Day zero: brown is the new green

Daulton House, Decatur, Ga., 2011. Photo by author originally published by Patch.

Daulton House, Decatur, Ga., 2011. Photo by author originally published by Patch.

Over the past few years Decatur, Ga., builder Clay Chapman has erected a solid reputation as a designer and builder of baronial brick manses. One of his 2011 projects was built in Decatur’s MAK Historic District. It drew fire from the city’s historic preservation commission and local residents for being out of scale and character with the more modest neighboring historic homes built a century earlier.

Last week Chapman and noted new urbanist architect Steve Mouzon gave a public presentation at Decatur’s City Hall on Chapman’s latest project: a so-called 1,000-year house built in a lot where just a few months ago a sturdy postwar brick home stood. PR for the new project includes a Twitter account and blog complete with video entries and lots of photos showing construction in progress. The photos below, however, aren’t from Chapman’s blog. They’re from Ruined Decatur.

241 Maxwell Street. Credit: 2009 Citywide Historic Resources Survey.

241 Maxwell Street. Credit: 2009 Citywide Historic Resources Survey.

241 Maxwell Street. Demolished Nov.-Dec. 2013

241 Maxwell Street. Demolished Nov.-Dec. 2013. Photo December 2013.

Chapman’s Twitter profile boasts, “We’re field testing and filming a new building concept to demonstrate that afordable [sic.], multi-century building is absolutely plausible.” And, one of the blog entries ends with this line, “let’s bolster ourselves for an immediate opposition to disposable building in Decatur, Ga!”

The blog begins at “Day 1”: a cleared lot. According to the Nov. 28, 2013 post,

The location of the build site is just outside Atlanta in the community of Oakhurst, a village within the City limits of Decatur.  Decatur is a progressive town with an ambitious desire for self improvement.  It’s richly diverse citizenry and culturally dynamic sensibility provide an excellent platform for introducing the concept of ‘affordable, multi-century permanence,’ not just in the abstract of ideas and design, but at 100% scale where reality lives and breathes.  The building site is located along an ideal avenue one block from the 5 points cross roads of Oakhurst.

Chapman’s blog omitted the true “Day 1” or at the very least Day Zero: the day it took to demolish the existing home at 241 Maxwell Street.

I can’t imagine what makes the construction of a hulking brick manor on a modest street already feeling the effects of multiple teardowns and mansionization “affordable,” sustainable, or “progressive.” The site where Chapman’s latest project is set – 241 Maxwell Street – is next door to another home (built in 1940 as part of a truly historic residential subdivision development, Edgemoor) that also was torn down in the Fall of 2013. I also don’t understand how Chapman and his supporters can justify disposing of one house just to build another that they dub a “multi-century home.” Wasn’t that what they just demolished, a multi-century home?


Video produced in 2012 documenting another Maxwell Street teardown and mansionization project.

I received an email from an Oakhurst resident in early December about the two Maxwell Street teardowns. “Two more houses in our neighborhood were scraped while we were out of town for Thanksgiving,” she wrote. After I alerted her to Chapman’s blog documenting the new construction, she replied with a comment she left on the site: “Seems like complete hogwash that the goal is permanence or sustainability. When the project begins with sending a modest home to a landfill, y’all don’t have much credibility in the sustainability or permanence departments.” Her comment has not been posted as of this writing.

mouzon-chapman-tweet

Before last week I had a tremendous amount of respect for Mouzon and his work. He’s done some really good, thought-provoking work. His appearance in Decatur last week and his enthusiastic endorsement of Chapman’s project has greatly diminished his credibility in my opinion and added to the harm being done in the city’s Oakhurst neighborhood where just two months ago the Decatur City Commission held a contentious hearing to evaluate a temporary moratorium on single-family home teardowns.

As for the City sponsoring the Chapman-Mouzon presentation, it shows a clear disconnect with what’s occurring in Decatur’s neighborhoods. As one elected official in a neighboring jurisdiction wrote about Decatur’s land use policies in an email earlier this year, “How can we get citizens involved in the total disconnect btwn elected officials and what goes on in the city’s day to day.”

February 2014 Update: Read local responses to this post at the Hope for Architecture Facebook page and new urbanist architect Steve Mouzon on the disposability of 20th century suburban architecture: When is a Tear-Down a More Sustainable Choice Than Preserving a Building?

12 thoughts on “Day zero: brown is the new green

  1. Excellent issues that need to be discussed… thanks for posting this, David! This is somewhat akin to the thorny issues surrounding gentrification, but that’s another comment for another day. And there’s enough to discuss in what you’ve brought up that I’ll do a blog post responding to it in greater length shortly… but for now, here are a few thoughts:

    Every building is either built where something has been built before, or where nothing has been built before. Building where nothing has been built before means new infrastructure is being installed for your building and likely building further from existing services, and some argue that this is the worst choice. Building where something was once built but no longer exists is what many consider the best choice, but it’s a limited choice. Tear-downs can sometimes be the middle choice, and the virtue of a tear-down depends largely on what is being torn down.

    The house that was torn down was apparently built during the “Dark Ages of Architecture,” which is the half-century between 1930 and 1980 when the wisdom of designing sustainably and building well had been lost… and the years since have only seen a slow recovery, so we’re not so far ahead of 1980 as I would like. Here are two of the many problems with this house:

    • It apparently has 8′ ceilings… an idea imported from the cold Northeast where it made perfect sense to the deep South where its implementation has wretched consequences… and is almost impossible to fix.

    • It appears to be covered with brick veneer, which uses a thousand-year material in a 50-year configuration. Let the steel lintels go without painting just one time, and you’ve got to rip it all off.

    There’s lots more, which I’ll get to in my post… but the upshot is this: the choice to tear a house down, while not ideal, is the property owner’s choice, not the builder’s… so you really should take this up with them. The fact that the property owner chose to build where something previously existed should not detract from the trailblazing work that Clay is doing.

    • Thank you for reading. I agree with much of what you wrote. Unfortunately, Clay’s project is the wrong house for the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time.

      And just a quick note to the folks who will think this has something to do with historic preservation: it doesn’t. It’s about sustainability and affordable housing preservation — in addition to preserving the character of a neighborhood with a complex and significant history. In and of itself, there does not appear to have been anything about the previous house at 241 Maxwell Street that would have qualified the property itself as historic. It may have fit as a contributing element in a historic district, but based on my research it was built outside the period of signficance for any potential historic district in/near Maxwell Street.

      • Hello David,
        Appreciate your passion about this topic. Curiously, however, I was wondering if you could expound on your declaration that clay’s project does not meet the optimal trifecta of “house, neighborhood, and time”.

        At first glance (and second) it would appear your greater concern is the decision to demolished a house.

        With acknowledgment of the response from Steve I wonder if you are actually familiar with clay’s work at all? Even more specifically, are you familiar with the specific house planned for this site?
        It is indeed curious as to why you would consider clays work to be anything but incredibly positive.

        • Mark, thanks for writing. I’ve shared my opinions — perhaps you’d like to share why you think this house is the right house for this neighborhood at this time? I do know Clay’s work very well and I like it — he’s a gifted craftsman.

    • “the choice to tear a house down, while not ideal, is the property owner’s choice, not the builder’s… so you really should take this up with them.”

      Right – so the builder and architect had no role at all in convincing the owner that demo and rebuild was the way to go? Just innocent bystanders who happened to be in the right place at the right time? Way to pass the buck!

      • Typically, no. I ran a conventional architectural firm for years, and a prospective client normally comes in with a site and an idea of what they want to build. FWIW, I have recommended that a prospective client not demolish a building when there’s either construction or architectural merit… and they’ve simply walked out the door and hired the guy down the street, so I didn’t accomplish anything. But the house in question here doesn’t rise to that level, IMO.

      • Two things I should have added: there are very good reasons for this:
        1. It is very unusual to hire an architect before buying the site because how can the architect design a building without knowing where it’s going? And most clients are tremendously averse to spending money on an architect for hypothetical designs. It happens, but it’s really rare.
        2. It is even more unusual to hire a builder before buying the site because it is not possible to build a building without the site. An unusually wealthy client might pay a builder for consulting services pre-site-purchase, but this is even rarer than hiring an architect to do hypothetical designs.
        Once a potential client has bought the site, their investment makes it quite unlikely for a potential architect or builder to change their mind about building on the site unless they are able to find hidden defects in the site that the site owner missed. So it’s not passing the buck… it’s simply the facts of business if you’re designing or building.

  2. David,

    I would tend to agree with Steve’s brief rebuttals to your blog. As to what makes the HFA project “affordable, sustainable or progressive”, I would say it is simply that Clay realizes that choosing a low embodied energy design for new construction (houses that will last 1000 years) is a better sustainability option than building in an actually “disposable” manner (creating a building designed to last only 50 years). It pays dividends down the road and additionally Clay is proving that it can be competitive in today’s society that has come to expect immediate economic gratification.

    Further I’m glad that you say you had respect for Steve Mouzon’s work before and I really hope this is true, but I believe if you actually did you would realize that Clay Chapman’s methods and ethos align perfectly with Steve’s quest for permanence and true energy efficiency through design.

    • Michael, context matters. Clay’s Oakhurst house will be a very well-designed and attractive square block forced into a round receptacle. And what about the embodied energy lost in the demolished home & carbon costs of transporting all of that heavy brick, etc. to the construction site?

      • I would think that the embodied energy lost in tearing down a poorly constructed building comprised of (probably) cheap materials pales in comparison to the future cost and energy savings brought about by a well designed structure. Hopefully getting real numbers to back up these claims is something that Clay and other traditional builders can begin to do in the near future.

        As Steve noted yesterday, obviously tearing down a building is not the ideal scenario. But trailblazers like Clay have to sometimes make do with less than ideal circumstances in order to change the status quo for the better.

        And in terms of a “square block in a round receptacle”, an early suburban subdivision of vinyl clad, low-slung ranch houses is probably the only setting where a modestly scaled, two story brick house will feel like a “hulking manor”.

  3. It is a very interesting discussion. Some questions that cross my mind as I read here – as our McMansion, cul-de-sac laced, un-walkable neighborhoods begin to decay, will we fight for them to stay in the name of the embodied energy they contain? What if developers actually come with good ideas to improve them and create neighborhoods with a sense of place that fosters human community?

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