At the University of Oklahoma, a student-led preservation initiative is underway to save three 12-story dormitories slated for demolition under a new freshman-housing master plan. Even as an OU graduate and Norman native, my appreciation for these buildings—or what they mean for the campus and community—is admittedly next to nil. Like many college dorm buildings, these are qualitatively one step away from penal institutions. Most preservation battles involve culturally significant buildings, so what, then, is the impetus for saving these structures?
But for OU architecture graduate student Connor Hopper, who started a Change.org petition in the spring to preserve the dorms, it’s imperative that we weigh the environmental ramifications of administrators’ plans (and others like them). “Demolishing and replacing three twelve-story buildings rather than renovating them runs counter both to OU’s push for sustainable building projects and student views of protecting the Earth,” the petition states. “Saving the planet takes more than switching to reusable straws. It takes standing up and holding big institutions accountable as well.” Hopper also developed conceptual renderings to illustrate what renovations could look like.
The university argues that the 1960s structures are outdated and cites the February 2021 polar vortex, which forced 200 of 900 students out of their rooms because of bursting pipes. The buildings have also drawn numerous complaints of mold in recent years. A draft report of programming and a master-plan report for administrative review will be developed in the fall and completed by winter. (The architect has yet to be revealed.) In addition to providing an additional 3,350 beds, the plan explores alternative configurations that could result in a villagelike configuration of smaller housing modules—a far cry from the current towers-in-a-park scheme.
Still, the argument for reuse and reduction in construction waste is an important one; after all, we often hear that the most sustainable building is the one already built. But the all-too-stark realities of resilience and human health and safety in the face of climate crisis must also be taken into account. Many of our buildings, particularly those of midcentury stock, simply don’t pass muster. Designing smaller-scale, more humane spaces to support human health and connection is a far more sustainable strategy. When buildings are imbued with positive emotional significance, they become embedded in the cultural memory of a community, making them far more likely to be cared for and preserved for generations to come.
Anastasia Calhoun is an Austin, Texas–based writer and experience strategist at Gensler.