March 18, 2013

First-Class Green: A 1934 Post Office Redelivered as a LEED-Certified Office

  • By: Dennis Hockman

Use of solar panels. Credit: Doty & Miller Architects
An array of solar PV panels added in 2004 to the Bedford, Ohio post office. The panels are mounted in such a way that they act as shades during the summer and allow sun in for natural heat during the winter.

The 1934 post office in Bedford, Ohio, was recently renovated as office space, so when Preservation magazine magazine was looking for adaptive reuse post office projects for a photo essay, it was a natural candidate. But as we learned more about the renovation, we knew that just a caption and a photo in the magazine wouldn’t be enough.

While working with Chuck Miller to learn more about the post office his firm Doty & Miller Architects adapted as its offices, I found out that in 2007 the renovation earned a LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council -- the first Gold certification in the United States for a freestanding architect’s office.

Always intrigued by the balance of preservation and sustainability, I circled back with Miller to find out how the firm went about greening the building. The project, of course, started with efficiency upgrades such as better insulation and energy- and water-stingy building systems. To save even more energy, a central skylight was added, bringing abundant natural light into the building and reducing the need for electric lighting during the day.

Renovated library space. Credit: Doty & Miller Architects
A view of the library space before renovation (l.) and after (r.). In addition to the daylighting system, the floor is bamboo and the walls are formaldehyde-free MDF panels.

Most of the materials selected for the renovation were salvaged or manufactured from recycled content or quickly renewing resources such as bamboo. When possible, materials, surfaces, hardware, and subcontractors were also sourced locally, diminishing the overall carbon footprint of the project.

Outside the building, Doty & Miller removed much of the paved surface and replaced it with landscaping using native plants, requiring no irrigation. The solar panels, which were added during phase two of the project, drew the attention of The National Park Service, which uses Doty & Miller’s solar panel installation as an example of an appropriate way to include renewable energy in an historic preservation project.

Shifting their design efforts to preservation, Doty & Miller consulted blueprints obtained from the Bedford Historical Society so they could re-create the original lobby features and restore the exterior to its 1934 appearance. In addition to the LEED certification, the project also received awards from the Cleveland Restoration Society, which recognized it as an adaptive reuse that also preserved historic architecture.

Renovated lobby space. Credit: Doty & Miller Architects
The front lobby before (l.) and after (r.). Doty & Miller removed walls added in 1965 and worked from original blueprints to restore the half-octagonal vestibule and original wall.

During my back and forth with Miller, I also asked about what I assumed was a WPA mural in the lobby. It turns out the mural was a paid-commission work, unlike WPA murals, which were painted by out-of-work artists and funded by a Depression-era federal program. When the post office closed in 1998, the mural was removed and stored.

“After we bought the building in 2001,” says Miller, “we made arrangements with the Postal Service in D.C. so we could have it restored and reinstalled. From my understanding the Postal Service has never sold or intentionally permitted destruction of any of the artwork in their post offices. Likewise, this mural is still owned by the Postal Service and we are obligated to carry insurance on it and to permit the public access to the building to see it.” As such, Doty & Miller often gives tours of the building.

Beyond an early and innovative sustainable adaptive use design and an inspired mural restoration, the fact that this one-time post office is still the location of community activity is what I like best about this project. During the Christmas season Doty & Miller even participates in an annual city-wide celebration called “Christmas in Bedford Falls.”

According to Miller, “Families make the building a destination, calling it ‘Santa’s Post Office,’ and children write and mail letters to Santa as part of their visit, which also includes a puppet show and storytelling.”

Dennis Hockman is editor in chief of Preservation magazine. He’s lived in historic apartments and houses all over the United States and knows that all old buildings have stories to tell if you care to find them.

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