A Fourth R

Reduce, reuse, and recycle is a green mantra. And it’s a good one – no complaint about it from me. All three options are applicable to the design and construction community: at the very least, reducing waste in design and the building process, reusing buildings, and recycling construction materials.

Two recent articles point to an incredibly obvious fourth possibility: repair. Neither “Phoenix project rises amid the wreckage of Brazil’s National Museum blaze” by Gabriella Angeleti, nor “The World’s Oldest Library: Founded by a Woman, Restored By a Woman” by Lorraine Boissoneault is focused on technical aspects of restoring the buildings – which is more or less the main topic of this blog – but both discuss the meaning of the projects in terms of cultural heritage. I could have chosen any of a hundred articles on the repair of fire damage at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, but I feel like that topic is already getting sufficient publicity. The National Museum was arguably a more tragic fire than Notre Dame’s, in that not only was the historic building badly damaged, but tens of thousands of irreplaceable artifacts were lost. The Al-Qarawiyyin Library is on the other end of the fame spectrum from Notre Dame, at least in the West, and its continued use in its original form is a pleasant surprise.

A well-know problem in terms of infrastructure is that building something new gets fame and accolades, while providing the maintenance that literally everything in the built environment needs gets complaints about inconveniences caused by the work. But simply repairing damage is a worthwhile goal both in terms of helping the environment and helping the people affected. Obviously, new buildings could be built to serve the functions of a cathedral in Paris, a museum in Rio, and a library in Fez. But repair/restoration/reconstruction is better.

The picture above is the Chicago Water Tower. It survived the 1871 fire with some minor damage and, after repair, continued in its original use for some time afterwards. It has since been reused as an art gallery for the city’s Office of Tourism. It struck me as a good symbol for this topic.

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