Using Architecture to Bolster Economic Growth.

When is the last time you took a road trip and made the point to avoid the economic epicenters in America? If you never have, load up car and head on out, but limit your over-nights to communities of 50,000 people or less. Drive through Wickenburg, Arizona instead of Phoenix, or Winchester, Maryland, instead of Baltimore. Take your time. Stop and smell the roses. One thing you will notice almost immediately, is the rich uber-local stories represented by the people, their way of life, and the built environment that surrounds them.

Another thing you may begin to understand, is that the city is siphoning the life-blood out of this small-town America. Bust towns litter the nation…small communities that were once growing at the pace of Boston, Chicago, New York, Seattle, and Los Angeles. And their even smaller sister communities, that were once tethered to them. These communities, for a moment in time, were positioned on essential waterways, rail-lines, and the confluence of strategic interstate highways. These were communities that stood at a point where their access to, or position along, major routes of travel, caused them to grow rapidly, flourish, and prosper…only to be lost in the shuffle as commerce morphed and migrated elsewhere. Suddenly these rich communities were left wondering how time had so cruelly forgotten them. These places, rich with American history and regional culture, are America. These places need be recognized and resuscitated, but talk is cheap and action is required. Responsible growth can not only be encouraged, but accomplished, but there needs to be a strategy.

One of these communities is Bangor, Maine. Bangor is positioned along the banks of the Penobscot River a few miles up from where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean. A storied little American community it was home to Lincoln’s first Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin, and was the lumber capitol of the world in the 1830s. For the better part of a 50 years it was a bustling lumber port where at its peak, one could cross the 200 foot width of the river on the decks of ships as they dropped off coal & bricks, and loaded up on lumber from Northern Maine that had been floated down the river. It has been said that the wood of Northern Maine, built San Fransisco. It was a place where well-dressed bankers and lawyers might be seen passing by boisterous pool halls filled with lumberjacks, on their way to the symphony. One could take a steam-ship to New York, or hop on a passenger train to Boston. There was an air of excitement, of progress, not unlike places like Troy, New York (steel) and other burgeoning economies that were thriving from their access to raw materials. Then, all of that, quite suddenly, changed. The lumber market moved west. The steam ships stopped shuttling passengers south. Passenger rail departed, never to return. Bangor, Maine was no longer needed, and left in the lurch. And lastly, the paper mills came and have almost completely departed. Physically and economically isolated, Bangor has been struggling ever since. Ervin Architecture is located in the greater Bangor region.

It is the responsibility of architects to educate that economic growth in the form of new construction needs to be encouraged above all else. Great architecture can change the tide of an economy. There are several essential components to this notion of “architecture as economic catalyst.” These components can each exist independently as contributors to this growth, but they all need to be present to accomplish change capable of bringing back the economies of small town America. They all need to be present to transform a building into an economic difference-maker.

There is a permanence with architecture. Each building in America has an average life-span of 50 years. And for this reason, if the building is designed improperly, it can do more harm than good. And so, we arrive at the crux of the blog: there are four essential components to designing a building that will help a regional economy. These contributors will be separated out and explained in greater depth. The list is as follows: 1.) Building is designed with energy conservation in mind. 2.) Building exhibits aesthetics that are fresh, contemporary, and progressive and do not attempt to mimic the past, or use dated styles 3.) Buildings are designed with adaptive reuse flexibility, and 4.) Building program makes a regional impact that is not dependent on the seasons. It is important to remember, that the implementation and success of one or two of these components, can be undermined by the failure of the others. For example, a proper building program, such as a performing arts center, can stimulate an economy, but if you make the building hideous it can limit the desire for someone to want to dwell inside and outside that space. Bad architecture, not matter what the program, can repel people. Or you may get the program and the aesthetics correct, but high operating costs in a building that is inflexible in design modification, can burden the ability of the owner to hire employees, and offer fair prices on goods and services.

Stay tuned for our discussion of the first item on this list in a blog titled “LEED without being LEED.”