Tag Archives: green architecture

When fenestration was a fad


Architecture, like fashion and music, is driven by fads. I don’t think architects intend to follow another architect’s lead, but it’s very easy to see something you like and try to emulate it. Sometimes these fads promote revolutions that redefine how we design and construct buildings, and ultimately how we live our lives. Other times these fads make us vomit in our mouths.

I live close to a middle school that is in the process of being demolished. I’ve been trying to think of an eloquent segue into why it’s being demolished, but it really comes down to the fact that the damn thing was built without windows and doors.

When this building was being designed, someone (which it’s safe to say the architect whose stamp is on the drawings and the client who paid for its construction) thought that windows and interior doors leading into the classrooms were a bad idea.

I can begin to somewhat understand that maybe this school was an experiment in teaching methodologies, and they (whoever they are) wanted to observe if windows were a distraction to learning, and if doors leading into the classroom were a distraction to learning. There’s a part of me that can see the logic of this thinking, just like how I can see the logic for a drunk person to run head-first into traffic.

I actually know a few people who attended this middle school, and they each said the same thing–the school sucked. There were no windows. The classes were basically in a large open space separated only by thin partitions and no doors, so half the class could hear their teacher while the other half heard the teacher in the adjacent space.

The new school building that replaced the school-of-no-windows is a huge improvement (here are some images of the new school). Of course this new school follows its own fads (mix of mass and space, technology integration, and apparently desks that promote collaboration and cheating).

Fads come and go, and sometimes they come back. But living without fenestration is a fad that apparently ended with a wrecking ball.


Regionalism architecture – more than just style

When the term “regionalism” is used for architecture, it typically denotes an architecture that is derived from its local setting. Unlike most universally designed post-World War II architecture (think glass office buildings, shopping centers, and tract homes), an architecture derived from a regionalism concept becomes inherently site specific, responding to the local climate and culture.

But because of our internationally based economy, construction materials can easily be from across an ocean as they could be from down the street, thus making regionalism architecture more of an aesthetic style emulating the local environment rather than an architecture constructed of regional materials.

The seaweed and wool bricks described in this article bring up an interesting point of creating building materials from abundantly available materials, but are these bricks an answer to an area of the world where mud is abundant and seaweed is something served only at the local Japanese restaurant?

It’s very cool that these bricks, constructed of materials not typically used in masonry, perform better than traditional bricks. But is it worth it (or maybe the proper term should be “appropriate”) to use a building material that may perform a little better than what is required, but needs to be shipped a considerable distance?

When it comes to building materials and sustainability (whether real sustainability or perceived) the “new fad” always seems to be presented as the universal piece of achieving green architecture. Universal – there’s that word again.

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.

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.

Prince Charles, the Environment, and More of that Bad Modern Architecture

I came across this article about how Prince Charles is coming out with a “green” movie (titled Harmony) similar to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.  The article reveals Prince Charles’ willingness to advocate environmental strategies and mentions his commitment to organic farming.  All of this is very commendable and I applaud him for using his influence to promote an obviously noble cause, but I had a very hardy chuckle with the last sentence of the article:

“The publishing house said they expect the book will draw on the prince’s commitment to organic farming, as well as his opposition to genetically modified crops and modern architecture.”

He really dislikes modern architecture.  My previous post gets into that a little.  I’m not too sure what his argument will be in proving how modern architecture lacks the ability to confront our environmental issues.

The truth (dare I say inconvenient truth) about architecture and the environment is that bad architecture is bad for the environment, and by bad I mean a stylized architecture that lacks any reference to the local climate and culture.  I just wanted to share my belief that architecture, despite the style fused into the aesthetics, can easily be made “green” by effectively responding to its specific locale.  Despite Prince Charles’ tastes, a historic architectural style reminiscent of a simpler and more optimistic time in history will not create a simpler and more optimistic contemporary society.  Creating design solutions for our environmental issues will greatly improve our society, whether it’s done with a brick building or a glass and steel building.

McMansions – Welcome to the Architectural Steroid Era


You’ve probably heard the term and wasn’t quite sure exactly what it meant – McMansion.  Is it the official residence of Ronald McDonald?  Is it a house lived in by the Scottish-Irish aristocracy?

The term McMansion refers to the very large houses that have become more prevalent in our suburban and exurban landscape.  Like their fast food counterpart for which their name derives from they are designed within a vacuum of space and time.  Their design is not influenced by site or the owner, but rather the final product is a culmination of fashion and fad added onto a floor plan that lacks innovation and efficiencies.  For a better visual of the definition just think of a 1983 Plymouth Horizon hatchback with chrome 24″ spinner wheels on it.

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Quality as a Means to Sustainability

I am just wrapping up with reading Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouninard, and I have to admit that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the book.  Mr. Chouinard is the founder and owner of Patagonia, an outdoor apparel company that has been talking the talk and walking the walk about sustainable practices.

There was one particular topic in this book that caught my interest that I don’t think gets enough credit when people discuss the attributes of sustainability, and that’s the concept of Quality.  Our American way of life is predicated on an endless loop of consuming and disposing of goods.  People make things, people buy things, people throw away things, and then people make more things for people to buy.  This loop has created many jobs and services related to those things, as well as jobs related for promoting those things and making people believe they need them.  These goods were designed to be disposed, because if they were made to last then why would people buy more of them?  If you’re car came with life-time tires would you ever need to buy another set of tires again?  If you’re computer could easily be upgraded as required for new technologies would you ever buy a new computer?

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