Style and Sustainability

In the world of style, as in Medicare coverage, there’s a “doughnut hole.” Anything that’s “new”—less than five years old for soft goods like clothing and pillows, or ten for buildings—looks stylish. Anything that’s “old”—more than thirty years for soft goods or 50 for buildings—looks retro or quaint and interesting because of it. Anything in between just looks tired and outdated—the hole in the style doughnut.

I recently talked to Sara Badiali, Systems Manager for Deconstruction Services at the ReBuilding Center in Portland, Oregon. She told me that their biggest commercial project has been carefully removing mahogany trim and older fixtures from guest bathrooms at a hotel in Portland. I’m glad that the material is going to the ReBuilding Center and not into a landfill, but it got me thinking about the desire to update the look of a building or an interior and what that does to sustainability.

I’m not thinking so much about the desirable elements in buildings that are eighty or more years old. It isn’t hard to find a new home for old-growth timber, especially big framing beams. Architectural elements, like ironwork, terracotta, or tile, appeal to collectors as much as to architects. And some things in commercial buildings are easy to reuse. Cubicles aren’t especially susceptible to fashion. Commercial cabinets are easy to resell to someone else.

But what about the fixtures and materials that are too dated to look stylish, too recent to look antique? Should they go into storage for a couple of decades, until someone thinks they’re cool again? Or can they be recycled right now, despite the energy and cost to make them into something else?

I’m as guilty as anyone. I like things that are new, especially if they’re well-designed or beautiful. I like things that are over fifty years because they appeal to my historian’s eye. Anything in between—get rid of it! Now!

Or are we wrong to want something new so often—in our commercial interiors and in our architecture? Can we continue to afford “the shock of the new” in building design?

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