Architect Nancy Barba on revitalizing buildings with materials from our own backyard
Many of us embrace the idea of buying local: we seek out food from nearby farms and craft beer from local breweries, and frequent downtown booksellers and artisans’ shops, knowing that these help create a healthy community and a market for quality, sustainable goods. Architect Nancy Barba of Barba and Wheelock Architecture, Sustainability, Preservation in Portland believes that applying this concept to architecture greatly increases the community benefit of building and renovating while lessening their environmental impact. “Building local” starts with using, upgrading, and repurposing existing structures—a critical component when you consider that many of our buildings in New England are over 50 years old and that some have survived for more than 200 years. Barba also advocates using local materials and craftspeople in all construction projects, not just historic restorations. MH+D asked her to tell us more.
Q. How did you become interested in repurposing buildings and sourcing local materials?
A. My interest stems from a layering of many core values. I’ve always had a passion for old buildings and the social history and memories they embody. Their ability to last through many generations and be adapted, upgraded, and enhanced to reflect current needs and reduced energy consumption intrigues me. Restoring buildings also creates a labor- based economy as opposed to a product- based or consumption-based one. It supports people over products, jobs over consumerism. Regarding materials, I feel it’s important to honor the New England tradition of craft and the textures and uniqueness of our location. Many buildings from America’s first period, by nature of limited transportation networks and lack of product availability, were confined to a local palette of building materials that created an overall cohesiveness in appearance. Now we have products in our homes and businesses that are shipped from the around the globe. While these goods may be less costly from a buyer’s perspective, one has to question the environmental cost of packaging and shipping, not to mention the human safety, health, and environmental practices of overseas manufacturers.
Q. What are the challenges to buying local?
A. Cost is sometimes a factor, as is convenience: most products made locally can’t be ordered from a webpage. But in some cases local goods are actually less expensive than their counterparts “from away.” The Maine-built windows we recently sourced for a project cost 35 percent less than equal-quality glazing manufactured in the Midwest. Another choice we often advocate for is sourcing wood from regional mills that employ traditional methods for quartersawn clapboards. The milling of these is far superior to what you find in stores, often less wasteful of the original tree, and allows stain to penetrate all the way through the siding for a longer-lasting finish. These local products are only marginally more expensive than those produced elsewhere.
Another challenge, of course, is that not everything is made here. Asphalt roofing shingles, rubber roofing, and metal flashings, for instance, must be sourced from Canada or elsewhere. Wood roofing shingles, while a local and a renewable resource, are often pricier, and if they are used in urban areas, they typically need to be coated in a toxic fire retardant. Our work as architects involves evaluating trade-offs and helping our clients make informed decisions within a complex array of choices.
Q. How does the buy-local concept play out in your work?
A. We recently completed a renovation of the 100-year-old Merrill Memorial Library in Yarmouth. We restored the windows as well as the plaster, terrazzo, wood, and paint finishes, added substantial insulation, installed a new high-efficiency mechanical system, and reduced the building’s overall energy consumption by 30 percent. A new entryway serves as a light-filled community gathering space and meets an emotive need to pause, wait for friends, reflect on the historic building, and feel the peace of this quiet but active place. The entry also creates a safer, more accessible approach to the library.
Many of the products used in this project came from Maine and New England companies, which allowed us to employ a lot of local craftspeople. The water-struck brick from Auburn is created in the same type of mold that was used over 100 years ago. Special dark-flashed brick headers were donated from a brickyard in Vermont. In the new entryway the wood ceiling and walls are ash from New Hampshire and Vermont; the windows and skylight were designed and fabricated in Rockport and Sanford, respectively. As a cost-saving measure, we used porcelain enamel floor tiles from China as opposed to more expensive Maine granite. We did, however, use Maine granite veneer on the exterior, and were able to reuse some of the granite blocks from a previous addition for bollards.
As architects and citizens, we have to recognize that supply and demand are at work in our decisions. We can drive the demand for local products and push for building reuse over demolition and building new. The more we support our local craftspeople and manufacturers, the more the demand drives their success, creates competition, and evens out pricing. It also gives other craftspeople the courage to branch out and make new products.