Kreis: Landmarks Of Tomorrow

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(HOST)  As the associate director of the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School, commentator Don Kreis spends considerable time thinking about our built environment – past, present and to come.   

(KREIS) We Vermonters love our old buildings.  They delight and inspire us by reminding us of the courage, the fortitude, and the creativity of those who came before us.  Whether it’s a monitor barn, a connected farm house, or a grand public library in the neoclassical idiom, we see that our ancestors created real beauty by responding energetically to the challenges of their times.  And so a question we should ask ourselves is:  What are we building today that will reflect our contemporary sense of ingenuity, our courage and fortitude, our earnest response to the challenges of our time?  What will the historic preservationists of two centuries from now want to preserve of what WE have built?

The answer, I think, is:  Not much – if all we build are homes and businesses and public structures that are calculated to look as if they were designed and built 100 or 200 years ago.

Fortunately Vermont is NOT a state mired entirely in architectural nostalgia, as evidenced by the annual awards for design excellence bestowed recently by the Vermont Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

The jurors – all from Massachusetts, by the way – honored three projects for overall excellence.  Each says a lot about who we are today, as opposed to who we admire from yesterday.

Maclay Architects of Waitsfield was honored for two of its so-called "net zero" buildings – one a private residence in Moretown, and the other a new field house for the Putney School.

A "net zero" building is one that actually produces at least as much energy as it uses – a neat trick, made possible in part by enlightened utility regulation that allows Vermont electric customers to spin their meters backwards when able.  Both the field house and the private residence feature extensive photovoltaic arrays.  Each, in form, is distinctly contemporary – you wouldn’t mistake either structure for something from our past.

But is that enough, in our quest for Vermont architectural excellence?  The field house looks a bit like a bowling alley.  The residence looks a lot like other contemporary homes that are lavishly finished, having been commissioned by clients of means.

Gossens Bachman Architects of Montpelier designed the third building recognized for design excellence – a renovation of what used to be the notoriously dilapidated Namco Block in Windsor, built in the 1920s as worker housing.  The undulating brick façade of the building looks as grand and powerful as it ever did – but, ultimately, this is design excellence that is more than 90 years old.

My point is not to criticize these terrific buildings – I’m just wondering when the officially designated best in Vermont architecture will take us to a place we’ve never been before.  Otherwise, the buildings we build today aren’t likely to become the landmarks of tomorrow.

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