Friday, March 26, 2010

The End of a Good Thing

As I have posted here before, the relationship between the Southern Oregon Historical Society (SOHS), as the main element in the old Jackson County Historical Levy, and Jackson County, has been a war of words and money since 1996. Yesterday, at SOHS's behest the County Commissioners agreed to sell the U.S. Hotel in Jacksonville at a sealed bid auction that is expected to yield about $2 million. The County, after suitable badgering, agreed to give SOHS the first $1 million of proceeds, which SOHS will use to pay off its debt to Alan Deboer ($600K) and to provide operating funds for the next few years while it ramps up its new, Jacksonville-free business model. From the chatter leading up to this announcement, and the silence after it, we are led to believe this is a great day. I'm not so sure.

First, I believe it is in Jackson County's best interests to retain a strong and vibrant SOHS and while I am hopeful that will happen, I am far from sure of it. SOHS has made plenty of errors of judgment with County money in the past decades, all of which have led them to the place where they are now stuck with their hand out, begging for whatever crumbs the Board of Commissioners offer, with a smile. I also believe this "settlement" leaves the Jacksonville Courthouse and Jail, both now museums, completely without support or any assured future. SOHS will walk away from those properties, a new entity to take them over and for what purpose is unclear, and Jackson County, the property owner, has essentially now washed its hands of the entire situation and been congratulated for its actions.

Under the current agreement, Jackson County government will yield $1 million it does not deserve from the sale of the US Hotel and, so far, it appears that they will use it for purposes entirely unrelated to heritage. That is wrong and while many locals agree with me on this, nobody but me has been willing to point it out publicly and so nothing is likely to happen. That money could be used to form an endowment for the Courthouse grounds, or it could be divided among the other eleven historical societies in Jackson County that both SOHS and the County have, in total self-interest, simply cut out of their deal. Selling a long-term asset to provide debt service and operating expenses isn't a great solution to begin with. Selling a long term asset to pay the Commissioners self-granted 40% pay raise is near criminal, but only if people complain.  SOHS, for one, is hardly in a position to do so.

On the cutting room floor is any effort to return regular funding to the Jackson County Heritage Fund, to help the other struggling museums and historical societies in Jackson County, to protect the local resources they hold and the fine work they have done.  These organizations are vibrant faces of their respective communities and they deserve better than to be innocent bystanders at the Danse Macabre that the County, Commissioner Walker and SOHS have chosen.

Heritage is under siege statewide in Oregon, with the Oregon Historical Society facing an uncertain future too. I suppose that I and others should be thankful that the Board of Commissioners and SOHS were willing to work something out that provides some new funding for the near future in southern Oregon. But still, I think we have sold the magic beans for a cow, and in the end we will all be the worse off for it.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Greenest Building

There is a lot of chatter at the moment about green buildings, and LEED certification, and where historic preservation fits within the very real need to reduce our energy consumption.  Unfortunately too many take this valid goal as justification to scrape any “old” building off the planet and replace it with an all new, state-of-the-art design.  Sometimes that is justified but not always, and hardly ever from the standpoint of really saving energy.
When I was in school, one of the smartest things anyone ever told me was when somebody is trying to justify an action that you question, find out what their assumptions are.  In the case of energy efficiency, people who want to raze historic structures assume that the new building will “save energy.”  How they calculate that is critical.  Typically they model the two buildings side by side…the new building is better insulated, it has more efficient windows, maybe it's sited to take advantage of solar gain.  The “old” isn’t  “See, the new LEED-gold project with bamboo flooring is much more efficient.”  And it probably is.  To operate.  

What a side-by-side comparison ignores is the reality of the standing building.  It is there.  The energy to construct it has already been expended.  All the materials have been made, carted to the site and installed.  It’s demolition will require more energy to remove, to haul debris away, filling the landfill.  The other day, as is typical, somebody told me that restoring a historic building wasn’t practical because it was too expensive to abate all the hazardous materials (mostly asbestos floor tile and pipe wrap).  Instead of restoring it would be “cheaper” to raze the building, they said.  I pointed out that you still have to abate hazardous materials before you demolished, so you really weren’t saving that money.  And, of course, you aren’t.
If you consider “embodied energy” (not the energy to operate), the greenest building is ALWAYS the most efficient structure around because that energy has already been expended.  And there is a LOT of embodied energy in a typical building.  The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (a Federal regulatory agency) calculates that the amount of embodied energy in a 50,000 square foot commercial building is 80 billion BTUs, the energy equivalent of 640,000 gallons of gasoline.  Tearing that building down, carting it to the landfill, and building a new structure of the same size, even the most efficient, green, LEED Gold with clusters  and unicorns, design will still release as much new CO2 into the atmosphere as driving a car to the moon and back.  Every day. For a month.

Back to operation, as a result of the embodied energy already in a standing building, even the most efficient new structure won't really save energy over an existing one for a long time.  Fifty years long time.  So if you REALLY want to be green and reduce operating costs too, invest in upgrading your existing building.  Improve the heating and cooling.  Insulate. Weatherstrip and caulk to reduce heat loss.  But don’t tear it down and start over.  Or at least don’t claim you are doing so to save any energy. You’re not.  Reuse is always more energy efficient than even the best recycling or the best designed new building.  It’s just a fact.
Check out this great site for more information on The Greenest Building (is the one that is already built).

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Look, it doesn’t have to be PRETTY!

Sigh. There seems to be some confusion among the public, and too many in the profession, that "historic" and "well-designed" are actually synonyms. I know, I know…not YOU, right? You get it. You completely understand that "historic" is about, well, history, and association with people, places or events that are significant in our past. It's great when a historically significant property is easy on the eyes too, but it just doesn't have to be, does it? We've all learned that even an ugly house that happens to have been the birthplace of an important leader, is going to be "historic" independent of its design. And that is the way it should be.
Still, I am often in the situation of facing down doubting people, architects, elected leaders, whomever, who arch their eyebrows, sigh, and utter some variation of "You think that is historic? Are you nuts?" Given the nature of my practice, with more than  a moderate sampling of bridges, dams, powerhouses, and whatnot, I get to work with plenty of, uh, "gritty" resources.  I get that, that, "look" more frequently that I care to admit.
[True confession] I don't really like Victorians. I think they are sort of fussy, but I can surely appreciate why people go gaga over the details on the best examples. But hey, to each his own, right. Instead, I tend to see beauty in resources that others see as awkward, or just don't see at all. Ambursen dams, for example. What a neat type they are. A "hollow" dam (you can actually walk through some of them, on this scary walkway). It's an elegant design solution (they take less concrete and can be built faster too). And they are rare…which is what made the first one I worked on, at River Mill, on the Clackamas River, significant (that and that it was actually designed by Nils Ambursen himself). But I will admit that while I happen to find Ambursen Dams fascinating, none of them are likely to make the next cover of Sunset, if you know what I mean.

When I give my "Our Friend the National Register" lecture (my basic general public lecture) I like to remind people that of the four eligibility criterion for listing on the National Register of Historic Places only one actually has ANYTHING to with the way the property actually looks, whether its "pretty" or well-designed. The rest have to  do with association, or potential information (for archeology) that are linked to integrity, but really don't have much connection to fine design. Those gritty resources are the really interesting ones, the ones that make our way of life tick, that make the people who built, or designed, or lived in the fancy house on the hill the money to pay for it. And is almost always the gritty properties that actually created the community, created the jobs that brought people there and kept them there too.  Or made sure the community wasn't isolated from the rest of the world. I think those places, the bridges, mills, dams, and powerhouses and transmission lines, are fascinating. Historic certainly, and maybe, if you squint your eye, a little bit "pretty" too.