Sunday, September 27, 2009

More on Plant VOCs

A follow-up email from Susan McCoy at Garden Media Group offered some follow-up information on the my previous post related to Plants and VOCs (Sept. 6, 2009). My take on it was at least on the right track, unlike some others - but I figure the press release (and upcoming report) is a good opportunity to get some background from the actual scientific experts :

Here's the text from the letter from September 22nd, 2009:

"To Whom It May Concern,
There have been a number of recent discussions resulting from information taken out of context from an American Society of Horticultural Science press release concerning research conducted on plant volatiles in our laboratory at the University of Georgia.

The release indicated that indoor plants have been found to release volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Unfortunately the results were subsequently misrepresented on an internet site, giving the impression that it is undesirable to have plants in our homes and offices.

This could not be further from the truth. All living things give off VOCs; one of the simplest is
CO2 that we emit when breathing. Therefore, solely equating VOCs with “harmful” is totally inaccurate. The fragrance of a rose or the aroma of apple pie are each made up of volatile organic compounds.

The assumption that has incorrectly been made is that all VOCs are equal and are harmful.
Mankind has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years breathing VOCs from plants, nearly all of which are harmless at the concentrations encountered in nature. Unfortunately over the last 150 years there has been a logarithmic increase in the number of synthetic chemicals from other sources to which we are now exposed. A number of these are extremely harmful and in some cases, lethal. These undesirable volatiles represent a serious health problem that is responsible for more than 1.6 million deaths per year and 2.7% of the global burden of disease (WHO, 2002).

Critical questions with regard to VOCs include: What chemicals and what are their
concentrations? In the website account, much was made of a minute amount of volatiles derived from pesticides applied to the plants. In reality, these pesticide-derived volatiles emitted from the Peace lily represented less that four hundredth of one percent (0.038%) of the volatiles given off by the plant. Finding minute amounts of chemicals indicates the extremely high level of sensitivity of the analytical techniques but does not imply a potentially harmful situation.

Our research has shown that while plants give-off a small amount of harmless VOCs, they also
remove significant amounts of toxic VOCs from the air. The net effect is overwhelmingly positive. Plants in homes and offices are not only aesthetically pleasing, they can also increase the quality of the air we breathe and thereby the health of the inhabitants. As we continue to research and learn more about the potential of plants to remove harmful volatile compounds we should generate knowledge that will enhance our ability to create exceptionally healthy indoor environments.

Stanley J. Kays, Professor
University of Georgia

More info and contact for Professor Kays can be found here and I will try to get my hands on the report and see if there are any nuggets of info out there. And thanks Susan for the heads up on this!

FLYP Media - High Line

A reader pointed me to a new online magazine entitled 'FLYP' which takes the idea of new media to a level. that isn't just an electronic display of the content but a more interactive idea of content. A recent article about Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and their work with Field Operations on the High Line.

:: image via FLYP

McDs as Density Indicator

It's interesting to make connections between mapping and healthy communities. In this case it's not just health in terms of people (such as this correlation between parks and obesity) - but factoring in local business, access to fresh/healthy food, and even the idea of non-drive through oriented business. The always fantastic Strange Maps offers a slice of this view, using a map of 'The McFarthest Place' in the contiguous United States. This map case a look at geographical distribution of McDonalds of which there are 13,000 or so in the US.

:: image via Strange Maps

From Strange Maps: "This map is the brainchild of Stephen Von Worley, who got to thinking about the strip malls sprawling out along I-5 in California’s ever less rural Central Valley: “Just how far can you get from generic convenience? And how would you figure that out?” His yardstick for that thought experiment would be the ubiquitous Golden Arches of McDonald’s – still the world’s largest hamburger chain, and to cite Von Worley, the “inaugural megacorporate colonizer of small towns nationwide.” That’s not the whole story: like other convenience providers aimed at the motorised consumer such as gas stations and motels, McDonald’ses have a notable tendency to occur on highways and, specifically, to cluster at their crossroads."

Having grown up in North Dakota, where a 3-4 hour one-way drive isn't uncommon for a quick 'day trip' it's not a surprise that this McFarthest Place comes from that general vicinity of the upper Great Plains - in this case South Dakota amidst the badlands. The exact coordinates are on the post (N 45.45955 W 101.91356) leaving a 145 mile drive to McDonalds (which probably sounds pretty good if stranded in the desolation of the Badlands for a week or so). I've roughly shown this on the map below - and it's also interesting to see how it is equidistant the parallel freeways.

:: image via Google Earth (additional info added by L+U)

The lack of people, coupled with large land area, leads to a specific indication of the density of the US - obviously as the marketing muscle of McDonalds to interject themselves in close proximity to population centers. A quick glance at the map will obviously lead you to some of the less dense areas of the country: More: "This map moreover demonstrates that the spread of McD’s closely mirrors the population density of the Lower 48, the most notable overall feature of which is the sudden transition, along the Mississippi, of a relatively densely populated eastern half to a markedly less populated western half of the country. Some notable ‘dark spots’ in McDensity east of the Mississippi are the interior of Maine, the Adirondack region of New York state, a large part of West Virginia, and the Everglades area of southern Florida."

It may be the best bet if you want to get away from it all - to get as far away from the McDonalds. I actually remember seeing something like this for Wal-Mart as well - which probably has a totally different set of socio-economic markers on location.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Reinventing Cities Winners

The finalists for the Reinventing Cities competition have been announced. This open ideas competition was aimed at reinvisioning 'new urban infrastructures'. It's hard to tell too much about the entries themselves w/o any appreciable explanatory text to accompany them, but some views of the graphics. I hope we can get more detail about the entries and winners to see what is behind the graphics.

1: take smoke, makes water - 100m2

2: dynamic transformation in border condition - pyo arquitectos

3: living the outsite - rita topa

4: performative landscapes - david newton

5: infrastructural armature - fletcher studio

In related news, the entry by myself and Brett Milligan '(re)volutionary infrastructures: urban ecotones' (entry #2804) was one of the 9 additional selected projects that were included but didn't officially place. As there were over 200 entries, it's a great honor to be included in this group. Look for some more info as these get collected in publications... for instance an upcoming issue of future architecture magazine. More soon.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Best of... the Rest

Well, finally back at it after a bit of time off and some flurry of activity around Parking Day 2009. More to come on our 'award winning' most playful entry to the Seattle People's Parking Lot, and the beauty of oversized Connect Four - and stay tuned for more posts upcoming.

:: 4-Play - image via CoJourn

A few resources that popped up in my inbox in the interim. Landscape+Urbanism made a couple of lists, including the Top 50 Construction Blogs (#44) and the 100 Innovative Blogs for Architecture Students (#1). Many thanks for the love there.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Large Parks

In the spirit of one of the finest collections of writing on parks (and landscape urbanism) 'Large Parks' (edited by Czerniak & Hargreaves) a recent post on The Infrastructurist catalogs 10 of the world's greatest large parks. "We thought it would be fun to take ten of the world’s largest, most famous, and most beautiful city parks–some combination of those virtues, anyway–and view them from above, all at the same scale, to get a sense of how they’re situated in the fabric of their respective cities and how they work as a whole." Not sure what the reference of what makes them 'great', not it's completeness - and they admittedly have a Western influence but the idea of parks that are reconciled to a similar scale is pretty cool. Very similar to the graphic in the Large Parks book comparing them in B/W figure ground.

A few of the examples:

:: Central Park (NYC) - image via The Infrastructurist

:: The Tiergarten (Berlin) - image via The Infrastructurist

:: Hyde Park (London) - image via The Infrastructurist

Monday, September 7, 2009

Video: The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

A great video series on YouTube - featuring 'The Social Life of Small urban Spaces' videos (a companion to the book, or is that vice-versa) by William 'Holly' Whyte . The content is kind of late Mad Men era (OK it's the 1970s, but one expects Don Draper to mosey through the shot looking dapper, but with someone other than his wife on his arm) but still fascinating. I wonder why no one is doing this type of urban analysis in our modern times (and please let me if you know some modern iterations of this) as our media-accessible world this seems easy - maybe even through a series of security cameras stiched together.

I've embedded the first installment below... but check out the full series of videos... I'm through a few and they are pretty intriguing.

Thanks @space2place on Twitter for the link to these.

Urban Urinals

Well in defense of the scatological, peeing in urban areas (or other specific displays of a variety of bodily functions) is something of a way of life (often in the doorway of our downtown office). Portland has become another in a line of cities experimenting with public toilets in the inner city for use by tourists, downtown denizens, and the large number of seasonal homeless.

:: image via Trend Updates

From Trend Updates: "A archetype of the toilet estimated to cost from (US) $140,000 — (US) $360,000 has been built under the (US) $500,000 development program budget, but [Commissioner Randy] Leonard feels hat the planned mass production model would cut down the cost to a mere (US) $25,000, that is in case he lures the other cities into getting them."

:: image via Trend Updates

"The stainless steel solar loo would prove economical on maintenance and is functional in all climate with solar powered lighting, heaters and ventilation. In my opinion, the other cities should try the product as it is eco-friendly and would save a lot of money both in the production and usage departments."

While full scale toilets are an option, these often lead to potential crime issues (or opportunities for policing) and in the case of Seattle, a total and expensive removal after a rash of issues. Perhaps a more simple and decentralized type of facility is necessary.

A couple of examples. The first, via Treehugger, offers a sculptural option of the 'Pee Tree' by Joa Herrenknecht, which: "...has the abstracted form and the dimensions of a tree. It's bright ceramic white is a strong signal and is to be seen from far - making it accessible when in urgent need. The trunk offers a perfect place for messaging, e.g. the common "I was here" or "done that" statements, which we all know from Club-toilets."

:: image via Treehugger

A more small-scale example (via the Design Blog) is the Axixa by Mexican designer Miguel Melgarejo, who: "...has come up with a public urinal concept... that will help in maintaining the cleanliness in the streets. Featuring the shape that a leak leaves on a wall, the public ceramic urinal generates a permanent mark in public streets or places where people can urinate and participate in a manifestation in which the disposal itself becomes part of the public life."

:: images via The Design Blog

Sometimes, when you gotta go, you gotta go. It's good to have options.

3 Dutch Megacities Map

Another fantastic post from Strange Maps, this time featuring the excerpt from Rem Koolhaas' fabulous door-stop like book 'S/M/L/XL'. In this case, "...a rumination on “Manhattanism” – i.e. the tendency of city centre densities to be taken to new heights, sometimes literally, in the form of an urban grid filled with skyscrapers. These three maps demonstrate the scope of super-concentrated urbanity by applying two distinct types of density to a population-versus-surface configuration reputed to be “full”."

:: image via Strange Maps

It reminds me that when we think of density, we really have not a clue - and if we start looking at this mapped, or merely looking at the gross numbers, we see there's a lot behind the idea of density - or at least more than meets the eye.

Animal House

An interesting urban habitat from Inhabitat, "...Gitta Gschwendtner’s Animal Wall is for residents of all species in Cardiff Bay, UK. This 50-meter wall includes 1000 houses for birds and bats, and also acts as a textural and geometric sculptural divider between a residential development and a river front."

:: image via Inhabitat

I'm not sure if bats, birds, and other urban fauna are fans of modern brutalism (compared to parasitic organicism or perhaps vegetated blobitecture), but I'm guessing an abode of woodcrete is probably not bad digs, considering the range of urban options that wildlife occupy to make due in the city. These come in 4 different unit floorplans (all studios, furnishings by owner) and at an affordable square foot cost. As visitors move in in the spring, it'll be interesting to see how successful this particular urban housing project will end up.

:: images via Inhabitat

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Plants + VOCs

A recent, somewhat hyperbolic title from Treehugger, "Bad Green: Some Indoor Plants Release Volatile Organic Compounds" provides a snippet from some recent research that mention, gasp, that plants, particularly indoor ones, release volatile organic compounds (VOCs). It's a strange conceptual notion indeed, as there has been much research and information on the ability of indoor plants to improve air quality - including removal of VOCs and reduction of sick-building syndrome. So should we chuck the plant on the desk, and more broadly stop any notion of incorporating plants into buildings in significant ways? Probably not.

:: Killer Peace Lily - image via Treehugger

Some explanation "But at least four popular varieties of house plants emit their own VOCs, according to the University of Georgia's Department of Horticulture. Scientists there studied plants in glass jars and found 23 VOCs in the Peace Lily, 16 in the Areca Palm, 13 in the Weeping Fig and 12 in the Snake Plant. Sources included pesticides used in production of the plants, micro-organisms living in the soil and the plastic pots the plants called home, researchers say. The emission rates were higher during the day than at night, and several of the VOCs detected are known to harm animals."

It's not necessarily big news that plants give off VOCs... as plants are organically based and release compounds that are volatile (i.e. they vaporize readily into the air) through the normal process of metabolism. In fact one of the more readily occurring VOCs in nature is methane, which is produced in large quantities in wetlands. While not necessarily toxic, it is a player in global warming, so we should probably indict this as well while we're at it.

The difference between naturally occurring VOCs and synthetics are . Also a review of the study results identified that the primary VOCs from indoor plants were terpenoids, which are a somewhat innocuous form that provides a number of uses - and are particularly descriptive in having strong aromas. For instance the smell of such items as cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and eucalyptus is caused by the terpenoids present in these plants. Without these our sensory world would be much more bleak.

:: terpenoids look scary in molecular form - image via Wikipedia

Conversely a number of VOCs we are commonly bombarded with indoors, particularly in new construction, are related to
paints, adhesives, solvents, cleaning agents, caulks, wood products, carpets and sealants, and their lovely sounding components of toluene, styrene, xylene and ethylbenzene. As it's easy to tell from a fresh walk down the halls of a new (even sometimes low-VOC green) building, as chemicals off-gas from these materials and invade our smell centers in negative ways, something foul is going on. And, as mentioned in the report, it is likely the major issues with VOCs and indoor plants come from off-gassing of worse compounds from the man-made plastic pots, and pesticides used in growing of the plants... as well as microorganisms in soils and growing media.

This is another compelling reason for a holistic transformation of the landscape and nursery industry to include the whole picture and not just assume that plants are good or bad. While this doesn't say that there isn't something to this idea of VOCs from plants (it's natural) - let's not jump to quick and overwrought conclusions about the perils of house plants without a bit of context and further exploration. I think the precautionary principal is fine, but to eliminate indoor vegetation without some more focused study on impacts is pretty poor form, particularly when many materials used in building and landscape construction are known to be bad, yet still are industry standard.

I'm willing to be that when the overall accounting is done, exterior plants and wetlands probably have a net benefit to our environment, and indoor plants will win out in the search for better indoor air quality. Just a hunch.

Off Grid 2.0: Healing the Damaged Edge

The ideas competition Off Grid 2.0, sponsored by the California Architecture Foundation, recently announced a slate of winning entries under the theme 'Healing the Damaged Edge'. Definitely take some time to get into the full size PDFs as these thumbnails don't give one the full picture, and there aren't any project statements. A range of graphic styles and interesting ideas that fit into the concept of what the 'edge' is and can become.

Some background via the competition site: "The 24-hour life of the urban fabric of our communities is affecting not only the natural environment, but human health and wellbeing. As the human "footprint" continues to expand, issues surrounding sustainability rise to the forefront. The design and construction industry’s efforts to improve building performance are slowly being adopted…but now is the time to develop unique solutions to respond to these global problems. ... The competition involves finding sustainable solutions for urban infill projects with a zero carbon footprint. These solutions do not necessarily require a built solution – concepts could include providing innovative community development strategies, development of sustainable public policies, infill development concepts, natural resource conservation, multicultural issues, or creation of new materials or systems."

Professional Honor Award + Top Award Winner
by Phoebe Schenker, Emily Bello, Janika McFeely, EHDD Architecture

Professional Merit Award:
Yevgeniy Ossipov, Anderson Anderson Architecture

Special Jury Commendation:
Andrew Dunbar, Zoee Astrachan, Arjun Bhat, Jon Ganey, James Munden, Darren Perry, Amy Wolff - Interstice Architects

Student Honor Award:
Garrett Van Leeuwen, Cal Poly Pomona

Student Merit Award:

Katinka Suedkamp and Laura Duhachek, NewSchool of Art and Architecture

Thanks to Darren Perry at Interstice Architects for the heads up on this one.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

More Fake Trees

And They're Pretty Handy if we are Attacked by Giant Interstellar Swarms of Flies:

:: image via Inhabitat

Via Inhabitat: "A report published last Thursday from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) suggested that a forest of 100,000 artificial “trees” could be “planted” near depleted oil and gas reserves to trap carbon in a filter and bury it underground. The carbon suckers look more like fly swatters than actual arbors, but researchers say that once fully developed, the “trees” could remove thousands of times
more carbon than a real tree."

Oddly enough, these even make our typical interstate highways look better. Then again flyswatters, although removing lots of carbon, don't have the multiple benefits of real vegetation.

:: image via Inhabitat

Digital Exhaustion

It's seems a little time off makes one introspective, or at the very least a bit nostalgic. Did you ever feel that impossible to scratch, lingering itch in the back of your mind? You know, the one that you can't subsume, but says we've devolved from a culture that celebrates the built beauty and artistry of real work instead of the purely hollow digital promise of things never to be realized (probably for good reason). Recent competitions made me pause in my continual striving for the 'new' and the 'innovative' (perhaps to my detriment) - surmising that the results were somewhat disappointing, wildly unimpressive, or at least detached from a reality in way that is somewhat pointless.

While the Bering Strait competition is somewhat pointless but still cool, and the Rising Tides competition is somewhat cool and still pointless. This doesn't mean these were not necessary, but
they at least had some modicum of timeline and program to make them worthwhile in attacking some viable social or global issue. It seems we've entered an age of the neo-competition - that which is more concerned with quick turnaround than substance - actually voiding the root concept of what a competition is built for - meditation on ideas and expansion of the graphic normative processes. We've entered a world of the mundane and the ephemeral that is short on time and equally short of program - which leads to a set of winners that leaves one unimpressed by the results an even questioning why the competition was initiated in the first place. (see 21st Century Streets competition for a recent example).

Reburbia is another great case study in the neo-mundane. By it's very structure, it's an ephemeral collage of ideas... with a short timeline and an open-ended program that is sure to develop ideas that are both shotgun and shot from the hip. I really like the ideas generated (well at least some of them), but they are all just snapshots. And, well, the results were pretty indicative of this web-oriented vs. design oriented paradigm. Apologies to the very successful bloggers and designers who represented the jury - but it's gotta be a tough job to judge this open-ended mileu and decipher something wonderful to present to the design world.

This isn't to demean the 'winners' of these competitions, as this seems to be the new trend - and we should evolve to think of this soundbite sort of project as probably something along the new norm. Six months between initiation and award is something that we no longer have the luxury of . Something that can be swirled around for a solid week prior to the photo-shopping, ready to wow the internet world with the latest idea - oooh, urban ecology, urban agriculture, urban ________. yawn. It's the same kind of cultural change that spawns the excitement of pointless bloggery books, the endless twittering and incessant tumblr-ing that substitutes quantity for content, the new for the real, and exposure for meaning.

At least I'm excited by the WPA 2.0 finalists... something to sink your teeth into at least. More on these later - and continuing into the next phase... ah sweet relief.