A tale of two restaurants: disposable versus recyclable architecture

Chipotle and Pasqual's are both Mexican restaurants. Both are located on Hennepin Avenue, a mere block apart. Both are (or have recently been) under construction -- Chipotle was built this summer, while Pasqual's is currently remodeling to become Caf Ibiza, a high-end European-style espresso bar.

Environmentally, though, their buildings could not be more different. The Chipotle building is as disposable as a fast-food wrapper, while the Pasqual's building is easily recyleable.

A disposable building such as Chiptole's is one tied to a corporate identity by a unique roof shape or distinctive materials or colors. At Chipotle, for example, every detail furthers its corporate identity: the soft brown concrete bricks reference Southwestern adobe construction; the galvanized and exposed lighting fixtures reference hip urban lofts; the rusted steel signage says this isn't your father's Taco Bell. A motorist tooling down Hennepin Avenue doesn't need to read a sign -- the building is a visual billboard for Chipotle's corporate brand.

And Chipotle isn't unique. A growing percentage of buildings going up today are similarly "branded." The environmental dilemma is obvious: branded architecture is almost impossible to recycle. To see an example of a new business struggling to create a new identity within a branded building, just look across 26th Street: the sign may say Uptown Diner, but the distinctive mansard roof screams Burger King.

Branded architecture is disposable architecture. When Chipotle begins losing market share, or its profit margins sag, its building will be torn down and carted off to a landfill in Carver County, to be buried next to the Embers it replaced. How to avoid such waste? The answer, of course, is to build buildings that are easier to recycle.

Pasqual's spent years in the storefront of a 1920s mixed-use brick building. A storefront is a street-level retail space within a larger structure; mixed-use means that several different uses co-exist within one building. In this case, shops and restaurants face Hennepin, while apartments are located above.

A storefront in a mixed-use building is the ultimate in recyclable architecture. It is generic, flexible and adaptable. It doesn't have a unique form that identifies it with a particular corporation. Any store or restaurant -- or church or office or campaign headquarters -- can occupy a storefront space. When one business goes belly-up, another one can easily move in and remodel. And any remodeling, however extravagant, is far more resource-efficient than tearing down a building and throwing it away.

We're used to discussing architecture in aesthetic terms and asking whether a building is beautiful; we're not used to discussing architecture in environmental terms and asking whether a building is sustainable. Yet to consider architecture only in aesthetic terms is short-sighted, for the construction industry makes a huge impact on the environment.

According to the Worldwatch Institute, "as much as a tenth of the global economy is dedicated to buildings: to constructing, operating and/or equipping our built environment. This economic activity uses ever larger shares, one-sixth to one-half, of the world's wood, minerals, water and energy. Blame for much of the environmental damage occurring today, from destruction of forests and rivers to air and water pollution and climate destabilization, must be placed squarely at the doorsteps of modern buildings."

In other words, for our economy to become more sustainable, we need to build more recyclable and fewer disposable buildings, more mixed-use and fewer branded buildings. Sustainability is the biggest global challenge facing architecture today, and we can see the dilemma playing out right here in Southwest Minneapolis.

Robert Gerloff, AIA, is the principal of Robert Gerloff Residential Architects (www.residentialarchitects.com), in Linden Hills.