SCAD’s Paula Wallace: New Companies Need Old Headquarters

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SCAD’s Paula Wallace: New Companies Need Old Headquarters

In the wake of global socioeconomic changes due to COVID-19, entrepreneurs, company leaders, and startup founders face a lot of decisions about the future. What will tomorrow’s offices and headquarters look like? “Work from home” stands to become a permanent option for employees, even after the pandemic, but companies will always need a home.

Recently, we sat down with Paula Wallace—educator, entrepreneur, CEO, and award-winning interior designer and historic preservationist—to discuss the future built environment for startups. As president of SCAD since 2000 (and one of the university’s founders in 1978), Wallace has for decades championed the rehabilitation, adaptive reuse, and award-winning design of historic structures and communities in iconic locales on three continents.

In Savannah, Wallace’s transformation of more than 70 buildings has singlehandedly revitalized Georgia’s oldest and most beautiful coastal city. Worldwide, Wallace has directed the university’s rehabilitation of more than 100 historic structures, garnering critical acclaim and numerous awards. She led the renovation of Hong Kong’s North Kowloon Magistracy Building, and she continues to oversee the reimagination of the medieval Provençal village in Lacoste. As an author she has penned SCAD: The Architecture of a University, which chronicles the university’s most inspiring spaces and illuminates the storied pasts of its architectural treasures.

Wallace is an honorary member of the AIA, a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council, a member of the Advisory Board of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. She is a recipient of the ASID Nancy Vincent McClelland Merit Award, the Arthur Ross Award for Stewardship, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award, and a Roger Milliken Honorary AIA Legacy Award, and DesignIntelligence named her to its “30 Most Admired Educators.”

Q: Okay, so, I know that SCAD loves to resurrect historic structures, but you also occasionally do new construction. Which is better for a startup?

WALLACE: Jane Jacobs, in her classic work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, famously wrote, “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.”

Q: So, older is better?

WALLACE: Let me explain what is meant by “old buildings.” When most people think about historic preservation, it can sound like a hassle. Why not just build new and get exactly what you want? Plus, most people associate historic preservation with musty house museums, where admission is five dollars and everything feels beautiful but stale. I am not talking about those kinds of old buildings.

Q: Can you elaborate?

WALLACE: First of all, the term “historic preservation” is really outdated. The term now is “adaptive reuse” or “adaptive new use,” where you adapt a beautiful historic property for a contemporary purpose, retaining the most distinctive ornamental elements and the durable bones of the building, while reshaping the interior with human-centered design—and lots of great art.

Q: You’re an expert in adaptive reuse, but most entrepreneurs aren’t. Why should a startup take on the added burden of rehabilitating a property while simultaneously trying to start a new company?

WALLACE: So many reasons! For one, it’s a good PR move. Every company should care about sustainability these days, and adaptive reuse demonstrates that care for your clients and customers.

Q: The greenest building is the one that already exists. Didn’t you write that?

WALLACE: I’m not the first to say that! Think of an old building—a 19th century brick warehouse, say, or an early 20th century schoolhouse—like an Omega Speedmaster or a Tom Beckbe field jacket, something designed to be used for decades and passed down to the next generation. Historic structures were built to endure through many different owners and purposes.

Q: So much new construction does seem to age quickly, in contrast to older buildings. Do you see that in your own experience?

WALLACE: In a 2015 TEDx talk (“Our Disposable Architecture”), urban designer Jennifer Bevan warns, “Whereas a century ago, it was reasonable to expect new buildings to span multiple generations, today, disposable architecture is the new normal.” According to the EPA, the U.S. produces over twice as much construction and demolition debris as everyday garbage. The solution? Use the buildings we already have. So many American cities are filled with hearty and proud structures from the 19th and early 20th centuries, handsome buildings of brick and iron, timber and stone. Reuse. Repurpose. Reimagine.

Q: Most startups are concerned about saving capital for future investment. What about the economics of new vs. old?

WALLACE: Adaptive reuse is more affordable and yet actually generates more jobs than new construction. Entrepreneurs are naturally civically minded citizens. You know that your business is both good for you and also for your community, helping increase the tax base and raise the quality of living for others through salaries, profits and investment. If economic impact matters to you, consider that while $1 million spent on new construction generates 30.6 jobs, the same investment in adaptive reuse actually generates 35.4 jobs.

Q: Why is that?

WALLACE: During a talk to the Preservation Council of San Jose (California), preservationist Donovan Rypkema said something that stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said that generally, it’s true that new construction costs are 50% materials and 50% labor, while rehabilitation is more like 30% materials and 70% labor. Higher labor costs mean more economic windfall for the community. More money stays home. Historic preservation is no charity. When done well, it’s a potent economic generator.

Q: What other reasons would you give entrepreneurs to consider adaptive reuse of historic properties?

WALLACE: One word: wellness!

Q: Physical or mental?

WALLACE: All of the above. When the pandemic is gone and falls away to history, so many Americans will want to move back to cities. In a letter to The New York Times, Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, explains why: “[N]eighborhoods that include older, smaller buildings house significantly greater concentrations of jobs in the ‘innovation economy’ than do areas with only larger, newer construction.”

Q: Why is that?

WALLACE: Because living in cities allows young professionals to live a kind of childhood idyll of walking or riding their bike everywhere. A study by Arup actually reports that the privilege of walking to work, compared to a long commute, increases someone’s happiness “as much as if they’d fallen in love.” Find a historic building to call yours, and your company can anchor this joyous urban migration.

Q: How do you distinguish between adaptive rehabilitation and gentrification?

WALLACE: Adaptive reuse actually fosters a diversity of human activity across economic strata, creating a community with thriving churches, schools, playgrounds, grocery stores and growing companies, including yours. If your new company is to have a long and happy life, bringing joy and value to clients and customers across the years, then consider taking the long view and finding a historic property to call headquarters. That’s my advice. When it comes time to leave the “startup” garage and spread your wings, I say: Go downtown!

Read the full interview with Paula Wallace here: