James Timberlake, architect and special contributor to Fast Company, dives into the economical conflict between choosing to retrofit or demolish modernist architecture that is thought to be unsustainable due to structural factors such as poor insulation and an abundance of windows.

AIt is a sensitive debate between historic value and sustainability, and Timberlake finds the most ethical course of action to be evaluating three questions on a case-by-case basis. First, how much is the façade to blame for inefficiency? Does replacing the curtain wall, or façade, make economic sense? And, are there less drastic additions or changes that can be made beyond the façade—a portion of the building that is critical to conveying its architectural style?

Along with the benefit of expansive views and light came the problem of managing solar heat and energy loss through those big panes. But soon enough, as pointed out almost twenty years ago by Alan Cunningham in his book Modern Movement Heritage, how to deal with the design intent of these mid-century curtain walls alongside rapidly advancing facade technology became a conundrum. If we can’t upgrade a building without altering its character, are these structures worth saving in the first place?

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