Proposed Demolition of Josep Lluis Sert’s King School Cambridge

Courtesy of Max Moore

At a time when sustainability is high on the agenda and construction costs continue to soar, many residents are questioning a proposal to demolish a sound and respected school building to replace it with a new school one that will strive to be a “green facility”. The Martin Luther King Elementary School (1968-1971) was designed by Catalan architect Josep Lluis Sert (Sert, Jackson and Associate). As it stands today, the school compliments the many other buildings in Cambridge that Sert worked on while also teaching at Harvard University, including the Peabody Terrace Graduate Housing complex just across the street.

Read on to find out what the community is doing to save the building from demolition and why it can prove to be a more sustainable option for the city.

Courtesy of Max Moore

The demolition of the King School is part of the city’s plan to improve the quality of schools, including the facilities for its students.  Perkins Eastman are the architects that would be designing the new facility.  It will have facilitate grades K to 8th, with a separation between the elementary and middle school grades.  The design includes new class rooms, kitchens and cafeterias, music rooms and an auditorium, a library, two gyms, separate spaces for preschool entrances and play areas and after school programs, new equipment and furniture, emphasis on natural day lighting in classrooms, high efficiency mechanical and electrical systems, safety controls, efficient insulation systems, new sidewalks and landscaping for the grounds.  The goal of the facility is to reach NET ZERO energy consumption.

The King School is just one example of respected modernist buildings slated for demolition.  ArchDaily recently posted about the threatened demolition of Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Woman’s Hospital in Chicago.  Rather than see these buildings go, architects, scholars, community leaders, and residents familiar with these prized works of architecture are standing up to protect the historic urban fabric.  As in the case of the King School in Cambridge, the city and architects claim that new construction will offer a “greener”, more sustainable solution for the future school planned for construction on the same site.  But, it is important to recognize the cost of demolition first and the inherent benefits of retrofitting and rehabilitating existing buildings.

Courtesy of Max Moore

Preservation Green Lab: National Trust for Historic Preservation compiled research to assess the lifetime cycle of buildings and their affects on the environment. It is a comparative study that takes assesses the performance of preserved and rehabilitated buildings against new buildings with up to date technology and sustainability goals. The Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) used in this study is an internationally recognized approach to evaluating the impacts that products and services have on the environment and human health.

In brief, the LCA looks at a product or service in stages:

  • Extraction of raw materials to be used for new or replacement materials.
  • Transformation and refinement of raw materials into usable goods.
  • Manufacture of products and distribution to suppliers.
  • Transportation of products to site.
  • Use of building from construction through its lifespan including operation energy.
  • Disposal of materials and demolition at the end of a building’s life cycle including transportation to landfill, recycling or incineration.

LCA also considers the reuse, retrofit, or recycling of materials as part of rehabilitation project.  It concludes “ the reuse and retrofit of buildings of equivalent size and functionality can, in most cases, meaningfully reduce the negative environmental impacts associated with building development. Significantly, even if it is assumed that a new building will operate at 30-percent greater efficiency than an existing building, it can take between 10 and 80 years for a new, energy efficient building to overcome the climate change impacts that were created during construction … Notably, this study finds that the benefits of building reuse can be reduced or even eliminated depending on the type and quantity of materials selected for a reuse project. Therefore, care must be taken to select construction materials that minimize environmental impacts.”  A number of case studies are explored in the study, as well.  For further reading, click here.

The community of the City of Cambridge, alongside Docomomo US/New England, is gathering to fight back against this building’s demolition.  Community meetings with the city council are being held to discuss the concerns of demolishing a building that can be rehabilitated and one that serves as a reminder of the architectural history of the city.  In the future months we will see what the collective voice of the citizens of Cambridge can do for the preservation of ’s King School.
Cambridge Day writes, “Cambridge has the opportunity to show that aging schools can be brought back to life as an example of our progressive values,” and hopes that a fair evaluation and assessment of the costs of rehabilitating the existing building will take place before demolition is finalized.

Reference:,mo.mo_US, Cambridge Day

Cite: Vinnitskaya, Irina. "Proposed Demolition of Josep Lluis Sert’s King School Cambridge" 13 Aug 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 28 May 2015. <>
  • Andrew

    I’d be surprised if anyone could propose alternative that is MORE green than reusing an existing building.

  • Joan

    What a pity..

  • Lee Dykxhoorn

    Does anyone know if when the next public meeting for this project will be?

    • Max Moore

      The Cambridge City Council Meeting on Monday, September 10, at 5:30 PM in City Hall, Sullivan Chambers, 2nd floor. At this meeting, the required 2nd vote will be held, and if it is a passed (which is fully expected) the new building (vs renovated building) option would be approved to move forward.

      The only thing that could possibly stop the current trajectory of things would be a lot of public outcry. There is plenty to cry about, as is well-described in the article: in the new building option, there are issues of waste of energy, resources and money; increased disturbance to the neighborhood during construction, and the destruction of a building that has been in the neighborhoods collective memory for over 40 years. Then of course there is the overwhelming likelihood that the new building would pale in comparison to a renovated building, both architecturally and in quality of materials and construction.

  • Walt

    I fear this type of debate will become more prevalent in the current economic environment. There are many players who serve their own agendas behind a facade of serving the public at large. Case in point, as reported by Archdaily,
    An update: the county executive was found to be withholding evidence showing the cost of rehabbing the building was far below the costs he presented. The local legislatures vowed to subpoena the documents and put the executive under oath. They rolled over to his lawyers who simply replied… “No way”. As well, no one can enter the building for an inspection without his approval. The county is spending millions of dollars (that it doesn’t have) in multiple studies by various engineering and architectural groups as to decide on a rehab or a demo. It is interesting that neither side of the debate has spoken of the material make-up of the existing exterior façade. ‘Might want to check into that.

  • Walt

    I fear this type of debate will become more prevalent in the current economic environment. There are many players who serve their own agendas behind a fascade of serving the public at large.

  • :(

    thank you perkins eastman for continuing to spread corporate blandness into the built environment; it’s nice to know that there are still architects out there looking for the easy way out.

  • Drew Foreman

    Sorry to dissent but the building is a bunker on an otherwise pleasant tree lined street built by an architect with no respect for the people he was building for. There is barely any outdoor open play space. Sert’s building and his vision was that of blandness. The only rational reason for preserving this monstrosity is the cost effectiveness calculation.