What If The Lifecycle Doesn’t End?

That’s the recently-rebranded and renovated Frederick Hotel in Tribeca. Its previous incarnation was known as the Cosmopolitan Hotel, and that name was painted on the West Broadway facade, so I expect I’ll be think of it under that name for quite some time to come. It fits in well with the general Tribeca aesthetic – i.e. mid-1800s – to an extent that it doesn’t really register when you walk by. It’s probably the oldest continuously-operating hotel in New York.

It was constructed in 1845 across the street from the Hudson River Railroad’s first miniature terminal. It was the Girard Hotel, then the Cosmopolitan, then the Bond, then the Cosmopolitan again, and now the Frederick; it’s been expanded and its interiors renovated multiple times. But it you look at the earliest image of it, from 1851, in Christopher Gray’s piece on the building, the 5-2-1 window pattern on West Broadway is clearly visible. Curiously, Gray says that the seventh floor was constructed in 1989 but that floor is shown on a 1901 menu from the hotels restaurant:

Over 166 years, it’s gone from a high-end hotel, to a businessman’s hotel, to an SRO, and now back to a high-end hotel. Socially, the circle of life, or something like that. But what interests me about this plain building is what it has to say about reuse and the environment. First, it’s important to note the multiple alteration over the years: partitions have been rearranged, plumbing added, gas lighting added and then removed, electric lighting added, and so on. We face the Ship of Theseus philosophical question: is this the same building that was constructed in 1845? This question, at least, has a ready answer: the general approach among people involved in restoration and historic preservation is to answer “yes,” it’s the same building altered.

The idea of looking at life-cycle environmental impact – and specifically life-cycle carbon emissions – is becoming more common in construction, but it’s usually done in the context of new construction. In this case, we have an existing building that has had several periods of carbon emission from construction, most recently for the Cosmopolitan-to-Frederick conversion, but still has the walls, foundations, and at least some of the floor structure from 1845. Buildings also are responsible for carbon emission from operation, but old masonry-wall buildings like this are reasonably good on that score. Certainly, the new mechanical equipment for the recent upgrade has to meet current standards. But there’s a twist to the life-cycle: this building has survived generation after generation of changing fashion and requirements for its use, and has been modified to stay in use. As long as that’s true, the end-of-life-cycle carbon emissions, from demolition and waste disposal, never arrive. The construction emissions are, in effect amortized over decades, while the demolition emissions are eliminated. Once again, Carl Elefante was right: the greenest building is the one that already exists.

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