Do we love our historic buildings enough to allow them to evolve into Net-Zero buildings?

Here is a question for all of those that love historic trailblazing amazing architectural creations. Do we love our historic buildings enough to allow them to evolve into Net-Zero buildings?


This summer I had the opportunity to join NEED (an amazing organization helping teach our energy future) to give presentations at a Summer Camp for girls in STEM. My presentation focused on taking existing buildings on a college campus, in this case the Illinois Institute of Technology, to net-zero buildings. These young leaders are going to change the future with their passion, knowledge, drive, and focus on doing what is right.

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Many of these buildings are historic structures designed by architects that were changing the way design happens. Many of these buildings are significant in their form, shape, and function. Many of these buildings are not energy-efficient and cannot stay in their current form if they are to be converted to net-zero.

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As an architect I am honored that my clients pay builders to construct creations that come from my imagination, knowledge, skill, training, and their dreams. I have never designed a building that was “just for me.” I am not sure I will ever get that opportunity. There are world famous architects that do get that opportunity. Often these buildings that are studied in architectural schools across the world were not designed with comfort, efficiency, or even durability in mind.

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So as new generations use these spaces, as our values change, as we adapt to the realities we face today – should these buildings remain pure in form or adapt. Should you add solar panels to the roof of a historic iconic work of architecture? Should you add window film and insulation to increase energy performance to a glass icon of architectural magnificence? Should we change what was done in the past if we have new information, knowledge, and goals?


As an architect I hope that some if not all of my designs are timeless. That would require adaptation as needs, goals, and values change. I am not sure I have an answer about the importance of changing these historic structures. I think their original creators may want them to be timeless as well.


Little Architectural Details That Make a Place a Home

The little architectural details that exist in a community, neighborhood, or town are what make a place a home. They are the difference between living somewhere and loving somewhere. The creation of place relies on many different aspects. It is more than just an address. Place is something that pulls at your heart, evokes an emotion, and gives you comfort. Place makes a community more than just buildings and people, it brings vitality and emotion.

On my recent visit to Chicago, I did the normal walking and looking up at huge skyscrapers. They are beautiful and amazing feats of engineering. There are details even in these huge building that are delicate and captivating. You could spend years walking and looking and still find new special things including in these massive buildings.

After hours of walking and looking up, I felt compelled to explore something a little lower. Just outside of the massive structures is a small Cabbage Patch of meaningful and well designed details. Old Town Chicago was developed from swampland by German immigrants in the 19th Century. It became a place for artists in the 1930’s and by 1948 the buildings had fallen into disrepair. In the 1960’s the neighborhood became a place for a hippie culture to thrive (whatever that means). It was at times a center for the folk music scene, Puerto Rican Community, and even a place of racial divide at times.

It seems today, to this outsider to be a place of community. There are layers of history telling a story. The details on the buildings create a fabric allowing for a vibrant community that has experienced good and bad along the way to exist. There are old buildings, new businesses, inventive storefronts, beautiful artwork, and rich architectural details.

There is passion and playfulness.

There is old and new side by side in a well proportioned attempts to coexist.

These layers of history are not always evident in a community. We tend to hide our scars even though they may be beautiful. We sometimes push for things to be “fixed” when they could just as well exist and be beautiful as they are now.

We may even cover them up with new layers of history or literally paint over them.

However, the details all seem to come together to tell a personal story to the one viewing. It is my interpretation of the story. These are my memories of the details and my interpretation of the history. I find beauty in buildings, signs, gates, flowers, and even windows. They exist all over the city not just in Old Town and not just in Chicago.


It is important, in my opinion for all communities to empower all those in it to think of themselves as designers. Your simple changes tie into the whole. You are a designer. You are creating a place. Your actions matter. Your changes impact the story for someone else. You voice is important, not just the politicians, architects, engineers, city planners – your voice matters, design matters.

The creation of place is important for your soul and mine.

I just wish I had found this place earlier in my trip. Next time, I am going to find out all about this chicken, burger, italian beef, gyros joint!

And then I am going to follow the advice I once got from a building and go this way.