Building a Community

Architecture is rarely just about a building. Rather, architects create buildings within a context that demands a response, says David Webster, cofounder of PDT Architects in Portland and board chair of GrowSmart Maine, an organization dedicated to community revitalization, conservation, and sustainable economic development. A client’s need for a better functioning space drives the project—but the structure will also influence and be influenced by the circumstances around it: the land, people, environment, and local economy. Architects, Webster says, must address these competing factors when designing buildings, an approach known as community-based architecture. MH+D asked him to tell us more.

Q.  How does the community-based approach impact your work?

A. My priority is to work on projects in downtowns, city centers, and on campuses. Bringing more people to these areas mitigates the cost of expanding the town’s utility infrastructure, protects valuable farmland from being developed, supports and expands the local economy, and encourages participation in community life, which contributes to a healthier, more vibrant populace. When creating a space, we ask ourselves: Does it support the client’s needs? Does it support the community? Does it support the environment? And does it serve anything other than itself? These questions give substance to a piece of architecture and inform the design. Our clients and, often, the greater community participate in the design process and, if we did it right, feel as connected to the finished product as we do.

Q. Can you expand on the sustainability aspect?

A. I am a great believer in repurposing any building that is structurally sound, not just historic buildings. Many of the buildings we need to accommodate the growing population in this country already exist, so if we are to have an impact on the environment or climate change, we should work with them. On Main Streets everywhere there are great old buildings with retail on the first floor and unoccupied upper floors that are ripe for new uses. Renovating those buildings reuses the materials and energy consumed to create them, reducing the overall carbon footprint.

I have spent much of my career working with environmental concern as a basic value. Our firm has tried to be a leader in that effort since the early 1980s. We were early adopters of solar-generated heat, geothermal systems, and high-performance building enclosures. While these innovations address the energy consumption of a building, they are not a total solution. Construction itself weighs heavily on the environment. We should consider, for example, how much energy it takes to make a steel beam from iron ore and transport it to the building site, and seek out local sources for materials whenever possible. There are myriad little pieces like this that contribute to the global energy picture.

Q. What is an example of these factors coming together?

A. We did a project in Livermore Falls: the first commercial brick structure of its size on downtown Depot Street, built in 1895. The building, known as Lamb Block, has beautiful period mouldings, wood floors, and light fixtures that were restored. But lack of maintenance over the years led to decay inside and out, and the structure was leaking heat. We repointed the exterior masonry and added insulation, reworked the central stair, and completely renovated the uppermost floor. Today the building houses offices on the first and second levels and a family health center on the third. Incorporating spaces that drive foot traffic downtown into an existing infrastructure minimizes the environmental impact while supporting the community and meeting the needs of the client. Our solution focused on a location, rather than a single (albeit architecturally significant) building.

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