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Sunday, February 3, 2002

Beyond Birkenstocks

By Judy West

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 affordable apartments.

"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 heat."

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?' "

Campbell 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. 


Campbell Thomas & Co. Ÿ 1504 South Street Ÿ Philadelphia, PA 19146-1636

Tel:215-545-1076 Ÿ Fax:215-545-8397 

Email: campbellthomas@campbellthomas.com Ÿ Web:www.campbellthomas.com

Architecture v Preservation v Community & Transportation Planning

James C. Campbell, AIA Ÿ Robert P. Thomas, AIA Ÿ Partners 

Judy West is the magazine's Interiors columnist. Her e-mail address is Inquirer.Magazine.west@phillynews.com.