Tag Archives: sustainable

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.


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.

Are CFLs all that good?

This is just something to ponder the next time you see or hear a claim that CFLs (compact fluorescent light bulbs) are better for you. These are the instructions from Energy Star (a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy Program) for cleaning up a broken fluorescent bulb (see near the end of page two of this document):

1.) Before clean-up: Air out the room

– Have people and pets leave the room, and don’t let anyone walk through the breakage area on their way out.

– Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.

– Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system, if you have one.

Can you think of anything else that is good for the environment that requires you (and your pets) to leave the room for 15 minutes in case of breakage? Being “green” sometimes (and by sometimes I mean almost every single time) focuses on one aspect of a product/design/strategy that provides benefits over the status quo, but sometimes those benefits are evened out by the negative attributes of the product/design/strategy.

CFLs use much less energy than incandescent light bulbs, but are not nearly as efficient as LEDs. The color rendition CFL is different from incandescent and LED bulbs (CFLs typically produce a warmer light, which to my dismay made the butterscotch-like colored walls in my house appear more like a puke-green). And CFLs cost a little more than incandescents, which means it’s much much cheaper than LEDs.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t replace your incandescent bulbs with CFLs. A large amount of energy would be conserved if everyone used CFLs. I’m merely offering information to ponder – that green comes in many shades.

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.

Solar Decathlon in D.C.

Living in the American West it’s easy to see how solar energy is considered an abundant natural resource.  Despite staring out my window and watching the snow fall the Front Range of Colorado averages over three hundred days of sunshine. (This of course is not one of those days.)

There is currently a competition being held in Washington, D.C., that demonstrates the potential for incorporating solar energy into future homes. The competition is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, and in their words, “The Solar Decathlon joins 20 college and university teams in a competition to design, build, and operate the most attractive and energy-efficient solar-powered house.”

The competition is a one-to-one scale house experiment on implementing sustainable strategies involving solar energy, and how these strategies drive the aesthetics of the house and essentially make for a healthier living environment.

“Green” burials in Colorado

I came across this article this morning about “green” burials at a cemetery in Fort Collins, Colorado, where it has devoted an acre to people wanting to be buried without being embalmed or being placed in a vault.  I love the quote about how this method of burial returns to the days or yore (at least back to the days of the early settlers in Colorado) where you wrapped up grandma in a blanket and buried her (presuming that she had already passed away before burying her).

I guess I never quite understood why anyone would want his or her remains to last for eons after passing away, unless of course your entombed body held the clue to a large treasure or contained hints as to the secrets of a popular religion (I’m looking right at you Knights Templar).  Whether you prefer the religious view of creation or the scientific view, the same idea goes for both – we were created from the small building blocks  of life, and thus we should probably return back to the same small building blocks of life after we pass away.

Like most “green” trends this may be just another way to charge a premium for receiving a service labeled as responsible and sustainable.  But at least at its core this method for burial refers back to this idea that most (if not all) of our approaches for living on this planet can be improved by understanding how nature solves our same problems.  (Here’s a previous article I wrote going back to the idea of how our problems can be potentially solved by nature.)

And isn’t the point of creating a sustainable environment for our society to create objects, things, buildings, and everything else so that when these items are no longer required they break down into small building blocks again to be reused as something else?  May everything we create follow the cycle of ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Reburbia competition winners

The winners have been announced for the ReBurbia design competition hosted by Inhabitat and dwell.  The winning entries run the gambit of absurd to practical.  The designs include turning decrepit suburban developments into marshland, rezoning residential areas to promote small commercial districts, turning empty big box stores into farms, and the development of filler architecture turning car-friendly environments into a community focused more on the pedestrian.

The purpose of most architectural competitions is to think out of the box (and by that I really mean WAY outside of the box) and really redefine how we build our environment, rather than figure out the logistics for turning these proposed ideas into reality.  If a design makes you question the normative method for creating your reality then you have a winner.