Three R’s of Sustainability

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At some point during our education, everyone has likely heard the three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. While the concept taught to us in school revolves around helping the community and the environment, they are also a main principle in sustainable design. Reduce In a previous blog, I talked about the upward tick in people passing up on their McMansions to live in smaller spaces. That trend ties into the first R: Reduce. A smaller building means a smaller impact on our environment, and leads to a smaller carbon footprint. It reduces how much heating, cooling and electricity is needed for the space, and reduces the amount of material used to construct the building. Reuse The next ‘R’, Reuse, heavily involves reducing the amount of material we extract from the earth to build our buildings. By reusing existing structures, materials and products, we’re taking the next step to lowering our impact on our resources. Part of sustainability is looking at how our resources are mined or taken from the earth, how are they processed to become usable end products and how are they transported to their final destination. Instead of demolition existing buildings and building new, architects are looking at keeping all or part of an existing structure. This is known as ‘adaptive reuse.’

Adaptive reuse is a term applied to a building that has changed from its originally intended use. Repurposing products and materials can divert large amounts of trash from the landfill and save energy that would otherwise be used extracting new materials from the earth. Originally, turning an industrial warehouse into a condo development didn’t seem appealing to many real estate agents or home buyers. This has evolved into an acceptable concept or, dare I say, downright cool. It helps develop the traditional ‘9-to-5’ industrial areas into trendy neighborhoods, where working and living can coexist. Park Shops Adaptive Reuse by Pearce Brinkley Cease + Lee In recent memory, there are a few successful examples of adaptive reuse that come to mind. The High Line in NYC’s Lower West Side is a particularly quirky and successful example shoehorning green space into the concrete jungle.

There is also DUMBO’s Empire Stores, which is a late and great example of why adaptive reuse is important—it can rejuvenate a neighborhood just by keeping its existing history, character and quality alive. Recycle What do a Starbucks in Washington State, an orphanage in South Africa, a research station in Antarctica and an art gallery in Japan have in common? Their main building block is a shipping container. The art of blending the three R’s is a niche called container architecture, or “cargotecture”. While repurposing shipping containers into habitable and stylish spaces is considered trendy right now, is the trend here to stay? They’ve received a bad rap on looks, modularity and being too hot or too cold to actually live or work in. But their hidden potential is recently being tapped by some forward-thinking architecture firms. PUMA City by LOT-EK Architecture.

Most global companies abandon their shipping containers once they hit the receiving shores because it’s cheaper to produce new ones than to have them shipped back. It leaves some importing countries with a unique problem, which is an overabundance of shipping containers. While turning these containers into functional structures is innovative, it’s strange to those of us who are traditional, or have seen some conversions fail. There are a select number of firms taking the lead in convincing us that this niche can be beautiful, but there are things we have to take into consideration. Insulating a steel container is tricky business and makes it unsuitable for certain weather conditions. It can be quick construction, but container architecture needs specialized welders. What you spend in skilled labor you save in time and material costs. Caution must be taken with a nontraditional building type such as this, because their finishes may be harmful and may need special testing or handling. Also, getting a permit may be a pain, and you will likely have to deal with local jurisdictions that are not familiar with this new building type. The modularity must be embraced in order for the design to be successful. They are durable, stackable and certainly plentiful. With a typical container measuring 20’x 8’x 8’—the size of a small to moderate room—a single container meets many basic program requirements. In the end the recycled content may be worth the hassle, and some firms are taking the leap into this new and mostly uncharted territory. The results are becoming convincing. Stephanie Mendelson is a Staff Architect at H2M. You can reach Stephanie at