Defusing Boomer Building Time Bombs
Summary: We might be at the dawn of one of the greatest periods of reconstructive surgery ever. I’m not talking here about nose jobs and facelifts. All across the country there are buildings that were designed and constructed sometime between Eisenhower’s first term and Nixon’s final helicopter ride off the South Lawn that are detonating in a dazzling display of self-destruction. These are “Boomer Buildings,” built during the heyday of cheap oil, a bright atomic energy future, and Modern Mannerism. This combination resulted in an architectural climate in which designers generally paid little or no attention to energy consumption, durability, or overall building performance.
Throw-away consumerism was the rage, the American dream that we
are now waking from, with a terrible ecological hangover. All around
us, Boomer Buildings are crumbling. Many of them are on college campuses,
where the pressure to build expediently during the post-war GI-Bill
years was the greatest.
Not easy to love . . .
Even on their best days, Boomer Buildings were not easy to love.
They had (and in many cases continue to have) substandard heating
and air-conditioning systems, poor lighting, minimal chase space,
drafty exterior walls, asbestos and other toxic materials, crumbling
concrete exposing rusting rebar, not to mention hostile urban manners,
contextual indifference, and monumental invulnerability. In a prescient
way, student radicals of the 1960s picked up on all of these architectural
bad manners. Boomer Buildings were choice candidates for torching.
The sorry state of most Boomer Buildings today comes just at the
point when sustainable design and construction have captured the
architectural spotlight. Where in another age Boomer Buildings would
be torn down, today architects are finding intelligent and sustainable
ways to give them new life. As James Kienle, FAIA, noted in a recent
AIArchitect article, re-using old buildings is one of the most sustainable things you
can do as an architect.
Rehabilitating the Boomers
Some firms, such as Mitchell Giurgola Architects in New York City,
have made a specialty of working with Boomer Buildings as an alternative
to new construction. For example, one of their first resuscitations
was the international headquarters of The Lighthouse, which occupied
a vintage 1964 building in midtown Manhattan. The 14-story tower
was stripped of its skin back to the structural frame, allowing
a new, high-performance envelope to be designed and constructed,
which also opened the building up to greater natural light and
allowed the headquarters to become a glowing “beacon.” This
converges perfectly with the organization’s mission to assist
the visually impaired.
On the campus of Queens College in New York, the same architects
dealt with a 1950s-era classroom building, an energy hog that contributed
little to the campus’s overall architectural flavor. Brick
walls were spalling, the fin-tube radiator heating system was substandard,
glass curtain walls were un-insulated, and there was neither access
for persons with disabilities nor community gathering space in this
important campus building. Stripping the building back to its concrete
column-and-slab frame allowed a new high-performance envelope to
be constructed that would also better relate to the existing campus
architecture. There was also an opportunity to transform two dilapidated
internal courtyards into verdant landscapes (designed by Thomas Balsley
and Associates) that use low-maintenance plant materials, have become
a haven for wildlife, and offer soft, green views from the building’s
On the campus of Keene State College in New Hampshire, Mitchell
Giurgola saved a lab building that was woefully inadequate for contemporary
science instruction (along with a sub-par HVAC system, the building
lacked a centralized pure water system). The architects retrofitted
the existing envelope (which had single-pane glass and no insulation)
while designing a new wing that would permit the installation of
contemporary fume hoods and exhaust systems. In this case, the sins
of the Boomer Building were offset with new construction containing
generous chase space.
These examples show that there are lots of ways to bring a Boomer
Building back from the brink. Institutions, especially colleges,
are willing to invest in a facility when the architect can demonstrate
that there are more good years possible in a building’s lifespan
without resorting to wholesale demolition and starting from scratch.