An engineering colleague of mine bristles whenever the words “green” or “sustainable” get used to describe a building.  “TANSTAAGB,” or “There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Green Building” really should be a mantra of sorts.  All efforts at a genuine carbon-neutral building have fallen far short once you get past the scale of a yurt, and most energy experts will tell you that the best strategy is to do as much as you can with what you have, and minimize–not try to eliminate–the inevitable environmental penalty that comes with building a structure of any scale.

With that in mind, an interesting piece in the New York Times this morning talks about the shortcomings of the USGBC’s LEED Certification Program.  Designers and clients can submit checklists for new projects to gain various levels of certified “sustainability.”  For several years, many have pointed out that this program, which is industry-led, offers more points for using the “right” products than for a holistic notion of efficiency.  The classic example is that you get points for using recycled carpet, but no points for not using carpet at all.  The critiques and suggestions in this article, most importantly the idea that any certification should be held off until the building has five years of energy bills to prove its efficiency, suggest a more stringent approach.  There are state programs that already do this, and it seems a logical next step for LEED’s evolution.  Here’s hoping that these steps don’t get mired down by vested interests.

Even if LEED gets better, we’re still way, way behind.  Most buildings that come in at the program’s highest level would still be illegal in Germany, which has had some of the most stringent energy codes and evaluations for decades.

Prairie Avenue Bookshop

Sad news over the weekend that, with no buyer to be found, Prairie Avenue Bookshop will close its doors in September. PA has been a Chicago institution, and earned the reputation of “the best architectural bookshop in the world.” It was not uncommon to wander in and see a well-known architect checking out their own books on the shelves. I was always particularly touched by the overstuffed furniture and generous tables that encouraged sitting down and actually reading, instead of just browsing. The Hasbroucks, who have run the shop since 1974, always had a warm welcome for any familiar face. High rents, local taxes, and the recession are all blamed. Architects in Chicago, or just passing through Chicago, will mourn the loss of a great social and retail institution.

old chicago skyscraper of the week–Chicago Postoffice

post office 1912Yes, that’s all one word.  What do you get when you try to build a gigantic public structure in Chicago with federal funds?  Rampant corruption (I know, huge surprise) and some of the most spectacular architectural failures the city has ever seen.

The city has had a postoffice on the block between Dearborn, Clark, Adams, and Jackson streets since 1879, when John Van Osdel designed a four story structure that was initially hailed as a sign that the city had recovered fully from the Great Fire.  But those sentiments faded just a bit when the building began sinking.  Van Osdel had designed a foundation for the building that consisted of nothing more than a thick concrete mat.  Concrete was, at best, an iffy technology, and without any reinforcing the mat quickly began cracking and breaking up under the building’s loads.  Thick masonry walls were supported by the same mat as simple basement floors, and the difference in loading began bending the slab well past its capacity.

Faced with a crumbling structure, the Postoffice hired Chicago architect Henry Ives Cobb to design and superintend the construction of a new building in 1896.  Cobb had proved his abilities with the Opera House and the Owings Building, and his relocation to Washington in the early 1890s hinted that he could work effectively in both realms.  In fact, he performed abominably.  After feuding with Chicago’s postmaster over the location and internal arrangements, he proposed a bombastic neo-classical design that included an enormous, function-free dome atop a cruciform office block, and a square base.  The structural gymnastics required to make this work were formidable, but Cobb’s abrasive personality also angered nearly every one involved with the project.  When a set of massive granite columns showed up on site in pieces instead of whole, one of the great building scandals in the city’s history began.  These columns were clearly inferior, and much less expensive than monolithic ones would have been, yet the contractor essentially pocketed the savings, with Cobb’s approval.  Further cost overruns were not fully documented, and Cobb was accused of conspiring with the builders to skim considerable sums from the project.  In 1903, after seven years of design and construction and with no end in sight, Cobb was fired after a Congressional investigation.

The Postoffice was completed two years later under supervision of government architects, and it instantly proved to be too small and too inefficient.  Letter handling chutes had to be placed over the sidewalk, lighting and ventilation were inadequate, and mail handling had to take place over two floors, leading to whole troops of workers whose sole job was to move carts of mail up and down elevators.  The Postoffice instantly began planning for a replacement, though this took another twenty-seven years to design, place, and build.

Cobb went on to a career as an expert on arbitration in construction disputes.  His Postoffice served as a federal office building after the departure of the mail service, but it was demolished in 1966 to make way for Mies van der Rohe’s Federal Center.  Which includes, on the site of two significant failures, a large branch Post Office. Two words.

old chicago skyscraper of the week–University Club

University Club, Michigan Ave. and Monroe St.Designed by Holabird & Roche and completed in 1909, the University Club represented changing tastes in building aesthetics around 1910.  While tall office buildings continued to display a pragmatically-based articulation of their steel columns and girders, a generation of hotels and club buildings built after 1890 tended to mask their skeletal structures behind increasingly solid, elaborately composed skins of stone, brick, and terra cotta.  These programs, unlike office and commercial spaces, could afford the continuing high cost of electricity, and thus were able to sacrifice the free daylighting that came with large windows in favor of more solid exterior walls.

The University Club was unusual in its neo-Gothic style, though this was seen as appropriate for its academically-oriented clientele.  Holabird & Roche borrowed heavily from Magdalen College, Oxford, for the building’s details and ornament, and the additive nature of “Elizabethan Gothic” allowed them to create a facade along Monroe Street that was quite irregular for the day, representing accurately the program behind it.  Dining rooms, game rooms, a small hotel, and recreational facilities all found their expression on this facade in windows of different size, material, or composition, making the facade programatically, if not tectonically, expressive.

The learned precedents for the building impressed critics, particularly an anonymous scribe for Inland Architect, who drily noted that the building attained a sophistication for which “Chicago was not yet known.”  Holabird & Roche would go on to design numerous collegiate buildings throughout the midwest using this experiment as a basis for further explorations in the “collegiate Gothic.”