Comments on design and architecture usually focus on new construction during a real estate boom. But in the next generation, more abandoned buildings will be repurposed in America (and Connecticut) than at any time since World War II.

There are millions and millions of square feet of built up space that is either unusable or soon to be. Part of this imperative is that our culture has established that existing buildings represent both a moral good and an economic value. Sustainability is becoming a key design criterion – where the energy contained in each building, the energy needed to remove a building, the energy needed to construct a new one, and the toxins contained in ours imposed on the environment during their construction or demolition become morally unacceptable and economically punishable given the regulations and the costs imposed.

Some of these changes are not new. We’ve all seen churches converted into homes. Throughout New Haven and Fairfield counties, these buildings are often in prime locations and are exquisitely constructed. But a generation with declining attendance has closed many places of worship — nothing new to their neighbors or the church hierarchy.

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Catholic Pontifical Council for Culture, said in 2010 that “many churches that were necessary until a few years ago are no longer so today due to a lack of faithful and clergy”. Now that the pandemic has offered virtual services where no one needs to be at a place of worship to be with God, the need for buildings for religious purposes has been further reduced. The state’s historic preservation group, Preservation Connecticut, recently commended architect and furniture maker Andrew Peklo III for recently completing the adaptive repurposing of the former Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Connecticut.

It is more than obvious to say that the advent of the internet has radically changed everything. But nothing has been more affected by this massive transformation of our lives than the way we buy and sell things: retail. This long-term shift has been compounded by the COVID pullback from on-premises shopping, rendering millions upon millions of stores unusable while retail distribution space requirements have exploded.

260 homes were built on the Westfield Trumbull Mall site. The Meriden Mall is converting part of its area for medical purposes. According to Coresight Research, Amazon has converted 25 shopping centers into distribution centers since 2016. According to Bisnow Philadelphia’s Matthew Rothstein, 8 million square feet of big-box stores will be converted into distribution centers. Nearly 14 million square feet of retail space has been converted to industrial space in the US, according to a report by CBRE (Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis).

But not only have the pandemic and the internet impacted retail and worship, the way we converse may also need less structure. Many multiplex cinemas are empty. Before COVID, Netflix, Disney and streaming made the cost and hassle of going to the cinema less enjoyable for more and more consumers. Regal Cinemas alone closed 7,000 screens in Washington, DC, as well as its Branford complex. The AMC Classic Bloomfield 8 closed this spring. John Fithian, chairman of the National Association of Theater Owners, said: “Probably around 70% of our medium and small memberships face either a bankruptcy reorganization or the likelihood of going out of business altogether.”

It’s not just a question of functional fit. Europe has a long tradition of rehabilitating history found in old buildings with complementary rethinking. Pouring new wine into old vessels is a fundamentally different design challenge than America’s history of baring our built landscape to build new ones when Urban Renewal attempted to reinvent changing cities.

Architects are at the forefront of new technology, both in the design and construction of our buildings, but America is being swamped by a sea of ​​existing structures, with new value in a world so devastated by excess carbon that everything we do doing Restoring is less dangerous to our future than anything we build new. Our churches, shopping malls, movie theaters, and business premises are becoming ominously silent all around us. Are architects able to see the possibilities in so many dead and mundane structures?

Architecture never guides us, but our designs catalyze the time, resources and perspectives that create opportunity in all cultures. It’s time to think creatively about the buildings we have and no longer use.

Duo Dickinson is a Madison-based architect.

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