Greg Galer Hon. AIA
Executive Director, Association for Preservation Technology International (APT)
2022 AIA Honorary Membership recipient
BA with Honors Brown University; Ph.D. – Historic and Social Study of Science and Technology, MIT
Supporting and encouraging the preservation for historic uses and the creative adaptation for new uses of historic elements of the built environment of all types – buildings, structures, and landscapes.
How do (or how did) you explain to your parents what you do for a living?
When I was a museum curator it was a lot easier—I collected historic objects and designed and built exhibits. (My last museum role was Vice President of Collections and Exhibitions at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.) That’s pretty tangible. When I moved into preservation as Executive Director of the Boston Preservation Alliance (www.bostonpreservation.org), the day-to-day work of advocacy was somewhat harder for them to grasp, but as my name started popping up in the newspaper for our work on things like trying to save the Citgo Sign, or supporting updates to City Hall and City Hall Plaza, or passing the Community Preservation Act in Boston, it made sense. Now, as ED of APT, I say I run the international organization that supports and shares the best methods for caring for historic places around the world. In this new role I will make sure more architects who engage with historic resources connect with the tremendous resources and people of APT.
Who or what deserves credit for your success?
The undergraduate structure at Brown University is designed to encourage interdisciplinary work and trying new academic areas without fear of failure. I entered thinking I was going to major in physics or math. I left with a degree in American Civilization after writing an honors thesis on the Boston Bridge Works that covered all sorts of history: business and industry, technology, labor, transportation. I became an expert in the development and process of making and forming iron and steel, and the origins and evolution of iron and steel-framed bridges and buildings. My work was immediately utilized by State Historic Preservation Offices throughout New England. But in four years I also engaged with a huge range fields including broadcast engineering, holography, history of science, architectural history, and the world of historic preservation and museums. Professor Patrick Malone took me under his wing after I took his History of the Built Environment class in 1986, and we began inventorying and interpreting sites in the Blackstone River Valley—even leading interpretive canoe tours on the river! He has been a mentor on countless projects and a friend ever since. But that Brown education instilled in me an interest for a huge range of things, and I can now intelligently engage in topics pertinent to urban, building and landscape design, and the physical characteristics of buildings and their materials and systems.
Have you won any award(s) from the BSA or another establishment? What elements from that project would you like to see shape the future of the profession?
I was humbled earlier this year to be nominated by the BSA for Honorary AIA Membership, and then selected by AIA to be one of five in the nation to receive this honor. Having dealt with countless architects over my career, including in my first job transforming a 19th century ironworks in Richmond, VA into a museum— where I first learned how proud architects are of their “AIA”—I’m honored to be recognized for my work and now seen as a member of the design community. I hope this honor encourages more architects to see that design isn’t simply about designing new. In a city like Boston, where over 75% of the city’s buildings were constructed before WWII, creative and traditional ways of utilizing and caring for our historic resources are an essential part of our sustainable future. Historic places are green and provide opportunities to address today’s problems such as resilience, affordable housing, equity, and as sources of great jobs in traditional skilled trades.
What do you see as the largest barrier to equity in your profession?
The world of historic preservation and the fields that support it—preservation advocates, architects, and engineers focused on historic places—struggle with equity as do the architectural field more broadly. I think there are two central barriers. First, not enough people are exposed to these areas as possibilities for them when they are young, or as they are in college or moving into careers. Second, there are not enough examples of places we preserve where everyone can see themselves reflected in the people and past that resonate with their life experiences. While as a boy I wasn’t specifically aware of the career opportunities I have pursued, I remember the Bicentennial as critical in planting the seed of my interest. Everyone should have experiences that connect them to physical places of heritage and expose them to the many careers related to historic places—from historic research to design to the many skilled trades.
What are some changes that you have implemented in your firm (or for yourself) to address issues of equity in your profession?
APT formed an Inclusion Advocacy Committee in 2020 to encourage equity and cultural diversity within APT and the broader preservation community, foster networking between different cultures and organizations, and implement outreach to underrepresented communities in effort to collaboratively and fittingly preserve the build environment. We have two programs that I plan to expand. One is our STEAM Through Heritage Preservation program. The APT members working on it have developed a curriculum that reinforces academic science and technology standards through an interdisciplinary preservation lens. They are working with schools in Boston and now expanding to Texas and Indiana. Another is our Community Engagement projects. Here we bring the preservation expertise of APT members to BIPOC communities in the city where our Annual Conference is held. So far we’ve done them in Little Haiti in Miami, in Anacostia in Washington, DC, and are developing one this fall in Detroit.
What do you see as the largest barrier to a zero-waste building, city, and world?
Demolition is too easy. Rather than the demolition being the default,
it should be the exception. It’s simply too harmful to the environment.
Today in Boston (and in most places in the US) preservationists need to
demonstrate why an existing building is connected to a particular
historic figure or event—to try and prevent or often just delay its
demolition. We need rules that force the demolition proponent to prove
that is the best course of action and why the benefits to demolition
exceed its negative environmental impact. The burden of proof should be
on those proposing demolition. The embodied carbon in existing buildings
is real and can be calculated. Add to that the negative impacts of
neighborhood air pollution from demolition, the burden on landfills, and
the incredible amount of energy and resources needed to fabricate and
transport new materials to a job site, and you realize that demolishing
existing buildings is not environmentally friendly. Even when a zero net
carbon building replaces it, it often takes 75 years or more to recover
the negative environmental impact. APT is working with the Boston
Preservation Alliance and the Zero Net Carbon Coalition (https://www.znccollaboration.org) to develop an online calculator, (https://www.znccollaboration.org/care)
for calculating and comparing embodied, operating and avoided carbon
impacts and benefits of reusing and upgrading existing buildings or
replacing them with new construction.
Who do you most enjoy partnering with on a project?
I enjoy working with design teams that recognize the historic context of
a project—that could be an existing building or its neighborhood—and
see great value for how those influence new infill designs,
modifications, or adaptive use. Designers who embrace the quirkiness,
oddities, and unexplained moments in historic places are wonderful
collaborators. Historic places are unique, and that distinctiveness adds
desirability and true value to projects. Design teams who embrace the
challenges of historic buildings and reach out to preservation experts
for guidance, because they recognize they are solution-oriented rather
than adversaries, are a true joy.
What architectural buzzword would you kill?
“Value Engineering.” Call it what it is – cutting the budget. Be honest with what it is, and that it’s a central part of the work, but don’t bury the lede.
What are you reading right now?
As the new ED at APT, I’m catching up on APT materials including our peer-reviewed APT Bulletin (Available on JSTOR to APT Members) and our “Practice Points” which are amazing resources of technical knowledge of which more architects should be aware. (https://www.apti.org/practice-points). There you can find historic trade catalogs of everything from brick and clay tiles to light fixtures to whole house plans.). Also APT’s Building Heritage Technology Library is a lot of fun (https://www.apti.org/apt-building-technology-heritage-library).
If you could redesign anything, what would it be?
The State Street T Station under the Old State House. The station has countless entrances—why does one have to be under one of the most historic buildings in the nation?! (And if I had the funding to restore anything it would be the neon sign at Simco’s in Mattapan. I remember when the neon tail of that hotdog wagged!)
What would you like to see change about Boston’s built environment?
I’d like to see fewer buildings with facades dominated by metal panels in low and mid-rise buildings. I’d also prefer fewer glass curtain walls in high-rise design. Even modern, more energy-efficient glass isn’t particularly energy efficient. Boston isn’t Dallas. I’d love to see more creative use of traditional materials, such as brick that isn’t laid up in simple straight bond—designs that creatively utilizes interesting patterns and geometry. We have a few architects in the city who have done that well.
Whom would you like the BSA to interview next?
A structural engineer from a firm that encourages creative solutions to the challenges of historic buildings. That could be someone from a firm like Structures North, Silman, or Simpson Gumpertz and Heger, just to name a few. There are too many engineers that are overly focused on formula and the most modern solutions and forget to open their minds to the many traditional and proven methods that work well—or to out-of-the-box solutions that merge old and new technologies.