Sunday, December 6, 2009

Architecture for the New Economy

For almost a year now I have been managing the construction and finances of the Smart Growth Mixed-Use in New Bedford, MA. Originally conceived as a land use and economic development demonstration project, now, thanks to timing, it has become a lesson on Architecture in the New Economy. 

Prior to the economic downturn we learned that our practice of craft relied on finding solutions that could reduce to an install. For instance building cabinets in our own workshop was not a sustainable use of our resources, but we have been successful working with manufacturers across the country. See examples.

Our decision to construct the townhouses in New Bedford with Structural Insulated Panels surely grew out of our experience working with manufacturers. Once we looked at SIPS it was clear how well sustainable construction was blending with our land use, affordable housing, and economic development  values.  Once we choose to construct with SIPs all remaining decisions for systems and materials had to align with the performance of the building envelope.

Once the economy tanked, sustainable construction has filled the resulting void - it now motivates everything we do with everyone we work with. By taking on new technologies and disciplined attention to detail, we can focus on the awakening future instead of the dismal present.  Thankfully the project is relatively small so we could manage to keep going in these tough times. The investment in the building at Brock Avenue has now taken on long term proportions, and is guided by pride in place and in gaining new experience. Patience and humility are essential components, and making architecture compares to working in a vineyard. 

As a demonstration project, the Smart Growth Mixed-Use on Brock Ave is an example of value oriented Architecture for the New Economy. Many people in their heart are romantic builders, and in the past decades those ambitions grew to large proportions. Huge development projects and elaborate homes were commonplace. That scale of building has dropped off, but Architecture for the New Economy offers the romantic builder a financially less intensive development with significant rewards. Whereas the romantic builder may have once built a finely crafted vacation manor or speculated on the conversion of a waterfront mill building, that energy can now be channeled into a radical retrofit on an income producing property of modest proportions. I call these jewel boxes. 

The Smart Growth Mixed-Use project has become a jewel box, which I have been privileged to work on. The project has made important impacts. The improved image has raised the economic prospects for the local retail business. The skill level of everyone, especially a former commercial sheet rocker, have been lifted. Materials are highly respected, pushed be fully used (eliminate waste) and selected to meet budget. Environmentally suitable systems are tested and deliver efficiency savings. These are really fun problems to solve and implement. If you like sports cars or extreme sports, possessing a high performance jewel-box building is equally thrilling, and a statement of common sense achievement for organizations and individuals. See

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