Category Archives: triple bottom line

What should be the next urbanism buzzword?

Apparently the term “smart growth” is out of style as much as a Sony Walkman and Crystal Pepsi (tastes just like Pepsi, and now with more transparency!). In this article on Next American City’s website they are looking for the next urbanism buzzword. So, for you who are not in the know about urbanism slang (which I mean slang used by city planners, not urban youths), “smart growth” is out, and “intelligent cities” is in.

I’m not sure if the next urbanism buzzword will change anything. We use these terms to succinctly describe (apparently in two words or less) the strategy of designing our built environment and of protecting our natural environment. Seems like for something so important we could get away with using at least three or four words. These terms at least try to communicate a way to design our cities with a more holistic approach rather than a focusing on each parcel of land as though it existed in the vacuum of space-time.

So, if you’ve read all of Nostradamus’ quatrains and feel like sharing with the rest of us on what will be the next urbanism buzzword, you can post your suggestion via Twitter @NextAmCity, or on their Facebook page.



Green design predictions for 2011

There’s a certain power exuded by making predictions. Sometimes that power is real, and other times that power is either a handful of optimism or pessimism.

I came across an article filled with “green” predictions for 2011 conjured (there’s my optimism) by some noteworthy architects and members of the media. The predictions range from the conceptual to the basic premise of sharing with others.

And because I love to make predictions (when everyone has a slide in their homes you’ll think I’m the next Nostradamus), I’ll keep my predictions (at least for now) on the conceptual level. My bold (and remember, very conceptual) green design predictions for 2011:

1) People will choose quality over quantity, at a micro and macro level, and in all facets of their lives.

2) People will comprehend and practice reduce, reuse, and recycle (in that order).

3) Society will reduce its dependency on fossil fuels and will instead meet its energy needs with faberge eggs and bald eagle skulls. (Wait a second, that’s not very green… strike that last prediction.)

The article for green design predictions for 2011 can be found here:

Work and the office (or how a designer is different than an architect)

Work. For most people it’s a verb that doesn’t happen at the noun.

I discovered quit a few years ago that, at least for an architect, that sitting in front of a computer in a cubicle is one of the most least inspiring places to work. The work of an architect involves developing inspiring designs that provide solutions, complex code and constructability issues, and creating advanced and highly detailed documentation in order to build what we’ve designed. And we’re supposed to accomplish this by sitting in a cubicle?

Work, like too many things that mold our lives, is defined by established and sometimes archaic boundaries that are in place only because we accept them. If work didn’t suck then it wouldn’t be work. But what if work didn’t have to suck? What if you looked forward to going to work? What if the place you call work was inspiring and productive?

This is one of many facets of architecture that the general public doesn’t realize – architects redefine the perception of what something can be. A designer will approach a bad workplace by providing more natural light, getting newer furniture, and maybe incorporating a different color palette. An architect will start with the very core of the problem – why does work suck. We understand design issues, but we also understand issues of human interaction in formal and informal settings, spatial perceptions and how it affects productivity, and methods for increasing the chances of a more accommodating work environment.

Of course we can’t solve every single issue within a work place because it still comes down to the people in that office. If the people are just the biggest jerks on the planet then the greatest design won’t make them better people. But the architecture won’t be a hindrance.

Jason Fried’s talk is relatively short. If anything watch it and begin to question the norm of your office work place.


Why do I need an architect? Reason #11 – We’re trained to identify crap design

Crap is one of my favorite words in the English language. The fact the word is both singular and plural is a reminder that more of a bad thing does not make it any better. More of crap is still crap. It doesn’t matter how much of it you have, it’s still crap.

This is completely relevant to design. Of course what is considered good design and what’s bad design will always be predicated on the personal preferences and prejudices, likes and dislikes, and whether you woke up on the right side of the bed. But there’s a level for judging architectural design that transcends the aforementioned measures, and it’s based on its crap factor.

I have discovered that it actually takes years to hone in on this ability for identifying crap. I look in those floor plan magazines and see it everywhere. I see inexperienced people trying to pull off a design for a commercial space and I see it. I watch a home improvement show on television and I catch a glimpse of it.

I don’t mean to sound like an elitist, and propagate the architectural cliché that all architects are design snobs and look down at all other architects’ work. The crap I see isn’t based on design aesthetics or style. The crap I and other architects identify is a result of placing ourselves in the design and thinking about how the space is to be used, how people will feel inside the space, how much natural light and air will penetrate the space, how will people travel through the space, how will important moments in people’s lives be framed by the space, how will it be constructed and how will those materials affect the space, how will the space benefit the owners financially and psychologically, how will the space kick butt.

We architects understand the constant pull and push between the tangible and the intangibles of the design. There is a sweet spot when designing a space, and it’s not achieved by making every space bigger and louder. A space for congregating can’t be too small because it’ll feel like everyone in the room is sitting on top of each other, but it can’t be too large because the social interaction will feel awkward and disconnected. Architects are trained for finding that sweet spot.

This begins to touch on the idea of quality over quantity. Due to a myriad of financial reasons a lot of developers are beginning to build smaller homes, which is a right step for finding that sweet spot in design. It’s real easy to be impressed with big, but there is a rule in architecture that permeates into everything in life – more of a bad thing is still a bad thing, especially if it’s crap.

Why there’s no such thing as Big Green

There are many shades of green, and apparently anyone trying to sell you something is trying to convince everyone that their green is the best shade. Green has many definitions and variations, so in an attempt to explain to people what green truly is I typically default to the sustainable mantra of Reduce-Reuse-Recycle. Most buildings constructed before the Industrial Revolution were considered sustainable (if you consider that these buildings produced nearly no pollution and were built from local materials), so green doesn’t have to include shiny hi-tech gizmos.

So this is why I default to the Reduce-Reuse-Recycle concept for explaining green (in order from worse to best):

Recycle – SOMETHING is made from raw materials and energy. SOMETHING is then shipped to stores where people purchase it. SOMETHING is then used, and then shipped to a recycling center where energy is used to turn SOMETHING is turned into SOMETHING ELSE. SOMETHING ELSE is then shipped to stores, and the cycle continues. SOMETHING has the potential to end up in a landfill.

Reuse – SOMETHING is made from raw materials and energy. SOMETHING is then shipped to stores where people purchase it. Then SOMETHING is used, and used, and used some more. SOMETHING has the potential to end up in a landfill.

Reduce – NOTHING is made from raw materials and energy. NOTHING is then shipped to stores where people purchase it. Then NOTHING is used. NOTHING has the potential to end up in a landfill.

So Reduce has the greatest potential of saving the most raw materials and energy. It’s obviously not the sexiest choice when it comes to conveying how green a person or company can be. (Would you believe a company’s ad if they stated “We’re green because of all of the things we didn’t do” – probably not.)

So is there such thing as a green mansion? I guess this questions parallels a question about “green” cars – which is more green, a large hybrid SUV that makes 20 miles per gallon or a compact car with a typical gas engine that makes 32 miles per gallon? There are families of eight that require a large SUV so that they can go places in one vehicle. My math tells me that when this family travels 40 miles they will use 2 gallons of fuel in the large hybrid SUV, and 2.5 gallons of fuel by taking two compact cars.

So green is (or at least should be) based on a per person basis. A 10,000 square foot mansion can be considered green, if there are around sixteen people living in the mansion. (Despite the average American family being 2.5 people and the average American home being 2,400 square feet, I’m using 600 square feet of living space per person. I had a 600 square foot apartment once, and I thought it was the perfect amount of space for me and my stuff, and not too big for me to clean.)

The architect in this article argues that green is dependent of size. I completely disagree with this argument (as well as the notion that you’re a greener person just because you drive a Prius), as well as the architect’s argument that being told your mansion isn’t considered green is somehow a sign of socialism. (If the land the house was built upon and the means of production and distribution of building materials were owned by a single collective then he might have a point, but since they aren’t then he’s coming across like he’s a whiner.)

Green resides in that gray area between what a person needs to live comfortably and what a person requires to show off to other people.

Is being green too unique to finance?

A house is a house is a house. They typically include spaces for sleeping, cooking, and all the other tasks involved with living. The walls are vertical, the floors are horizontal, and the roof is somewhere in between. It’s a great place to keep you and your stuff out of the elements. The interiors become a reflection of the tastes and design sense of the inhabitants, and the exterior is a reflection of the tastes and design sense of the developer. So is there a problem designing and constructing a house – the interior as well as the exterior and any green features – that is too unique?

And by unique I don’t mean style. Visit any recent New Urbanism neighborhood (despite its location within the country) and you’ll find Victorians adjacent to Tudors adjacent to Georgian adjacent Egyptian adjacent to Santa Barbara adjacent to Inuit. What I mean by unique is a construction method that’s part ad-hoc and part regionalism. This method saves materials from being placed in a landfill, responds well to the local climate (thus saving energy), and saves lots of money. It sounds like a win-win situation, but could you get it financed?

The largest influence on our cities and neighborhoods isn’t designers, or building code officials, or contractors, or even city planners – it’s the banker. All of our stores and homes and offices follow the golden rule – he who has the gold makes the rules. Everything we build has to be financed, and the bankers lending that money don’t like different and unpredictability.

This article is a great example of being too different is not financially feasible, at least in the eyes of a (gross generalization) banker. It’s the reason that for the last twenty years our neighborhoods look the same, our strip malls look the same, and our office buildings look the same. (Funny how the primary engine for capitalism has led to a built environment that embodies a communistic appearance of sameness and blandness – just my two cents.)

A house should be as unique as the location it’s built and its inhabitants, despite the golden rule.