Monday, January 14, 2008

Longing for Quality Design of New Construction in Our Historic Neighborhoods

drawing by Nathan Fuchs, Architect,

Walk down any neighborhood street in and around downtown New Albany and you are likely to see homes representing various architectural styles: Victorian, Queen Anne, Bungalow, Federal, etc. Shotgun’s sit next to mansions. Variety abounds. It’s a housing buffet. Each building style representative of the time it was built and making a statement about the workmanship of that time period. It all works nicely together.

And then we have the more recent vinyl boxes that have been built. I suppose they are representative of our time as well. And the message they will send to future generations? That this was a time of minimum investment for maximum gain? That the same material used for Wiffle balls was used to sheath homes?

I’m not going to start a rant on vinyl. I don’t have to. It’s not a good building material. Period. At least that’s what U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) says in a report released in February 2007. From the USGBC Technical Advisory Committee final report, page 88, “When we add end-of-life with accidental fire landfill fire and backyard burning, the additional risk of dioxin emissions put PVC consistently among the worst materials for human health impacts…”. It’s dangerous stuff.

You can get the other side of the story by visiting the Vinyl Institute.

But back to my original message. The notion that new construction in old neighborhoods should conform to older styles is one I strongly disagree with. Take the walk I suggest above and you’ll see first hand that is not how our neighborhoods evolved. If it was, we’d all be living in homes that resemble the Scribner house.

Will we see contemporary designs in New Albany soon?

Thanks to connections made by Jeff Gillenwater, discussions have taken place with the New Albany Community Housing Development Organization and architect Nathan Fuchs, of Lucket & Farley Architets, with a focus on “green” and contemporary affordable housing designs. While the timing may not be right to proceed with a CHDO project now, at least the connections have been made and the seed has been planted.

In the meantime, I would challenge any developer or builder to push the design envelope when building in our downtown neighborhoods. It is understood that plastic is cheap and easy to use but the list of alternative building materials and methods is long and offers many other choices.

Besides, if the suburban sprawl engine truly is breaking down, then an investment in a core neighborhood could have a nice return on investment in the long-term. Whether for rental or ownership, build with respect for the quality of workmanship and design of what is already here. Buyers and renters will, and should currently, demand that.

And with respect to the compatibility of contemporary design in historic neighborhoods, I believe the debate could be a lively one. But it’s a debate I sure would enjoy New Albanians having to confront.

Further reading:
Three interesting articles from Dwell magazine -

A Lot for a Little

I borrowed heavily in the above from another article written in the Summer 2007 edition of the Forum Journal, “Obey the Imperatives of Our Own Moment: A Call for Quality Contemporary Design in Historic Districts”, by de Teel Patterson Tiller. The article is not available online but you can purchase it here: Link to Preservation Books - National Trust

1 comment:

Brandon W. Smith said...

Thanks for the interesting post. Just for the public record, I agree that we, as a city and community, should encourage new architectural styles in and around our historic districts.

That said, I think new styles can easily meet the HPC new construction guidelines. In fact, for the benefit of the readers, the guidelines specifically discourage mimicking older styles. New architecture can enhance the district, meet the HPC guidelines, and still be quite different from existing structures, in my opinion.