Wednesday, April 01, 2015

A Mountain of Concrete's Multiple Meanings

When I look at that massive pile of pulverized concrete that once was the hospital on Witherspoon St, I see a temple, like the Mayan's Chichen Itza, built for some god I don't fully understand. I see the Three Little Pigs, really worried now that their secure house of concrete has been torn down, to be replaced by Avalon Bay's house made of fireprone sticks. I see a disconcerting human enterprise working to increase entropy rather than reduce it. And I see the gravestone of massive amounts of embedded energy.

I doubt the words appeared in any reports on the hospital demolition, but embedded energy is the energy that went into making a building. For ancient buildings, that energy might have come from slaves, but slaves have since been replaced by the sacrificial burning of ancient life and future climate. Mining, harvesting, processing, transport, construction--all add to the carbon footprint of a building. The physical manifestation is the building itself, but the carbons that donated that energy from their bonds are still doing their polygamous, transformative waltz up in the atmosphere, each with the two oxygens they met during the building's construction many decades ago.

It may not look it, but concrete is very energy-intensive to make. And as Avalon Bay has discovered, concrete is also very energy-intensive to tear down.

Could the hospital have been reused? I couldn't track down the articles that would tell what happened to initiatives to repurpose the hospital after it closed. I'm glad questions are being raised about the laxity of building regulations that have allowed Avalon Bay to build large wooden apartment buildings vulnerable to conflagration. A related question, apparently not yet asked, is whether the regulations controlling the repurposing of buildings might be too restrictive. Whether regulatory hurdles discouraged repurposing the hospital, and thereby led to the current mess, is a question that lingers amidst the mountain of debris.

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