Reduce, Reuse, Rehab: Green Rehabilitation: the BNN Charles J. Beard II Media Center

The green rehabilitation of a historic structure can be quite complex, particularly if the building is large and in serious disrepair. Such was the situation facing the Boston Neighborhood Network (BNN) and Urban Edge when they undertook the large-scale rehabilitation of the former Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) substation in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, Mass.

A nationally-recognized and award winning 501(c)3 organization and public access television channel focusing on culture and education, BNN had existed for nearly 25 years but still rented the two different properties in which it operated. BNN wanted a permanent home, and as the geographic center of Boston, Egleston Square in Roxbury seemed to be the ideal place. BNN was particularly interested in the abandoned substation still owned by the MBTA, as its attractive exterior and centralized location would make a lovely and logical permanent home.

Designed by architects Stone and Webster, and built in 1909, the substation at 3025 Washington St. originally converted power for the Boston Elevated Railway Company, a predecessor to the MBTA. The original building’s interior consisted of one large, 45-foot-tall room and several smaller rooms, housing four large dynamos that converted electrical currents for the trains on the Orange Line. Designed to resemble an Italian basilica, the substation was one of seven contemporary MBTA buildings constructed to reference its neighborhood’s aesthetics.

Following the decommissioning of the elevated Washington Street Orange Line, the MBTA abandoned the substation. Over the next 20 years, the building suffered from neglect, looting, and pests. By 2005, when the BNN and Urban Edge purchased the building from the MBTA, its significantly deteriorated condition created a complex – and exciting – rehabilitation project.

In undertaking what it knew would be a multi-layered, environmentally sustainable rehabilitation, BNN sought assistance from Urban Edge, a community development corporation that works with residents and organizations in Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, and other Massachusetts communities. Having had past experience with green development and with historic buildings, Urban Edge provided a unique vantage point in helping shape the project.

To help finance the rehabilitation, BNN and Urban Edge received funds from the City of Boston and used the state and federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits (HRTC) in tandem with the New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC). In order to adhere to the state and federal preservation standards associated with the use of the HRTC, BNN and Urban Edge worked with Tremont Preservation Services LLC, Building Conservation Associates Inc., and Scott Payette of Fletcher Thompson Architects.

Due to these efforts, the building retains much of its historic fabric. The exterior walls feature brick and stone detailing, reflecting the original design intent. Though the roofing suffered severe damage from weather and animals, a significant portion of the original roofing material was able to be saved. The prominent, large picture windows at the front and rear facades of the building also remain, with their copper elements intact. At the interior, much of the open, historical design was preserved, while spaces necessary for the building’s new use were created.

State and federal preservation standards account for a change in use, and often allow some exterior alterations, provided that destruction of significant portions of the building or its historical integrity is wholly avoided. In order to accommodate the building’s new use as a television studio with education spaces and offices, some exterior alterations were permitted. Because of the standards’ flexibility, green design could be used in tandem with historic preservation. In the case of the MBTA substation, new cuts in the side walls allowed for new openings to produce a flood of natural light into the interior spaces.

As the interior had been constructed as essentially one large room, BNN and Urban Edge had the flexibility to create new spaces and more opportunities to achieve the environmentally friendly features they desired. Daniel Moore, the operations manager at BNN, said BNN knew from the beginning it wanted to have a “green-friendly” building, both for environmental and for monetary reasons. With the enthusiasm and experience from the cohesive team that included Scott Payette, Tremont Preservation Services, and construction managers A.J. Martini, Inc., BNN was able to meet the state and federal preservation standards while also attaining LEED Silver certification.

While the team had wanted a “green-friendly” rehabilitation from the beginning of the project, it did not initially seek LEED certification. But, as the project progressed, the team realized the project was achieving the elements necessary for LEED certification. As the building never had a heating system, the new use required the floor to be excavated – allowing for the installation of geothermal well units for heating and cooling. Natural light was used as much as possible, with new windows letting extra light inside.

The team’s green rehabilitation efforts realized not only environmentally sustainable goals, but also economically sustainable ones. For the new doors, the team used locally-grown wood. Local architects and carpenters designed and built the office furniture. Using local goods and services not only saves in transportation energy costs, but also invests in the local economy, thus promoting economic sustainability of the city.

After several years of thoughtful planning and constructing, the MBTA substation’s green rehabilitation was completed in 2008. BNN named the building the Charles J. Beard II Media Center after a founding BNN board member and advocate for public television, education, and diversity who passed away in 2004. In 2008, the BNN Charles J. Beard II Media Center won both the Boston Preservation Alliance Preservation Achievement Award and the Massachusetts Historical Commission Preservation Award.

The green rehabilitation has been quite successful for BNN. According to Daniel Moore, the rehabilitation serves the BNN staff’s workplace needs well, and the public tours continue to elicit positive reactions. Due to the carefully planned work and effort of BNN, Urban Edge, and their team, BNN has found itself that permanent home.

For images of the BNN Charles J. Beard II Media Center and for more information:

BNN Charles J. Beard II Media Center Opens and Wins Awards!” Urban Edge E-news, May 2008 Issue

Boston Preservation Alliance 2008 Awards

Campbell, Robert, “From Dynamo House to Dynamic Reuse,” Boston.com

Lowell Sun article