Posts Tagged ‘sustainability’

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The seen can also see.

February 13, 2017

Land for Sale

House for Sale

Which is better, house or the hilltop?

Strip Mine

German Castle

Anyone who has driven down an interstate through a hilly or mountainous area in the US has seen these places.  I often wonder what piece of psychology makes a home owner want to live on top of a mountain enough to cut off said mountain top?

Strip mining  for example – I think I just compared a house to a strip mine – is understandable.  Miners must cut off the mountain to get the coal, which makes them a lot of money.  It is what they value.  Big box retailers like Walmart do this too, which is also understandable.  They want to be seen from the freeway.  It brings them more customers.

Historically, people went to considerable trouble to build on promontories as an act of defense, because the locations were hard to attack.  They were very visible, and of course, the seen can also see.  Which may be key to my question.  Maybe the mountain top home owner likes the view.  For a second this is believable, certainly it is what he or she would tell anyone inclined to listen.  Then one realizes that the little house half way down the hillside most likely has an equally breathtaking view, until a “Pile-A-House” was plunked into the main site line, that is!

Romantically – Has the mountain top home owner romanticized the historic castle?  Does he or she think the pile of bricks, mortar, wood panels and asphalt shingles is somehow it’s equal, or perhaps better.  Is there a place for the natural mountain top in this line of thinking?

Unfortunately, I don’t know the answer.  I do wish they would stop it, though!  One thing I know is that a good architect could fit a house up there without making the neighbor want to move.  More population must mean less nature.  Careful consideration of where not to build leads to challenges about how we actually do.  Challenges best met by an architect.

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What’s in a name?

May 18, 2016

Name Dropping – Did you ever notice that real estate people like to insert the names of house styles into their conversations with potential buyers?  “…nice to meet you.  I have a move in ready Center Hall Colonial to show tomorrow.” or “…there is a Mid-Century Modern neighborhood that generates a lot of interest.”  The local historical committee, of course, has raised name dropping to an art form.  Here in Old Town they are the designated authority, champion and voice of all things Georgian and very present at all meetings of the local architectural review board.

Name Listing – There is a list of house styles on Wikipedia with which, truth be told, I have a lot of fun.  I can’t wait to tell some realtor that I would like to see a Dingbat house?  No kidding.  It really exists!  It is also possible to get creative and customize these terms.  I actually thought of this a few years ago when a potential client brought a fist full of photos to a meeting.  She repeatedly told me how much she like Regency style design.  The photos were of mirrored replicas made into furniture and finishes of what appeared to be every decorative cliche ever invented by Thomas Sheraton, all of it originating from some shop like Pier One.  What, I thought, would one call these?  We could say Meta Modern or Pseudo Modern ( I will let you look those up) which seem to be buzz words that include all things previous.  How about Post Modern Revival of Regency Revival?  That ought to cover it.  I think putting things into categories gives us a feeling of control.  Although not much in the way of actual control.

Name Cancelling – Does not even the lowest budget shopper have a vision or image relating to his or her expectations about where they hope to live?   Think cottage and white picket fence a là now deceased American Dream.  What guides this?  I don’t think it has anything to do with style, named or real, unless that style somehow fits into the larger world of the individual’s past residential experience, turned into a dream or not.  Anyone looking to define a future stylistic paradigm might do well to flush out what is common in places we have lived in the recent past.  No easy task in an increasingly small and populated world and further complicated by the manipulations of large scale planners defining a built environment according to their particular terms.

Name Hunting – I have a friend, raised in an urban apartment block, these days sporting a million plus house budget in a quaint suburban neighborhood and hard pressed to find an acceptable house.  She has been conditioned to think of  a house as a commodity, with stylistic taste leaning towards the McMansion, she will consider only new construction and is completely put off by a yard of any size.  Her ideas about security and building in general are still involved with her roots in the apartment block.  As a member of a larger similarly inclined shopping group, she is influencing the look of a neighborhood because developers do very good market research.  They understand and deliver the absolute minimum that must be provided in order to satisfy this customer.  Expanding a customer’s  horizons is only part of the program to the extent necessary to sell a newly built home.  More complex, better assimilated options are never offered and existing housing is mostly ignored.

Name Finding – The word “finding” may be a little misleading (it fit in the text).  It is more as if a new style, rather than directly resulting from the search, just appears, although the looking is still required, and I might add, is considered to be a high intellectual activity in the world of architectural scholars. It is the result of a dialectical process, where the tension between the dominant old style and the emerging newer style become so great that the whole conflict collapses into something else.  It is like the invisible whole, which is greater than the sum of the parts, suddenly becomes visible and Voila, a new style is there.  This line of thinking, of course, comes from the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a favorite of mine, distained by many, and begging the question, what is the emerging new style?  Is it already implemented?  Will it be defined by the spatial needs of an expanding population or the desire to be “green?”  Will it return to nature like a Hogan, or the earth like a Sod House.  Maybe it will look like my favorite Parkitecture!  Could we see a Modern Farmhouse, or how about a Star Wars version of the Rumah Gadang?  That might work.  Whatever the new name, I am pretty sure that some combination of its elements will be easy to locate in the afore mentioned list of house styles!

Images are used under Creative Commons from Flickr and Wikipedia or owned by the author.  Please contact us for the links.

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Architecture: Density by Idea or Ideal

May 28, 2015

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jsorbie/2605651701/in/photolist-4Y

Recently the AIA launched a national campaign entitledLook Up.”

Without going deep into the pros and cons of how successful the add is at raising awareness about what architects really do – REAL being the operative word – I would suggest that the ad is most inspiring to those who authored it; the rest of us, not so much.  In the name of fairness, though, I decided to try it, looking up that is.  As it turned out, it was not necessary to look very high.  I found the perfect parti for high density green housing sitting on top of a back yard pole happily posted to flickr.  This mini neighborhood of individuals suggests a happy counterpoint to the uniformity of developer housing.  It makes me want to turn it into an apartment building.

Architecture is kind of an “old man’s” profession, or old woman’s as the case may be.  This is not an accident.  It is a necessity resulting from the years of experience required for a practitioner to develop the skill and knowledge base that enables him or her to actualize a successful project, a fact that is becoming ever more true as the information base steadily increases.  Since, for “old men” looking back is unavoidable, long memories come with the territory and probably influence a design idea.  Younger architects, unencumbered by memories, are more apt to look forward toward some design ideal.  Somehow the advertising executives have pick up on the subtle difference between the idea and the ideal and come down decidedly in favor of the latter.  The bird houses in the photo, on the other hand,  sends us in pursuit of the former.

I wonder if  Villa Savoye, completed by Le Corbusier at the beginning of his career when he was 41, is the result of and idea or an ideal?  Either way, “Towards a New Architecture”  clearly outlines a plan of  action.

a. transcendent entity that is a real pattern of which existing things are imperfect representations: idea
b. a standard of perfection : ideal
c. a plan for action : design
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Architecture: Making Function Follow Form?

February 24, 2015
passive solar house

Passive Solar House A

I am a big fan of passive house design.  I buy books about it, read blogs about it, go to trade shows about it,  watch other architects design about it, go to open houses about it, and mostly dream about it.  Somehow my architectural visions always ends up looking more like house B than house A .  Reality, on the other hand, usually ends up looking the other way around.  Why, I ask myself,  is this?  As I am fond of mentioning, did not Louis Sullivan, after all, poetically state.

“Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun,  form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change. The granite rocks, the ever-brooding hills, remain for ages; the lightning lives, comes into shape, and dies, in a twinkling.  It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.”

In theory, and in reality too, there can be no doubt that form does, indeed, follow function.  For architects, a problem only presents itself when we don’t like the way said form ends up looking.  In this case there is really only one real choice.  Modify the form.  That can be done legally by changing the function, usually by making it more complex.  We see that the South facing sun room in house B also serves as an entry with architecturally agreeable results.  Pure function, as demonstrated in the green house attached to house A, can be a bit hard to take.  What is an architect to do?  I say, change the way it looks, legal or not.

passive solar house

Passive Solar House B

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Architecture: Realism; Metabolism; Idealism & the Laundry

November 17, 2014
3016726186_bc6b0968d7_o

Realism

Presume

Hong Kong is known for high density living, usually in the form of “Modern” apartment blocks like the one here, and trust me, it is surreal for a Westerner to wake up expecting to see the morning sky only to discover an intimate view of a couple of hundred neighbors looking back at you from the same exactly measured boxes only made different by colorful laundry strung helter-skelter like banners in all directions.  Add the noise and smell of rush hour boat traffic on the Aberdeen channel below, and you have a picture of middle class life in Ap Lei Chau.  But I digress, this is not a travel blog.  Finally, I end up smitten with the sheer visual mass;  rigid, regular, homogenous structural framework completely animated by the chaos of life.  One without the other is unthinkable.  Such was the vision packed happily away in my photos file until I was forced, by a recent article about sustainably built apartments, to to dust it off.

Metabolism

Metabolism

Postulate

During the late 50’s and early 60’s; and keeping in mind that architectural academics love anything that can be defined by the attachment of an “ism” to the end of a word, a Japanese mega thinker and luminary by the name of Kiyonori Kikutake along with 3 others came up with a philosophy that has come to be known in architectural circles as “Metabolism.”  Motivated, at its core, by the quest for more versatile solutions to the ever expanding post war urban environments, Metabolism had some interesting manifestations.  Kikutake, for example, proposed supporting apparently floating floor planes in multistory buildings with structural mesh; think structural columns that look like Chinese finger traps.  Floor planes, as it turns out, were not the only thing he floated.  In response to the scarcity of urban real estate he actually designed an entire floating city.

Not to be overlooked was Kisho Kurokawa, another perhaps more pragmatic member of the group, who contributed to the architectural notions of Metabolism by the introduction off organic structural flexiblity in the form of capsule architecture, a real live example being the Nakagin Capsule Tower shown in the photo.  Removable pods were actually made in a shipping container factory.

realism

Idealism

Proclaim

Sustainability being the current architectural mantra, the image in the article (India Art n Design:  Mongkok Residence – Sustainability & the Skyline) is, nevertheless, mostly remarkable because the apartment is nestled between two modern towers.  Dialectically speaking, what could more completely summarize the issue.  Funny thing about opposites; they cannot be opposite unless they are somehow alike.  No matter how they are skewed, upon what type of rigid or flexible structural frame they rest, whether the boxes are fabricated in a container factory or simply real containers, boxes piled one on top of another end up looking like piled up boxes.  Quite possibly, they only become something else by introduction of the infinitely chaotic laundry.

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Unmobile Home: Humor but No Joke

September 15, 2014

unmobile home

My Dream Home?

Would it be believable if I said this is my dream home?  Ok, maybe not.  It does though display several key elements which are the stuff of my particular architectural fantasy.  It is no secret that I have pondered  possible ways of adapting a standard “off the dealer lot,” mobile home into architecture.  Further, if the difference between art and architecture is reality, also previously concluded, then this is art.  Considered in such a light, this may contain humor but it is not a joke.  What’s more, because it is on stilts, another big area of interest opens up.  Aside from the characteristics of the piers, in this case concrete, there is all that space under the house, complete with promise and problems in similar measure.  For now, let’s leave the promise to imagination, yours and mine, and take up the problems.

Doing What Air Does.

Before I get into a discussion of how a house on stilts might easily be kept warm and toasty in Northern winters, let me risk repeating, “I have a psychological aversion to creeping things crawling around under the house.”  I like the idea of inserting some air.  The space insulates and creates an experience by conjuring all manner of pleasant spacial opportunities.  Opportunities, I think, worth pursuing, even in a cold climate.  The obvious problem of course is all that cold air lurking under the warm house all winter long and looking to do what air does in this environment which is rise.  Great in the hot summer, not so much in the winter.  The subject is bandied and hashed over to a larger extent than could possibly be considered here.  For an exhaustive discussion I happily sent the reader here.  The general idea being that in order to keep out the cold it is necessary to super seal up every path of air infiltration and super insulate the floor, in that order of priority.  To avoid freezing encapsulating the plumbing in a warm chase is also necessary.

Is There Anything New?

So what, one might ask is new here?  The answer, of course, is nothing, until another of my favorite “responsible building” technologies is introduced into the mix.  Consider what might be accomplished if the space under the house were used to store and distribute hot air, preferably but not necessarily, from a solar source, and further if the space were flexible, offering a source of cool air in summer a lot like what is done in my favorite Japanese OM Solar homes.  In the end the solution is complex but maybe not so complicated.  There are many after market products that might fit into such a system.  Transpired solar collector panels, for example, are now available for residential use.  Likewise heat storage might be provided by a prefabricated concrete slab or piers.  Devising the air handling and distribution system might require and expert, preferably one who has tried something like this before.  The house after all is quite little and the technology very big.

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Architects & Mobile Homes: Between Ponderance and Pragmatism

July 3, 2014

Many architects, we are told in this article, though totally interested in reinventing the mobile home, have jumped forward to all new modular, prefab type units, somehow leaving the original idea far behind.  Happy I am to agree and further say, please do not count me into that group.  For a solid 10 years, if not more, I have been pondering  possible ways of adapting an intact mobile home, the kind that comes directly from a dealers lot, into an uncommon sub-urban abode.  Why, one might ask, think so long?  My response;  between ponderance and pragmatism is the wall of perceived obstacles upon which is sit.  Since hurdling it would probably assign me too, to the school of reinvention, I guess I’ll sit a little longer.

Here are a just a few of those obstacles, perceived or not:

  • The floors always bounce in these.
  • I am not sure I want to deal with that much vinyl.  If you have ever had a whiff of a dollar store shower curtain you know what I mean?
  • I was wondering how one of these would do in a blower door test?  I could be really good….probably not.
  • I have a psychological aversion to creeping things crawling around under the house.  They offend my sense of neat.
  • I worry about some shady character hack sawing a hole in the plywood and shimmying up through the floor in order  to make off with my Timex.
  • I cannot imagine how these things are framed.  Yes, I have seen the diagrams too, but can they be believed and would a manufacturer part with critical information.
  • If I pull down all of the interior wall panels, presumably fabricated from some undefined material, will I be horrified by what I find?
  • If, in an effort to change the ceiling and floor finish, I do the same thing, is there a good possibility that I will be looking at air?
  • How does one make a semi trailer hurricane resistant.  This a very architectural notion, i.e., things are never water proof.  They are water resistant.

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Where there’s light there’s heat!

April 12, 2014

Just in case you didn’t know, a heliostat is “an instrument consisting of a mirror mounted on an axis moved by clockwork by which a sunbeam is steadily reflected in one direction.” In the video the light is directed in a way that spreads it onto an area of a building that would otherwise be in shadow due to either location or adjacent buildings.

Light is reflected off of the curved surface of the mirror in a way that all the reflections intersects at a single point.  This is  where the solar collector is mounted in order to harvest the maximum amount of energy.

Light is reflected off of the curved surface of the mirror in a way that all the reflections intersects at a single point. This is where the solar collector is mounted in order to harvest the maximum amount of energy.

This is a somewhat unusual application of a heliostat as these are more often used to concentrate rather than spread light out.  Which they do based on the optics of the impacted surfaces. Any child with a magnifying glass can tell you about how this is done. My brother started a brush fire like this once.

solar cartoon

I guess this could be called a modified heilostat as the light is first magnified, which is probably a misnomer as it is really being concentrated by the optics of the glass through which it passes. When the light gets concentrated so does the heat.

It all comes down to a basic rule about light, taught to architects in school, which states that, for specular reflection, the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection.  This concept has always provided me with a source of entertaining mental gymnastics, not so  much for the ability to move light into unexpected places, as for the accompanying source of heat.  I kept thinking it would be a way to heat the house.  At the time, I was a student, and my son just a child.  We sometimes meandered through the neighborhood speculating on how a big magnifying glass might be installed in some roof  so that the heat from the concentrated light might be directed toward an interior pool.  My son loved the idea of a pool in the living room and I thought that it was really just hot water heat.  When we describe the idea to my husband, he said were apt to set the house on fire.

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Solar Epiphany and an Octopus

March 2, 2014

Gravirt Feed FurnaceAny one who has looked at my professional website  knows that I have a longtime interest is responsible building.  Since I started this blog I have been intending to write about some of these subjects.  Not wanting to be repetitive in a field already stricken with information overload, I have delayed until I could find a fresh approach, which may or may not be now.

Either way, here  is an image of what I consider to be my first real and pivotal experience with all things green.  It is a gravity feed furnace, which, if the heating blogs are to be believed, should be disposed of posthaste.  I was raised in a house, previously discussed, with one of these in the basement.  It was complete with huge asbestos wrapped ducts that reached up to the floor supply diffusers located in every room.  It had few moving parts, plus the added advantage of staying on even if the power went out.  The one in our house was converted from coal to gas.  As children we warmed ourselves by standing on the supply vents after coming in on freezing winter days.  The house was a converted barn made tight with asbestos siding and warmed by natural convection.  I never remember a draft or temperature fluctuation.  We simply trusted that our house would be warm and comfortable all during many miserable Great Lakes winters.  Of course the house has long been sold but it is actually possible that this furnace is still chugging away after what could be something like 70 years.

OM Solar solar hot air heating system in Winter

OM Solar solar hot air heating system in Winter

OM Solar solar hot air cooling system in Summer

OM Solar solar hot air cooling system in Summer

It wasn’t long of course before I moved on with life and entered the world of forced air furnaces, air conditioning units, and rattling radiators.  Until, that is, 911 sent me, in an effort to save the world through architecture, running to a American Solar Energy Society trade show in Reno, Nevada where I found out that the convective heating system that I had taken for granted as a child had a modern day counter part in the form of a building integrated solar hot air heating system called OM Solar.  I was hooked.  Here are some diagrams.  Follow the link to read more about how it works and I know these don’t look anything like the old furnace in the photo.  Just stay tuned.  There will be more later.

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Catching a Sense of Liberation

August 24, 2013

I was raised in a barn.  No kidding.  A common solution to the economic woes of the depression was conversion,  meaning any standing building was made into rentable living quarters, and any multistory house became multistory apartments.  Our house was converted from a civil war barn into a two family house in about 1930.  We moved in around 1955.  At the time, all I wanted was to move down the street, where there was a, still beautiful, neighborhood made up of prewar architecture on streets with curbs, sidewalks and fenced in yards.  To avoid a trip down nostalgia lane, suffice it to say that as the years have gone by, I have come to appreciate that barn to the extent that it has formed a kind of subconscious repository of my notions about what a house ought to be, and I bring it up here because the house in the photo seriously activated a few of these.

If you care to follow the link you will see that the featured house was included in an article about “Eco-Friendly Housing,”  which got me thinking about how my childhood home was the very definition of recycled.  The original post and beam structure was only visible in the attic, which was really the original hay loft.  It was huge, soaring almost 20′ from the floor framing to the ridge.  I lived in the house for almost 20 years and was never in that attic.  So how, one might wonder, did I know what it looked like?  There was an unfinished room on the second floor with no ceiling.  It offered a view of the old post and beam structure, the random width boards that formed the sheathing under the slate roof, the cavernous space replete with possibilities.  Because of the multicolored recycled wood siding, the house in the photo somehow catches that same sense of liberation, suggesting  that the real living space is outside instead of in.