ruminations about architecture and design

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

the prefab home revolution continues

Shipped anywhere, including Mongolia. This is a custom designed, pre-fabricated house from Pacific Homes, which is based in Vancouver, Canada. I look at their work and shrug. This has been done before, and it will be done again. I hope that they don't overextend themselves as a company and try to focus on a niche market where their service makes sense.

Homebuilding statistics are constant on one point, and it bears repeating (which I do a lot on this blog)--Most houses--over 96% are site built and stick built. By hand, with inputs from a wide variety of trades. Assembly line principles can be applied to site built homes and are more effective and more efficient than anything done in a factory. After all, no construction site has to pay for lighting or air conditioning.

I'm rethinking my blog byline "ruminations about architecture and design." It makes me think of cows. Moo.

Saturday, January 28, 2012


I came across a copy of a magazine called Science Digest while rummaging around in my basement. It was from 1983. Some of the articles:
-"Buried Buildings on the Rise?"--A Minnesota architect was predicting that underground buildings would become more prevalent because they could be more energy efficient. He notes that people can be amazed at "how light and airy they can be."
-"Measuring the Milky Way" dealt with new efforts to map the galaxy and mentioned how over 3/4 of the measured mass exists in a "dark corona" surrounding the visible stars.
-"Is Evolution Progress" was a thoughtful article about how change over time doesn't imply that more complex organisms are better suited for survival.
-"Superbrain-The Race to Create the World's Fastest Computer"--This was really cute. The Cray corporation had just finished developing a machine that crack a gigaflop.
-"The Dinosaur Massacre" was about the relatively new theory that an asteroid strike was responsible for the extinctions of megafauna observed 65 million years ago. The article concluded that the evidence was against such a theory. No mention of Chicxulub.

Interesting. There were also lots of ads for cigarettes and stuff related to personal computers.

Friday, January 27, 2012

boring post about supply and demand in the housing market

Recent articles in the Boston Globe highlighted what is apparently a robust housing market in Boston. One article dealt with the increase in median rents for one bedroom apartments in the city. Despite the recession and efforts by developers to build more units, the market has had steady year over year increases and it costs over $1500 a month to rent an apartment. Meanwhile, the condo market is also strong, both in the luxury sector and the "normal" sector.

So, we have a housing shortage in Boston, yes? I just did a quick check on prices in Quincy and the situation is comparable, which bolsters this point of view. But, what about the inventory of foreclosed homes and lower quality  housing in places like Dorchester, Chelsea and East Boston? Is the supply being temporarily constrained by that? Also, will the "boom" in multi-unit housing really amount to anything? Projects like that have a slow gestation period, and the overall number of units that can come on the market over then next few years is not that large.

Towers of Ilium will continue to monitor the situation and provide misleading, erroneous and contradictory commentary.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

how do you get there from anywhere?

After reading Sam Bass Warner's book, Streetcar Suburbs, I have a greater appreciation for the power of self-regulating systems, and cautious of how that power can create long term imbalances in human affairs. The relatively high density neighborhoods that resulted from the development of the late 19th century in Boston was at odds with its intent. Any association with a rural ideal was consumed by a patchwork grid of roads, building lots and wood framed houses.

I'm also going to propose a rule that applies to residential settlement: Lot sizes double with each advance in transportation technology. It's a crude rule, but it has played out in the greater Boston area over the centuries. When people commuted by foot and horse, things were very close together. Agricultural land was close by and cities were small. Service by rail and boat needed centralized transfer areas with a high density of hand labor. A single family home often took the form of the row house on a 1000-2000 s.f. building lot, because this proportion range maximized the density and proximity that foot traffic required. With the railroad, and then, more significantly, the streetcar, the lot size roughly doubled. With the arrival of the automobile, the ring suburbs could develop, and lot sizes increased to a quarter acre or more. The further out you go from the city center, the larger the minimum lot that is required by zoning. (And zoning, that's a whole other issue. I have to keep reminding myself that zoning is a relatively new concept, especially when it is made a formal law).

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

advances in architectural technology

I was very pleased when I built this computer model of a staircase in an AutoCad class eight years ago. It took too long and isn't graphically impressive, but it gave me a sense of accomplishment at the time. Since then, significant improvements have been made in computer rendering technology, and along with most designers, I would have trouble returning to a time when everything had to be done by hand.

One thing that I'm uncertain about is the linkage between the efficiency gained in the design world and actual construction of buildings. Contractors like to boast about their scheduling software and their coordinated BIM linked delivery systems. This software doesn't guarantee that anyone will show up on time and with the right information to do the job right. ,When I look at work being done in the field, it is still people on ladders and staging or telescoping lifts.  They use simple tools and touch every building component with their hands, often more than once. New insights into enclosure performance mean more attention to detail in the field and a more sophisticated approach to the construction process, but the skill, experience and craft are still more important than the documentation methodology in my opinion.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

manifest destiny

Wherever you find humans, you find wickedness. Not much of an original observation, but I'm reading a book about the destruction of the Comanche Indians, and since it's a rather unpleasant topic it's hard not to refer to it on today's post.

Wherever you find barely habitable land, you find humans. The scale of a country like the U.S. allows for nearly every possible climate and geography. Settlement patterns prior to the arrival of Europeans tended to leverage the vastness and variety of the landscape. Population densities in North America, by all accounts that I've read, were low. But even in this circumstance, there were disputes, wars, and all forms of attendant misery over resources. It seems that neither density and poverty, or the lack thereof, can stem aggression. It's too soon to tell if this new century will be a peaceful and prosperous one.

Today's graphic and yesterday's graphic were done by me, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Monday, January 23, 2012

the suburban obsession

"As a result of the centerless character of most suburbs, community life fell into fragments."

That is from Sam Bass Warner Jr. in his book Streetcar Suburbs. It is a specific comment on the organically developed Boston suburbs of Dorchester and Roxbury, but I cannot help but interpret it as an indictment of most American suburbs. Warner constantly stresses that the form of the Boston suburbs was not planned, but was a consequence of many small developers making similar decisions. "Regulation without laws" is his memorable phrase.

More on this later, but I'm feeling skeptical about this. To place the blame for the ailments of modern community on the layout of streets and property feels like a bit of a stretch.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

the shape of things to come-disruptive technology editions part 3947

This is a chart of market share trends of computing devices over time. The blogger,, makes the argument that current smart phone/smart pad devices are upending the traditional PC/Mac platforms. I agree with that even though I'm writing this blog on a PC that is geometrically and functionally similar to what was around in the mid 90's. They don't do as much logging with chainsaws as they used to, either. (That's an inside joke, sorry)

I'm still plotting my essay about New York. The theme is going to be dichotomy. Very heavy Hegelian like stuff, but probably not, I've never read Hegel and may die before I do with no regrets.

On the subject of technology, driverless cars are still on my mind a lot. The ramifications are immense and I don't think that anyone has sat down and thought it through. At least, I haven't come across any literature on it in the media. Let me qualify that--googling now---of course, people have been talking about it, and have made the same points I was going to make. I have little original to add. I predict that robotic transportation systems will become the standard in less than 100 years. The unexpected consequences will be more positive than negative. He said with a grin.

Friday, January 20, 2012

new york styles

Mondrian is one of my favorite artists, but I'm more partial to his lesser known works, largely because I discovered him through a book from my college library that focused on a collection of his simpler compositions. It is a type of art I have no trouble copying, and not because it is easy, but because the variations are endless and always satisfying, like pancakes. Google images turns up examples of his famous works, so that's why we have an image of his work "Broadway." (Or is it Broadway Boogie Woogie? I'm too lazy to research it)

I have to spend some time thinking about  and doing research on New York City. I'm wondering if the place is overrated, which is a statement of heresy, but given the turbulent history of the city, its status as capital of the world is not a permanent position. In fact, it's a western bias and I've just acknowledged my guilt. If a stranger offered me an all expenses paid trip to any city in the world I'd pick New York. Bath would be my second choice.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

the chinese real estate bubble

Some economists, primarily in the West, have been hinting at this for a few years now. Some of these hints are now being replaced by solid research, and I do not see how this issue is going to be resolved in a painless fashion. The Chinese construction boom has been one of the things that has sustained growth in that country for nearly a decade. The recent Olympics showcased their ability to build large, impressive looking architecture very quickly (with varying degrees of quality).

A good indicator of a bubble is relentless speculation, that is explained, by those participating, as a self-sustaining phenomenon. But, like a game of muscial chairs, the music has to stop. I predict that things will start to go badly this year and the negative effects will be felt worldwide.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

cautious progress in quincy center

The Streetworks Company has teamed up with the Beal Corporation, according to an article in today's Boston Globe. I hope this project goes forward and I can appreciate the cautious pace at which the various groups are moving, because, after all, the population growth in the greater Boston area can't justify the speculative insanity that characterizes development in other parts of the world.

The city of Quincy, with the help of some federal stimulus funds, continues to undertake infrastructure improvements,  which from my personal experience, still leaves a lot to be desired. Everyone's heart is in the right place, at least from the point of view of following the rules in the New Urbanist/Modernist/American playbook. The effort to create a 24 hour community, that will also serve as a desitination for out of town shoppers, seems like a nice idea when compared to the shopping mall built near an interstate cloverleaf.

Architecturally, I don't think there will be anything out of the box. Construction quality will be a bit lower than what you would find in Boston, at least in the materials and details department. Square footage will be equivalent, and parking will be better, but that advantage will be offset by the fact that the public transportation network simply isn't as robust.

We'll see how this turns out. I wish I was involved with it.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

late breaking news and important updates

A photo or Renzo Piano's office in Genoa, Italy. I have relatives in Genoa, by the way. Of all practicing architects, I probably admire him the most. I am humbled by the diversity and excellence of his work and I hope that he practices for a few more decades. Climbing the stairs in this office would surely be healthy.

I have not renewed my membership in the AIA. This may have been a bad decision, but I have trouble squaring the increase in dues with the level of benefits. We'll see what happens.

I am nearly finished reading Sam Bass Warner's book on the development of Boston's streetcar suburbs. I'll write more about this later because it's a deeply important subject, and not just for Boston, but for urban development anywhere on the planet. If I could sum up the book in one phrase it would be this: "Transportation equals the city, and the type of transportation technology defines the shape of the city."

Saturday, January 14, 2012

a work in progress

I find it challenging to design things for myself or for abstract clients. I don't know what implications this trait has for my place in the design world, but I'm beginning to suspect that it is more of a liability than an asset. This particular image showcases my lack of advanced computer rendering skills, which is a much more significant liability in a profession that can no longer seem to function without sophisticated software and the shamans who operate it.

Lately, I've been more and more interested in issues surrounding real estate, urban planning (or lack thereof), and other settlement patterns. The stylistic aspects of architecture still excite me, and I actually prefer not to look too deeply into their history. I will admit that I romanticize the past, but only when I am out on the street. When I have to deal with old houses and buildings as a user instead of a pedestrian, I get frustrated quickly. The design profession has made progress, but often at the expense of pure aesthetics and whimsical decoration. A modern architect has to be more concerned with a holistic sensory experience than a visual manifesto. This is hardly an original observation, but it bears constant repeating.

Monday, January 9, 2012

thoughts on house styles-part 2

This charming little house was designed by Royal Barry Wills and featured in his book Better Houses for Budgeteers, published in the 1940's. It is not a Cape Cod style home, although with a few changes to the roof and details, it could easily become one. But the malleability of a house style has definite limits. If this house were made 10% larger it would look noticeably different. If it were brought up to the standards of today's houses, with more bedrooms, larger spaces, a mudroom and a two-car garage, it would lose a great measure of its charm and contrived antiquity.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

nostalgia and place-robert campbell and the old west end

Robert Campbell had an article in today's Boston Globe Arts Section on the old West End in Boston. The neighborhood's destruction is the classic story of the stupid tragedy of urban renewal. The land occupied by the neighborhood is a pointless arrangement of high-rise residential buildings, parking lots and miserably designed circulation. At least, that is the opinion I have formed after attempting to take walks in the area. Anything resembling human architecture has been thoroughly repressed by the madness of a modernist ideology rendered in its most dismal perfection.

But, we can't be sure what the original West End was actually like. Campbell, along with the dwindling core of people who were ejected from the neighborhood, has woven a gently fading mythology about the place that I do not regard as entirely reliable. But, I can respect that, for I have never lost an architectural setting in the way that they did. As James Kunstler has opined frequently, the homogenized desert of strip malls and suburban sprawl that we are creating doesn't quite grab the memory in the way that old cities can.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

thoughts on house styles-part 1

Is the style of this house dated? At the time of its construction (circa 1935) the colonial era was well past, but the details and proportions are a direct reference to that bygone era. The Colonial Revival has been the most enduring architectural style in the United States, and for more than patriotic reasons. It emphasizes economy of material and is resolutely human scale. The materials are readily available and the arrangement of the building forms allows for adaptation to all types of sites and family sizes.

There is always room for technical improvement, but since the aesthetic motif has been established and owners and prospective buyers associate it with a good investment, such improvements are subject to mimicry of the past. Shouts of "dishonesty" from the architectural peanut gallery are ignored because the efforts to establish new aesthetic standards aren't as organized as the set of decisions that created the Colonial style.

Friday, January 6, 2012

urban agriculture

I'm in favor of it, even if it will never replace industrialized farming. But, what does urban mean? This is a vexing question that keeps popping up in any discussion of demographic trends and architecture. This location is very clearly urban and the intensive nature of these planting beds implies that a lot of thought and planning went into it. If urban agriculture is defined as rooftop gardens or tomato plants on windowsills, what about Michelle Obama's backyard garden? What about my feeble efforts at a vegetable garden (what is the beast that ate my eggplants? Kill, kill, kill, kill...) Sorry, I got carried away there.

Agriculture is no different from architecture in terms of its manipulation of space and time, and it's on a much greater scale. It is more important than architecture, in the same way that our spinal column is more important than our earlobe.
Some people might say that urban farming will only ever be a hobby, but so much of human activity is a hobby that crosses over into the critical necessity of self-expression and survival. Termites and jungle ants are more impressive socially than us, but they don't have cute little gardens with lovely shrubbery.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

more thoughts on fire sprinklers in houses

I actually took a small amount of time to do some research on the subject, and I'm amazed at how inexpensive they are for new construction. The NFPA did a draft study in 2008 which concluded that installed cost averaged $1.61 per s.f. which works out to about $4000 for a new, average sized American home.

I think that's a good deal, but I stand by my argument from my previous post on the subject, that fires in new construction are less of a problem than fires in pre-existing, non-conforming dwellings.

I'm also irritated that the insurance study that the NFPA did in their report concludes that there is only a 5-10% drop in annual premium costs for houses that have an automatic sprinkler system. That makes for a payback period on the install cost of over 30 years. Homeowners are apt to be more interested in things that generate a faster return on investment.

So, I am tentatively in favor of Massachusetts adopting this as a code requirement for new construction.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

perpetual motion

I recently learned, from a reliable source, that a handful of the diesel powered locomotives operated by the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail are never shut off. Let that sink in for a moment. A train like the one pictured above, whether it is travelling or just sitting, is always on. The reason is that it can be difficult to restart such a large engine once it has stopped.

Why bother trying? If it is acceptable for a mass transit organization to waste energy and pollute the urban environment to such a degree, then how the heck are we going to make progress with anything?

More upbeat post tomorrow. I promise.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

predictions for 2012

Obligatory random building. (In Boston)

So here goes:

1. The world economy this year will only be slightly better than last year. I doubt that there will be any places that stand out as very good or very bad. I doubt that some of the more depressed areas of the U.S. will experience a turn-around.

2. In architecture I predict a mild rebound in single family residential work. The current multi-family construction boom will fizzle by mid-year or possibly sooner. Government and Institutional work will be stalled. Retail and hospitality may improve slightly. Commercial office space will rebound slightly. Healthcare may be entering a long-term structural stall, but nursing home facilities will continue to grow due to demographic pressures.

3. Global warming will continue. So will plate tectonics. The tragedy is that we could have done something about climate change twenty years ago but I think the horse has left the barn at this point. The warming that we will experience in the next twenty years is the result of CO2 released in the past twenty years. Global planning to combat climate change and GHG emissions has proven to be a bust. Despite my disappointment, I am still an advocate of true green architecture and practices that encourage density, sustainability and durability.

4. Authoritarianism in world politics will continue on an upward trend despite the ongoing revolutions in the Middle East. I'm not sure if Assad will last the year in Syria, but I think that the Egyptian military will find a way to hold and consolidate power. The triumph of capitalist democracy that was predicted in the early 90's has not been borne out of by recent history and the disturbing rise of cleverly managed kleptocracies is frustrating and discouraging.

5. The U.S. will not win a gold medal in the men's shot put at the London Olympics.

6. Technological change will be subdued. I think that the great revolutions in the internet, social media, wireless communication and online retail will enter a stage of maturity and consolidation. Apple will begin a long, slow decline.