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Planning For Centuries Ahead

restored dining hall While a prestigious institution of higher learning like Oxford is home to a myriad of impressive spaces, one separates itself from the rest with a remarkable characteristic. College Hall, a component of the university's New College, is a large gathering room that provides space for dining and meetings. The rhythm of dark wooden paneling wraps the base of the room, giving way to a plaster finish above. The vastness of the room helps underscore its impressive nature, echoed by the dark wood ceiling that stretches across the space.

The span of the room is traversed by a series of oak beams, 18 inches deep and 20 feet long. For those unfamiliar with construction or design, each one of these is a considerable piece of lumber. A typical LVL ridge beam could be 12? deep and 2 inches wide and 16 feet long before it is laminated together with other lengths–and that is engineered lumber not solid oak. Even in older construction where larger wood dimensions were the norm, these still represent a formidable building component. Around one century ago, it was discovered that the beams in College Hall had fallen prey to Powder Post beetles. These tiny insects love to burrow into wood and digest the wood from the inside out. Their small size (about a pin head) and their resilience to extermination can make them a bit of a foregone conclusion for this type of large, tasty timber. After inspection, it was clear that the lifespan of these majestic beams was limited. Naturally, the question that followed was what to do about it and how to replace these beams.

These days, we don't build with this kind of dimensioned lumber not only for cost reasons, but due to the fact that old growth wood is much harder to come by. Newer wood comes from trees harvested when they are younger so wood in the heart of the tree is not allowed as long to mature. Taller oak trees are even harder to find in the UK where forests have been largely thinned over the years for construction and ship building. A clear choice would be to switch to an engineered equivalent, most likely "glulam" which uses a series of smaller pieces that are laminated together. However, for the preservationists–of which I imagine there are plenty at Oxford–this could compromise the visual integrity of the older room.

Reportedly, when the college inquired with the foresters of the university (I don't think my Alma Mater had any foresters) the dilemma was not the problem that many had originally thought it to be. Apparently, the college had fostered groves of Ash, Hazel and Oak trees on their land for building projects such as this. The trees were allowed to mature before being harvested and replanted over time, providing for the equivalent of a "cradle-to-cradle" process for maintaining such a building. In this case, the positive qualities of the wood (it's inherent strength & beauty) were taken into account as much as its shortcomings (its inevitable susceptibility to becoming a beetle feast).

When I came across the story I couldn't help but admire its foundation in sustainability that is as simple as it is rare. The details of the story have been blurred over time, but the entire recounting exemplifies the notion of sustainability in design, construction and supply chains. In this case, the powers that were involved with either the design, construction or maintenance of the space identified that one of its defining features was made from a commodity in limited supply. Just as important was admitting that despite the fact that it would last longer than the lives of its constructors, the material still had a finite lifespan of usefulness. The response was to provide a solution to a problem before it came to pass. This represents a true lifecycle analysis.

Today this concept is distressingly foreign to us. Despite the fact that we are still surrounded by things that are made from materials with a finite lifespan, the notion of ever reaching that point is rarely considered due to the fact that not only do we build things that last for less time, but even then we discard them before they wear themselves out. Buildings acutely participate in this mantra of shortsightedness. Few buildings that are constructed today, even the ones touted as "green", are built to last the hundreds of years that College Hall has withstood. Most of our new building systems carry warranties of 30 to 40 years at most. Compounded with this is the fact that no one seems to worry about it;  the unspoken agreement is that the task of addressing or even assessing these structures 50 years from now will be someone else's problem.

All aspects of society have a lot to learn from College Hall's model. We spend a lot of time focusing on the strengths of new products and materials but less time accounting for their shortcomings. We spend a great deal of time, effort and money trying to assess and control problems that have arisen around us rather than plan for contingencies in advance. Some of these questions can be as simple as how we plan to provide fresh water or food to a rising population? For everything that we create there are inevitable results that we can plan for, many of which revolve around waste. More of our products could be designed to come apart, design to be recycled, or better yet upcycled (what is the difference?). If we want our homes to only last 30 to 40 years then we should be building them with an idea of how they can get dismantled. If we want them to last for 100, then we need to be building them better.

The repercussions of our actions do not end when we do, so our responsibility for them should respond in kind.

Image Credit: flickr: Holly Hayes