Saving Energy, Preserving History: Fraunhofer’s Building Technology Showcase and the Philosophy of Energy-Efficient Retrofits

Fraunhofer CSE’s Building Technology Showcase under construction in the summer of 2012.

Fraunhofer CSE’s Building Technology Showcase under construction in the summer of 2012.

The buildings in which we live and work consume 41% of all energy used in the United States, according to studies undertaken by the US Department of Energy (DOE). Beyond the financial costs, commercial and industrial buildings combined account for an estimated 45% of all greenhouse gasesproduced in the United States.

To reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels – and tackle the growing problem of climate change –  energy-efficient homes, offices, and facilities are indispensable. But while improvements in building technology and national efficiency programs like LEED are helping to ensure that tomorrow’s skyscrapers and family homes will be more durable, intelligent, and energy-conscious, the biggest challenge comes from the buildings of today.

Existing building stock in the United States and the rest of the world represents centuries of construction, often of questionable efficiency. In the United States alone, there are over 5 million office and industrial buildings; each year, approximately 170,000 new buildings are constructed and 44,000 buildings demolished.

Even if every new building that is erected is energy efficient, it will require a concerted effort to remove or retrofit existing structures for there to be any lasting impact on energy consumption. An additional consideration is that the existing building stock in the United States doesn’t just encompass factories and tract homes, but historic and irreplaceable architecture that is core to America’s cultural identity.

Case Study: Fort Point Channel

The old brick buildings of Fort Point Channel, where Fraunhofer CSE’s new headquarters is now under construction, are a prime example. The Fort Point Channel area was first developed in the 1830s and continued to grow over the course of the next century as Boston expanded its trade and manufacturing sectors, becoming a global hub for apparel and textiles.

This historic photo shows a typical example of Fort Point Channel’s distinctive architecture. Image courtesy of the Boston Wharf Company; taken from the BPL image collection

This historic photo shows a typical example of Fort Point Channel’s distinctive architecture. Image courtesy of the Boston Wharf Company; taken from the BPL image collection

The wool trade was particularly important to this growth; in the 1930s, an estimated 60 to 70 percent of all wool traded in the United States was passing through Boston’s docks. By the 1950s, however, this industry was in decline, and as the need for manufacturing and warehousing declined, more and more buildings were abandoned. In the 1970s, artists began to discover these empty properties, quickly building up a thriving arts community that has become one of the most prominent in New England.

In the 1990s, a boom in real estate development brought new attention to this community; more recently, the City of Boston announced that the Fort Point Channel area would be the future home of the Boston Innovation District, a 1,000-acre development aimed at the start-ups and innovative businesses that will drive the next phase of Boston’s economic expansion.

The Fort Point District has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 2004, and was formally declared a Landmark District by the City of Boston in 2009. From an architectural perspective, Fort Point’s buildings aren’t just noteworthy for their age, but also for their cohesiveness. The Boston Wharf Company, which administered development of the District’s real estate and infrastructure from the late 18th century onwards, used only two staff architects to design the majority of the District’s buildings. This, in combination with the more stringent building codes introduced in the 1880s, created significant continuity in terms of massing, scale, and style throughout the District.

The result is the most significant collection of historic industrial loft buildings still remaining in Boston, built at a key moment in the city’s social, urban, and economic development.

Rear view of the Stillings Building, another example of the Fort Point Channel style. Image courtesy of the Boston Wharf Company; taken from the BPL image collection.

Rear view of the Stillings Building, another example of the Fort Point Channel style. Image courtesy of the Boston Wharf Company; taken from the BPL image collection.

The Building Technology Showcase

The property currently being transformed into Fraunhofer CSE’s Building Technology Showcase is a typical example of the distinctive Fort Point Channel architecture: a six-story, three-bay loft brick structure with classical revival-style detailing constructed in 1913. By the time CSE approached the property, however, it had seen better days; the building had been abandoned for several years and was already scheduled for demolition. Working together with the building’s owners and the City of Boston, CSE management was instead able to save the structure and assemble the backing needed to turn it into a high-technology office and lab environment.

The building interior prior to renovation.

The building interior prior to renovation.

When plans for the Showcase were first drawn up, energy consumption was one of the primary concerns; as a research center with a nationally recognized building efficiency research program, CSE was in a unique position to ‘walk the walk’ and apply lessons learned from work on projects such as Building America and the Massachusetts Zero Net Energy Building Task Force.

But equally important to the project was another kind of conservation: that of the building itself, the majority of which had been left almost unchanged since its construction 100 years ago. Having rescued the building from demolition, CSE worked closely with the Fort Point Channel Landmark District Commission and National Park Service’s Historic Preservation Planning Program, developing a retrofit plan that could deliver energy savings and still respect the building’s historic character.

The finished building interior: a modern office with innovative, energy-saving systems and features.

The finished building interior: a modern office with innovative, energy-saving systems and features.

Striking that balance between history and efficiency is not easy, but it is important: Boston’s architecture is a unique window into America’s past, but it must also be able to adapt to the changing energy needs of the 21stcentury. Fraunhofer’s Building Technology Showcase project extends beyond simply retrofitting a single building – it’s also a potent demonstration that it is possible to take historically and culturally significant building stock and make something new of it.

A special thanks to Albert Rex of MacRostie Historic Advisors, whose research into 5 Channel Center and the Fort Point Channel district was invaluable in the development of this article. Additional material by Martin Sachs. 

About author
Emily Starr was a former Marketing Associate at Fraunhofer CSE. Her background was in biology and science policy, with a degree in Biodiversity, Conservation, and Policy from the State University of New York at Albany.
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