ruminations about architecture and design

Thursday, December 30, 2010

ed glaeser on land use laws

That is a link to a very good piece by Ed Glaeser on how zoning regulations impact housing costs in the U.S. and why the "sun belt" states have cheaper places to live. Glaeser's research on zoning laws have revealed patterns to development that transcend some of the shrill political debates. I'm curious about the impact of septic design on the formulation of large lot zoning here in the Northeast. Prior to better regulations on sewage disposal, small houselots were more common--even after the automobile revolution took hold. Large lots, which I'll arbitrarily classify as greater than 20,000 s.f. are often the legal minimum in Boston area suburbs. This affords enough room for an individual septic system. Down south and out west, smaller lot sizes in very large subdivisions (on flat land, usually) depend on municipal water and sewage systems. Developers, who have to help finance the build-out of these systems reap the benefits of economies of scale and also take advantage of the more liberal zoning regulations.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

carpentry and economics

Recent article in the Boston Globe about possible structural unemployment in the carpentry trades. The profile had some anecdotes of carpenters in the Las Vegas area, but what was left out commentary was discussion of the the broad ranging effects of the housing bubble on, all professions in the building industry.
Trends do not look too good in the short term. I tend to take a supply side point of view to many parts of the problem, which is a bit uncharacteristic of my social leaning. Carpenters will suffer due to competition from unskilled laborers who bypass formal training routes. Architecture will suffer and benefit from the continued adoption of new software that renders laborious drafting obsolete. The only possible salvation will be an increase in the density of service and the concurrent expansion of building sophistication to respond to new concerns about architectural performance.
This is a sculpture by Maya Lin--fairly random, but I like to have pictures.

Monday, December 27, 2010

demographics, economics and destiny

When economists gather around the campfire to tell scary stories they always talk about Japan. With lowered voices and glances over their shoulders they describe how the people of that extraordinary archipelago rose to the heights of fiscal and social glory. They exported cars, computers, and machinery to the far corners of the globe. They achieved the highest life expectancy of any nation. They designed fabulous toilets.
And then, they got older. And they stopped having enough children. Now Japan is described by economists as on the brink of collapse. Its aging population will fade into the greyness of the hillsides and the cities of Japan will be hollowed out, demon-infested lairs ruled by aged motorcycle gang warlords who eat human flesh.....Growth will end. For the economists and the demographers this is the true end of all things. Growth of an economy, commensurate with an increase in population or otherwise, is the purpose of human existence. So Japan, with a declining population, and at the vanguard of several other developed nations like Germany and Britain, is held up as an object of fear, scorn and pity. A drop in population, according to the conventional wisdom, heralds the footsteps of doom. Has it occurred to economists that growth and improvement have been conflated? Is it possible that Japan, and other nations like it are entering a different stage of civilization that cannot be conveniently described by the current textbooks?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

the end of architecture

Well, the end of architecture in a complete sense is quite improbable in the immediate future. The end of the architecture in the picture here is a definite probability within the next few years. I doubt that this space will be missed by anyone. When it is demolished the concrete will be ground up and used for fill in some more useful application. What's curious is that this work of architecture--an unimpressive parking garage--will be replaced by another parking garage. We can assume that the new will be marginally better, and because it is marginally better, last a bit longer. But is that how success should be measured in a built work? If obsolescence is an inevitable quality then how much effort should be spent on making things just a little bit better? Will the "little bit better" actually discourage making the decision to make an improvement? Normally, such a philosophical dilemma is solved by the arbitrary budget established at the beginning of a project.

Friday, December 24, 2010

world population and its consequences

National Geographic had a pretty good article on world population. We now have about 7 billion people hanging out on this planet. We've spread out to quite a few different places, but we still have a tendency to cluster in lateral hives called cities that are usually next to bodies of water. Our habitats are distinguished by robust communication and transportation networks. We have more similarities than differences but still find reasons to kill each other with tragic frequency.
The issue of resource management is a deeply controversial and, because our measurement systems aren't as good as they should be, a thoroughly political issue. We have large amounts of essential resources like sunshine, air and water, but spend most of our time squabbling over things that have high margin extraction costs, like oil. People in the future will probably find our value system a bit unusual, but they'll be living in a paradise with a cheap solar power infrastructure that was built with the final dregs of hideously expensive fossil fuels.
Above is a picture of North Dakota. If Paul Ehrlich had spent some time there he might have had taken a more nuanced position in his book The Population Bomb.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

mark bradford at the boston ica

This is one of Mark Bradford's paintings, titled "Kryptonite."
He has an exhibit at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston and I feel obligated to advertise it. I haven't been to the show, but posters on the MBTA trains have been promoting it for more than a month.
His work feels deeply urban to me. He has been compared to Mondrian, but Bradford creates a deeper composition. It is as if he had been hired to create a map of a city and managed to document experiences instead of real estate and circulation. There is a sense of history and possibility inherent in his arrangements. But, on the other hand, it could just be pure abstraction with no external reference except to the dynamics of overlapping grid systems. A five year old could not do this.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

more beating up on las vegas

"Is there any?" was Frank Gehry's response when queried by a reporter about the state of architecture in that fabled desert city. Here is a picture of the Gehry designed Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Studies--which is an apt metaphor for how are brains gradually dissolve when assaulted by incredible diseases like Alzheimer's.

I came across an recent article in the Las Vegas Sun about the dilapidated state of architecture and development there. Things are pretty bad, but given the resilience of cities, a lot of what was built will probably end up being occupied someday--maybe. A lot people are going to have take some big haircuts, and some of the buildings aren't going to be pleasant to live in or to use, but it's there. The recent real estate bubble seemed like a speculative arms race, and in places like Las Vegas, where the gambling industry makes a living off of making people forget about mathematical principles, it's only natural that things were taken to the extreme.
I wonder if the real estate bubble of 2000 through 2008 (when did it end exactly?) is the biggest in history? I'm not sure if you can measure it effectively so that a meaningful comparison can be drawn. I think that construction delivery reached its highest level of productivity in the past decade and architecture became a true commodity for a brief period of time. China's RE bubble hasn't burst yet, and I'm wondering what form that will take. I also wonder to what extent the most dramatic information I read about--anecdotes of empty neighborhoods in Spain and haunted skyscrapers in Dubai--truly reflects how bad, or not bad, things are.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

the D-Shack and Detroit

I encourage you to go to the website of and look at some of the photos of Detroit.
Now for the blog post--opposite is a picture of a house that Time magazine purchased in Detroit last year to serve as a platform for a variety of journalism assignments in its broad array of publications. They are leaving the house now, after immersing themselves in that most interesting American city.
I contend that they picked a house that is probably quite a bit nicer, and in a better neighborhood than what is representative of that besieged city. Wait, not besieged, for any army that would be inclined to attack would move through in despair, for there are no spoils to be found there. Architecturally, the phenomenon of Detroit marks a test of the viability of the low-density city typologogy. In contrast to L.A. it has not proved to be a success. I'm ambivalent about the need for centrality, and my attitude towards density skews favorable, so Detroit is a place that I want to know more about, but I'm not prepared to get my hands dirty. Probably tough to find work as a an architect there.

Friday, December 17, 2010

william mcdonough

This is Mcdonough and Partners NASA research laboratory, which is under construction at the moment.

McDonough is an architect I'm still trying to come to terms with. His book
Cradle to Cradle lays out a philosophy
that doesn't allow for compromise. "Being less bad is no good" is a statement that forces a thorough evaluation of every design strategy.

I'm worried that architecture is the wrong profession to lead the movement towards sustainability. Building stock turnover is incredibly slow, even in places like China, and renovations that are "less bad" tend to be the rule because of the resources available to a client. If renovation and/or new construction costs are raised too high it limits the incentive to do anything at all, or do things under the table.

In the meantime, I'll keep my compost heap going because I'm into that "waste as a nutrient" concept.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

more thoughts on reproduced art

Item #1: Rodin. I was using Sketchup today and thinking about how the Internet is a tool that subverts both individual and scalable labor. It is possible to download free, or relatively free, models of furniture, cars, trees, appliances, practically anything with 3-dimensional form. The quality varies, but due to the effort of people who build and upload models, the quantity is increasing daily. No one, as far as I can tell, gets compensated for it. Google sells some ad space, but in the grand scheme of things, certain classes of synthetic objects are being accumulated with no expectation of return.
So, back to Rodin. My understanding of his sculpture is that he, and/or his estate, made money selling castings, which although more difficult to mass produce than automobiles or sewing needles, were more similar to those common items than a Greek or Roman kouros. Rodin's efforts were being transmuted into a common item. Why can't we buy castings of his sculpture's in Wal-Mart? Why is quality still so elusive?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

the perfect wall

This is a section drawing of the "perfect wall" which Joe Lstiburek of the Building Science Company has written about extensively. It combines the most important principles of building envelope management into one simple package. It leaves out the window, but we'll talk about that some other day.
The perfect wall refutes some intuitive thinking about building design--namely that the outermost surface should be the primary water barrier. By admitting that the outermost layer is an imperfect seal and moving the waterproofing to a more protected area inside the wall the whole assembly can function better. I'm still trying to wrap my head around this, but it's tough to argue with the empiricism or the theories. Stuff gets wet and it has to dry out and if you don't design and build with that in mind, then unhappiness results.
The perfect wall can be expensive to build, but building is always expensive, and if it saves on operating costs, then it's a good idea.

Monday, December 13, 2010

thoughts on the minnesota metrodome collapse

There is an entertaining video of the collapse from inside the stadium on a Fox News website. Structural failures that occur without the loss of life are generally entertaining; when someone is injured or killed it is entertaing and tragic. (I can't believe I
just wrote that.)
This is the fifth time in 29 years that the roof has failed due to weather conditions, which is not a very good track record. The building managers have to keep track of a sophisticated monitoring system and control the air pressure and temperature inside the building on a rather constant basis. I pity them, for their cause is a lost one. I happen to come from the school of thought that structural systems should be efficient, simple, robust, and not reliant on mechanical systems. I can imagine how the engineers and architects and clients sat around in meetings convincing themselves that this design approach for the stadium was a very good idea and that it would save a bundle of (taxpayer) money and everybody would live happily ever after.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

book review-Sunday edition

I just finished reading The Big Short by Michael Lewis. It chronicles the madness of the housing bubble and subprime crisis that precipitated the shakeup on Wall Street. It is told from the points of view of some investors who were shorting the various banks and companies who were leveraging themselves into oblivion.
It is a good book. I can't pretend to understand the arcana of CDS's, synthetic CDO's and tranching strategems. I don't think I was supposed to. A group of greedy fools lent borrowed money to other fools who had no chance of paying it back.
Behind it all is architecture. There were real buildings in there that people put together with the anticipation of using them someday. They were being valued in ways that defied common sense but they are real in a way that all the machinations of the bankers cannot overcome. That matters little now, it seems. The reality of architecture is merely a perception on the part of the beholder. The labor that put it together is lost to all time, and the sun and rain beat down as always. The men on Wall Street perhaps saw themselves as sorcerors, men of power, wielding a magic of financial instruments by which they could extract wealth from thin air. Faustus played with magic because he dreamt that it had power, but he never had power, it was ever a "dumb show" put on by Mephistopheles, biding his time until the payment on the contract came due.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

an inevitable union

In the course of my education over the past ten years I have been becoming gradually more aware of a certain unease in the structure of the "Green" movement. I have trouble defining this unease, although the strongest example I can think of is Henry Gifford's quixotic lawsuit against the U.S Green Building Council over the credibility of the LEED rating system. His challenge is not meant to undermine the philosophy behind LEED or the USGBC, but it may exacerbate vital relationships within the movement.
I will attempt to define the situation in terms of a dichotomy that relies on blatantly unfair generalizations: On one side there are engineering oriented, hippie-conservative types who tend to look at some of the basic math underlying human resource consumption and get justifiably scared at the possibility of a Big Crash happening sometime in the near future. They are deeply committed to changing things by applying the most cost-effective technology and methods, for above all, they abhor waste and gluttony.
On the other side are designer/architecture oriented types who have drawn similar conclusions about the condition of things, but are seeking to solve it with an application of new, in fact, undiscovered, technology and leveraging the marketing power of exceptional cases--like the latest LEED Platinum building or electric car to make others enthusiastic about the cause. Their optimism makes less room for the misery of budgets and cost benefit analysis and post occupancy evaluations. But, they have a more effective sales pitch.
These two groups must join in marriage--the pragmatism of the engineering types must be leveraged by the marketing and publicity abilities of the designer types. Both must keep up a barrage of information so that political forces and traditional customs are realigned. The age of cheap energy is nearing its end and with it, the gradual improvement of human lifestyles that has diffused itself across all cultures.

Friday, December 10, 2010

u.s. house size trends

Recent data from the U.S. census shows a slight decline in the average new house size, from around 2500 s.f. to 2400 s.f. In the late sixties and seventies, when home building peaked for the baby boom generation, houses were averaging around 1700 s.f. so the recent decline has to be viewed from the perspective of our entire housing stock, not just the exuberance of the past few decades. Anecdotally, we're observing clients who demonstrate an awareness of how much space they actually want, as opposed to looking at their new dwelling as a weapon in a positional arms race. Formal dining rooms are still being built, as are formal living rooms that are adjacent to informal family rooms. More importantly, not much is being built right now because of the large inventory of overpriced homes that are unoccupied. Predictions of an uptick in housing starts in the spring of next year leave this blogger feeling skeptical. Who can buy them? Who can get the financing to build them?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

thoughts on wikileaks and the idea of the internet

I realize that by commenting on this issue I will never get a job in the U.S. State Department. So it goes. The official reaction has been predictable and deplorable, and demonstrates a rather dim knowledge of how the information age actually works. Julian Assange is merely a convenient symptom of a phenomenon that is inevitable barring nuclear war and large power failures. I wonder if the guys who put together DARPAnet had any idea that random idiots like me would be able to post online journals with pirated images. Of course, I still need food and running water and a roof over my head, but those things are so far down the list on Maslow's hierarchy that most people don't even think about them anymore. The opportunity for self-actualization is what it is all about.
I digress. The Web is still in its infancy. I have trouble seeing how anyone who is in the hard information business will be able produce conventional media in the near future. The temptation for instantaneous and continuous editing will make the very concept of publishing dates, editions and timelines obsolete. Forensic information gathering will fall into the domain of sophisticated computer algorithms. Human judgment will be more appropriately reserved for arbitrary decision making and architectural flourishes. Just like the late 1500s.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

interesting house

This is a rendering of the "Toaster House" designed by Tempietto Homes. It features panelized, energy efficient construction and a rather unique, perhaps Venturiesque, floor plan with modern detailing.
Pre-fabricated architecture offers theoretical advantages and has been touted as far back as the late 1800's. Even before that, many timberframe buildings, including tythe barns in England, featured shop built structural systems. The nadir of pre-fab was put on display following Hurricane Katrina, when thousands of FEMA trailers proved to be practically uninhabitable.
I was educated in the stick-built lumber tradition and I have a bias towards it as an assembly method. The geometric possibilities are less constrained and the efficiencies that can be realized with on-site construction are highly competitive--particularly since the factory space has no overhead associated with it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

sidewalks are a very good idea

Sidewalks are an architectural element that I regard as having only positive attributes. The lack of sidewalks is one of the clear signs of poor planning, idiotic value engineering, or misguided thinking. In rural areas, they may not be necessary or feasible, but as soon as population density increases to more than one rabbit hole per acre they become absolutely indispensable. A good test of the general level of infrastructure quality in a town or city can be accomplished by a brief survey of sidewalks. Most places around Boston get a grade of C, in my opinion.
A sidewalk can never be too wide. At some point, when its width exceeds sixteen feet or so it may be necessary to re-label it as a park, but that's just a semantic issue.
I also favor concrete for a surfacing material. It has a very good track record, although I am intrigued by recycled rubber pavers.

Monday, December 6, 2010

ride in triumph through here

Architecture shall always be an art masquerading as a craft. Of it shall always be a craft striving towards art. At least it shall never be a rigorous, scientific process, although some people will succeed in making parts of it appear to be like that.
We live in an age obsessed with measurements, but the value of good architecture, and the negative impact of bad design, will always resist quantification.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

architects are disciples of ayn rand

How I love polarity and contradiction. See the last post for another point of view.
Ayn Rand glorified the builder, the engineer, the designer--the creator of things that improved human life. She was often misinformed, but always, or nearly always, sincere in her application of ideas about how the world could be made a better place for people. She had personal experience with conditions where individual property and freedom were trampled on in the name of a collective good. She valued inequality and idolized the (male) desire to outreach and excel. For her, not everyone deserved a prize for showing up.
I did not enter this profession because of Howard Roark, and my overall assessment of Rand is rather harsh. I reserve harsher critique for those who blindly idolize her and her work, hanging on every word as though it were the final pronouncement of Truth, beyond reproach or debate.
Her philosophy is most applicable to the practice of architecture in those rare, but essential moments where the designer sits down and draws the sketch that creates the center of gravity for the rest of the project. There is also the moment, even more rare, when the designer has to walk away from a project because his or her values are being compromised in a way that is completely unacceptable.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

architects are communists

I'm going out on a limb with this post, but this has been on my mind for a few years. Architecture, despite occasionally being an individual, artistic pursuit, is ultimately an activity with broad social impact. This impact can be measured in economic terms that go beyond mere currency. On most occasions, a building will outlive its original investors and users. Even before this amortization is complete, it is in the public domain as a capital good that has the potential to accrue value that is proportionally greater than its upkeep costs. Consequently, it is in everyone's best interest to have a sense of the capital value that is conferred by a building.
A skyscraper in a city is more than an egocentric statement by a developer or corporation. It represents the possibility of continued improvements in the lives of workers who occupy the same neighborhood or participated in its construction. Its shadow is an externality for property owners around it and its footprint is an opportunity cost for different things that might have been built with the same resources nearby.
No building project can occur in a social vacuum. Since it always an act of the community, the community, in some measure, owns the outcome and should have a say in its form, content and ultimate fate.
Side note: Jim Chanos is predicting the eventual collapse of the Chinese residential real estate market. I agree with him, and I'm encouraged that someone in the investment community is willing to take the risk of shorting the speculative bubble that is developing there.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

a good sustainable building (we hope)

This is the newly completed Research Support Facility building on the Colorado campus of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. It may have a claim to being a net-zero energy building thanks to a holistic design approach undertaken by architecture firm RNL, Haselden construction and Stantec engineering. I often take a skeptical point of view towards some of the trends in the green building movement. This project, which is going for LEED Platinum certification, dispels some of my cynicism. They did a lot of things right here, including limiting the depth of floorplates, orienting the building along an east-west axis, limiting glazing area and paying careful attention to envelope design and ventilation systems. I think it looks good as well--the angled roofs and buff colors blend in nicely with the sublime austerity of the Rocky Mountains. Strict energy management and PV arrays on the roof may help this structure achieve the goal of producing as much energy as it consumes over a typical year.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

in rio

This is an image of a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Because I have the perspective of only looking at photographs or movies I can entertain the notion that this is a beautiful place. I could even wax poetic about the value of vernacular, organic architecture.
For some people this is hell, and for some people, it may be a perfectly fine place to live. I am sure that the perception can change in a moment for either type of person.
The way that the dwellings cascade down the hillsides reminds me of some parts of Boston. The construction quality and the underlying infrastructure is probably vastly different. I probably won't go down to Rio, but then again, I just might.