Greening Boston City Hall

Posted on: November 19th, 2008 by Barbara Campagna 1 Comment

Beloved & Reviled

Since 2006, the city of Boston has been one of the central venues for the sometimes heated discussion regarding preserving modern heritage, in particular Brutalist-style architecture. And the discussion has gotten even more heated since sustainability has been added to the conversation. Boston City Hall is at the same time one of the most beloved buildings in Boston and one of the most reviled. Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles designed the building and its plaza in 1962 and construction was complete in 1968. Boston City Council’s Special Committee on City Hall held a public hearing Tuesday evening in City Hall to consider the financial and environmental benefits of greening the current City Hall.

Demolish, Move, Keep?

There are several different factions in the city and in city government regarding the disposition of City Hall. One faction believes the building is so ugly and so inefficient that it must be demolished and a new one built in its place. Another faction believes the building is so unfriendly and inefficient that City Hall should move (perhaps to South Boston where the new Convention Center is) and let market forces determine what becomes of the current City Hall building. And yet another faction believes that the building is an icon and like any other building, it can be retrofitted sensitively to achieve everyone’s goals and needs.

The public hearing was well attended by the latter faction including sustainability and modern heritage experts who presented a variety of design ideas and philosophies on how to “green” the site. The hearing was called by Councillor Michael Flaherty who eloquently opened the session by declaring his desire to keep City Hall right where it was. Councillor Flaherty also had a very solid grasp on the environmental benefits of saving existing buildings. Unfortunately he was the only Council member present, so I am not sure if that was an overt signal of the rest of the Council’s opinion on the topic. I certainly hope not.

I think we will continue to hear more and more on this topic and not just in Boston. In Washington, DC next week there is a public hearing to determine the fate of I.M. Pei’s Third Church of Christ, Scientist. This may very well become the defining architectural topic of our time.

Public Testimony

Below is the testimony that I presented at the Boston City Hall public hearing. The testimony was prepared by me and Rebecca Williams, Field Representative at the Northeast Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation:

Good evening Councillor Flaherty. Thank you for the opportunity to speak tonight.

My name is Barbara Campagna and I am the Chief Architect of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. We are a national, private, non-profit organization that provides leadership, education, advocacy and resources to help people protect, enhance and enjoy the places that matter to them. I am a LEED Accredited Professional and the Architectural Leader of two of the National Trust’s nationwide programs – our Sustainability Program and our Modernism & Recent Past Initiative. I am also the immediate Past President of the Association for Preservation Technology International (APT), where I created the Technical Committee on Modern Heritage. I am here tonight on behalf of the National Trust to offer our support for the greening of City Hall and to provide a few comments related to our sustainability work and its intersection with buildings of the recent past. My distinguished colleagues who are the local experts from the Boston region have presented this evening various techniques for greening the building. I would like to present the national perspective and put City Hall in a national context. The National Trust has sent its Chief Architect from Washington to speak to you because we believe that Boston City Hall is nationally significant architecturally and that what happens at Boston City Hall has the potential to impact our cities and modern buildings nationally and even internationally.

We are not new to either of these areas of interest – sustainability and modern heritage. Fundamentally, historic preservation is about making wise use of what is already built and resources that have already been expended. In the 1970s and 1980s we were part of the movement to help educate people about the relationship between preservation, energy consumption and conservation, and the value of embodied energy in our built environment. In 2006 we launched a new Sustainability Initiative, through which we are undertaking research, policy work, and outreach to help people better understand preservation’s value in fostering development that is environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. For example, for the past two years we have been working with the U.S. Green Building Council, who is in Boston this week at the Boston Convention Center with their Greenbuild conference and over 30,000 attendees, to draft the new version of LEED 2009 and LEED Neighborhood Development to incorporate preservation, cultural and social metrics into those rating systems. Funded in part through a grant from the National Center for Preservation Training and Technology, we have partnered with the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California to study the thermal performance of wood windows. At 3 of our historic modern heritage sites, Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, CT, Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House outside of Chicago and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey House in Alexandria, VA we are implementing green housekeeping standards and developing innovative ways to improve the energy efficiency of the buildings as well as utilizing renewable energy sources to offset our need for energy. The research, case studies, materials, and tips to help people green their buildings and neighborhoods are all available on our website at www.PreservationNation.org.

We believe that historic preservation can – and should – be an important component of any effort to promote sustainable development. The conservation and improvement of our existing built resources, including re-use of historic and older buildings, greening the existing building stock, and reinvestment in older and historic communities, is crucial to combating climate change. The National Trust for Historic Preservation believes that historic and older buildings, including those from the Recent Past, can be rehabilitated to meet the demands of the future. For example, Yale University sensitively rehabilitated its Art Gallery, a 1953 Louis Kahn structure of concrete, glass and steel, for which we gave them a National Preservation Honor Award in 2007.

More than 55% of our commercial buildings across America were built between 1950 and 1990. Since buildings contribute over 40% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the US, it is important that we as a country rigorously transform the way we operate and manage our buildings. We know it won’t be easy but we believe the impact of demolishing this great body of architecture would be even more detrimental to the environment. We can not build our way, or demolish our way, out of this climate crisis or the environmental problems in our buildings.

Boston's City Hall is an iconic building, but this does not mean that it is perfect. We strongly support efforts to make the existing City Hall more energy efficient and more comfortable for the building's users while respecting the defining features that make the building a landmark. I have heard estimates that the embodied energy in City Hall is roughly equivalent to the amount of fuel needed to drive a car 5000 times around the world—that is simply too much energy to waste. The National Trust for Historic Preservation supports efforts to make Boston’s City Hall more energy efficient. This is a real opportunity to ensure that City Hall continues to be an icon not only for its architecture but as a model for sustainable rehabilitation.

There are other buildings similar to Boston’s City Hall in both age and architectural style that are currently in the process of demonstrating that the merger between modernism, sustainabilty and preservation are possible. The AIA Headquarters in Washington DC, designed in 1973 by The Architect’s Collaborative led by Walter Gropius is being renovated as a model of the integration of preservation and sustainability of modern heritage. Their architects have just completed Design Development and their initiatives include changes to its façade, interior and mechanical systems to achieve the ambitious goals of a 60% reduction in energy consumption by 2012 and complete carbon neutrality by 2030. The AIA is considering passive sustainable strategies such as solar shading and daylight harvesting as well as more aggressive renewable energy options like small-scale wind turbines. Like Boston City Hall, the AIA Headquarters is a concrete and glass structure that has a large open plaza and flat roof surfaces, has outdated systems that make it an energy hog and includes a warren of seemingly inflexible and illogical interior spaces. While there is no doubt that this is a complex and challenging building, this project proves that improvements to this building type are possible and can be done under the purview of a preservation project.

Two weeks ago I was invited to the city of Winston-Salem, North Carolina to speak to the community about the integration of historic preservation and green building practices. As I was taken around the city on a tour of its significant architecture, the tour guide stopped at the County Hall of Justice Building downtown and informed me that Winston-Salem is proud of its modern heritage and especially of this particular building because it was modeled after Boston’s City Hall. One city’s ugliest building is another city’s masterpiece.

Boston has been at the forefront of the green building movement and is one of the first major US cities to implement a green building zoning code. What better way to continue this national leadership of architectural design and environmental responsibility than by renovating City Hall. It can be done. It is being done around the country. The National Trust believes that Boston City Hall can be effectively re-imagined to serve our new green world and the needs of city government while acknowledging the historic and architectural significance of this pioneering building. We will gladly provide support and advice to guide you through this process.

Thank you.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Barbara Campagna

Barbara A. Campagna, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C was formerly the Graham Gund Architect of the National Trust in the Stewardship of Historic Sites office. She is currently a sustainability consultant to the National Trust and can be reached at bcampagna@bcampagna.com.

Green, Modern Architecture

One Response

  1. Government District Sets Example « Boston….a sustainable city, a world example

    November 23, 2008

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