The greenest building is one that already exists.
Central to this argument is the concept of embodied energy, which is the total amount of energy and associated greenhouse gas emissions that go into the material extraction, fabrication, construction, and operation of a building.
The preservation and reuse of historic buildings is thus inherently sustainable: it reduces the consumption of resources and materials, creates less waste to put in landfills, and embodies less energy than demolishing buildings and rebuilding anew.
In this context, the village board’s recent 5-2 vote in favor of seeking demolition of Oak Park Village Hall, and Village President Vicki Scaman’s stated preference to avoid “putting more money into an old car,” run counter to the village’s sustainability goals.
Allocating resources and design ingenuity to update the existing village hall is exactly what we should do. As to the noted accessibility and mechanical system concerns, unsurprising for a building of this vintage, these are architectural problems that, while more difficult to conceive than a new building, are certainly not impossible nor unprecedented.
As a community that prides itself on environmental stewardship and the cultural value of architecture, we must confront the uncomfortable realization that building new is environmentally indefensible, particularly when there is an option to renovate an existing facility, and an architecturally notable one at that.
Lee Bey reminded us recently in the Sun-Times that Harry Weese’s 1975 design was “nationally hailed as a symbol of government transparency” and is deservedly listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The village is ill-served by an architectural consultant that recommends the demolition of this elegant landmark for new construction and should instead seek more creative strategies that sustainably adapt the existing building to the village’s needs. Doing so would allow Oak Park to once again set a national example on this site, showcasing sustainable civic design through the adaptive reuse of a historic landmark.
Senior lecturer, Department of Architecture
School of the Art Institute of Chicago