Monthly Archives: January 2010

Reduce your way to sustainability

In architecture the terms sustainable and green are used to signify a design or construction method implemented for the betterment of the environment. (At least these terms started off being used for that purpose, and not for the marketing effort that seems to be more prevalent today.) These terms form the perception of designers and builders being more ecologically responsible. But true sustainability is a balance between energy in and energy out. If you consume more of the environment than can be replenished (both naturally and artificially) then the balance is off.

So architecturally speaking, can a building be considered sustainable if the environment around the building is not considered sustainable? Is a building green if everything serving the building (such as the roads, utilities, artificial landscape) is really not all that green? If every single building in the Phoenix metropolitan area was LEED Platinum and the metro area still had the suburban sprawl that it has today, would Phoenix become the quintessential sustainable city?

In Green Metropolis, David Owen makes the argument that the keys to sustainability are living smaller, living closer, and driving less. His arguments coincide with the Reduce part of the sustainability mantra of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Reduce your living quarters. Reduce the amount of area in your home you need to fill with your stuff, and clean, and maintain, and pay taxes on. Reduce the amount of volume in your home you need to heat and cool. Reduce the amount of lawn you need to water, spread fertilizer on, and mow.

Reduce your separation from the places you need and want to go. Reduce the number of places you can frequent without always having to drive your car. Reduce your risk of becoming obese and contracting diabetes, heart disease, liver disease, respiratory disease, and a score of other ailments. Reduce the number of excuses for not getting enough exercise (walking to go somewhere rather than walking for the sake of walking). Reduce the area that public services (police, fire, power, sewer, trash) need to cover.

Reduce your dependence on the automobile. Reduce the amount of miles you put on your car, thus reducing the amount of maintenance, gas, and other services done to your car. Reduce the amount of money you pay on car insurance (typically based on the number of miles you drive in a given year). Reduce your dependence on the cost of gas. Reduce the amount and size of roads needing to be built, and reduce the amount of maintenance required for these roads. Reduce the amount of traffic for the people who still require a car to get around.

The big idea that Green Metropolis is pushing is having communities designed for people rather than for automobiles. Of course there are still people in New York City that still have to drive. Public transportation and walking will not work for every single person. But wouldn’t you like the choice of being able to choose a method for getting somewhere?

Almost all of the cities and towns of North America are designed as a car monopoly. If you want to go anywhere you typically have the only choice of driving your car. Imagine if the only way to buy food was going to McDonald’s, and the only way you could get on the internet was through America Online. I’m not against the car. In fact, I love driving. I just like having a choice.


Are CFLs all that good?

This is just something to ponder the next time you see or hear a claim that CFLs (compact fluorescent light bulbs) are better for you. These are the instructions from Energy Star (a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy Program) for cleaning up a broken fluorescent bulb (see near the end of page two of this document):

1.) Before clean-up: Air out the room

– Have people and pets leave the room, and don’t let anyone walk through the breakage area on their way out.

– Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.

– Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system, if you have one.

Can you think of anything else that is good for the environment that requires you (and your pets) to leave the room for 15 minutes in case of breakage? Being “green” sometimes (and by sometimes I mean almost every single time) focuses on one aspect of a product/design/strategy that provides benefits over the status quo, but sometimes those benefits are evened out by the negative attributes of the product/design/strategy.

CFLs use much less energy than incandescent light bulbs, but are not nearly as efficient as LEDs. The color rendition CFL is different from incandescent and LED bulbs (CFLs typically produce a warmer light, which to my dismay made the butterscotch-like colored walls in my house appear more like a puke-green). And CFLs cost a little more than incandescents, which means it’s much much cheaper than LEDs.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t replace your incandescent bulbs with CFLs. A large amount of energy would be conserved if everyone used CFLs. I’m merely offering information to ponder – that green comes in many shades.

If it isn’t simple, it isn’t green

If it isn’t simple, it isn’t green.

That’s a quote I came across while reading Green Metropolis. With all the talk (and sales pitches) about high-tech contraptions that track the path of the sun and the mountains of data that prove how one material is more sustainable than another material, sustainability can be achieved through simplicity and an understanding of some basic principles:

1.) The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The sun is incredibly predictable. Depending on the latitude of where you are the sun typically rises a little south of east in the winter, and a little north of east in the summer. And likewise the sun sets a little south of west in the winter and a little north of west in the summer. The angle of altitude of the sun (its angle from the ground) is also predictable (of course also depending on your latitude).

So now that we know where the sun is on any given day at any given time, the other simple guideline is determining of the sun is a good thing. In Minnesota during the winter the sun is a great thing to have shine into your home and office, while during the summer in Phoenix the sun is a horrible thing. With this information you know when sun shade devices (such as awnings and trees) are necessary and what size they need to be. Block the sun when you don’t want it, and allow the sun to penetrate into the building when you do want it.

2.) Warm air rises. It’s the reason hot air balloons don’t burrow into the ground. When the air is warmed it will rise until it’s obstructed and can no longer rise. If you’re designing a space where being warm isn’t necessarily a good thing (like Phoenix in the summer), then you need to allow that warm air to either escape the occupied space or have it remain high enough so that it doesn’t bother people. High ceilings and windows near the ceilings (to allow the air to escape) work great in very warm climates. Likewise, having two-story high ceilings in a house in Minnesota will require more energy to warm the house (more energy = more money).

3.) Gravity goes down. Watch any episode of the television show Destroyed in Seconds and you’ll see gravity in action. This simple principle doesn’t necessarily create a more comfortable living environment, but it does come in handy for maximizing the materials used for the construction of a building. Every building requires openings in walls for doors and windows, as well as openings in the floors for stairs. Depending on the structural layout of your building there are very logical places for these openings (which allows the maximum efficiency in building materials), and thus there are also very illogical places for these openings (which requires additional structure, which requires more materials and money). There is a balancing act between structure and fenestration (fancy architectural word for openings), so a balance between the two translates into fewer materials being used.

Gravity going down also helps with design issues dealing with drainage from a roof. A typical gable roof for a house will need gutters along two sides of the house and usually involve four or more places for downspouts. Having multiple downspout locations makes it incredibly difficult to collect this water for irrigation or a gray water system. Designing a roof that slopes towards one corner eliminates the need for any gutters and gives you one point for rain water collection.

There are many other attributes for creating a more sustainable architecture, but it’s not supposed to be complicated. The only time it requires tens of thousands of dollars is when you’re trying to make a typical building designed within the vacuum of space-time more adaptive to its environment. If you start the design with an understanding of the specific site conditions (climate, latitude, altitude, available building materials) then sustainability can be achieved through simplicity.

The next tallest skyscrapers (and how vertical sprawl is better than horizontal sprawl)

A few weeks ago the Burj Khalifa in Dubai was officially anointed as the tallest skyscraper in the world. As tall as it is (2716.5 feet, or approximately 828 meters for everyone outside of the U.S.) it may barely break the top ten of tallest buildings in the world within the next decade. These buildings (some of them proposed, some of them merely dreams), as listed on the Popular Mechanics website, will not only reach higher than the Burj Khalifa but in some cases dwarf the current tallest building in the world.

There is nothing new about dreaming up the tallest building in the world. Frank Lloyd Wright designed (at least in a preliminary/schematic approach) a building that was to be a mile tall (5,280 feet for anyone outside the U.S. that has absolutely no idea what a mile is). (As seen at this website, along with some other buildings that have yet to come to fruition.)

Of course there are a lot of technical issues with constructing a building as tall as these. One issue is the requirement of constructing a large enough foundation to anchor the mass of the building as well as handle the intense horizontal loads created by the wind (especially the more intense velocity of the wind at the heights of the skyscrapers) hitting the profile of the building. Another issue is creating a floor plan large enough so that it’s not primarily occupied with vertical circulation (such as stairs and elevators) and other shafts for mechanical ducts, and yet small enough so that a majority of the floor is near windows (this is for providing natural light to most spaces, which makes sense in regards to a physiological need because people need sunlight, and in regards to a financial standpoint because nobody wants to lease expensive office space unless there’s an abundance of natural light).

And another technical issue for these skyscrapers that is just as important is the ability to evacuate the building in case of an emergency (such as a fire or an attack). Tall buildings, especially ones reaching the heights of these proposed skyscrapers, must have ample egress and, because elevators (and in some jurisdictions escalators) are not considered proper means of egress, the stairs would have to be wide enough to accommodate the number of people working and residing in these skyscrapers. But of course the Burj Khalifa was constructed, so obviously these issues must have been solved.

I’m reading Green Metropolis (David Owen), and one of the interesting points the author makes is the inherent sustainable strategy that New York City provides by being a vertical city instead of a horizontal city. Skyscrapers provide a means that appears to make sense to being green – design for more people living on the smallest piece of land possible. The compaction of New York City forces residents to forgo the automobile as their primary means of transportation because most everything they require is in close proximity. The dense population also provides the necessary density to properly support public transportation.

I’ve heard it said that skyscrapers were designed to be monuments driven by ego and testosterone. I’m sure that is true, but the flip side is that these tall buildings provide a unique and theoretically simple means for creating a smaller physical footprint for living on, which leaves more land for food production and ultimately nature.

Imagine if our entire built environment emulated Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, where every single family in the country was given one acre to live on. (There are more dense parts of Broadacre City that included office buildings and apartments, but the core premise to the city would be that most families would each live on one acre.) Sure everyone could live closer to nature and frolic in the woods, but think of the amount of roads and other utilities (such as water and electricity) needed to connect to every residence, and the amount of police and fire protection needed to provide a quick enough response to each residence in case of emergency, and the amount of walking for kids trying to trick-or-treat (it could help cure the obesity problem in this country, although most kids would say “screw it” after going to only two houses).

If you know the reduce-reuse-recycle mantra of creating a more sustainable environment, you will understand that cities can become more ecologically responsible by reducing the amount of land for human occupation by growing vertically and not horizontally.

The future of sustainability is in the past

There are two types of architecture in the world (at least in the industrialized world): the typical “box” architecture (includes every shopping plaza and big box store, apartment complex, and residential neighborhoods built after World War II) that primarily resides in suburbia and other newly developed areas, and an architecture designed to consciously behave in a more ecologically responsible way (a.k.a. green architecture).

The typical “box” architecture is primarily designed completely dependent on active technologies that provide a hospitable indoor environment. These buildings are typically designed in the void of space-time and have absolutely no design characteristics that respond to any local climatic condition. Sure they may use a regional aesthetic (like looking like colonial architecture if the building was in New England, or using an Taos adobe appearance if placed in New Mexico), but almost never do the buildings take advantage of natural resources like being placed on the site a certain way based on the path of the sun or using the architecture to promote natural ventilation (whether it be a cross ventilation or a stack ventilation).

Before the popular residential use of air conditioners there were actually people living in Phoenix, Arizona. It absolutely blows my mind that people decided to live there, but they had an advantage over people who live there now. The homes constructed in Phoenix before the wide use of the air conditioner were designed for the desert climate. The homes implemented some very incredibly simple strategies for responding to the intense heat of the desert, which included tall ceilings (which allowed the hot air to rise above everyone), tall windows that opened at the top and bottom (the top opening would allow the warm air to escape and the bottom opening would allow cooler air to come in), and a veranda around the house (which had a roof to shade people from the sun, and it provided a place to sleep outside in the cool breezes of night).

But something happened when the air conditioner came into use. Instead of using the air conditioner to complement the passive technologies that worked to create a hospitable living environment, the design of homes rejected what worked and became completely dependent on the air conditioner. I lived in Arizona for seven years, and the house my family lived in was the typical suburban one-story home built in the early 1960s. It was a decent house, but it looked exactly the same as any house I saw while growing up in the suburbs of St. Louis. And about once every two or three years the air conditioner would go out, and that absolutely sucked. The house had the typical eight foot ceilings which brought the warm air closer to people inside the house, and the typical convoluted floor plan that nullified any chance of cross ventilation. In a word- it sucked.

The LEED Rating Systems is a measuring stick used for determining the shade of “green” a building is. It usually takes a lot of effort to make the design and the construction of a building meet the LEED sustainable standards. If you go through the LEED checklist of requirements you may discover the same thing I discovered a long time ago – most every building constructed before the 20th century would at a minimum be LEED certified. Of course there are a few exceptions such as fine hotels that may have imported all of their stonework from Italy, but for the most part homes and businesses were constructed of local materials and were designed to respond to local climatic conditions.

And they were designed like that not because people before the 20th century gave a damn about the environment, but because if their buildings didn’t respond to local climatic conditions then it was nearly impossible for people to live in that climate. How well does your home respond to the local climate if the electricity and the water were shut off for a year? Most likely not very well.

If you want to know the best design for a building for your neck of the woods just look at the people who lived there over a hundred years ago.

Home disimprovement

I love being able to do certain improvement projects around my house. I typically approach the projects with the mindset that it doesn’t require the education of a NASA engineer to figure it out, and as long as I have a good home improvement book to use as a reference then I’m pretty much set.

Apparently that’s not the case for some home improvement books published by Oxmoor House (which when I first read the name I thought it read Oxymoron House) dealing with the installation and repair of electrical wiring. Apparently the errors in the technical diagrams and wiring instructions could cause people to be shocked or create a fire hazard. The books have been available for over thirty years, so if you were installing a new light in your house in the mid 1980s and wondered why the house went up in flames right after you turned the light on now you know it wasn’t just you.

The article stating this recall can be seen here: