Aaron Lubeck

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In this edition of the Preservation Technology Podcast, we join Jeff Guin as he speaks with Aaron Lubeck, a speaker at the twelfth annual historic preservation symposium at Texas A&M University. Lubeck will talk about his presentation about “How we are –and are not– adaptively reusing cities in America.” Lubeck is also author of the book “Green Restorations.” Looking at case studies from the past 100 years, we will begin to see that if we cannot adapt, we cannot reuse. In this sense, cities must be ‘elastic’, defined by market and policy. Our goal should be to re-use assets and thrive. This elasticity, however, will not be in continuing to build, to add on to the cities of today. Rather, it will be in re-use, work and labor being the new definition of growth in a city. Because of the complexities of re-use, the future will be more intricate and multidimensional than today.

Jeff Guin: One of the things you talked about in your presentation was that the sustainable future actually looks a lot like what we have today…

Aaron Lubeck: That came out of a conversation I had about a month ago. I was up in D.C. talking to Carl Elefante and he had put forth that idea that I thought was really interesting and against conventional wisdom where we think, we all visualize this future that’s so physically different. Think of the Jetsons as an analogy. But if you just look at the demographics of America, we’re not going to grow as fast as we did last century. You know, my grandfather saw our population quadruple. So, of course we’ve had great building opportunity and great architecture opportunity for new construction. But in our lifetime, we might only grow by 100 million or 150 million and that means less building, that means more remodeling, that means that the future physically is going to look a lot like it does today–a lot more so than we think. So, New York and all the small towns, and Texas A & M, the campus, are going to look in 50 years very similar, and that’s a really good opportunity for folks interested and promoters of adaptive reuse because we’ll be restoring existing buildings.

JG: And one of the statements you made was that if you are going to adapt, that you have to reuse. What does that mean?

AL: Just the nature of real estate is that you have to have a use for it before you get financing to bring a project to fruition. So, it’s impossible to adapt something and not reuse it. Gary Kuerber in Durham and I were joking about it because he’s one of North Carolina’s leading preservationists, but now he is heading a development company that does a lot of reuse and adaptations. He said jokingly that he was still trying to figure out a way where he could just do cool things with buildings independent of leases and clients and so forth. It’s every preservationist’s dream but that’s just not possible. So, the term is a pleonism. Use the example, it sort of like “totally pregnant” or “cold ice,”–it’s redundant. So, adaptive architecture or adaptive development might be more accurate or at least less wasteful.

JG: And you used some major cities as case studies of different approaches that were successful, or not. Explain that.

AL: What I tried to do was sort of book in the argument of adaptive reuse with Detroit and Houston respectively. Detroit is a great example of, if you are not able to adapt on a city scale the purpose and mission of your city, then you risk economic decline, and in Detroit this has been severe. And when you have that, you’re going to severely limit, if not eliminate, your ability to adapt and reuse architecture. So the effect of that is stress titles, stress projects, stress owners, who leave buildings to decay and go back to the earth, and we see that all over Detroit. The town is literally half the population it was in 1950, and that means half the buildings are either gone or vacant. That’s a huge challenge for that city. Houston on the other side is a great example, a really interesting example, that just continues to sort of grow because the next patch of green land is cheaper than dealing with or rehabilitating the existing assets. So, its choosing to adapt economically and move from industry to industry and grow flexibly as markets demand, but in doing so, its real estate is always focused on newness. So, there really has been in my estimation, limited adaptive reuse in the Houston area. So, these are the two sort of extremes, and I think other cities across America are seeing flexible policy, flexible markets, that allow for people to go in and rehabilitate old buildings, so those are the ones we need to look to for examples.

JG: One of the terms that you mentioned after talking about your case studies was the concept of the “triple bottom line.” Explain what that concept is and how it relates to historic preservation.

AL: The triple bottom line is a philosophy that’s been growing in stature for the past 25 years or so. It’s really buzzing in business schools right now, and it essentially says that beyond the financial bottom line, which is the literal bottom line on an income statement or balance sheet, businesses need to also look at the environmental impacts of what they do, positive or negative as a company, and they also need to look at the social impacts of what they do as a company. There are some fair critiques of that concept but it’s interesting from a preservation standpoint. I’ve argued that you can make the case that preservation fits very well into all three parts of the bottom line. It’s most naturally a cultural benefit. Obviously, saving our buildings as a back drop and physical representation of who we are and where we came from is of cultural and social benefit. Certainly there is an environmental benefit of using existing assets and not taking up new green field and so on and so forth. And then there is an economic argument just from the tie in with both the environmental and social sides, but that it is just cheaper and it’s better and costs less long term, to reuse our existing assets and stay within the dense urban areas. Houston again, I put forth, as an example of an urban area that’s undeniably had economic success but it’s pretty easy to critique the other two. Not a lot people are putting forth Houston as the cultural center of the United States, although they’re making steps towards improving that and certainly the, you know, nobody is using Houston for environmental policy for sure, and part of this ties into the architecture. I think if Houston would start using some of its existing assets, they would improve in all aspects of the triple bottom line.

JG: Okay. You actually mentioned a third city as an example of your golden mean, and that’s your home town of Durham, North Carolina.

AL: Sure. Well I love Durham and I’ll admit, perhaps it sounds self-serving but you know, it’s not a perfect town, but I think it’s a great example of a town that has adapted very well towards market demands. This is a town that didn’t exist 110, 120 years ago, so it’s very young. Absolutely boomed because of tobacco. By 1910, the majority of the tobacco world came out of Durham, and all of the architecture that is now so amazing in Durham is rooted in that tobacco history. So, we have these great old tobacco mills from American Tobacco and the Chesterfield Building and so forth that came out of this era that are now being adapted. No tobacco today is made in Durham. The last cigarettes were rolled in about 1993, and that’s the sort of transformation that would kill most towns in America, but part of it is good policy and part of it is that we are blessed. We are sandwiched between Duke University and Research Triangle Park. There are a lot of creative class people, there’s a lot of really bright people who want to be there, who want to take advantage of the excellent architecture. Part of it is really good policy for historic preservation. We have substantial tax credits in North Carolina that have been a huge driver of urban renewal, for lack of a better word, urban rebirth let’s say, and that’s really helped Durham come from…even when I was younger, growing up in Chapel Hill, a relatively dangerous place to a place that is really the most desired city of the triangle now.

JG: Okay and what could other cities learn by its example?

AL: I think cities set their goals through policy and that comes from their governance. States do the same and a lot of North Carolina’s success, again, is coming from state level endorsement of historic tax credits. I think that’s the easiest way to encourage good historic use or reuse. The other aspects are a long term sustained effort to educate and grow the preservation community. I think that there’s a lot of things that people can connect to about preservation as a means to teach history, to teach place, to teach even the harder sciences. I mean you can teach everything from physics to chemistry through our existing houses, and the more people that buy into that, it’s just going to help increase demand for the sorts of houses that need to be sustained to rehabilitate cities. I’m really fascinated with the grass roots part of it because we tend to talk about the cream of the crop projects, these huge commercial projects that are fantastic, gorgeous, multimillion dollar rehabilitations, but most preservation happens through the rehabilitation of a bungalow or a millhouse or a Victorian home. That’s where most of the opportunity is and these are just the layman buildings. These aren’t the ones that you’re going to read about in a textbook ever, but this is the way that everybody can participate. Anybody who likes their community or architecture or just likes to buy into the concept of stewardship can do so in choosing where they rent or where they buy or where they choose to improve their own community. It’s maybe the easiest way somebody can participate in their current, cross the time spectrum, the past, the future of their community and immediately ingrain themselves in today’s world, is by working in an old house.

JG: Thanks for talking to me.

AL: Thanks.