Gasoline and oil may be relatively cheap again, and
California's rolling blackouts apparently were not an ominous
harbinger for the rest of the nation, so a widespread ethos of
conservation is still short of achieving critical mass.
But many architects and their clients are thinking
ahead - and thinking green.
Bob Thomas works in a building that dates to the
1830s. He lives in a house that dates to the 1880s. Neither fact is
accidental. For this Center City architect and planner, building
green is about using the resources you already have.
"This is one of the most historic parts of the
country, both in terms of cultural history and also in what
physically remains," says Thomas, who is coprincipal, with Jim
Campbell, of Campbell Thomas & Co. "There's a lot of built
environment here. If you knock a building down, you've destroyed a
lot of resources."
Much of Campbell Thomas' work ends up being
historic preservation. "When it comes to green
architecture," Thomas says, "if you recycle a building,
that's even better."
That was the thinking behind the firm's work on
West Philadelphia's Parkside Avenue, where the architects partnered
with developer James Brown and a handful of public agencies to
rehabilitate a row of crumbling brownstone mansions.
Campbell Thomas' work involved not only restoring
the mansard roofs, terra-cotta ornaments and Pompeiian brickwork of
the seriously dilapidated houses, but also transforming them into
"The [retrofitted] buildings cost a third of a
normal building to heat," Thomas says. "They were shells,
so we could go in and make the walls very well insulated. The
windows meet historic preservation requirements, but they have
insulated glass with very tight frames, and the buildings are heated
by a zone system where each person operates their own heat, drawing
off just what they need. The south-facing apartments use very little
But energy efficiency is only part of the puzzle
for Bob Thomas. The greenest building in the world doesn't make
sense, he argues, if it isn't close to public transportation.
He tells the story of a potential client who worked
in Center City and wanted to build a totally independent
solar-heated house overlooking the Susquehanna River. "I asked
him if he was quitting his job, and he said, 'Oh, no, with the new
expressway it's only an hour and a half drive each way.' I said,
'Whatever we save you on heating, you'll spend more than that moving
a 5,000-pound car 150 miles a day. On top of that is the impact on
your life. Do you have a wife, kids? Do you want to see them again?
Do you want them to remember what you look like?' "
Thomas extended this philosophy to Parkside. "We brought people
from the zoo and SEPTA and the city together and said, 'Hey, guys,
when the zoo opened there was a train station here, and some idiot
closed it in the '30s, so let's reopen it and let all the people who
are moving back have a way to get to work, and at the same time get
visitors to the zoo without negatively impacting the neighborhood
and marring their experience by having to park 10 blocks away.'
And it may happen. The city is pressing SEPTA to
include reopening the zoo station in its proposed MetroRail project,
which would link Center City to Reading through King of Prussia and
the Route 422 corridor.
"I've always seen transportation as a big
issue," says Thomas, who did an early stint as a cartographer
for SEPTA. "If you stop at the building and don't look at the
location, you've missed the point."
Campbell Thomas has designed its share of more
obviously green buildings, too, including a row of solar houses in
North Philadelphia. "When we competed for the job, we said,
'Look, when William Penn and his surveyors set up the city they
arranged the street grid to be solar-friendly. So let's make the
most of that grid and make the houses passive solar.' "
The south facades of the modest rowhouses have
heat-collecting walls as well as double clerestory windows. Heating
bills in the winter are about a third of what they would be in a
traditionally built home, according to Solar Today magazine. In the
summer, vents high on the walls give the warm air a place to escape.
Thomas doesn't just talk the talk. He walks the
walk, or rather pedals the cycle. The 54-year-old is a familiar
sight on the city's highways and byways, bicycling from his home, a
Powelton Village cooperative, to the South Street building that
Campbell Thomas shares with several other environmentally minded
designers and planners. Thomas uses his bike, in conjunction with
planes and trains, to get to all his meetings, too, whether they're
in Manayunk or Williamsport.
Thomas & Co.
Community & Transportation Planning
C. Campbell, AIA
Robert P. Thomas, AIA
West is the magazine's Interiors columnist. Her e-mail address is