Adaptive Reuse

Sargent College

Metcalf Science and Engineering Center

586-590 Commonwealth Avenue before construction of Metcallf Science and Engineering Center

586-590 Commonwealth Avenue before construction of Metcalf Science and Engineering Center

Historic preservation and sustainable design may have emerged from different schools, but the marriage is one that the architecture world and Boston University view as fundamental in extending the life cycle of buildings on campus. Maintaining historic integrity while updating  building systems with energy-efficient technology is the core mission of adaptive reuse.

History of the Charles River Campus

The Charles River Campus has a rich architectural history extending from the center of campus surrounding Marsh Plaza. A number of buildings along Commonwealth Avenue, constructed between the 1870s through the 1940s, featured automobile showrooms and service centers, attracting residents from the Back Bay and Cambridge. The avenue featured Packard, Fuller Cadillac, Peerless Motor Company, Noyes Buick, and the Shell Oil Company, among others.

Visit: Bostonia: Revisiting Auto Row, BU Buildings Tell Tales of Boston’s Original Auto Mile for more slideshows.

According to Boston University’s Historic Preservation Plan, Boston University purchased land on the north side of Commonwealth Avenue in 1920 and between 1938 and 1948, and built the College of Liberal Arts complex in Gothic Revival. Two teams of architects worked on the original buildings: Cram and Ferguson developed the campus master plan and the original buildings that form Marsh Plaza; Cooley, Shepley, Bulfinch and Abbott, the successor firm to the great 19th century architect, H.H. Richardson, designed buildings that extended along the avenue. Following World War II, the University developed plans for an expanded campus and began large-scale construction in the 1960s.

Beginning in 1971, Boston University undertook a broad based adaptive reuse program to preserve its historic buildings. By 2005, an official Historic Preservation Plan was drafted in response to an agreement between the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) and the Trustees of Boston University. The plan included an inventory of all University properties built before 1958 and recommendations for achieving preservation goals.

Many of the refurbished automobile showrooms along Commonwealth Avenue are now home to academic buildings such as the College of Fine Arts, the College of Communication, the Admissions building and BU Academy. In 1949, the fashionable Miles Standish Hotel became the Miles Standish Hall student residences. In 1954, the Sheraton Hotel became Shelton Hall.

Among some other buildings on campus that have embraced adaptive reuse are:

  • 575 Commonwealth Avenue, once a Howard Johnson’s Hotel and now used for dormitories.
  • 808 Commonwealth Avenue, originally the Peter Fuller Cadillac Showroom, then a warehouse, is now used for administrative space and an art gallery for the College of Fine Arts.
  • 888 Commonwealth Avenue was once the address for Funderburk & Mitchell Auto Company. The space was then turned into a parking garage. Now it houses classrooms.
  • 928 Commonwealth Avenue was originally the Rambler Car Company, then turned into office buildings. Currently the space is home to Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration.

Energy Efficiency in Historic Buildings

In the context of sustainability, one might assume that older buildings are inefficient energy hogs, which should be demolished and replaced. However, the financial and energy costs of producing and purchasing new building materials is often more damaging to the environment than incorporating adaptive reuse strategies of existing buildings.

According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, it takes about 65 years for an energy-efficient new building to save the amount of energy lost in demolishing an existing building. And data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows that many buildings constructed before 1920 are more energy-efficient than those built after 1920, with the exception of those built after 2000.

Considering that the construction and operation of buildings in the United States accounts for more than 40 percent of the country’s carbon emissions, and construction waste  accounts for 25 percent of the total waste that enters the municipal waste stream each year, reuse and greening of  buildings is an opportunity to reduce carbon emissions and invest in historic preservation.

Jean Carroon, FAIA, LEED AP, Principal for Preservation, Goody Clancy, said in the November/December 2008 issue of Architecture Boston, “Green preservation projects celebrate our cultural past as well as our connection and responsibility to the natural environment.”

Other benefits associated with historic preservation include stimulating the local economy and retaining a community’s unique built history.

“We simply cannot build our way out of our environmental crisis,” says Carroon. “We must conserve our way out, by making better, more efficient, and more innovative use of our existing buildings.”