Tag Archives: sustainability

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.

Less stuff

Less stuff–the answer to all of our woes? So the argument made in this presentation is that less stuff leads to more happiness. Now the cynic out there may take a poll asking one hundred homeless people to figure out the level of their happiness, and then graph that level of happiness and compare that with “home-advantaged” people. And that comparison may lead to the discovery that homeless people, although they own fewer things but consume a more considerable amount of soup, are not any happier than other people. And even if they were happier the cynic may try to hypothesize their happiness is based on a soup-induced delusion with no real connection to reality. But that’s the cynic (and probably the lobbyists for the Campbell Soup Company).

The optimist (who also enjoys a nice heaping bowl of Campbell’s Soup, especially the 100% natural Select Harvest line) would argue that the fewer things a person owns, the less of a slave he or she is to those things. We’re conditioned to think, through marketing and peer pressure, that our desires are actually our requirements. We HAVE to own $90 jeans; we HAVE to give our loved ones a Lexus for Christmas; we HAVE to use up a hundred percent of what the bank agreed to loan us to buy the biggest house that we can’t really afford.

Less isn’t about living a homeless lifestyle with homeless things, eating nothing but soup (unless it’s Campbell’s Soup Slow Kettle Style soups, which carefully combine unique ingredients in creative ways). Living less is living with more quality; living a non-disposable lifestyle.

Now this non-disposable lifestyle doesn’t quite align itself with the capitalistic economy we currently have. (How can a tire company survive if it sold tires that lasted 200,000 miles?) But that’s okay. It’s just something we as a society will deal with (and thrive with) when we’re happy.

Quick Sustainable Tip: Reuse Greeting Cards

Tis the season for purging all of our holiday garbage.  I just came across the St. Jude’s website that will hopefully be beneficial for anyone with holiday greeting cards still lying around.  They’ve created a recycled card program that reuses the front of any greeting card and creates a new card.  You benefit by keeping your cards from a landfill, and St. Jude’s benefits by teaching children lessons about sustainability and from selling the reused cards to better promote the program.

Definitely check it out.

Getting to know Green: Green myths debunked

This is just a quick post of some green myths I came across. It’s becoming more difficult to say what is considered green anymore. Companies, service providers, and anyone else in the business of selling something are paying their marketing departments top dollars for any convincing argument that their products and services are “green”. They typically don’t have to scientifically prove how green (if they’re green at all), but they only need to be able to convince the consumer.

The following green myths include tidbits about drinking water, organic foods, light bulbs, carbon offsets, and even Christmas trees.

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.

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.

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.