Demolition, Historic Preservation, and Sustainability: A Case Study from Geneva, New York


Old Geneva High School is currently slated for demolition.

I teach a class titled “Sustainable Communities” at Hobart & William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. This past semester, students were asked to create projects that focused on the following places: the Seneca Army Depot, which once provided the most munitions for the U.S. during World War II all the way until the first Gulf War; the separation, differences, and possible overlap of services between the Town and City of Geneva; neighborhood issues and development; urban water issues, especially regarding Castle Creek, which runs through the City of Geneva; and the nexus of water and energy in the Finger Lakes. (Take a look at the course: [May 1, 2013, posting].)

Old Geneva High SchoolOne group of students selected as its project the proposed demolition of Finger Lakes Community College’s (FLCC) satellite campus in Geneva, which is located in the old Geneva High School. FLCC’s plan is to demolish the school in order to make way for a new, smaller building at the same location. These students did their homework. They spoke to the architect of the new school, conducted research in the local archives, located newspaper articles about the old building, interviewed neighbors, and reached out to City Council leaders. They then used their respective knowledge and skills in sustainability, design and architecture, environmental consciousness, and social media to produce the following video:

To put it simply: I was impressed. Without any prompting on my part (I happen to think that the oldest portions of this historic building should be saved, especially since demolishing the building runs counter to FLCC’s current needs for its students and stated beliefs about sustainability), the students addressed the needs of the community college, saved the historic school, and created a vision that I would think makes everyone happy. But money is still the problem: the current plan to demolish the school and create a new building costs $12 million, I think, while it supposedly costs $18 million to save the school, do limited deconstruction, and renovate.

There are solutions that can work. What a great many people do not realize is that FLCC, like a lot of community colleges, has a number of amazing strengths—one of which is in the arena of music, as these students and FLCC make clear. FLCC apparently has one of the best music production (Music Recording Technology) programs in New York State.

One part of my students’ plan is to renovate part of the original building for use as a recording space for FLCC’s music program. When I reached out to Travie McCoy, lead singer for Gym Class Heroes, which originated in Geneva, York, to see if he might be willing to donate money to save the building and create a recording space in his honor at FLCC’s Geneva campus, I was rebuffed—or at least I never received a response. (It should be remembered that apparently Gym Class Heroes’ naming stemmed from a bullying experience in an actual gym. The gym in the old high school could be renovated for performance and video creation, as part of an effort to save the historic school. What an amazing tribute to a successful music group.)

If you like what you see in the video and agree with the ideas and proposal, do something.

One idea: reach out to Travie McCoy to suggest that he “give back” to Geneva and create an amazing recording/music production location in a small city, like many in the Rusty Lake Belt, that need help, knowledge, and jobs. Instead of being a victory for FLCC only, such adaptive reuse could be good for the school, the city, the neighborhood, the students, and the planet:

Travie McCoy:‎;;;;;;;;;;;

Alternatively, reach out to FLCC president and Geneva City Council members:

President of FLCC, Dr. Barbara Risser:

Geneva City Council:;;;;;;;;;

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Sustainability is the issue of our time


Über environmentalist David Orr once wrote, “However conceived, described, or analyzed, sustainability is the issue of our time, all others being subordinate to the global conversation now under way about whether, how, and under what terms the human experiment will continue.”

Sustainability should be a concern in all that we do, in every decision that we make. We make poor choices at home, while shopping, in the lab and workshop, on the assembly line, and in the boardroom, because of an inherent lack of understanding and knowledge of sustainability. Concepts of sustainability need to be at the forefront of our being, as the fabric of our actions, knowledge, and decisions. Unfortunately, sustainability has been a buzz word or catch phrase in a great amount of recent rhetoric but especially during the last year. President Obama utilized it in his second inaugural address. Wal-Mart uses it during nearly every commercial we watch. Yet most people have no idea what sustainability means or how it might be possible to implement it not only in our critical thinking but also in the textiles we create, the machines that we manufacture, the goods that we purchase, and the food that we grow.

As Orr put it, sustainability is entirely about “sustaining” human life on this planet. We know that the Earth will go on without human life, even flourish, so we have to decide if we have it within us to perpetuate human life (not to be misunderstood as population growth). As Alan Weisman pointed out in his 2007 book titled The World Without Us, “On the day after humans disappear, nature takes over and immediately begins cleaning house—or houses, that is. Cleans them right off the face of the earth. They all go.” (See the introduction: We have seen what happens when humans leave cities such as Detroit, Gary, and Buffalo, but also global locations such as parts of Eastern Europe, the area around Chernobyl, and the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Things fall apart, rot, and decay. Plants and animals, the components of Ma Gaia, will thrive without us, however.

In the television series, “Life After People,” viewers watched as foundations of iconic buildings such as Grand Central Station and the Sydney Opera House crumbled. We imagined the beauty of Leonardo DaVinci’s “The Last Supper” flaking and disappearing, or being covered with mold and dirt, within a generation or approximately 25 years. Wetlands will likely return and prairie grasses might thrive. Although most domesticated animals will perish, certain animal species will likely thrive: longhorn cattle, some predators, for example. The landscape will not likely be that which is depicted in Cormac McCarthy’s awesome novel, The Road.

To truly pursue sustainability, we (students; teachers; scientists; designers and architects; business owners; et cetera) need to diligently pursue the three overlapping goals of social development, environmental protection, and economic development—broadly defined and otherwise known as “people, planet, and prosperity” (three p’s) or “equity, environment, and economy” (three e’s). In such a way of thinking and knowing, job creation cannot supersede biodiversity, for example. People cannot come before planet. The environment cannot take a position as the ultimate objective. All parts must be considered simultaneously. Although “experts” in the field like to argue that there are “trade-offs” in sustainability, the reality is that there does not have to be.

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D-Build 2.0

Let us re-launch this blog!

And in honor of the re-boot, let us coin a new phrase, or at least a new meaning on an old phrase: “rusty lake belt.” Instead of a reference to a particular geological formation that forms part of the Leaf Rapids Domain in Manitoba, Canada, this new definition refers to the connected regions of older, industrial cities that border or are close to the Great Lakes.

The D-Build blog is, at its core, rooted in history, environmental concern and protection, sustainability, innovation, design, and technology. Although the Rusty Lake Belt is the place where this blog originated, the inspirations continue to come from all over the world. Indeed, as we harness our creative energies, we imbibe what has come before—all of the natural and human built landscapes. For, as writer and activist Rebecca Solnit wrote, “A sense of place is the sixth sense, an internal compass and map made by memory and spatial perception together.”

The hope here is to connect the “conceptual” with the “current” in an effort to educate, encourage, inspire, and provoke positively. We hope that you will get involved. Doing something—taking some form of informed action—is the important, final step in critical thinking.

We imagine that forthcoming posts will include discussions regarding the ever-unfolding world of 3-D printing, hackerspaces/makerspaces, a creative response to the planned demolition of a historic high school, post-Sandy planning ideas for the coast, reclaimed building materials turned into musical instruments, and vertical forests and farmscrapers, among many other exciting topics.

But we also want to hear from you, to accept guest posts, and to make this blog about the community and the dialogue we hope to enable. Please send us your ideas and stories. Furthermore, please tell us what aspects of the former D-Build blog you most appreciated and why? Stay in touch.

From the Rusty Lake Belt, upstate New York,

Joel Helfrich and Rob Englert

* * * * *

Buckminster Fuller, the architect, designer, and creative thinker, once wrote, “All of humanity now has the option to ‘make it’ successfully and sustainably, by virtue of our having minds, discovering principles and being able to employ these principles to do more with less.”

Please send in your thoughts about this quotation. What do Fuller’s words mean to you?

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D-Build is Back!

Flooring reclaimed from a century old two room school house and used in one of our biggest examples to date.

Flooring reclaimed from a century old two room school house and used in one of our biggest examples to date.

After nearly a year hiatus and by popular demand, the D-Build Blog is back to life. So, where have we been you may wonder? After spending the last few years writing about ways to increase the value of reclaimed materials through story, we have spent the last one creating one of our biggest closed loop examples of reuse to date where reclaimed materials, history and technology blend together. This project was no easy task especially with the limited staff and resources we have available, but it will serve as the cornerstone of D-Build’s future and I look forward to sharing it with you over the coming months.

In the mean time I would like to give a proper introduction to our first guest writer, Joel Helfrich who is currently a visiting professor of Environmental Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges’ Finger Lakes Institute. Joel has some serious street cred in many of things that D-Build holds true and I know that his contribution will be welcomed by our readers.

I would also like to thank our many readers around the world who have encouraged us to continue our efforts.


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12×12: Twelve Designers – Twelve Buildings

Bellboy Chair made from NYC water tower redwood

12×12 was a recent exhibition during NYC design week that showcased 12 contemporary furniture designers using materials reclaimed from 12 NYC buildings. The event was held at WantedDesign and was sponsored by our friends at Sawkill Lumber and Build it Green along with 3rd Ward. The event shows how great design can be enhanced with a historical narrative while adding intrinsic value that makes each piece truly one of a kind.  Allowing history to live on through design is what D-Build was founded upon and it is exciting to see other like minded designers taking our lead. Each piece that was exhibited is tied to a rich and colorful history from the American Express stables in Soho to the Coney Island Boardwalk. In addition to the great exhibit there is also a nicely done website that profiles the designers and deconstructed buildings where the materials came from. The pieces could also be purchased through a silent auction that benefited Brooklyn Woods that ran through the end of DesignWeek. Hats off to everyone involved. Here are some additional photos from the show.

The exhibition at WantedDesign

Louis Lim "Round & Round"

Design Brigade - Coney Island Low Table

Via Core77, 12×12, Sawkill Lumber Co, Build it Green, Brooklyn Woods

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Earthquake Research Leads to Design for Deconstruction Study

Professor Jerry Hajjar to focus on deconstruction with new grant.

Professor Jerry Hajjar who has spent much of his career studying the effects of earthquakes on buildings and bridges turns his focus towards Design for Deconstruction under the auspices of a $250,000 dollar grant from the National Science Foundation. The professor and chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northeastern University is teaming with structural engineer Mark Webster of the firm Simpson Gumpertz & Heger to study how aging buildings can be systematically dismantled and the materials can be reused back into the new structure versus just being recycled. This is the type of thinking that can lead to finding new ways to close the loop on some of the economic barriers to more widespread deconstruction practices.

“The basic con­cept is this: At the end of the useful life of a building, instead of demol­ishing it and recy­cling the mate­rials, we think about whether we can decon­struct it and refab­ri­cate”

“I prefer to think of it as aug­menting our earth­quake research.”  “We’ve been devel­oping new sys­tems to make struc­tures safer, more eco­nom­ical and more secure. A long overdue com­po­nent for struc­tural engi­neering is sustainability.” says Hajjar

Offsetting costs by reusing materials into replacement structures can impact more than just the material costs themselves and could have other positive environmental effects by taking advantage of the materials’ inherent embodied energy while reducing reprocessing  and shipping costs. This is why making deconstruction an integral part of upfront development plans versus a feel-good afterthought once demolition has begun can begin to make economic and environmental sense.

Hajjar and Webster are also investigating new materials and construction techniques and will be testing their ability to withstand extreme stresses at the Lab­o­ra­tory for Struc­tural Testing of Resilient and Sus­tain­able Sys­tems, or STReSS lab, at the George J. Kostas Insti­tute for Home­land Secu­rity in Burlington, MA.  Designing new buildings with future deconstruction in mind is the path to a more sustainable future. This type of research will help make deconstruction a more viable alternative to demolition in the years to come. You can read more about Professor Hajjar in an article by Angela Herring here.

Steel Foam is just one of the new materials being investigated.

Proposed Design for Deconstruction detail courtesy of Simpson Gumpertz & Heger

via Zite,, News@Northeastern

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Nido: Robin Falck’s Nano Cabin

Robin Falck's super sweet, super small cabin

Some would classify this cabin as micro but it may actually be more of a “nano” cabin at a mere 96 square feet meaning most guests would have to bring a tent. The tiny cabin sits on the edge of a lake in Finland and was a labor of love for Robin Falck who wanted to create a simple retreat to enjoy after his mandatory military service. Finland allows livable structure such as this to be built without a permit as long as they are under 128 square (depending on location). The cabin has everything one needs including a small bedroom loft, living area, bath, kitchen and a great deck. Robin designed the cabin over the winter of 2009/2010 with the help of a couple of generous architects. Nido actually means “birds nest” in Italian and it is a fitting name for a small, cozy spot with great views. The cabin was built mostly from recycled materials and cost just over $10,500 dollars.

A cabin of this size could easily be built offsite and trucked in.

The extra large window brings in light to two spaces.

A very cozy living space.

via Gizmodo, Tiny House Listings, Soundview Window and Door





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Leave notes around the world with Pinwheel

Notes tied to specific locations.

When I think about leaving a note at a specific location, one of my favorite restaurants, Dinosaur BBQ, comes to mind because they encourage you to write on the walls, but finding a note written here could be pretty difficult. If there was only a way to sort all those messages out and be able to view them remotely….. This may now be possible thanks to one of the original founders of Flickr, Caterina Fake and her new start-up.  Pinwheel is a service that allows you to attach notes to geo-spatial locations around the world. Attaching narratives to specific locations is one way to add intrinsic value to a particular place whether as a memory or as augmented information. The note can be public or private and include photos, videos or links. For instance you could leave notes for a loved one “This is the street corner where we first met 12 years ago” or it could be used for a  real estate company to post an upcoming listing (see the image above).

President Obama's former residence in Brooklyn.

I think it could be a great tool for tagging historically significant landmarks that may have flown under the radar such as the Brooklyn Brownstone that President Obama once lived in right after graduation from Columbia. The man who owns the home now had no idea of the home’s former resident. Like Twitter, users will be able to follow people and companies and the business model will revolve around sponsored notes.

Here is Fake’s description in her own words.

The notes can be public or private, shared with an individual, a group, or everyone. They can be organized into sets, such as, say, “Tales from the Road: Kiss’ 1974 ‘Hotter Than Hell’ Tour,” “Best Spots for Butterfly Hunting,” “Every place that you told me that you loved me, circa 2008,” or “Find Me a Nearby Toilet NOW.” You can follow people, places, and sets. And in the future, you will get notifications on your phone from who and what you choose. Following sets is useful, because that friend of yours with the great taste in coffee shops may also have an unhealthy obsession with, say, 1970s glam metal band Kiss, and frankly, in childhood you were traumatized by a photograph of Gene Simmons and don’t need to repeat that in your dotage. Here’s an example of what a note looks like. This is one of my notes from Grand Central Station:

Personal example from Fake.

This is an exciting use of technology that mashes mapping, photos, memories and storytelling all together. This kind of stuff is right in D-Build’s wheelhouse.

writing directly on a location is one way to leave a note at the Dino. Photo Jason Perlow

via cnet, Forbes, NewYorkTimes, inc

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Tree House Escapes

El-Ambassador is a part of AirHotel on display in the UK

There is something definitely magical about tree houses and it seems as though they are growing in popularity. Is this an escape mechanism in an uncertain future or a way of recapturing the simplicity of youth? Regardless of the reason, I love them. Leaving the ground behind to have a bird’s eye view of the world even for just a few minutes can quite literally give you a new perspective on life. Building a tree house is no easy feat and I know from experience since, my brothers and I once built a triple decker tree house in the woods behind my parents house in western Pennsylvania and remnants of it still remain. That tree house pales in comparison to the ones seen here and makes me contemplate building another in the woods surrounding the cabin I live in now. I still don’t know if I have the tree house building chops to pull off something like these ones.

The AirHotel is a series of hanging cabins that can be rented out overnight. It is a project by a collective of Belgian artists on display this month at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival in the UK. A one night stay is just $57 dollars, worth every penny in my mind. Each cabin is completely unique and made from a variety of materials. I think I like “El-Ambassador” the best because of its egg like form, so cool.


The solar powered wellness center is where guests check in.

The HemLoft has a completely different story. Built illegally in a secret location on “Crown Land” outside of Whistler, British Columbia the HemLoft is made of mostly reclaimed materials that were found on Craigslist. Joel Allen, an out of work software developer, constructed the cabin almost entirely by himself (he had some help from his GF) after teaching himself carpentry following the loss of his job at a social media start-up. It took him three years to build it and he had to carry all of the materials to the site by hand to avoid detection. The results are absolutely stunning.

The HemLoft by Joel Allen.

Building this could not have been easy.

If you happen to be in San Francisco anytime soon, keep your eyes open for the temporary art installation entitled “Manifest Destiny” attached to the side of the Hotel des Arts near Union Square. The project is a collaboration between designers Jenny Chapman and Mark Reigelman and will be on display until October 2012. The tiny cabin is made from materials reclaimed from a barn from Ohio built in the 1890′s. The material was sourced from E&K Vintage Lumber in L.A.

"Manifest Destiny" hangs from the side of the Hotel des Arts in San Fran.

Via Inhabitat, Core77, Gizmodo, Gizmag, TimeCircus

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3-D Printing Finally Getting its Due

3-D printing has begun to go mainstream. Photo by Keegin-Ma Forever

I have always been fascinated by 3-D printing and as a practicing industrial designer, have been using it to visualize product concepts for years. I am certain that 3-D printing will change how we imagine, create and consume products in our daily lives in the years to come. With the push economy being replaced by the pull of individual needs and desires, 3-D printing will continue to be an important tool in our future. Imagine printing a life sized statue of your long passed grandfather in sandstone from nothing more than a few snapshots, or making your own furniture or toys fueled by only imagination. This is not the future, but the now and it is happening faster than most people realize. Today 3-D printing technology can be had for as little a $1200 and can be done in your own home. After being immersed in this technology and seeing its potential over the last 15 odd years or so, it is great to finally see it become embraced by everyday users. A recent article in Businessweek gives a very nice overview of the technology, its applications and history. But I think I like the opening paragraphs of the article best, as it describes how 14 year old Riley Lewis and his friends play with a Rapman 3-D printer:

On most weekends, 14-year-old Riley Lewis and a few of his eighth grade friends gather at his house in Santa Clara, Calif. The group of about five, depending on who’s around, grab some chips and bean dip and repair to the garage, where Riley and his dad have created something of a state-of-the-art manufacturing hub. The boys can pretty much fabricate anything they can dream up on a machine called the RapMan. As the hours tick by, they cover tables with their creations: rockets and guitar picks and cutlery. They hold forth on plastic extrusion rates and thermodynamics and how such forces affect the precision of the objects they can produce. “That’s a very beautiful gear you have printed,” a boy named Douglas tells Riley.

The kids obsess over what versions of the Linux operating system they run on their laptops and engage in awkward banter. “I will stab you with flash drives,” Riley tells Vernon, a skinny boy with a braided rattail who shows off a pair of freshly made plastic brass knuckles. Vernon says, “I want to print an essay for one of my teachers and hand it in on sheets of plastic instead of paper just to confuse people.”

You can read the whole article at Businessweek.

via Businessweek

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