Sunday, October 26, 2008

Down with People... NW Style

Shameless self- and blog- promo... via Ultimate NW Magazine... p.38... Enjoy.

:: images via Ultimate NW (Click to Enlarge)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Sporadic Content Ahead

The wonders of technology never cease... the ability to access information, share knowledge, and communicate ideas has evolved manifold, in the 12 years I've been practicing. It also continues to do so, as my new G1 Phone probably has the combined computing power of the first 4 computers I owned combined.

One thing is for sure... this technology can also fail us in swift and magnificent ways, leaving you feeling somewhat lost. So long-story-short, yesterday my trusted 5 yr old laptop woke up to the dreaded blue-screen of death - which after a bit of fiddling was diagnosed as the result of a crashed hard drive. Not terribly damaging (with the exception of perhaps my pysche), as the data can be recovered (I'm crossing fingers), and a new laptop is on the way (in a couple of weeks). So as I'm typically working and doing work stuff (i.e. not blogging) while at work, my access to blogging in off-hours will be minimal and sporadic for the upcoming days (as I wrestle with my girlfriend for her laptop)... and the sum total of my saved links and RSS feeds were on the old machine, so it'll take a bit of time to get rolling again. I will post a bit here and there when I have access.

Also, another upcoming event that I'm excited about is an upcoming AIA Sustainable Design Assessment Team that I am going to be involved in the upcoming week in Detroit, Michigan. A description: "
The SDAT program is a community assistance program that focuses on the principles of sustainability. SDATs bring teams of volunteer professionals (such as architects, urban designers, planners, hydrologists, economists, attorneys, and others) to work with community decision-makers and stakeholders to help them develop a vision and framework for a sustainable future."

This intense three day charrette will look to envision revitalization of the core of downtown Detroit, including planning, economics, open space, urban agriculture, and much more. Read more about the specific proposal that was submitted for Detroit's SDAT application here. I'll be in Detroit from October 29th to November 2nd... a period where the blog will be very silent.

Although I hate the blogging tendency to make excuses for lack blogging (which I think I just did) because it seems a bit presumptuous... I will alas say this: No fear, I will definitely recount the SDAT experience, keep up with the veg.itecture out there in the world, and continue blogging - so keep reading, and commenting. It's also made me decide it's a good time to retool the blog (maybe) - as we near 100,000 visitors, almost one year, and almost 300 posts... There's been some great leads and commentary about posts recently, so keep it up. JK

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The 'Bill Gates of Sustainability'

There is little doubt that the reputation of William McDonough (WMD) and that of green design are somewhat synonymous. As one of the fore-fathers of this modern 'green boom' we are in the midst of, and one of the thought leaders of our time, WMD has occupied a spot near the apex of this architectural and sustainable design subsets. Is this elevation to near-royalty status deserved? Fast Company offers begs to differ.

:: image via Fast Company

Titled 'Green Guru Gone Wrong' along with a url subtext of - 'the mortal messiah'... this comprehensive article by Danielle Sacks outlines a number of critical beefs with WMD... such as the celebrity hob-nobbing, the poor record as Dean of UVA, the half-realized ideas, misleading claims, the lack of adoption of Cradle-to-Cradle certification, and the down and out failures of design and planning. But to fall from such heights - it requires an equal and previous rise to the top.

This meteoric rise has been notable, as Sacks states in the article: "No one has migrated from the fringes of enviro-geek design to the soft spotlight of pop culture as gracefully as McDonough. Long before the word "sustainability" was part of the average CEO's vocabulary -- and before, as McDonough puts it, "LEED [the green building standard] was even a twinkle in somebody's eye" -- he had begun postulating a third industrial revolution, one with the potential to transform how goods are made, cities are built, and literally everything is broken down and reused. His radical cradle-to-cradle philosophy demands that every product be designed for disassembly at the end of its lifetime, either returning harmlessly to the soil or going back into a "closed-loop industrial cycle" to be reused. With mainstream America beginning to see that we may have a planetary problem on our hands, McDonough has come to be seen as both a prophet and a savior. If only it were that simple."

But the real question is, who exactly is the author of these mind-blowing ideas...? As mentioned in the article: "Harrison S. Fraker Jr., dean of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, demurs: "Sustainable design started long before McDonough even opened his office... . McDonough gets credit for everything because he is such a good promoter of all the good things he has done... . I hate to see false myths perpetuated." Even the term cradle to cradle, for which McDonough has applied for a trademark, isn't his at all. According to Hunter Lovins, cofounder of the Rocky Mountain Institute think tank, "Walter Stahel in Switzerland actually coined the phrase 25 years ago, long before Bill started using it."

So is it a valid criticism, or the inevitable pot-shots at the man on top of our green world. Here's some of the highlights. "First, McDonough has done more than most to popularize the very idea of cleaning up the world, and for that, even his detractors agree he deserves thanks; second, if word gets out that he may not be all that he appears, the overall cause of sustainability could suffer. "He's been incredibly important and valuable in this role as visionary," says Auden Schendler, executive director of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Co. "The problem is that sometimes the theorists like McDonough will represent themselves as practitioners, and that's where the guys in the trenches get frustrated."

The resume is definitely there, with a career of good quality green design that has pushed the envelope (Ford River Rouge Plant, 901 Cherry GAP Headquarters, Oberlin's Lewis Center, the EDF offices . Is the label of messiah justified? It's not for me to say. I don't know what to think really... as I've been very influenced by both Cradle to Cradle and McDonough's other writings (i.e. Buildings like Trees) and work around innovative sustainability. Part of me raised hackles at this criticism, but the other half relishes the toppling of individual names and figures in what is always and significantly a collaborative endeavor. I've discussed this many times - the lionization of the figure vs. the applause for the lowly concept or ugh, team. We love individuals that we can place on pedestals... things don't fit and groups are too big for our pedestal - it must be a person (see here for further rant on this subject).

There is definitely something of a vision at play versus vision in action. One of the major flaws is that a number of the concepts proposed by WMD are downright visionary. Although visions are powerful and often able to create excitement, they sometimes fail when one attempts to realize them in a concrete form. It's a paradox, one that WMD mentions in the article as a benefit to his multi-faceted toolbox. "McDonough points to a rendering he created of an ecologically correct Chinese city. It is a utopian image of a skyline that looks more like a sugarcane field, he says, with lush foliage in place of conventional roofs. A mother and son are farming on one. "That's what's so great about having an architecture firm," he says. "We can render ideas visible -- it's really fun."

Visible is one thing. Successful visions are another, as there has been ample criticism (see Frontline documentary) of the failure to develop a viable community in China's Huangbaiyu region, which was aimed at creating a model eco-village, and became a poster-child for Western brio causing cross-cultural failure. Rob Watson is quoted simply: "...Nobody's living there, nobody moved in. It's sitting there, literally, rotting."

And Shannon May, a PhD student from Berkeley added a litany of charges: "...everything from the village's overall design to its construction was deeply flawed. The homes were suburban-tract style with garages, despite the fact that only four of the expected 1,400 villagers had cars. The backyards were too small for growing feed corn or raising animals, which the villagers needed to make their living. But most absurd to her eye was the plan to use agricultural waste to fuel the biogas plant to power the village: leftover corncobs and stalks were the winter food supply for the cashmere goats, the area's leading source of cash. Using them meant the goats would starve."

WMD is now chalking this failure to experience, which in a way is valid and constructive... but there's still some outstanding issues of what to do about it - and to acknowledge that failure is part of the game - something it sounds like is difficult for him to acknowledge. If everyone is telling you you're right and listening raptly to what you say - it's pretty hard to admit you were wrong. And there's been more failures for sure (read GreenBlue) and the overzealous policing of the term Cradle to Cradle. Or maybe it's just greed, as mentioned in a story... "One corporate sustainability chief, who asked not to be named, says that when McDonough pitched his company to consult, the architect said, " 'I want to be the Bill Gates of sustainability,' and [that] he wants to make a royalty off of every green standard and every green product out there." The company saw the statements as a red flag and decided not to bring him on board."

Amongst the many criticisms is the marking of territory and terminology, where every snippet of idea becomes the domain of an individual. As mentioned in the article during the famous Interface carpet transformation sessions with the Lovins', Paul Hawken, WMD and others: "At the time, Hunter Lovins says, "Bill was trying to gain the reputation as the thought leader in this field, going around trademarking terms." (McDonough has applied for more than a dozen trademarks, including "triple top line" and "ride the wind.")"

[Sidebar: As I evaluate this, I must conclude that Veg.itecture obviously needs to be trademarked, as well as the remainder of my poorly crafted versions of hyperbolic portmanteaux in the blending of Landscape+Urbanism. On second thought, perhaps the term L+U and it's variants should be trademarked as well - as the landscape urbanists lay claim to the general concept and term - the simple variation of the additional 'plus' gives it a new connotation and layered meaning that I must truly consider my own. WMD would appreciate that :)]

So do we respect the man for his contributions to sustainable design? 100 percent. WMDs contributions to the cause - and perhaps his making it a cause célèbre is worthy of admiration and respect. He's been put on this lofty pedestal - and perhaps he wanted to be put there. But as all of us who secretly want the notoriety and fame of a WMD - we sometimes forget that the higher one is held up, the harder one can fall. All in all, McDonough will still be considered one of the fathers of this important time... but he will also be joined by others on the pedestal - so I guess one thing we'll have to do is get to work making said pedestal big enough for everyone.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Platform to Nowhere

There's something amazingly simple and death-defying about the detailing of this project by Todd Saunders & Tommie Wilhelmsen in a picturesque location in Aurland, Norway. Some text via Arch Daily: "The landscape is so fantastic that it is difficult to improve the place, but at the same time very easy to destroy the atmosphere by inserting too many elements into the site. Even though we have chosen an expressive form, the concept is a form of minimalism, in an attempt to conserve and complement the existing nature."

:: image via Arch Daily

It's a simple structure, definitely aiming for a light footprint. Again via Arch Daily: "We have managed to behold all of the large pine trees on the site. This allows us to create an interaction between the structure and nature. One can walk out into the air through the treetops, helping dramatise the experience of nature and the larger landscape room."

:: image via Arch Daily

But obviously the payoff is the infinity-pool like edge that both dares you to walk to the edge - as well as test your blood-pressure (see white haired man). There is something unsettling... imagine this without the railing... how close would you get - as it no only ends... which would provide some visual termination - but it actually slides away, like an eroded slope. It's a trip, even in photographs.

:: image via Arch Daily

Dwell had some more photos showing the changing nature of the material - particularly it seems some greying or silvering of the wood as it is exposed to the elements - which I think probably makes it blend more seamlessly into the landscape and gives it some more interesting texture.

:: images via Dwell

And another photo that makes one question the strength of plate glass... it would have been really interesting to see if they could have detailed this to hide the metal brackets for the glass plate - giving you an even less obstructed view over the abyss. If you can't tell - I love this.

Materiality: Grab Bag

It's been a long while since I've posted anything on materials... perhaps due to the work I've been engaged in, and the fact that little of it is dealing with material selection, or the recent focus on evaluating the more sustainable materiality - sans aesthetics. That is not to say that materials don't constantly play a role in our design - and here's a range of some great examples of landscape, architectural, and micro-materials that offer a little design inspiration to us all...

Let's start with the more natural - a range of projects with woody representation, each with its own individual beauty. For starters, Camping Service, is an open-air facade by Archea Associati, uses bamboo for a variety of uses. Via Coolboom: "...the colors and materials that define the edges of the main volumes are borrowed from the natural surroundings, like the faded ochre of the bamboo canes that interact with the color and vertical extension of the ancient pine trees, decking the exterior and interior walls with a luminous, lightweight quality. The ceiling, also finished in bamboo, is pierced by skylights defined by the sun that subtly lights the interiors, highlighting small green oases."

:: images via Coolboom

The Boh Visitor Center (via Arch Daily) offers a different wood grain, with end-oriented rounds arrayed in architectural panels, which, frankly, are pretty amazing.

:: images via Arch Daily

A very interesting exterior showcases the EDF national archives by LAN Architecture: Via Designboom: "...nature’s reflection on the patterned mirror exterior of the EDF archives center is a signal of the building environmental considerations. a double concrete façade provides insulation for the 5 story building. the building’s isolated location made it necessary to also implement a wastewater treatment system to maintain a supply of fresh water. photovoltaic panels and hot air pump were added to make it self-sufficient with regards to energy. these steps help this building have minimal environmental impact, while the alluring façade only encourages a greater appreciation for the surrounding environment."

:: images via Designboom

Another zoomy facade patterning...

:: image via BDonline

Some more architectural texturing, via Archidose, this time for The NYU Department of Philosophy in New York City by Steven Holl Architects.

:: image via Archidose

A more regular patterning, the hexagon, is the basis for the Altamirano Walk in Chile via Arch Daily. "A simple prefabricated hexagon-shaped concrete slab became the constructive base for the project, with variations of texture and composition. The shades follow the same principle dictated by the hexagon, maximazing the commercial format of the material which, in this case, is steel."

:: images via Arch Daily

An organic material essence drapes the interior by Architect Nobuhiro Nakamura of A-Asterisk has for Leafy Shade an interior project that abstracts vegetative forms.

:: images via Dezeen

Switching to metal... MoCo Loco has an interesting detail for metal bracing for a simple piece of furniture by Donald Corey. Simple and sweet - with an organic form.

:: image via MoCo Loco

Monday, October 20, 2008

Flip This Strip...

Perhaps the timing is perfect amidst our current economic downturn - the award winners have been announced for the very interesting Flip a Strip competition sponsored by the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (smoca). These entries expand the conversation and definitely deliver in potential opportunities and visions for these zones of urban and sub-urban blight, such as this example from Phoenix (see below), and their potential for adaptive reuse.

:: image via Flip a Strip

From the competition site: "This competition, Flip a Strip, asks how we can reject numbness. How might we re-think and newly envision the potential of the Strip Mall (a building stock of which we have a cross-continental abundance)? With collective energy and creative design expertise, we know there are many ways to transcend the non-descript status quo of the Strip Mall—ways that are aesthetically compelling, economically feasible and communally smart. What models, complementary mixed-usages and social experiences might result?"

The winning entry by MOS from New Haven, CT definitely takes the approach of visible verticality, particularly with a curtain of algae filled pockets (via Bustler): "...Urban Battery is a physical structure similar to a power station, vertical greenhouse, and a billboard, all rolled into one. ... Urban Battery acts as an energy producer, filtering air, housing oxygen regenerating plants, providing bike paths, public gardens within the structure, and stores bioproducts."

:: images via Bustler

More on the technical side, via Treehugger: "A 300’ by 300’ lightweight structure supports a series of thin glass channels housing a net- work of pipes, tubes, and algae to produce filtered, clean air and gases for biofuel."

:: image via Bustler

Definitely check out Bustler for the full range of winners... such as some of my favorite selections below, including a great one mentioned previous by Seattle firm MillerHull which uses some inventive rooftop ag for solar shading and economic productivity... More on this soon.

:: AEDS, New Orleans - image via Bustler

:: Miller Hull Partnership - Seattle - image via Bustler

:: Gould Evans - Phoenix- image via Bustler

:: Marlene Imirzian & Associates Architects, Phoenix - image via Bustler

Sunday, October 19, 2008


An important and somewhat overlooked aspect of Veg.itectural design is the connection and use of the ground plane in providing critical aspects of the shelter. Whether traditional cave-like dwellings that are carved into the sides of hills, or northern european era sod hut housing. These items are used for literally centuries, and there are still notable archaic examples of this technology - as well as a range of new variations on this theme. Here are some recently examples.

On the far end of the continuum, via Treehugger, the secret green community Brithdir Mawr in Wales... long undetected on public land in a national park. How did they stay under the radar... perhaps with vegetated rooftops obscuring the location from above...

:: The Roundhouse - image via Treehugger

Dwell gets into the game with a post about Earth-Sheltered Homes (with a reference as well to Bill Gates grassy-roof mansion as well). Here's a pic of the Cumbria Earth Sheltered House, which is pretty cool... and reminiscent of the EarthShips in Taos. The idea is summed up on Dwell pretty well: "...the house disappears into the landscape "making it unobtrusive visually as well as ecologically."

:: image via Dwell

A few variations on this theme... including Villa UH1 which used a combination of earth sheltering with grounded ecoroof by RB Arkitektur. From WAN, they: "...sought to make the building as much a natural part of the site as possible. ... In order to emphasize the landscaped aspect of the house, they let the roof literally grow out of the ground and become covered by sedum plants, thus eliminating the border between building and landscape."

:: image via WAN

Another simple example via Arch Daily is of the sloped rooftop access for the Barreiro College of Technology: "The architecture becomes more topographic in one of the extremities of the building, where there is no way to tell where the surrounding starts or ends, and in the opposite side, with its more present limits, defined by the alignment of the tops of the different bodies of the building." Check closely on the photo for the 'fencing' that is preventing climbing up to the tops of these roofs...

:: image via Arch Daily

Another interesting example is the Liaunig Museum in Austria, with an earth-embedded form along with an interesting entrance... via WAN.

:: images via WAN

A refined example via Treehugger (where the sexy images have mysteriously disappeared) for a Hilton hotel that is being developed in Bariloche, Argentina. I managed to scrape up a few from another site... but you get the point.

:: image via muy patagonia

Via Treehugger, this eco-friendly project relies on "...the hotel layout, which will blend with the mountain it's located in to reduce visual impact, and the fact that during the building process and later in its operational phase, the hotel will have efficient use of energy and water and "proper management of soil and drainage."

Somehow I think maybe not building anything in this pristine area would be the most 'eco-friendly'. This is one of the major ethical dilemmas of green building - to build, to not build - and if you are going to build, to do so in the most ecological way.

:: image via muy patagonia

Now things get a little crazy... to end it off, a couple of projects that I feel have a lot in common. The first, via Treehugger is a project by MVRDV for one of the 'designer' projects at the NextGene 20 development (read more about this from an earlier L+U post here). Observer House is interesting in the fact that is provides some flexibility of program and process, as MVRDV: "...designed a house which maintained gigantic window scene, within this window scene there consist various elements of spatial topics, each spatial topic, according to residential demand, is able to reformat, to reach the maximum desired living atmosphere."

:: images via Treehugger

These spatial arrangements offer a range of forms, each one 'draped' with vegetation, which offer some interesting potential vertical and horizonal building greening...

:: images via Treehugger

...and perhaps one of the ugliest architectural models I've ever seen - carved out of a welcome mat of synthetic greenery. Rank.

:: images via Treehugger

Or is it more of a precursor to a new genre of 'green' buildings that eschew the actual landscape materials (and most of the benefits) by cladding their buildings in fake greenery. The first example from the Amalia House (on L+U previously here) was a shot across the bow... and the latest edition of the Sports and Leisure Centre by ACXT Langreo, Spain gives another high-profile example.

:: image via Arch Daily

Via Arch Daily, some explanation and additional imagery. "The idea submitted was based on this concept: to propose a new landscape rather than a new building. To waste nothing of the existing available land. ... A composition made up of folds, green waves, in which each of these correlated with the different interior spaces: the swimming-pool, a sports hall which could be converted for concerts, gymnasia, etc."

:: images via Arch Daily

Some more... "The initial idea of designing the roofs for people to walk on them was abandoned due to the danger of accidental falls and the high maintenance costs. These were finally covered with artificial grass.
There are three roofs corresponding to the three well-differentiated areas into which the programme is divided: 1. Multi-purpose sports hall (sports + concerts), 2. Swimming pool area (walls formed by TECHNAL curtain walls), 3. Area for the remaining services (offices, multi-purpose rooms, sauna, etc)."

:: images via Arch Daily

It's interesting, and I really like the idea (and the final look) - up until they get to the end and wrap this building in astroturf. For all of the lofty goals of integrating with nature the final result is a far cry from the good intentions. But in the end, don't drape the building in synthetic material and throw some disingenuous bullshit with some text (via Arch Daily): "In Langreo, the general impression is that there is little land available. The existing space was taken up by the surrounding mountains, the hitherto booming industrial area and the homes of all those who had found work there. The idea submitted was based on this concept: to propose a new landscape rather than a new building. To waste nothing of the existing available land."

At the end it's part of a wide and historic continuum, and we are apt to see more of these throw-away designs that talk a lot of talk but not really doing anything ecological or valuable - just good and artistic. As we evolve from the simple tucked in earth-sheltered designs, to more robust and wonderous examples in a number of projects... connecting earth to sky - we are confronted with a wide span of potential solutions - as well as just as many possible pitfalls to their sucessful implementation.