At a time when sustainability is high on the agenda and construction costs continue to soar, many Cambridge 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.
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.
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 Josep Lluis Sert’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.