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Building Restoration After Catastrophe


The Atlantic Cities website ran photos and news this week about the earthquake in Italy.  This strikes a chord with us in Central Texas.  No, we don't have priceless renaissance buildings here, but we continue to grapple with major events that challenge us to re-examine our building processes and consider key issues of building restoration.  

Building Restoration Damaged Tower

These sobering photos remind us to consider all aspects of construction.  First and foremost are the life-safety issues.  Are there lessons to be learned to reduce the chance of injury or death in a catastrophe?  But the bigger questions have to do with the recovery.  What can be done to help structures withstand a disaster?  How can communities most efficiently re-build in the aftermath?  


Reconstructing buildings is only part of the recovery.  How do residents regain their sense of security?  Will the changes after the disaster be permanent?  Will things ever feel normal again?  Are there ways to preserve history or keep connections to the past? 

Building Restoration First Baptist Fire

Our experience with First Baptist Church in Dripping Springs illustrates the importance of considering all aspects of recovery.  In the wake of a tragic fire that destroyed their sanctuary, the congregation was determined to rebuild.  With our involvement, they considered their long-term needs and opportunities.   


The church chose to do more than just replace what was lost.  They challenged themselves to build for the future.  Their new church is bigger, better and more beautiful than ever before.  And the congregation is thriving.  

Building Restoration First Baptist Steeple

The historic bell is one of the few items salvaged from the fire.  It now hangs prominently from the soaring new steeple.  The bell tower never was as high and prominent, but proved to be a wonderful way of preserving and improving on the past.










The Church and Development - What's Missing Here?


After the 2nd World War, many cities in Europe were rebuilt as New Towns.  These developments were based on many of the principals of the Garden City Movement, promoted by Ebenezer Howard.  These New Towns became an important precedent for American suburbs, though most often without the encumbrances of the European regulatory environment.  But we missed one thing the Europeans got right.  The church and development were planned together in many New Towns.  American planners, sadly, have given little or no thought to the role of the church in their new communities.

 Churches and development st paul%27s harlow street view resized 600The church is in the center of an New Town in England.

In the early 1960's, I was a consultant to a NASA research effort to apply space energy technology to the design of urban communities.  I was privileged to visit several model European New Towns as they expanded or continued construction.  Though we were studying the energy conservation and generating technologies (a generation before our green building movement!),  I noted how planners placed churches right in the center of the town.  Planners had carefully laid out the commercial downtown and right in the center, a place was reserved for the church.  St Paul’s Church in the New Town of Harlow in Sussex, Great Britain, for example, is a focal point of the new downtown.

churches and development St. Paul%27s Church,Harlow resized 600

St. Paul's Harlow Towne Centre.

There have been a few exceptions.  In the 1960s, the planners for the New Town of Columbia Maryland located interdenominational chapels in the city center.  But the majority of new developments to this day give scant consideration of the church or its role in the life of a community.

The typical planning and zoning process places major uses, retail, offices, multi-family and single family together.  The church doesn't automatically fit in any one of these, but may be designed to relate to any of them.  In some instances, church lots are placed at the edge of a housing area, but often as an afterthought, with little connection to other community resources.  Developers are giving considerable attention to amenities such as parks, jogging trails and water features and could easily include plans for churches.  Even the new urban settlements ignore the European model and leave churches out of their community or commercial centers. What has happens to the church in most developments is they are relegated to compete with large commercial or industrial buildings for sites along highways, or outside of the main settlement. 

It is ironic that historically, American towns actually celebrated the location of the church.  Nearly as many towns in America have a "Church Street," as have a "Main Street." In the Southwest, the tradition from Spanish settlement often gave the church its own plaza, or at least connected it to the civic plaza at the heart of the town.  Another early example is in New Orleans.  The heart of the French Quarter is St. Mark's Square, with St. Mark's Cathedral the main focus.

Years ago, Heimsath Architects designed Cypress Creek Christian Church in Spring, Texas as part of an overall master plan for the Cypress Creek Municipal Center. Placement of other municipal facilities, a fire station on one side and a library on the other was designed to maximize the circulation between the city and church functions and to share parking spaces.  Over the years, both the church and the city facilities have changed and expanded, but the basic connectivity remains at the heart of the community.  Why can't we do more planning like this?

church and development cypress creek christian church texas resized 600

Electric Car Implications - Saving Gas Is Just The Beginning

Imagine a world without any gas stations - none on the roadway, none in the neighborhood.  Imagine a stoplight with waiting cars and no smell or fumes.  Imagine a busy street without the rumble of engine noise.  Don't just imagine these things, get ready for them.  Electric cars are coming and there are big implications.  Avoiding the high cost of gasoline is just the beginning.  The electric car implications are big.  This revolution will have a lasting impact on the built environment.

electric car revolution ford focus 

A remarkable documentary on electric cars aired recently on PBS.  It inspired me to take an electric car for a test drive.  A collection from Ford was on display at the Mueller development, giving neighbors an up-close look and feel for the car of the future.  I can't claim I'm a car expert, but the drive in the electric Ford Focuswas remarkable. 

Watch It's Baaaaack! on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.


The best thing about the electric was that in every way it was just like a gas-powered vehicle.  The pick-up and responsiveness was sharp and immediate.  The car handled beautifully.  I could honestly say that if I got behind the wheel without knowing the Focus was electric, I would have no idea there was any difference.  Well, I might have sensed that there was no obvious gear shifting, or missed the engine rumble, but that's not generally noticeable anyway in a high-end car.

 electric car revolution focus interior

OK, there will be some trade-offs for embracing electric cars at this time.  The range does have limits.  The Ford people suggest 75 miles before the next charge.  The Nissan Leaf, a smaller vehicle, boasts a range of 100 miles.  While range limits sound scary, the vast majority of car trips are for short distances.  How worried are we about jumping in the old gas-guzzler with less than a quarter tank?  Over time, better batteries and a proliferation of charging options should make the range constraint go away.  As will the cost premium.  The technology is quickly becoming more available, and already costs are coming down.
So I drove what I can easily say is a great car, electric or otherwise, and imagined the implications.  Why do we need gas stations?  I imagined plugging in at the grocery store for a long-ish charge, or at the dry cleaners for a quick one.  We could skip the truck stops on our cross-country treks and recharge both car and driver at a rest stop or coffee shop.  I thought of all the residential neighborhoods near highways that need sound screening and barrier walls to dampen the noise.  Maybe the walls could be replaced by trees and bushes.  


I imagined crosswalks near busy streets without the heat and fumes of idling engines.  And I began thinking of the best way to feed a charging station in our driveway.  It really isn't too difficult, the drive is close enough to the house to just add a receptacle in the wall. 


An electric motor needs fewer repairs, and should run much longer than its gas-powered equivalent. So what should be done with all those garages?  And the gas stations, what about those?  Well, once the old storage tanks are removed, we should have an adaptable structure, ready for retrofit.  As an architect, I have begun to imagine all kinds of incredible people spaces made out of those old car spaces.  In four or five years, who knows how many other ways the electric car will hasten environmental change?
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