Tag Archives: Sustainable Design

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.


Proposed Raised House in New Orleans

I just added a new design under Past Projects–something that was inspired by the homes I saw built for the Make It Right organization in New Orleans.

I think Make It Right is an incredibly noble cause, and Brad Pitt and everyone else associated with it should be commended.

I also think some of the houses can be designed better.

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.

Home of the future — 2015 edition

Despite there being a whole lot of pessimism in the architecture and construction industries today (thanks a lot Mayans), we will someday need new homes built. I know it sounds like a farfetched idea that somehow the current building stock won’t last us for another hundred years, but these new homes will need to be built adapting to current trends in design and energy use.

I came across this article on Yahoo! about homes built in 2015. Yes, 2015 sounds like this futuristic time when cars will fly, all diseases will be cured, and people will be able to share their music libraries between two different iPods. How different will our homes be in this future?

Probably the most obvious, due to many outside forces, is that homes will be smaller. Less to heat, less to cool, less to clean, less volume to fill up with crap, and less to build. Humans can definitely get by with less than 2,400 square feet of space, but Americans may have a harder time than most other cultures. But there are many “design devices” that can be used to make a smaller house seem much larger, such as increased window area (which will have to be cleverly shaded when the sun is not wanted) and placement of windows, and more open-space within the interior. Higher ceilings (but not too high) also work incredibly well. (They allow warm air to rise above the occupants, and simply make a room feel larger.)

Other design attributes listed from this article:

Spacious laundry rooms–as long as the laundry room is serving as another space, such as a hobby space or as a space to practice your jai alai.

Master suite walk-in closets–sure, just go against everything I said about smaller spaces.

Porches–an exterior space that, with the correct placement of decently sized exterior doors (like a Nana wall), can make an interior space feel much larger. It also adds a connection between the resident and the rest of the neighborhood by providing a place to enjoy your home while potentially meeting neighbors walking by. And it looks like the Cleavers house, which corresponds to my theory that architecture is slowly resetting itself back to 1950.

Eat-in kitchens–the death of the formal dining room means having another place to eat other than a tv tray next to the couch.

Two-car garages–come on, who doesn’t want a garage large enough to do doughnuts inside of while driving a Mini Cooper? Or at least an alternate space to play jai alai when the laundry room is occupied?

Ceiling fans–sort of like a fashion designer saying that the future of pants is a button with a zipper? The point is that we will become more dependent on efficient means of cooling like a ceiling fan than on air conditioning. We have an automatic response of turning on an A/C when the temperatures eek past our comfort zone. Our future society will need to learn that it’s okay to be 85% comfortable.

I look forward to a future of doing doughnuts in my garage learning to live more sustainable.

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:


Architecture of wellness

There are many rules and guidelines that regulate the built environment. For the most part these rules and guidelines are in place to benefit the wellness of its occupants. The first building code involved protecting cities from completely burning down when a single fire would break out (think London and Chicago). As building codes evolved there became building codes that required fresh air in people’s sleeping quarters, stable construction so that buildings wouldn’t collapse during a minuscule earthquake, enough exits in a building so that everyone inside could exit in case of an emergency, and so on and so forth.

But what’s missing are guidelines on how a building promotes well-being. We spend a majority of our lives inside buildings, so doesn’t it make sense that buildings should be required to make your life better? Of course buildings improve life at a minimal level – they keep us warm when it’s cold outside (and vice versa), they’re fitted with electricity so that we can refrigerate our food, they protect us from bears – but do they improve life?

If you look at our homes and offices, you can easily argue that our built environment promotes a sedentary lifestyle. There’s a balance between providing resources for promoting a healthy lifestyle and the stimulation for motivating people to want a healthy lifestyle. If most suburban homes were within a quarter of a mile of a grocery store, and the path between these homes and the grocery store were designed to focus on the pedestrian (such as not requiring people to cross six lanes of traffic moving at fifty miles per hour, or not walking across acres of parking lot) then it’s safe to say that more people would walk to the store. But our built environments are generally designed to be focused on people traveling by car, so most people decide not to walk over a mile and across six lanes of traffic and parking lots. The same can be said of office buildings making it more convenient (and more accepting) to use the elevator than the stairs, especially in a two or three-story building.

I found the above sign near a pedestrian bridge in Denver that connects Lower Downtown with the Platte Valley neighborhood. I don’t know if the sign was in response to gang warfare between rival tai chi and tae bo classes, or if a group of weightlifters were trying to clean and jerk cars in the adjacent parking lot, but it seems to me that this sign epitomizes the problem with a built environment that is unable to promote a healthier lifestyle. There should be signs in every building that state “Please exercise“.

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.


What’s old is new again – the American city

We as a culture, as a society, and even as a species are infatuated with the future. We look for trends that will tell us what stocks to buy, which team to win the game, which neighborhood to live in, and which type of car will save us money. Design tries the same thing as far as figuring out what the future will bring us, but the inherent problem with design trying to forecast the future is that it goes against the primary purpose for design – to solve problems. We design to solve problems, so if we don’t know what the chief problems are needing to be solved in the future then the design becomes art – philosophically inspirational, but functionally useless (unless the art is being used to prop a door open to allow a breeze in).

Design in the 20th century – especially in regards to architecture and urban planning – was paramount with redefining the 19th century city. The high density, mixed uses, and a focus on the pedestrian and centralized transportation were replaced with sparse development, separated uses, and a focus on the automobile with decentralized transportation. For the most part this modern approach to urban planning has failed (or at least is in the process of failing), and I guess it’s failed because it really wasn’t solving a problem. I think like other modern approaches to architectural design the new way of creating an urban fabric didn’t complement (or even try to complement) with what worked with the existing model of designing and constructing our urban environment. Instead of improving upon what already worked it started from scratch in an effort to redefine how people lived, and with that set itself up for complete failure.

So here we are, living in the early part of the 21st century. We’re already a full decade into the new millennium, and the trend in urban design does not involve blocks of equally spaced high-rises as far as thee eye can see, or living in large biomes designed to accommodate a million people, or space colonies that can be reached by space elevators. The look and feel of most newly designed urban environments look more like the 19th century American city.

As I read this article about the renaissance of streetcars in American cities, I began to think how future American cities will probably look more like 19th century cities. A lot of resources (money and materials) are devoted to the accommodation of automobiles in our cities. There is a fine balance between how many people a city can house with how many automobiles can be handled by its streets. If our cities are designed in a manner that requires every resident to own a car then there is a maximum number of residents a city can have before people have to move further away from the city.

In 2003 London created the Congestion Charge Zone in an effort to reduce the amount of automobiles driving through Central London. This might seem like a crazy idea, but I feel that larger cities will someday eliminate most vehicular traffic through their most dense areas. The less vehicular traffic means fewer resources and less land devoted to the automobile, which means more land to construct buildings to house more people and offices. And that translates a larger dependence on public transportation, which means less automobile ownership. And this ultimately means a city that looks more like the 19th century.

Highways connect as well as disconnect

When the Interstate Highway System was first constructed in this country, it was envisioned that limited-access divided highways would provide faster, and thus more direct, connections between cities. These highways would promote free trade (quicker delivery times between farming communities and the major metropolitan areas) and provide a means for deploying defensive forces in case of a nuclear attack. (Notice how the loop highways around major cities are beyond the blast zone of an atomic/nuclear explosion when detonated downtown.)

The interstate highways have also provided connections between business districts (within a city as well as suburban areas) and residential zones. Despite these meaningful connections the highways have provided a permanent disconnect between adjacent areas. Interstate highways have typically reduced the vehicular and pedestrian connections between each side of the highways (overpasses and underpasses cost money).

One great example of this disconnect is in downtown St. Louis. The postcard image of downtown St. Louis always shows the Jefferson Expansion Memorial (known as “The Arch” to all of its friends) standing tall along the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, with the modest skyline residing behind. What the postcard doesn’t illustrate is the chasm separating the Arch grounds from downtown – Interstate 70. Highways are wide vehicular friendly areas that for some reason dissuade people from crossing. (Maybe it’s something in our DNA that goes back tens of thousands of years ago when we weren’t at the top of the food chain, and any time we walked across an expansive open plain we would typically be eaten by something higher up on the food chain.)

There is an architectural competition hoping to solve the interstate chasm between downtown St. Louis and The Arch. Of course this issue isn’t just in St. Louis, but also in most major cities with an interstate highway dissecting one vital neighborhood from another (which includes all major cities).

The solution needs to solve two issues – provide a connection between one end of the highway and the opposite end, and provide a connection between one side of the highway and the opposite side. The solution goes away from the either/or attitude that was predominant for designing our built environment after World War II (a circulation path is for either cars or pedestrians) and begins to embrace the pre-World War II attitude of both/and (a circulation path is for both cars and pedestrians).

One more hint that the City of Tomorrow will look like the City of Yesteryear.

Embodied energy in residential construction

This is a very short TED talk given by Catherine Mohr, who discusses the amount of embodied energy in building a new home. I like this talk because it goes beyond the typical rhetoric of “green” construction that promotes ripping out your existing flooring and installing bamboo flooring throughout, and replacing your newly installed plumbing fixtures for ones that are just a little better.

I definitely promote a more simply method for approaching sustainable strategies, but there comes a time when living in a new energy-efficient home instead of continuing to live in an energy inefficient home. Sure, demolishing your existing inefficient home involves sending materials to the local landfill, but designing and building a home that responds to the local climatic conditions and uses a lot less resources to heat and cool will payoff in a short amount of time.