Monthly Archives: April 2009

Cradle to Cradle Sustainabilty – When Waste is an Asset

For the last few days I’ve been enjoying the great weather here in Colorado.  My wife and I went on a two hour long bike ride to celebrate the comfortable temperatures.  On the way back to our house we rode past a small horse ranch located right in the middle of suburbia.  The place looks like it was boarding horses well before any of the numerous cul-de-sacs were built around it.  But the thing that really caught my eye was a sign stating “Organic Compost – $10 pickup truck.”

When we finally arrived home we were thinking about the yard work we needed to do, and many items on that to-do list would have greatly benefited from compost.  So I got in my truck and headed over to the horse ranch.  To my pleasant surprise I indeed read the sign correctly, and the nice lady directed me to the back of their ranch where my eyes laid upon a very large (and somewhat smelly) mountain of organic compost consisting of horse manure and a plethora of other things.

As I was shoveling the compost into the truck I was thinking how this rancher’s unwanted commodity was something I was willing to pay good money for – one person’s shit is another person’s gold.  I have often thought about all of the cardboard that my wife and I throw into the recycling bins, and even though a big gas-guzzling truck comes by once every two weeks to pick it up and it eventually gets turned into more cardboard, I honestly wish that the cardboard could be thrown into my yard and have it molecularly break down into compost.  That way there’s no truck and no recycling bins – just my green grass.

I think of houses and other buildings the same way.  For each building there’s a lot of things coming into it (i.e. power, food for the occupants, materialistic things that make us happy, home improvement items) and likewise there are a lot of things coming out of it (waste from all that food, trash from the things that make us happy).  And just like that recycling truck there are other conveyances that are hauling away our waste (i.e. trash truck, pipes) and being processed.

Cradle to cradle is the idea that nothing is trash.  In a true sustainable environment there is nothing wasted.  An item can be used and reused numerous times, and if that item has reached the end of its usefulness then it simply degrades and becomes one with the earth.  I don’t mean to sound overly spiritual, but it just means that when someone no longer has a use for something then that something should have a value to someone else.  There should be someone out there who is willing to pay for your waste – that’s what sustainability is really about.  There’s no reason why the grass can’t be greener on your side.


Bold Plans Require Bold Actions

I just came across this talk by Shai Agassi while I was checking out the Presentation Zen website.  The talk is primarily about how in order to create great change (whether it be evolutionary or revolutionary) people must let go of what’s no longer working and commit to a plan that promises a great sacrifice of the status quo.

Shai speaks primarily about the implementation of electric cars en masse, but he uses a short story at the end of his talk that I found very interesting.  This short story involves the how in the 18th century the British government found itself at the crossroads of morality and economy in trying to decide if the abolishment of slavery would hinder the economy.

We are currently in the same predicament as a society in trying to resolve how our current economic reality (i.e. a nearly complete dependency on petroleum products) compares with what is morally right for us and the planet.  Even if we fail to act, this predicament will be resolved for us – oil is a finite product that when extracted and used for our daily lives causes harm to our natural surroundings.  The first step for solving this dilemma is being conscious of how we define what is right and what is wrong, and allow ourselves to be guided by what we consider to be right.

Sustainable Urbanism – The Curitiba Example

Sustainability as it relates to architecture is so much more than just creating a green building.  Most western U.S. cities are so inundated with sprawl that even if most of the buildings within the city were sustainable people would still be almost completely dependent on the automobile (see Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas).

This talk is centered around the urban sustainable strategies implemented by the city of Curitiba, Brazil.  Like all major metropolises throughout the world Curitiba was facing limited budgets in an effort to solve urban issues relating to mass transit and pedestrian friendly environments.  The city successfully created a mass transit system using express buses, which treated the buses more like a light rail (dedicated streets and quick loading and unloading stations) and less like a car (share the streets with other vehicles and be stuck in the same traffic jams).

There are other attributes that Curitiba implemented that make the city a people centric environment.  When American cities start focusing the built environment on people you will most likely hear about Curitiba being cited as an inspiration.

The Characteristics of Timeless Design (As Told by Cars)

In an earlier post titled Quality as a Means to Sustainability I touched on the topic of design being either art or fashion, essentially stating that fashion is more of a current fad whereas art is enduring and timeless.  But is art also current?  And how do you create something that’s timeless?

So from this question I began to delve into what makes a timeless design, whether it be the design of buildings or the design of anything else.  I was recently checking out my son’s Hot Wheel collection, and I noticed how some of the cars are considered classics (such as the ’61 Jaguar E-Type and the ’64 Mustang) while others were not very classic at all (’98 Ford F-150 and ’06 Volvo Wagon).  But besides the good classic cars that most anyone would love to have parked in his or her garage there are also the bad classics such as the AMC Pacer and Ford Pinto.  So I began to realize that classic is not defined by being good and appreciated, but rather, like a punchline to a joke, a classic entails a universal understanding that everyone agrees to be the truth.  I seriously doubt that anyone would consider the Ford Pinto as the epitome of automotive technology.  No, the Ford Pinto is more often used as the butt of any joke involving a vehicle exploding.

But something else I noticed about these classic cars (both good and bad) is that they were indeed dated, meaning that these cars were designed with current trends in mind.  You can look at most of these classic cars and know almost exactly what year the cars were built.  Every era in automotive design has design trends that make it unique from other eras, and there are a handful of signature vehicles (again, both good and bad) that typify those eras.  The original American muscle cars were the signature cars of the late 1960’s while the 50’s will be remembered for cars with tail fins.  When most people see a ’57 Chevy they don’t confuse it with something built in the early 1990’s.

I’m realizing that art and fashion are both born from current trends, but the major difference is originality.  The early 80’s Volkswagen Rabbit was a squarish car that became popular due to people becoming more conscience about fuel economy.  It was the original boxy hatchback, and for that it retains a place in automotive history.  But the same honor would not be bestowed upon the cars like the Plymouth Horizon that were created for the purpose of chasing a trend and essentially not adding to the evolutionary process of creating something better.

The goal of creating something that’s timeless is the wrong strategy for creating something that’s timeless.  Originality, whether it be revolutionary or evolutionary, seems to be the trait that creates timelessness.  But originality is created from a reaction to what is currently going on, be it an improvement to something that currently works or a change in direction for something that currently doesn’t work.  We can only change our current condition – the past has already happened, and the future is a byproduct of our present.  No one knows what the future holds for us, so how would we know what people in the future will appreciate and admire?

Be truthful to the present and be original.  Let the future decide if your horse is more like a Mustang or a Pinto.

The Patterning of Architecture

I’m a sucker for a good architectural book, and if contains a cool axonometric sketch on the cover I’m usually sold.  I came across a book recently called The Architectural Pattern Book that I found intriguing enough to borrow from my local library.

Creating an architectural pattern is essentially establishing rules and guidelines on what the designer considers to be a viable and pleasant architecture.  It’s a manifesto to ones style.  If you look at the works of most notable architects (and actually most ordinary architects as well) you’ll discover a prevailing style that’s embedded with most of their buildings.  The great ones will allow their style to evolve and transform over the years to best adapt to technological and societal trends, but even with this their style will typically have one or two prevailing themes that tie their work together.  The prevailing theme can be based on an environmental adaptation to site, or it could be based on a particular building material, or it could be based on the advancement of experimentation.

Another reason for establishing an architectural pattern is to convey a design standard to other designers for the sake of consistency and order.  When I was in undergrad I studied Durand, a French engineer that was approached by Napoleon for creating a consistent style for government buildings.  Durand created a system of simple patterns for governmental buildings that allowed architects and engineers with minimal experience and talent the ability to create a building that consistently conveyed the core message that the government wanted to be perceived by the general populous.  A more contemporary example of this is how fast food restaurants typically have the same exact building no matter its location (you can point out an old Pizza Hut building even if it’s not occupied by Pizza Hut anymore).

The Architectural Pattern Book is about creating neighborhoods.  The book contains a history of successful neighborhoods in the United States, and by using those examples establishes parameters for the massing of houses and guidelines for placing those houses to best create a neighborhood.  It also provides examples where other architects have used a pattern book (specifically for a single development) to establish guidelines for architectural detailing, which typically lean towards a very traditional style (a good example of this is the New Urbanism town of Seaside, Florida, where the move The Truman Show was filmed).

After perusing this book I realized that we (as a design profession and as citizens) no longer have the ability to create good neighborhoods.  Since the end of World War II the built environment shifted from being designed to accommodate people towards providing easier access for the automobile.  I just have to look at neighborhood, which was built in the early 1960’s, to see the evidence of this shift – narrow sidewalks, houses that lack any front porch that promotes the interaction of neighbors, wide streets that actually allow people to drive up to fifty miles per hour, and a street layout that’s confusing to say the least (it reminds me of ancient Middle Eastern cities that had a haphazard street layout which was used to confuse invading armies).

I agree with the idea that most of our newer neighborhoods don’t address the issue of creating a viable neighborhood that promotes social interaction, but I also believe that strict guidelines for architectural aesthetics creates a Disney-esque atmosphere (funny enough Disney created their own New Urbanism community called Celebration, where last I read pink flamingos were not allowed on people’s front yards).

Learning from the past is a very important attribute for great architecture.  Creating a pattern for architecture based on the successes of guiding principles of the past is a step in the right direction.  Great neighborhoods are great because the architecture is more than merely a building – it serves as a boundary that forms and creates functional urban spaces.  It also contains an interstitial zone (like front porches) where the occupants of a building are in a protected space that also promotes social interaction.  The strategy of instilling aesthetics of previous architectural styles in order to reestablish the core values of a neighborhood is ignorant to say the least, and in effect stifles the evolution of building upon what actually works.  Architectural patterns should incorporate the number one rule about rules – rules were made to be broken.

Architectural Intern Information

Just a quick blurb – a friend of mine recently created a blog called Intern 101 focusing on the trials and tribulations of being an architectural intern.  The title ‘Intern’ is what the American Institute of Architects (AIA) uses to refer to anyone who is in the profession of architecture but has yet attained his or her license for being an architect.  I find the term degrading and insulting to anyone working in the profession, but the powers that be have deemed it so.

If you’re in the profession or are contemplating pursuing architecture as a livlihood I highly recommend checking out the blog.