no longer have its distinctive exterior appearance. The interior would have to be removed back to just the steel and concrete skeleton.
What we have proposed in its place is the first LEED Platinum hotel in Georgia (there are only four in the U.S. today). It is a beautiful example of contemporary architecture that draws on its historical context, and embodies environmental responsibility at the highest level. Among its features would be a rain garden to purify rainwater and irrigate its native vegetation without using any precious drinking water, and a solar photovoltaic array that will produce about 15% of its annual electricity consumption from sunlight instead of carbon fuels. Simply stated, it will be a landmark example of “waste not, want not.”
Unfortunately, our request to safely remove one of Georgia’s most dangerously contaminated buildings forever was voted down by our Historic District Board of Review, and our design to replace it with a place of environmental excellence was not considered on its merits. Instead, the board chose to focus only on the old building’s aesthetic and Romantic aspects. Ironically, this building’s Mid-Century Modern architecture was only made possible by the demolition of the much older Rourke & Sons Novelty Iron Works on the same and surrounding sites. Like the DeSoto Hilton, it began with the destruction of an iconic historic building in the first place–and in the process spawned the historic preservation movement in Savannah. Our HRB frequently quotes National Park Service preservation guidelines, but then chose to re-interpret federal environmental law, for sentimental reasons.
For the record, we worked very hard, at considerable expense to our client, to try to find a way to rehabilitate and adaptively reuse the old SEPCO building before we learned that the asbestos was so extensive, so concentrated, and so located that saving more than the superstructure was not feasible. While we do not believe that the old SEPCO building was a particularly good example of Mid-Century Modern architecture, we do believe it is an important part of our history. For that reason we agreed to donate our extensive archive of as-built and original drawings of the building, as well as many hundreds of documentary photographs, to the City Archive, so that future scholars and architects could study its design.
In the end, we hope that the human health and natural environmental aspects of our proposal will outweigh the Romantic sentimental value of the building. It is a legitimate debate, but we know that preserving a healthy and responsible future is more important to Savannah than preserving a contaminated memory of modernism’s belief that technologies like coal-burning and asbestos were the answer to all our problems. One of modernism’s greatest failures was its belief that the past was no longer important, and that its style was international, not local. The old SEPCO building did not consider its historical context or environmental cost when it was built, so why must we save it now?
Patrick Shay, LEED AP, AIA President, Gunn Meyerhoff Shay Architects, PC