Demolish, Revive, Reuse
Architect Michael Antenora talks about how saving rubble from going to the landfill changed his designs for Penn Field.
By Richard Whittaker,
2:45PM, Wed. Nov. 28, 2007
There's a lot of talk from real estate developers about trying to make their big new structures as "Austin" as possible. Is it keeping the frontage of the old rail depot on Third and Lamar but leveling the building behind for apartments? Plastering pictures of guitars on the safety cloth around a building while you flatten the land behind it for lofts on Lamar?
It all depends on how you define Austin and preservation. In addition to its claims to musical and weirdness fame, our beloved 512 is a military town (did you know the distinctive circular Airport Hilton used to be the Strategic Air Command Center for the U.S. Air Force?) and a light-industrial center (we at the Chronicle should know: Our offices are in a converted brick-company showroom). Integrating these other traditions, and the architecture that came with it, is how local architect Michael Antenora shaped his approach to design and green construction.
Antenora's career-defining work was the redevelopment of the former Army Air Corps base at Penn Field. The mix of industrial renovation and people-friendly proportions has since become a distinctive component of the "Best of Austin" winner's commercial portfolio. Talking to Antenora recently, I discovered his viewpoint was that the project shouldn't be about flat-out demolition. "It was better to save the buildings and do something with them," he said. "But the question was: What?"
The answer was less a new grand plan and instead a "functional clarification of the site." The area was not pristine land but a brown-field site of disheveled structures and collapsing rubble. "The point," said Antenora, "was to take what we were given and use it from both an economic and environmental standpoint to its best advantage."
For this project, green construction techniques wouldn't be only about low-emission systems and new installation but the whole cradle-to-grave history of every brick, path, and plank. Antenora asked a series of questions about each building: "What would you be paying to tear down, paying to truck off the site, paying to put into a landfill, and what would it cost the community?"
Several buildings needed renovation and repurposing rather than removal. Again, there was a pragmatic component: Their demolition would reduce the amount of building that zoning permitted. Talking to the developers, he sold them on the idea of grandfathering these old structures in. "I showed them, here's the land you have; here are the buildings you have and said, 'If you tear them down, you'd lose about 40 percent of the buildings here.'"
But even the unstable and unusable structures were not worthless. For Antenora, it was a smorgasbord of opportunities. "We had an incredibly beautiful palette of materials: brick and stone and timber frame and glass and steel and asphalt. They all have color and texture and shape and form, and I wouldn't mess with these. I'd rather reorganize it and clarify it and make it work for your purposes, rather than tear it down."
Collapsing brick buildings were carefully taken down. The bricks were sorted and cleaned and as many as possible used in on-site rebuild. Similarly, wood floors were taken up and nailed back down. This wasn't just about saving cash and saving trees: The long pine they found on-site is almost impossible to find commercially anymore. This was not a revolution for architecture, since on-site cannibalizing of raw materials is almost as old as architecture itself. (Part of the reason that the massive medieval Church of York Minster in the north of England stands where it does is because directly underneath it were the ruins of the abandoned Roman fort, a fine supply of dressed stone for the builders.) But Antenora described it as a turning point in his career, saying, "It was a maturation for me. I stopped lending my architect's hand to everything and feeling like I had to put my stamp on this, and dealt with what cards I had."