Humans are very good at making durable structures. When made with great craftsmanship and quality materials, buildings can outlast those whose hands brought them into existence, and often generations beyond.
From the Great Pyramids of Egypt to the Mayan temples of the Yucatán, we have remarkable examples of the ultimate sustainable buildings. Instances, though, exist closer to our own point on history’s timeline.
As people clustered into cities and populations grew, buildings of a more recognizable nature started to take shape. Many of these have durable qualities too, but our needs for them change and the question is often asked: can we repurpose this structure? What use shall we confer to it now?
This edition of On Common Ground explores those questions which are particularly relevant at this moment in time as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and find ourselves in a rewritten culture of how and where people want to live and work. These changes in our culture do not match the building stock we were happily using just a few years ago. Couple that with a decade of underproduction of housing and we are left with a real mismatch of what we need our buildings to do for us.
In these pages are stories of buildings, and even an entire city, that have found new life and the tales of what it took to convert them into a form that satisfies our contemporary needs. Not every old building is ripe for conversion from an office building into apartments and the degree that buildings need to be stripped of the vestiges of their original use varies tremendously.
The cost and risk of undertaking these conversions is such that the private sector would not undertake many of them without the support of the public sector, particularly in the form of funding relief, and in the case of brownfield sites that remain from the once mighty steel mills of Pittsburgh, risk relief in the form of public-supported remediation.
Success, though, creates new vibrancy in a place which had lost it for a while, and for many of us transiting through time, doing so surrounded by or even living in a building that echoes of a former time and use, brings a subtle comfort and joy of connection to our history.