Consumer electronics are famous for planned obsolescence, in which companies know the new smart phone you buy today will be replaced by their latest model in six months. But, the same with buildings?
In college in 1980, a professor required one of my classes to do forensic studies of how several new office buildings had been constructed. He asked us to evaluate what worked and didn’t work – from constructability and how occupants used the space to how utilities were distributed and various facets of the mechanical systems. My group was assigned the new 16 story addition to Northwestern Mutual’s corporate headquarters in downtown Milwaukee. Now, just 35 years after the building was built, it’s going to be demolished and replaced with a new building. One of the reasons given for the demolition is the existing building’s lack of energy efficiency.
When doing the onsite review of the plans and specifications of the then new building, my group asked the cost of construction. We were told that information was not for public consumption. Our professors, being wise to the ways of the world, told us the NWM policy holders would not be happy had that figure been published. We estimated the cost at $80-100/sq.ft., at a time when Class A office space was being built for $35-50/sq.ft.
The 1979 building was built as the U.S. was realizing that oil embargos and utility bills with rates that changed from month to month were going to change the way we consumed non-renewable resources. The emphasis on better performing buildings was just developing, but hadn’t reached nearly as far as it has in the past 40 years.
Part of that same class examined the construction of a new federal office building planned for Milwaukee. The GSA was seeking prospective private developers to lease space back to the government, The winning developer told us the feds wanted a long-term lease that included utility costs. Gas had gone from $0.55/gal to over $1.00/gal in those years (ah, those were the days!), and no one knew where energy costs were going, so the developers did what we all do when preparing estimates – they shot the moon on future energy costs.
Even so, it’s astonishing that just after 35 years, the NWM building will be demolished and replaced. But, I guess those of us in Philly, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh aren’t too surprised. Those cities built multi-purpose stadiums in the 60s and 70s for their baseball and football teams. If you ever attended games at the Vet, Riverfront, or Three Rivers near the ends of their lives, you know part of the reason they were replaced. Granted, they weren’t built to outlast the Roman Coliseum, but shouldn’t we be building better, more durable buildings? What’s wrong with building buildings that last hundreds of years, rather than just a few decades?
On the good news front, you no doubt heard that last week ASHRAE backed off its proposed reduction of the window-to-wall ratio prescriptive limit. Fortunately, Tom Culp got a lot of support from the industry. Those opposed to the amendment included 13 industry groups, including GANA, AEC, AAMA, IGMA, WDMA, and several others representing more than 2,500 companies. 126 individual companies, independent of their membership in industry associations, supported the opposition, as well. Opponents included architects, universities, and people outside the glazing industry associations.
So for now, we’re safe from mechanical engineers limiting how much glass goes on a project. I fear the fight isn’t over; the watch must be as vigilant and as diligent as before. I hope you paid attention and know who helped support our industry in this fight.
Beyond this win, we all need to get smarter in helping our customers, the general contractors and architects, design and build more energy-efficient and higher-performing glazed assemblies. We can’t stand by and let planned obsolescence creep into the industry in any form. I trust you’ll take whatever action you deem necessary.