Feature Article

Raze or Retrofit? Six Extraordinary Answers to an Everyday Question

Saving a building is usually an environmental win, but thoughtful renovation isn’t easy. And there comes a time to tear things down.

It took a special project team to see the potential of the derelict Viceroy Hotel in Chicago, shown here boarded up before rehabilitation.

Photo © David Schalliol
There are two ways of looking at older buildings.

  1. They’re eyesores, energy hogs, and more often than not toxic waste dumps.
  2. They’re rich in character, inherently high-performing, and worth remediating.

For any designer who’s worked on a gut renovation, these aren’t two sides of the same coin so much as one side of the same Möbius strip.

Conventional wisdom might suggest that structural integrity and other kinds of durability are the keys to designing lasting buildings. Real-world evidence suggests otherwise: the decision to demolish is typically complicated, emotional, and entwined in local political, social, and economic concerns. An Athena Institute survey of demolition projects (Minnesota Demolition Survey: Phase Two Report) released in 2004 concludes, “Only a very small percentage of buildings are actually demolished for reasons related to their structural material; rather, most buildings demolished for their physical condition are demolished due to lack of maintenance.” In other words, it isn’t that our buildings fail us; it’s that we fail our buildings.

Published November 3, 2014 Permalink