88 Lowell St. and living architecture

/ Tuesday, March 20, 2012 /

88 Lowell Street, courtesy of the New Hampshire Institute of Art.
It goes without saying that there is a dearth of modern architecture in Manchester. Hollowing out older buildings and modernizing their innards is a more common practice in the Queen City, and the new structures that do go up tend to be conservative designs, embodying America's "nice but professional" attitude towards architecture. But the New Hampshire Institute of Art (NHIA) has given the city a shiny, new and truly cutting-edge building that has been the boldest addition to the city's humble skyline in recent years and recently won Livable Manchester's "Best New Building of the Last Decade".

The NHIA building on 88 Lowell St. is a combination of academic and living space, utilizing the original facade of Manchester's first high school. If you stand on the corner of Lowell and Chestnut Streets, the small, brick schoolhouse sits modestly in the shadow of the new, six story, aluminum behemoth. Start walking north along Chestnut street, and you see the past and future are connected in an odd and stark cross section of industrial revolution and modern design.

View of the connecting corridor by Manchester Oblique.
The grammar school on Lowell Street opened in 1841 with less than two dozen grade school students. The second story was added in 1847 to house Manchester's first high school with a very small class size of a dozen or so students. The student population exploded in the proceeding years coinciding with an economic boom and the schoolhouse was quickly outgrown by the high school student body. The first iteration of Central High School would be the result.

View of the First High School at the corner of Lowell and Chestnut Streets. Looking north east Lowell Street is to the north (Left) and Chestnut Street is in front. Over the door a sign reads Manual Training School. It was the Lowell Street Grammar School (1841), via the Manchester Historic Association.
Eventually, the schoolhouse would lapse into an office for school administration officials before being abandoned in the late 20th century, a common thread in the history of Manchester's former schoolhouses. The NHIA bought the property from the city in 2007 and began renovations. The property had been boarded up 20 years prior and experienced extreme neglect.

The schoolhouse prior to renovations. From Google Maps.
After rebuilding the entire foundation and then some, the schoolhouse was scooted forward to the lots southern edge and the bluish-silver, futuristic looking building was put up behind it. The two are adjoined by a short corridor. As students enter the schoolhouse, they travel through a time warp of sorts, leaving the present and plunging into Manchester's Victorian past, only to find themselves in a not too distant future with a few quick strides across the schoolhouse and into the new building. 

The NHIA's building is a bastion of cutting edge design, giving Manchester's future developments a standard to live up to. From the outside, it's easy to see the solar panels that shade the south facing windows on each floor and the reflective siding that helps the building avoid the "heat island" effect. But the environmental efficiencies go much deeper than that, as they are ingrained in almost every aspect of the building, from the geothermal pumps that heat and cool the structure, to very materials it was built with.

Side view of 88 Lowell Street from above Chestnut Street, courtesy of The New Hampshire Institute of Art.
When I asked the NHIA for information about the building, the documents I received back were a staggering list of environmental considerations that had been taken into account, far too many to post here. But of the most notable were elements like the roof's rain filters that gather water, filter it and reintroduce back into the environment at a controlled rate, as not to contribute to river and pond overflow. Rain water is also used to flush toilets and reduce water demand all over the building. Along with the geothermal pumps that heat and cool the building, a high efficient gas boiler is used to heat the water, and helps to eliminate over 100 tons of gas waste a year. The floors and insulation are composed of completely recycled materials.

Living space inside 88 Lowell Street, courtesy of The New Hampshire Institute of Art.
Living space inside 88 Lowell Street, courtesy of The New Hampshire Institute of Art.
While the meat of the environmental efficiencies at 88 Lowell are impressive and well beyond anything seen in Manchester, inside the building are more subtle efficiency nuances like LED light fixtures, reflective ceilings that help better disperse light and even specific plant life to help with irrigation needs. It is also worth mentioning that the building is outfitted with Dark Sky compliant lighting, something that is on a whole other level of environmental consciousness of reuniting metropolitan populations with the night sky.

The NHIA is seeking LEEDS Gold status for 88 Lowell Street, a prized architectural certification for environmental efficiency, and it's no wonder, as it must be more akin to living in something closer to a generational starship than a dormitory at times. Outside of major metropolitan areas, it often seems like educational institutions, like the NHIA, are the last bulwark of innovative, intriguing and culturally risky design in the United States. It's almost a shame that college kids are unleashed into a world of ho-hum office buildings and industrial parks after leaving school with buildings like 88 Lowell. But with colleges and universities becoming trend setters in architectural design, what will urban campuses look like in 50 years when the global population has grown by 2 billion and over 60% of people live in cities? 

While LEEDS certification offers a wonderful and thoughtful set of constraints for architects to work in and force creative solutions to offset human presence, I was reminded of a 2010 TED talk by Rachel Armstrong that emphasized the idea that the construction of any building (by today's standards), no matter how environmentally efficient, is still a negative impact on the surrounding environment. Armstrong is working towards the reality of "living architecture", buildings and structures composed of semi-living proto-cells that secrete hardened shells, not unlike the fossilized remains of marine organisms that make up limestone. But unlike lifeless limestone, these proto-cell structures would have an active relationship with the surrounding environment, an example of which, she says, could be to act as a carbon emissions sink.

Armstrong's buildings might not be built so much as grown, shaped in a series of constraints and molds. Maybe industrial 3D printers will construct the initial shape of the building, dispersing the proto-cells according to a CAD drawing. Over the course of 20 years, these living buildings could become bulbous open-air reefs growing outward and inward, condensing corridors that students have to eventually squeeze to pass through while encroaching on city sidewalks to the shrill warnings of local government. Universities would raise tuition, not so much to renovate, but reshape their campus. Local eras would rise and fall with each shaping. In 2070, the campus looks something more akin to ancient Greece, and in 2090 it sports an homage to the organic nature of Gaudi's work, all the while forging a relationship with the local environment, creating new micro-ecosystems. Microbiologists could be the new maintenance staff, protecting and maintaining the buildings from infection and disease.

It is also worthing noting that living architecture is already a reality on a less sophisticated level in Meghalayas, where locals have been constructing living bridges for generations by manipulating the growth of fig tree roots over gullies and precipices. 


Anonymous on: March 15, 2015 at 2:39 PM said...

Very beautiful place for living looking awesome ,
i like this type of peaceful places .
thanks for share . .. .

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