Different Ages

by Don Friedman on May 20, 2016

I spent part of yesterday traveling on the Morris and Essex line of New Jersey Transit, which was originally part of the Lackawanna Railroad. The Lackawanna is a favorite of mine in a historical sense because of its name and its mascot, Phoebe Snow.

The trip got me thinking about the various ages of the built environment. To paraphrase¬†Stuart Brand’s categorization from How Buildings Learn, we have the site geography (which may last as long as human civilization), base structure (which is good for 30 to 300 years), the building envelope ( good for maybe 20 years), mechanical systems (good for 5 to 20 years), the interior layout (good for a few years in commercial use and longer in residential and institutional use), and furniture (ephemeral).

The route of the railroad is basically set forever. Short of north Jersey being depopulated, I can’t imagine how or why the route would change. Some of the structures, such as retaining walls where the line goes in a cut, are from the early 1900s. The stations vary from early 1900s to relatively recent renovation or new construction. The rolling stock is from the 80s to the present. And the passengers are ephemeral.

Our work includes building structure and facades, both of which are on the high side of expected life span. That gives us less scope for creativity in blank-page design, but more fun trying to figure out and work with building elements older than we are.

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