Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sustainable Architecture: Lloyd Alter Gets It

I have been working on a long post critiquing what passes for “green” building. I always run into trouble, because there’s so much bad stuff out there, I don’t know where to begin. You can go to all the popular Web sites and see that “green” architecture is all too often used as a justification to roll out all sorts of fancy new products and high-tech systems. It’s become just another way to make money. Putting solar panels and high-tech movable sunshades on an inherently wasteful design is not green. All too often “green” building is additive rather than subtractive. The latest trend is wrapping a facade in metal mesh screens and calling it “green” because the mesh supposedly “filters” sunlight, despite the fact that there’s enough metal hanging off your building to manufacture a reasonably large sum of automobiles. Is that really necessary? Adding PV panels to a building that wastes electricity because it is made of glass is not green. Similarly, ideas of siting and appropriate fenestration are tossed out in favor of plopping a vegetated roof on top of the building in some renderings and calling it “green”. It’s pathetic. In other words, expensive, high-tech stuff gets tossed in the mix to allow architects to do whatever they want – elaborate, attention-seeking forms, walls of sheer glass, towers of steel and concrete, with all sorts of noxious petroleum-based products required to keep them dry and sealed. Expensive, high-tech gizmos and petroleum-based products are made from finite materials. They break down. Depending on them to make your buildings sustainable is a losing proposition.

The biggest influence on my thinking has been working in a section of town where buildings built over a century ago have been preserved and repurposed for the “new” economy. Buildings built as factories and warehouses have seamlessly transitioned to office spaces, shops, restaurants, bars, exercise studios, apartments and classrooms. Rooms that once held seamstresses or manufacturing equipment now hold rooms full of "knowledge workers" clicking away on computers or people doing yoga. These buildings have successfully served the needs of an economy that was totally unknown when they were built with few if any alterations, and without any high-tech gizmos. Their simple yet functional design is what allows this. The fabric of the city was preserved, nothing was torn down, and people’s needs were met. That is true green building. And these parts of town are more beautiful and desirable than our disposable suburbs. That kind of reuse is not going to be possible with modern architectures’ obsession with elaborate, ad-hoc forms sitting independent of their surroundings. These buildings, aside from being ugly, will simply be unusable.

The subject deserves more treatment than I can give it now. Thankfully, Lloyd Alter is a voice of sanity in all this. He is a blogger at Treehugger, and his posts are just about the most intelligent stuff you’ll find on true environmentally-friendly architecture anywhere. He writes about learning from old-buildings and getting the basics right before stuffing a design full of high-tech doodads and calling it “green.” He also talks about the importance of context – it matters whether buildings are built in walkable neighborhoods with public transportation or twenty miles outside of town in a cornfield. He recently published an omnibus article covering a lot of his thinking, and it’s well worth a read:

Building Green Is No Longer Enough, It’s Time To Build Resilient.
Green living has often been about technology; about smart grids and hybrid cars and solar panels. But it is also about simplicity and low tech, about walkable communities and bicycles. I go on about learning from old buildings designed before the age of oil and electricity, so that we will know how to live after the oil is gone. One feature I often talk about is how our walkable communities and older buildings are resilient; they can cope better when the power goes out, and you can walk to the store when the car is out of gas.

In fact the resilience movement is growing, as is the dissatisfaction with the high tech green gizmo approach to sustainable design. You see it in houses with the Passivhaus movement, where one trades active systems for insulation and sunlight; you see it in the streets with the cycling phenomenon. It is a conscious choice to use simpler, repairable, resilient systems.
I had once noted that no architects seem to be stepping up to the challenge of energy and resource scarcity. Apparently, I was wrong; Alter cites an architect named Craig Applegath who has a site called Resilient City. His principles are a good statement of true “green” architecture – buildings we will be able to still use another hundred years from now. What it means is that we architects will have to stop stroking our egos, go back to basics, and stop reinventing the wheel. The techniques to make buildings long-lasting, efficient and adaptable have been to known to us for centuries, we just discarded them in favor of the elaborate form-finding that structural engineering and modern materials allowed, even though there was no real reason to do so. Let’s go back to basics. And as I wrote earlier this year – computer fabrication means that ornamentation is once again affordable. My fellow architects: let's go back to first principles.

Although many are included in the post and the sidebar, here are some of my favorite articles from Lloyd:

Building the Green Modern Home: Looking at Windows:

..Because, in fact, they don't build them like they used to. As I learned from Romas Bubelis at the Landmarks Not Landfill conference, nothing on a traditional window is there for looks, it is all there to serve a purpose. The cornice on top acts as an overhang to keep water away from the window; the casing to the side of the window covers the joint between the siding and the side jamb. The high double hung window, when open at the top and bottom, creates a convection current within the room that brings fresh air in deeper. The sloping sill drains water away from the siding below. The operable shutters provide security while permitting ventilation and protection during storms.

The windows of the Jessup House were put together without the benefit of caulks and foams and any products made from fossil fuels; all they had to work with were wood and nails, yet it had to be designed so that it wouldn't leak and so that they could be maintained. When these photographs and drawings were done in 1930 the windows were already hundreds of years old.

Imagine dealing with windows like those in Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House, where even the glass stops are steel and welded in place, where the only thing keeping out the water is a petrochemical gasket and caulk.

There is No Such Thing As Caulk (Or at Least That is What I was Taught):

When I was back in architecture school, there was a professor who put forth the proposition that we should design our buildings as if there was no such thing as caulk; that everything should have solid flashings, drainage layers, channels to carry away the water. Yet this building's top floor was essentially held together with caulk, with butt jointed double glazed windows sealed with an inch wide caulk joint.

Professor Sees Red Over ‘Green’ Building:

“There's no way you can make an all-glass building green. There's no such thing as a green SUV. You shouldn't be building SUVs in the first place; you shouldn't be building all-glass buildings in the first place. And no amount of high-tech or fancy stuff can turn an inherently bad design into a green building.”

Can an All-Glass Office Building Really Be Considered Green?:

For decades, modern office buildings have been pretty much covered in glass curtain walls. Some are high performance and very expensive, like the super-green LEED Platinum Bank of America Building at 1 Bryant Park in New York, or they can be the standard crappy suburban office building thrown up across North America, looking the same in California or Calgary.

But as Steve Mouzon points out, even the very best glazing has an R-value that is equivalent to a 2x4 wall with fiberglass insulation, something that nobody has built for years. Most office buildings don't even approach a third of that. So why do architects design buildings this way?


Terry Thomas Building By Weber Thompson:

A year ago I wrote about this Seattle building under the title "Smart Architect Builds Dumb Building." I meant it as a compliment; we need more dumb buildings that work like buildings used to, with natural light and ventilation, and without what Donovan Rypkema calls "green thingies"- expensive new technologies when older, simpler methods are more appropriate.

Architects: Go Back To The ABCs and Design Buildings Like Letters Again:

Julia Gersovitz of Montreal's FGMAA Architects made the point: Buildings used to look like alphabets, to minimize the distance to an exterior wall and maximize natural light and ventilation. We have all seen many Cs, Os and a few Es (I forgot to draw probably the most common, the Ls).

Minus Oil: Forget Hybrids And Solar Panels, We Need Active, Exciting and Vibrant Cities:

Matt has noted that almost three quarters of our oil goes for transportation, and concludes that we have to create "more communities where the average person's daily needs are met on foot, on non-motorized vehicle and via public transportation." But is there proof that this actually works? Does it mean that we have to turn all of our cities into Manhattan or Copenhagen? No, we don't. We don't have to create new communities and put everybody in a passivhaus. Our existing cities and buildings can work just fine; You just have to chose the right place in it.

The Greenest Brick Is The One That's Already In The Wall:

TreeHugger is full of photovoltaic glass and ground source heat pumps, but ultimately all of those "green gizmos", as Donovan Rypkema called them, cost a lot of money to buy and to maintain. But he is just one of a growing movement of architects who are making the case that people have known for hundreds, maybe thousands of years how to build in ways that save energy and adapt to climate instead of trying to bludgeon it into submission. Steve Mouzon is another. He writes: "Originally, before the Thermostat Age, the places we built had no choice but to be green, otherwise people would freeze to death in the winter, die of heat strokes by summer, or other really bad things would happen to them."

For Saving Energy, Like Real Estate, The Three Most Important Things Are Location, Location and Location:

Now, more and more tools and studies are making it very clear that just like in real estate, when it comes to energy consumption and climate change, the three most important things to consider are location, location and location. This is not a new idea to TreeHugger readers; we have been talking about it for years. David Owen wrote about it in the New Yorker in 2004 and turned it into a book last year. But we mostly looked at large cities, the Hong Kong vs Houston equation shown on this chart from UNEP. In fact, while dense urban cities like New York and London do well, smaller towns and cities turn out to be rather efficient as well. The critical factor is, in my opinion, not necessarily just density; Australian cities and Toronto are not that dense, and yet they use way less energy per capita than Phoenix or Denver. The key indicator is what I will call Urbanity, a mix of transit-oriented development, walkability, and historicity.

Nice Shades: Tips From The Pros On How To Keep The Heat Out:

It is one of the lunacies of housing in America that builders pay no attention to orientation or window placement, then have to oversize the air conditioning unit to compensate, forcing the homeowner to pay more up front and higher operating costs through the life of the house.

Why Are North American Toilets So Crappy?:

In Paris, even a cheap restaurant had an expensive toilet. It just seems to be the standard. So why do we not have these in North America? Why not install toilets that take up less space, use less water and make less noise?

Re-Thinking the Bathroom: Who Needs It?:

One of the interesting design challenges is figuring out how to design an efficient, but practical bathroom. We shouldn't limit ourselves to cramming the shower, tub, sink and toilet all in the same space.

Is It Time To Rethink the Built-In Kitchen?

There is something appealing about a kitchen design that just folds up when you don't need it, and doesn't take up a lot of space. Until a hundred years ago, nobody really had fitted kitchens as we know them; they had stoves and iceboxes, but everything else was kept in pantries or cupboards, and work was done on a table in the middle; this is a Poggenpohl kitchen from 1892. Enough already. As Mark Bittman has noted, all you really need is "A stove, a sink, a refrigerator, some pots and pans, a knife and some serving spoons. All else is optional." And he cooks a lot.

Steampunk Shower Tower Demonstrates The Next Big Green Building Trend, "Mechanical Expressionism"

I don't know why architects bury plumbing behind walls when it can look so shiny and high-tech. And why separate a sink and a shower when you can combine them both in this single unit that you can put anywhere. It is produced by Emme Group, an Italian company that mostly makes Bongos Barbeques for Bunga-Bunga parties, but also offers the Totem Shower.

I think that it is a style that is about to make a comeback, as being a greener way to build. Designers are beginning to think about how you put buildings together so that you can maintain and upgrade them, and others are thinking about how you deconstruct them at the end of their useful life.

Open Building

Philip introduces us to the concept of "open building", where "The principle is to maintain a separation between the different aspects of the building in order to be able to make repairs and do upgrades with a minimum of interference with other elements of the building. Open building stipulates separate zones or chases for different functions and services. This will, for example, make it easier to change plumbing systems without needing to repair other systems that cross or interfere with access to the necessary parts of the plumbing system."

Interlocking Cross Laminated Timber Could Use Up Square Miles Of Beetle-Killed Lumber, and Look Gorgeous, Too


Instead of using expensive and possibly VOC-heavy glues or expensive stainless steel fasteners, they use tongue and groove joints, shown above on the end-to-end pieces or dovetail joints, on the crossing pieces, to hold it all together. They don't need fancy presses like they do for the glued CLT either, and it can be "disassembled at end of life to be repurposed in the building material supply chain." It is evidently simple enough to do that "standard mills and timber fabricators looking to diversify their product offering may produce ICLT with existing infrastructure and equipment. I would not have thought that it would be as strong as conventional CLT, but it was. In fact it was stronger that CLT and even insulated concrete form walls.

10 Overlooked Low-Tech Ways of Keeping Your Home Cool:

There is a reason our ancestors built summer kitchens; those stoves put out a lot of heat and you didn't want them in your house in summer. Outside summer kitchens are all the rage in the luxury house/ mcmansion set as well. It really makes no sense to run a stove inside, just to then spend money to run air conditioning to remove the heat again. So get a gas barbecue and grill your vegetables, take advantage of farmers markets to get fresh stuff, and eat lots of salad.

The Shape of things To come: Simple and Boxy:

Ann complains about the typical production home or McMansion, which are often a mess of gables and jogs and design clichés. She suggests an alternative: "Appeal more readily emanates from careful proportioning and quality materials, paired with simple, efficient building geometry."

He has also done a great series on reconsidering the bathroom here:

The History of the Bathroom Part 1: Before the Flush.
The History of the Bathroom Part 2: Awash In Water and Waste.
The History of the Bathroom Part 3: Putting Plumbing Before People.
The History of the Bathroom Part 4: The Perils of Prefabrication
The History of the Bathroom Part 5: Alexander Kira and Designing For People, Not Plumbing
The History and Design of the Bathroom Part 6: Learning from the Japanese
The History and Design of the Bathroom Part 7: Putting A Price on Poop and Pee
The History and Design of the Bathroom Part 8: Pulling It All Together

What are some of the lessons historic buildings have to teach us? And how can they be integrated with modern buildings? That's a topic I hope to explore in much more detail over the next year.

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