Friday, April 10, 2009

The UNCG Quad

I found out this week through Ed Cone's blog, Benjamin Brigg's blog, and the News & Record that my university is considering tearing down and replacing several historic dorms on its Quadrangle in order to accomodate its rapidly-growing student population.

The Chancellor held a forum at which two options were presented: either renovate the dorms and add a new dorm elsewhere on campus, or tear the dorms down and builder new, bigger ones on the site.  I attended the forum and spoke (see Joe Killian's article), but a number of points were made -- mostly by students -- that I think deserve a little more elaboration and documentation. And so here they are:

1) Renovating these buildings is in keeping with the University's Master Plan

(p. vii): "The Master Plan Update recognizes that the structure and form of the built environment will have a critical impact on the ability of UNCG to meet the mission laid out by the “Vision 2008” stated above. As such, it strives to prioritize the use of existing campus space, protect and restore the historic resources of the campus and identify building sites for future campus buildings, while recognizing that the campus will need to become more dense and “vertical” where appropriate." 

P. 17 "As it faces future growth, the UNCG campus has numerous strengths upon which to build. These include proximity to established residential neighborhoods, downtown Greensboro and   other colleges; its significant historic buildings and green space ..." 

P. 12 of the Master Plan identifies the Quad and its buildings as "significant character-defining buildings." 

P. 13: "Many of the older buildings have historic, architectural or “space-shaping” significance which creates a sense of place and enhances the character of the campus. These include Foust Building, the dormitories at the Quadrangle, the Steam Plant and the buildings along College Avenue. The University should strive to preserve these important buildings, consider them within the context of current building and program needs, and enhance them with future landscape or structural improvements." 

2) Renovating the buildings is in keeping with the University's values, especially sustainability, which is explicitly mentioned in the University's new Strategic Plan, and endorsed by the Chancellor. The buildings contain an enormous amount of "embodied energy" -- that is, the energy that went into the manufacture of its parts (bricks, beams, etc), and the making of the building itself. Tearing the building down will entail throwing that energy investment away, and using more energy to demolish and transport the debris to the landfill, and then to manufacture and build new dorms. "The greenest building is the one that already exists," as preservation economist Donovan Rypkema likes to say.

3) The existing buildings, if renovated, would probably perform better in terms of energy efficiency than new ones because of their heavy masonry walls. 

4) UNCG trails nearby schools in a national sustainability survey. UNCG gets a C; whereas UNC Chapel Hill gets a B+, as does Duke University. Demolition of the buildings will only put us farther behind, and make it clear that the University's commitment to sustainability is window dressing only. 

5) UNCG has the only Historic Preservation graduate program in the state. What message will it send if the University refuses to preserve its own buildings against the recommendation of its own master plan? How will that help attract new students to the Historic Preservation program, or affect the program's national reputation? 

6) Renovation is likely to help the local economy more than would demolition and rebuilding. Renovation is more labor-intensive and heavily employs local skilled contractors, workers, and craftsmen, so more of the money flows to local sources. Rebuilding typically draws manufactured materials (brick, concrete block, etc.) from father afield, and typically requires less skilled workers. 

7) New buildings seldom include the depth and density of architectural detail found on older ones. While the option to build new mentions that some of the architectural details would be imitated on the new buildings, these are the kinds of things that get cut when budgets get tight. It's doubtful that new buildings would have the architectural texture and value of the existing ones, which were reportedly designed by Harry Barton, one of Greensboro's most famous architects.

8) The proposed new buildings have an expected life of 50 years. The existing buildings already have lasted 80-90 years, and with proper maintenance should have an indefinite lifespan. A good masonry building can be maintained pretty much as long as one wants to keep it -- the old center cities of Europe are packed shoulder-to- shoulder with buildings that are hundreds of years old and are still well-used. Only in the United States is a 90-year-old institutional building considered "old." 

9) The old buildings can be adapted to suits the needs and wants of modern undergraduates, and if renovated, will probably become premium, desired housing at the center of campus, much the way the old dorms on "The Lawn" at UVA are.

Certainly the Chancellor and Board of Trustees have an obligation to look after the need of undergraduates and to be good stewards of the University's budget. Demolishing and building new might look like a cost-effective solution in the short term. But over the life of the University, which will be here for many generations, I think preservation and renovation make more sense.