ruminations about architecture and design

Sunday, July 31, 2011

bjarke ingels

He is the current big shot. I wonder how long his moment will last. I like his sculptures.

the last word on the u.s. housing supply (version #9)

Okay, on one level the situation is simple--we have to many houses in the United States right now. This inventory will lead to further depressed prices and a continuation of the recession in new home starts until 2014. This is according to information I've been reading at places like Beat the Press and Calculated Risk.
In a previous post I had entertained the notion that there might be a trend right now towards a supply restriction in the number of new houses being planned and built over the next few years (Economist Brad Delong has referred to this possibility). Both cannot be true, but due to the size and complexity of the shelter architecture market in the U.S. it is possible for both circumstances to exist in different geographic regions.

The Northeast has supply constraints that will prop up house prices and rents for the forseeable future. The south will have depressed and declining prices for the next five years. California is just weird, the mid-Atlantic states will probably experience a rebound. These are just my feelings. We'll see how it plays out. At night, I pray for inflation so that this mess will be resolved that much sooner.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


That is a car. The topic of today's post is the last decade of the fifties. I'm trying to think of something significant about that specific, but I'm drawing a blank. I think that 50's and 60's have been overblown as a generational phenomenon. Everything happened then--The Cold War, the Baby Boom, The Beatles, Bob Dylan. Modern architecture sunk its claws into the neck of culture and kept them firmly for the next several decades. Meanwhile, ranch houses and split levels proliferated across the suburbs and people parked cars like this in freshly paved driveways. And what a time it was. I wouldn't trade in today for then for all the tea in China.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

adolf loos appreciation day

This is one of the best efforts by Loos. He has an interesting track record, and his influence was a mixed blessing. This building is a very good urban gesture and an example of how modernism and classicism can be successfully combined. The austerity of the stucco facade is balanced by the stone columns and the traditional cornice profile.

happy birthday towers of ilium

This blog is now one year old. What's happened? Not terribly much. Readership levels are unchanged, perhaps even declining, although I can take solace in the fact they can never go below zero.
Content is mostly unchanged, although posting frequency has declined recently. I feel guilty if I don't have graphic material to post, and I haven't seen anything inspirational lately (I'm lazy). Also, the summer tends to make posting more challenging (I'm lazy).

Consider this blog as a disturbingly accurate microcosm of what has happened in architecture in design in the past year, i.e. not much. Commercial and residential real estate development are stagnant, the mega-projects in the Middle East are on holiday. This blog is optimistic in the long run, but short-run conditions do not lend themselves to much hope. Europe might be disintegrating, and there is the possibility that political leaders of all persuasions will successfuly engineer another recession.

What's most frustrating, is that right now is the perfect time to undertake an energy revolution that could transform the world in a positive way. Two-stroke engines for transportation could be phased out, Energy efficiency standards could be raised, architects could collaborate more actively with builders, etc...

Also, the architecture magazines could stop glorifying faux avant-garde blobitecture and embrace practical building science.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

the infamous FEMA trailer

When is the wrong architecture worse than no architecture at all? I hope that I'm never in a situation where I have to try to answer that question, or find myself as the designer who has imposed a bad decision on someone.

The saga of the FEMA trailers seems to be a combination of pure ignorance, hubris, and good intentions gone awry. The major problem with them centers around the use of toxic materials, which when combined with the hot/humid climate of New Orleans, made for a miserable experience for thousands of people.

It also serves as a useful demonstration that when it comes to climate specific design, there is no ideal, universal solution.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

19 million empty houses

According to the U.S. census, that is the number of vacant housing units in the United States of America. In total there are approximately 131 million housing units in the country, which works out to 2.4 people per dwelling. At face value, those numbers suggest that we have an ample, yea, a luxurious stock of housing, compared to any other country on the planet. The housing bubble that peaked in 2006 contributed to a condition of oversupply and severe overpricing which will take many years to work its way through the economy.

But, I'm not entirely convinced that we have a legitimate oversupply of housing, because a great number of those units are of questionable quality, tending towards obsolescence, and most importantly an unoccupied house is in a more fragile maintenance category than an occupied one.

Monday, July 18, 2011

the salt box house

I had a conversation recently with a fellow from Missouri who had some experience with home building. He was wondering why New England houses had such conservative eave and rake overhangs (the eaves and rakes are to a house what a brim is to a hat--if that helps). I replied that water management in the Northeast was devoted more to snow than rain, and shallow overhangs are okay from a water management point of view. Also, deep eaves can restrict light in second story windows, which is undesirable in this latitude. The converse to these things is true in southern climes. Deep overhangs, and roofs that have less of a pitch to them will perform better.

I hope I'm right about this claim I'm making. I want to believe that a purely aesthetic decision, i.e. on houses like the one pictured here, wouldn't  persist if it caused repeating problems.

Monday, July 11, 2011

a crazy idea (#67)

Heat pump water heaters are relatively rare compared to gas water heaters or electric resistance heaters, but they are supposed to be a good idea. The major drawback to them is higher up-front installation costs, but the payback period is just a few years. Compared to full-blown, solar PV they are a considerably simpler upgrade for the American homeowner and since they are relatively new we can expect their price to decline and their reliability to improve over time.

Here is my crazy idea--link a heat pump water heter with domestic refrigeration equipment. One system is generating heat for water and expelling cold air, which could be recovered to offset the heat discharge from a refrigerator. Now that I think about, it won't work for houses because it's better for the refrigerator and hot water heater to be completely decoupled, but for commercial kitchens this could be a money and energy saver.

syd mead appreciation post

No one in science fiction/futurism illustration has a more impressive resume than Syd Mead. Star Trek, Tron, Blade Runner, Aliens. And, that's just the big name stuff. I remember seeing this illustration in a book I read twenty years ago. He dares to dream of things that we're still a long way from doing.

As an architect, I can get peevish and say "Oh, that's just fantasy for the movie audience" but I can't deny that he channels an energy and optimism that is inspirational. Mead creates a consistent visual iconography that reinforces the artistic theme of whatever he is working on. The vision of the director and writer get a boost from his creativity. True value added.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

edwin lutyens

The legacy of colonialism in India is not something that I find admirable, but this work of architecture--the Viceroy's Palace by Edwin Lutyens--is worth looking at. I wish I had a better picture.

Not as good as the Taj Mahal, but not bad.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

the most important architecture in Boston

I paid my water and sewer bill yesterday so I thought it would be appropriate to honor the Deer Island Wasterwater Treatment Facility, located in the beautiful (and cleaner) Boston Harbor. Everything we do as a civilization depends on where we get our water and what we do with it afterwards. For the modest sum of six hundred bucks a year I get to participate in a distribution chain that stretches from resovoirs in central Mass. and ends at a discharge point at Deer Island. Billions of bacteria depend on me, and I won't let them down.

What's amazing is that there are a few holdouts who are critical of this project. Time should take care of them.