Big Boxes: Reuse or Recycle?

A few years ago, Julia Christensen wrote a book about big box reuse. She slept in pup tents or cheap motels to document their conversions into everything from Museums of Spam to gyms to charter schools to megachurches. It is not an easy thing to do, as she told Grist:

"The challenge is size," says Christensen. "It really is hard to find an institution that uses 200,000 square feet of space, and since they're built for single purposes they're hard to use for multi-purposes."

When Christensen wrote her book the situation was not nearly as dire as it is now, where Circuit City and Linens n' Things have gone down and others will follow. But is reuse the appropriate solution? Stacy Mitchell, author of Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America's Independent Businesses told Linda Selin Davis of Grist:

"Most of these buildings are pretty cheaply constructed, not made to last a century," she says; in her opinion, razing and rebuilding is a better use of space. "The ideal situation is that these sites are redeveloped completely as multistory properties, and that the building isn't saved." That, of course, presents another environmental problem. As Christensen says, "What kind of landfill do we have that 3,000 empty big box buildings can go into?"

I would suggest that this will not be too big of a problem; the big box store is a great example of engineering out every excess nickel of cost and excess material, they are a thin veneer around a big block of air, more like a balloon than a building. The walls are little more than a layer of styrofoam and the structure is steel of almost standard dimensions that can be reused or easily recycled.

Like these big boxes in Barrie, north of Toronto, a lot of good farmland close to big cities has been paved over to build these big boxes and power centers. Whether they are converted to churches or schools, they still are surrounded by asphalt and accessible pretty much only by cars. Traditionally schools and churches were part of our communities in central locations, not on the outer fringes.

The power and the sewer and the water are there-time to tear them up and turn them into housing. More at Grist: What should be done with the empty big box?

More on Big Boxes in TreeHugger:
From Superstore to Super Space: Re-Using the "Big Box"
Turning Big Box Stores into Solar Power Plants in California ...
Lipstick on a Pig Dept: Green Big Boxes

Tags: Architecture | Recycling | Urban Life