CO Adaptive was founded in 2011 in NYC by Ruth Mandl and Bobby Johnston. Amidst an industry that is highly predicated on the finished image of architecture, they want to turn the focus to the means of making and maintaining it. They specialize in retrofitting existing building stock to create energy-efficient and climate-resilient environments, with the goal of extending the lifespans of these buildings for decades to come. Attentive to the health and embodied energy of materials, they consciously specify elements that are local in origin, and store carbon rather than emit it in their making. Often, the best materials to use are those that already exist. To that end, they accentuate local reuse; reintegrating and reviving found elements of the buildings they renovate. They are strong believers that architecture is a process rather than a result; a collaborative practice that works to solve today’s biggest challenges by building upon the past rather than reinventing it.
A conversation between CO Adaptive and The Canvas
First, could you please share how you two met and formed CO Adaptive (COA)?
Bobby and I met at Columbia, though there are so many versions of this that we could tell....
Ha, that's true, our first project together was a competition. We were testing if we could work together, because we had started dating, and we initially were not very good at collaborating....
Then at some point, we just got really good at being able to separate work and our relationship.
I think we started understanding our strengths, too. Ruth's dedication is really towards sustainability. And my passion is for technology, performance, and optimization.
So shifting to your practice and methodology, CO Adaptive designs with Passive House building standards. Could you explain what Passive Housing is and how it differs from LEED Certification?
Passive House is very focused on operational energy: it manages to reduce a building's operational energy by 80 to 90 percent. It does that with increased insulation, high performance windows; and an air-tight membrane that wraps the entire envelope of the building. LEED is much broader: it looks at material health, occupants’ health and movement, and water and waste management, among many other things. It looks at operational energy too, but not to such a high degree. In an ideal world, you want to marry the two together, you want to consider elements from both as they're not in opposition with one another.
How did you discover Passive Housing, and then at what point did you integrate it into your process?
I discovered Passive House through a project that my parents did in Vienna on a house my dad inherited. My grandpa was an architect, and built the original house in the 1950’s. When my father inherited it back in 2009, he wanted to renovate it to the highest sustainability standard, and found Passive House. When I was still in grad school, I did an internship with the architect that my father hired for the renovation, and I worked on the early design phases for the house. Bobby later completed the Passivhaus certification in 2016, And the first project for which COA implemented the standard was for our own brownstone in Brooklyn.
Within your practice, you launched a new arm of design-build. How does this arm support your client-facing work?
First, we are an architecture practice, and as one we're very involved in specifications and details being just right, so that we reach very high levels of building performance. But we found that some contractors can't or don't follow our drawings or best practices. So it is more difficult to implement these details. Or, on the other extreme, if we have to go with really high end contractors, the clients can't afford the projects. We ultimately really want to work with a broader client base to make Passive House accessible to more people. We want to leverage design details that are easier to build for most contractors, and have more control over the construction process.
Additionally, we're looking at deconstruction as opposed to demolition. We’re searching for solutions to redirect existing architectural materials that would typically go down waste streams. We strategize how best to take apart buildings, rather than just gutting them.
An example of this was taking all of the old gypsum from a project to a recycling plant in Pennsylvania where they will make new gypsum wallboard out of the scraps.
For lack of a better term, is there a boneyard or landfill that hosts old building materials for the purpose of future ground-up construction or renovation?
London is starting to create these conditions. I read about this project that's being entirely built from steel reclaimed from other projects. So I think we're slowly moving in the right direction within architecture and within the building industry at large — it just needs to broadly become the norm.
What are some projects or conditions right now that you're finding most challenging?
We're piggybacking on the deconstruction idea in thinking through how to design for deconstruction in the future. Right now we put up walls that are drywall, that get taped in, spackled and painted, and which you ultimately have to break to repair a pipe or shift a wall — is that sustainable? What if we thought of walls more as systems that can be taken apart or snapped together and therefore reconfigured much more easily? We just moved to a new space in the Brooklyn Navy Yards, where we'll be able to get into R&D territory to start prototyping and making modular panels — which we have been thinking about, designing, and developing for some time.
If there was a brand that you could collaborate with, who would it be?
I think a brand with a cyclical economy. We are interested in the place where sustainability and manufacturing intersect, and would love to work on a truly sustainable makerspace that considers “waste” in a new way.
Yes, agree with Bobby, makers who are starting to think about their products as a cycle, rather than a one-way linear journey, and who consider “waste” as the starting point for something new.