Going Green Tulsa Style: Final Thoughts on the National Preservation Conference

Posted on: October 27th, 2008 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 3 Comments

The National Preservation Conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has concluded, though staff members from around the National Trust for Historic Preservation are still sending in field reports. Today, Barbara Campagna, Graham Gund Architect of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, shares her experiences on a green tour and final thoughts on Tulsa.

Ken Busby describes the Tulsa 2025 program in the First Street Lofts.

Ken Busby describes the Tulsa 2025 program in the First Street Lofts.

I was in Tulsa for four days before I was actually able to get out of downtown, and start to feel like there may just be a community here. I took a wonderful tour Friday afternoon, “Going Green Tulsa Style”, led by the passionate and amusing Ken Busby, executive director & CEO of the Arts & Humanities Council of Tulsa. From Ken I learned that 60% of Tulsa’s downtown core is covered with parking lots and that the neighborhoods, communities and culture exist on the edge of downtown or the older “suburbs”. That encouraged me a bit, although I would like to understand sometime what happened to downtown Tulsa to devastate it to such an extent. There is no retail, few restaurants, no pharmacies, grocery stores, or dry cleaners anywhere in sight downtown. And while many downtowns around the country go dormant on the weekends, I have never seen a major city that is dormant during the week also. Let’s be honest, I was pretty depressed my first few days here. I saw no people, few cars, no sign of activity or life on downtown streets until Saturday –- when the streets came alive with runners for the Tulsa 5K in the morning and hockey-goers for the game at the new Cesar Pelli BOK Center in the evening. Ah hah! I figured, there are people close enough to enjoy these activities so maybe there is hope that downtown Tulsa may be reactivated and come alive again in the future.

First Street Lofts

All of the buildings on our “Going Green” Tour were outside of or on the edge of downtown. Our first stop was the First Street Lofts, a warehouse being adapted for use as 17 condos (ranging from 550 sq. ft. to 3,500 sq. ft.) with ground-floor retail. The First Street Lofts are your classic 20th century warehouse -– steel and concrete frame with brick infill walls. It was hard to tell what is actually happening there since it’s in the midst of construction and unfortunately, due to some glitches in scheduling, the owner never made it while we were there. So beyond the fact that an existing building is being reused, I can’t really confirm how “green” the project is. It did seem that an effort was being made to salvage materials with bricks and steel structure etc., being piled up in corners, hopefully to be recycled and not to end up in a landfill.

But Ken was able to tell us about a city program called Vision 2025 which is providing encouragement and funding to developers to improve the residential density of downtown. The developer of this project is receiving $3 million towards the work, which is the first of 5 projects to be funded and launched under this program. The intent is that the housing should be as affordable as possible and start to increase the dire lack of housing downtown.

Wallace Engineering Building

The Wallace Engineering Building on the edge of downtown Tulsa.

The Wallace Engineering Building on the edge of downtown Tulsa.

Tom Wallace rescued this abandoned manufacturing building on the fringe of downtown (near the Spaghetti Warehouse) to house his growing structural engineering firm. Tom’s design approach was “knock off anything that’s loose, paint everything else white!” Tom didn’t go for LEED for the project, deciding instead to use the money that it would have cost to invest in 60 geothermal wells beneath the adjacent parking lot to power the building. A three-story brick, concrete, and steel warehouse-type building, its new aesthetic is crisp, clean and hip. He kept all the original windows (bravo Tom!), improving their energy efficiency by replacing the original glass (which was mostly missing since the building had been abandoned for 26 years) with a low-e argon-filled double glazed sandwich of glass. The entrance wall of the building was a structural clay tile that was redesigned to accommodate a curtain wall to allow light to pour into the building now that it was becoming an office building. Shades controlled by an electronic eye were installed on the curtain wall, but the automatic function was quickly abandoned when it became clear that staff preferred to control the shades themselves.

The usual (by now) -– recycled carpet tile and energy efficient lighting –- were all installed in the building. As well as a bike rack and showers. One thing Tom lamented was the recycling program in Tulsa, paper recycling being very poor. But they do recycle plastic and glass and take it themselves to a recycling center.

Dennis R. Neill Equality Center

A former torpedo factory building was remade for the 4th largest GLBT center in the country. Here we were treated to a comprehensive tour by former board member and environmental consultant, Steve Eberle, who, like Ken Busby and Tom Wallace, exudes great passion and excitement for the city and community and expressed strong convictions about reusing existing buildings. Like the Wallace Engineering Building, this project also did not apply for LEED. The project consisted primarily of removing previously installed hazardous and low quality materials, such as vinyl asbestos tile, and recapturing the strong structural details of the building – removing VAT and carpeting and restoring the original terrazzo, installing limited recycled carpet tiles, installed efficient lighting, removing dropped ceilings and painting the concrete structure. It’s a nice project, reclaiming an abandoned building and providing an important social service to the community.

Fire Alarm Building

The Tulsa Fire Alarm Building, an Art Deco jewel, converted into the American Lung Association's offices.

The Tulsa Fire Alarm Building, an Art Deco jewel, converted into the American Lung Association.

The Tulsa Fire Alarm Building is one of Tulsa’s art deco jewels and was rehabilitated several years ago to accommodate the offices of the American Lung Association. The project took the building back to its basic sound structure, used low VOC paints (not as widely available several years ago as they are today), put a HEPA filter on the furnace and just made the best of reusing a historic building that had fallen on hard times.

SemGroup Company Offices & Laboratories

Calling this project “green” troubles me the most, for a variety of complicated reasons. Jim McCarthy, executive vice president of SemGroup, gave us a tour of the building. SemGroup, a company that develops asphalt and petroleum-based products, took over a 1970 modern office building designed by SOM for Shell Oil’s credit card processing center. It is a really cool building -– which uses Cor-Ten steel I-Beams as the structure and the decorative exterior expression. The advantage of using Cor-Ten is that it weathers naturally and doesn’t require painting.

The SemPro headquarters in Tulsa -- remaking a 1970 SOM building for laboratories.

The SemGroup headquarters in Tulsa -- remaking a 1970 SOM building for laboratories.

Although the building is located within the actual boundaries of Tulsa, it’s in a neighborhood of corporate sprawl and I’d think it’s highly unlikely that there is any public transit near it, or that any of its staff uses or could use public transportation. And I ask a rhetorical question –- can a building which develops petroleum-based products really ever be considered “green” in the big picture?

With that said, it is a beautiful building and a wonderful adaptive use project. The labs were located at the core of the building with the offices ringing the perimeter. The original steel, glass and granite base that the building rests upon were all retained and repaired. UV film on the glass was removed and replaced with a ceramic film. Asbestos coating the interior steel was removed. Fluorescent lighting and an energy-efficient HVAC system was installed, wheat fiber panels were used in the offices as well as the ubiquitous low VOC paint and recycled carpet tiles. A fitness center which could compete with many gyms was provided for the staff.

In addition to the building’s use, which troubles me from a social and sustainable standpoint, SemGroup installed 93,000 lbs of ductwork for the labs -- 50,000 of it being stainless steel. I can’t even hazard a guess as to how much embodied energy was invested in such an enormous amount of ducts. One of my colleagues who listened to me question the actual sustainability of the building, told me I shouldn’t struggle with the environmental and ethical impacts of every building on the planet, and just be happy a building was saved from the landfill and that they did their best in selecting green materials where they could. But I guess I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have these struggles.

Final Thoughts on Tulsa

A terra cotta detail at the Tulsa Fire Alarm Building.

A terra cotta detail at the Tulsa Fire Alarm Building.

What I learned from this trip and from several other visits around the city over the weekend, was that there are islands of hope in the city. What’s missing right now is connection. Downtown has more holes than beauty and most of the innovation appears to be on the edge of downtown. But each of these projects represented the best in community activism and dedication to reviving place. Each of the people we met behind the tour and the projects are adaptive use warriors -– recognizing the importance of keeping what you can and looking for ways to bring culture and community to their city. I hope that the influx of 1,500+ preservationists will have some impact on the political will and that ten years from now the surface parking lots will be replaced with parks and green buildings, you will be able to find a pharmacy, grocery, restaurant, and store on every corner and the streets will be alive with activity during both the week and the weekend.

-- Barbara Campagna

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3 Responses

  1. Forest Gladwell

    October 28, 2008

    Barbara, I cannot understand how the SemGroup building is on the “green” tour. Your tour guide, Jim McCarthy, is known in Tulsa as one of the most dishonest people in business. He has connections with Mayor Kathy Taylor and she likely granted him a favor. It is undetermined what he is doing for her in return.

    Calling the SemGroup building is a sham, just like the deception the company’s leaders pulled over investors and employees. Jim McCarthy covered for those leaders and allowed the deception to be perpetrated on victims.

    I strongly suggest for the reputation of Tulsa that the SemGroup building be taken off that particular tour. The company and its leadership is a disgrace.

  2. Jesse from Tulsa

    October 28, 2008

    A little harsh there Forest. I’ll assume you were somehow financially hurt by the collapse of SemGroup and are justly upset, but to call the entire company a disgrace is a far stretch. The company did wonders, but for a bad futures trade it would still be a jewel for Tulsa and contributing record sums to preservationist efforts in addition to the University of Tulsa, the Ballet, the United Way and a litany of other projects.
    - – -

    I’m glad you enjoyed your stay in Tulsa. Unfortunately your assessment is correct. We threw up a gorgeous downtown and in true American style tore it down almost as quickly. What remains is impressive, but the life of the city has moved.

    I hope we can get it back and fill in those parking lots with innovative development. There is hope, as you see the trend is to renovate downtown – not tear it down. Also more density is coming to the “midtown” area just outside of downtown, which can only detract from our amazing sprawl (which as you mentioned greatly hinders a chance for meaningful mass transit).

    Thanks again for visiting. Check back in 10 years from now and see how we have done!

  3. Barbara Campagna

    October 29, 2008

    Thank you both for your comments. The tour was organized by conference organizers and planners in Tulsa. I can’t speak about SemGroup in any way other than what I saw in a 30 minute tour and already discussed in my blog – my thoughts on the building as a “green” building. It’s a beautiful adaptive use project – it’s the kind of office that I would love to work in. But the social impact of a petroleum-based company and laboratory building does concern me. Labs are considered the “dirtiest” and most complicated of building types, and add to it development of petroleum-based products and it becomes even more complex. We had a nice tour and Mr. McCarthy gave an informed presentation – I was happy to see the representative of an owner acknowledge the significance and importance of saving an existing buiding from a landfill.