It’s a term Susan Bristol, an adjunct architecture professor at the College of Architecture and Design (CoAD), first used in her Hurricane Sandy studio: “A Barrier Island Borough Hall.”
UnBuilding emphasizes a strategy of designing the built environment to lighten constructed impact on sites, integrate nature-based infrastructure and reduce obstructions to natural systems.
UnBuilding also includes interventions to existing constructed environments, “especially in a heavily developed state such as New Jersey,” says Bristol, who runs SPB Architecture in Princeton. “So many of our developments are poorly designed and economically irrelevant, such as shopping malls. They’re monoliths, surrounded by paving and empty parking lots—and prime candidates for redevelopment.”
Bristol, alongside associate professor and director of NJIT’s Master in Infrastructure Planning (MIP) program Georgeen Theodore, and Frank Gallagher, director of environmental planning and design at the School of Environmental & Biological Sciences at Rutgers University, were panelists at the American Planners Association New Jersey Conference in January. During their panel, “UNBUILDING: Green Infrastructure in Redevelopment Planning,” which examined design thinking in planning practice and included work created by CoAD students, Bristol presented a case study on the troubled Plaza 23 shopping center on Route 23 in Pequannock, N.J.
The shopping mall, which sits on the Passaic River Basin, has flooded three times within 10 years, “rendering the building useless, requiring millions in renovation funds and causing people to be unemployed for over a year,” says Bristol.
She believes the frequency of flooding and the stormwater problem are directly related to our lack of attention to natural systems. “It’s very clear that we shouldn’t have built a mall in a floodplain next to the Passaic River.”
Bristol and the work of her students propose a more environmentally sensitive redevelopment plan that entails capsizing the strip mall and swapping out continuous slab and impervious paving for placemaking and landscape. The eco-friendly do-over would give the landowner the necessary amenities to operate a viable property while returning a sizable portion of the land back to the floodplain.
“We’re able to use academic work—work of the students and work of the faculty at NJIT and our colleagues at Rutgers—as visual evidence and paradigms to allow someone to conceptualize these ideas,” says Bristol.
But seeing isn’t always believing.
Although the social and environmental benefits are abundant—cleaner air and water, more open space, a reduction in the heat island effect and flood mitigation and resiliency, to name a few—there’s still reluctance to embrace ecological urbanism.
“It’s perceived as more expensive to integrate greenery into construction,” says Bristol.
And then there are cultural barriers.
“Many people haven’t really changed their behavior because they think Hurricane Sandy was an oddity,” she adds. “They don’t see that maybe the damage was made worse by human behavior and the built environment.”
So how do you shift perspectives and convince stubborn earthlings to rethink their unsustainable lifestyles?
“That’s the million dollar question,” she says. “It’s very difficult. My approach is through education and outreach.”
In recent years, CoAD has offered semester-long studios that focus on post-Hurricane Sandy rebuilding efforts. “While these projects were responding directly to sea level rise and the increase in extreme weather events, which are specifically water issues,” explains Theodore, “we worked to integrate issues related to ecology and access.”
Recalls Bristol: “It was while teaching those studios, which gave the faculty a lot of freedom in creating a project for their students, that I was able to develop a number of ideas that I have about pedagogy in architecture.” Bristol even dedicated a series of studios to New Jersey, giving them a conservational bent, called “The Garden State Studio.”
At NJIT, the architecture, planning and design programs encourage environmental literacy, requiring students to spell out how their projects, construction proposals and design interventions affect, repair and interact with natural environmental systems.
“Levees are built to protect, but they often also create a barrier to natural resources,” explains Theodore, a principal at Interboro Partners in New York City. “How do you design a levee that reduces risk to flooding but at the same time offers a recreational amenity?”
To tackle the tough questions, faculty and students pick the brains of experts in related fields—water specialists, hydraulic engineers, ecologists and policy experts—“so that our solutions are interdisciplinary and multipurpose,” says Theodore. “We have used this approach to planning and design on a global scale, working on projects in Shenzhen, China and London, England. MIP students develop the skills to design and plan synthetically, responding not only to environmental issues, but social and economic conditions as well.”
And according to Bristol, it’s the persistent dissection of ways to assimilate natural systems with resilient design strategies and sustainable architecture that will ultimately enhance the performance of the land and the quality of life.
“It’s time to accept the fact that routine flooding is something that we are going to have to live with, not just barricade ourselves from,” she insists. “If we build with a lighter footprint going forward, build in a way that does not interfere with natural habitats, we’ll be able to improve human health, connect more people to recreational space, restore environmentally damaged industrial sites and grow the population in urban environments.”
Simply put: If you UnBuild it, they will come.