Monthly Archives: February 2010

House of the Future – less generic

My last post was about some of my predictions for the house of the future. I definitely didn’t elaborate enough on a few issues (although I feel somewhat confident I exhausted the prediction for slides in houses), and there were some other predictions that I failed to mention.

I was walking through the magazine isle at the grocery store yesterday when I felt the urge to buy a magazine I haven’t read – something totally unrelated to my daily routine. I checked out Snowboarder, Model Railroader (my son has a serious addiction to trains), Wired, Soldier of Fortune, and some others. And of course I’m a sucker for the architectural magazines (although in a grocery store the “architectural” magazines are really decorating magazines that have articles like “What kind of beige are you?”). One that I just had to peruse was a magazine titled Eco-Sustainable Floor Plans.

I don’t know if you already know this, but all floor plan magazines and books are EXACTLY the same. They all have the same floor plans that were popular in the early 1980s, and they all have the same artist rendering depicting the three stylized options for the facade. (My absolute favorite is a rendering I saw where this very Victorian two-story home was placed in the middle of a ski run on a snow-covered mountain.) So knowing this, I was actually curious to see what made these floor plans more ecologically sensitive than all of the other floor plans I’ve ever seen.

I came across a one-story house on a page filled with green-colored thumbnail images illustrating its sustainable achievements. This was the “sustainable” attribute of this house – “The light-colored siding helps reflect the sun’s energy, thus providing lower energy costs and maintaining a more comfortable interior environment.”

This was the only sustainable feature of this house – off-white siding. This is the angle that the sales supervisor came up with to make these homes appear more sustainable – off-white siding. The houses in these floor plan magazines are nothing more than a Dodge Aries K-Car with some bedazzle applied to it. They are the rudimentary designs that promote maximizing profits. There are some features that are more contemporary than that base model house from 1980, but the core of the design is still a K-Car. Here is a video that demonstrates at least how I feel about the floor plan magazines:

The House of the Future will not be derived from a magazine filled with floor plans designed in the vacuum of space-time. The House of the Future will be designed to respond to the exact site it is to be built, and its primary sustainable feature will not be the color of its exterior siding.

(Note: Just like from this Aries K video, over 85% of people who buy floor plan magazines have a fixed address.)


The house of the future (as predicted in 2010)

It’s 2010, and according to the movie 2010 we should be sending people to Mars and living in colonies on the moon. Of course, we’re not. And we’re not flying around in cars from The Jetsons (which I’m assuming will happen once people master driving in two dimensions first), our major cities haven’t been turned into maximum security prisons like Escape from New York (which the movie was set in 1997), and we’re not all wearing shiny monochromatic body suits (there’s probably only a thousand movies that depict a future where every single person shops exclusively at The Gap). Predicting the future gives a person the opportunity to broaden people’s horizons and spark imaginations. It also allows a person to look incredibly foolish (I’m looking right at you person who wrote Time Cop).

Predicting what our homes will look like in the future is as absurd as making a movie about the future. Of course there is the dilemma that homes in the future will need to respond to problems that won’t exist for another few decades, so how could we possibly know what they should look like and how they should be lived in? Who in 1960 would’ve guessed that the neighborhoods of the early 21st century would look like the same neighborhood where the Cleavers resided? So here is my educated guess on the future of homes for the year 2025…

– Houses will have a much smaller footprint. I’m not saying that homes will necessarily be smaller than they are today (my money says they will be though), but the amount of land occupied by a single home will be much smaller than today’s homes. If a home is to be large, then it will be large vertically and not horizontally. This will lead to a more dense urban environment and minimal yards. Visitors to the Smithsonian will be able to see recent relics like the lawnmower and the stair master.

– Houses will have a more direct connection to the outside. With smaller homes it will be important to implement design strategies that make the interior spaces feel much larger than they actually are. Windows provide a visual connection to the exterior, but that connection is typically an illusion since people are not apt to climb out the window to be outside. I’m imagining something like a Nana wall system (like this one) where the exterior walls can be moved entirely. The lack of a yard should diminish the possibility of a raccoon walking through the large opening and visiting your kitchen.

– Houses will be sustainable, but not because people feel obligated to protect the environment. They will be sustainable for the same reason we do most things we do – because it’s required by law. California will soon be implementing CalGreen, a provision to the California Building Code requiring buildings to have a certain level of sustainable features. As California goes so does the rest of the nation. In the future there will be nothing special about LEED buildings because the building code will require buildings to meet or exceed LEED standards. Houses will be designed and built to respond to a specific site in order to make use of its natural surroundings, so it will actually be more expensive to plop a standard developer-driven designed home onto a site and to integrate sustainable features into that house.

– Houses will have fully integrated electronics. Everything you plug into the wall (which may not exist in 2025 since all electronics will be powered by wireless systems) will essentially talk to each other. Your home will become a machine for living in (something Le Corbusier preached) in that the home’s energy performance can be measured and understood by the inhabitant. You will receive text messages from your refrigerator when the milk is about to go bad, and your electric car will post something on your Facebook page about how the tires need to be rotated.

– And my final prediction (at least for now) about the house of 2025, one word – slides! Why walk down stairs when you can let gravity do all of the work? Wake up, get ready for work, slide down to the kitchen – WHEEEEE! Eat breakfast, say goodbye to the kids, slide down to the garage – WHEEEEE!

No one knows what the future holds for us, let alone how we’re going to live and what type of architecture we are going to inhabit. The future can be as imaginative as a sci-fi movie, but will probably look more like a sitcom from the 1950s.

Health and architecture

My wife and I recently spent a night in Estes Park for our anniversary. It was just one night, so we decided to splurge a little and stay at the Stanley Hotel.  It’s a hundred year old hotel that has a beautiful history. (One claim of fame is that it’s the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining.) Besides the architectural style and the historical context of its ornamentation, there’s a stark difference between The Stanly Hotel and many contemporary hotels (and by contemporary I mean recently built hotels like the typical Holiday Inn, as opposed to a more modern style) – stairs.

As you walk through the front door of The Stanley Hotel you’re greeted by a wide staircase. There is an elevator next to the main staircase, but you’re pulled into the space by the generous stair and feel almost obligated to use the stair. There is a seating area on the landing between the lobby and the second floor, so the stair is not only a part of the building’s circulation but it becomes a destination.

Of course the stairs in most contemporary hotels are placed sufficiently to abide by current building codes, being placed at the opposite ends of a corridor that is also sufficiently designed to meet current building codes. These stairs are not meant to be used for daily use – they are for proper egress from the building in case of emergency, and they are designed to meet this requirement to a T. There are some building code issues that make it more difficult to build an open stairway between floors in a hotel (fire separation between floors, stuff like that), but it’s definitely not impossible to do.

On the Next American City’s website is an article The Architecture of Healthiness. We usually depend too much on elevators and escalators when walking from one floor to another. The article points out an initiative promoting the use of stairs, and essentially getting a good amount of exercise by just going through our daily routines (instead of allocating a specific time to focus only on exercise).

From the article – “Just two minutes of stair climbing a day burns enough calories to eliminate the one pound an average adult gains each year.”

Designing for natural disasters

A striking difference between the industrialized nations and the third world nations is clear during the aftermath of a natural disaster. The latest example of this disparity is seen in Haiti after the earthquake in January.

Rarely is anyone killed in a chasm in the surface of the earth, swallowing everything in sight. (An example of this can be seen in the movie 2012.) Most deaths that occur during an earthquake (I believe I read it was approximately 80% of deaths) is attributed to the collapse of a building. The structure that provides people protection from the elements proves to be the reason for their demise during an earthquake (as well as during tornadoes and hurricanes).

The aforementioned disparity in regards to the quality of construction usually comes down to two factors: access to quality building materials and supplies, and the establishment and enforcement of relevant building codes. The situation in Haiti is a prime example of these two factors failing gloriously.

Haiti is considered the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. (The one statistic that encapsulates this point to me is the average life expectancy in Haiti. In most nations – industrialized and Caribbean resort nations – the life expectancy is typically in the mid to upper 70s. The average life expectancy in Haiti is in the upper 40s.) A good portion of the homes in Haiti are built of concrete. Strong concrete consists of the proper balance of aggregate (rock, sand, gravel), water, and cement. Cement, unlike the other materials, is a processed material and thus it costs more money than the other materials. Because builders in Haiti can rarely afford the ample amount of cement they will typically use less cement in the concrete mixture, which in turn makes the concrete weaker.

One unfortunate aspect of residential architecture in Haiti is that it must withstand hurricanes. The typical wood beam structure supporting metal roofing doesn’t always perform well in hurricanes, so some homes have a concrete roof (which does just fine with hurricanes). But when the concrete supporting the concrete roofs is weaker than required, now during an earthquake you have the potential of a slab of concrete falling and crushing everything inside the home.

Building codes are usually seen as a hindrance on the design and construction of  a building. The very first building codes were designed to reduce the chances of a single fire burning down an entire city (London and Chicago are great examples), and to eliminate living conditions that promote the spread of disease (New York, where it was typical to have twenty people living in a one hundred square foot room with no natural light or ventilation, is a good example of this). They don’t always make perfect sense, but building codes were developed so that buildings don’t collapse and kill everyone inside.

I’ve heard people say that we should simply not build within a disaster area. Why rebuild when the area will be stricken by another earthquake/flood/tornado/locusts/hurricane? Because where should we build? If we should abandon all disaster areas, then we would have to vacate most of California and the coastal areas of Alaska (earthquakes), the Pacific Northwest (volcanoes and tsunamis, as well as earthquakes), the Gulf Coast Region and Florida (hurricanes and flooding), a good portion of the Midwest (tornadoes, and earthquakes between St. Louis and Memphis), and any area along the Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio Rivers (flooding). So that leaves us the backwoods of West Virginia, and maybe San Diego (which I believe fog is their chief natural disaster).

We’re going to live where we want to live, whether that choice is predicated by personal reasons or cultural and societal traditions. We live in architecture, and that architecture must respond to many climatic, aesthetic, and a myriad of other factors, but just as important it must also respond to the threat of impending natural disasters. Buildings will sometimes fail. The building code does not require a building that is impervious to destruction, but rather designing and constructing a building to its requirements enables a building to stand long enough for all the occupants to vacate the building before it collapses.

We rebuild because we can and should. We rebuild smarter because we must.

Architect’s Newspaper: Interview with co-founder of USGBC David Gottfried

On the Architect’s Newspaper website is an interview with a co-founder of the US Green Building Council, David Gottfried. It’s an interesting interview, especially when he was describing how a 600-year old building Japan with no lighting system or mechanical system provided a comfortable indoor environment when it was 102 degrees outside.