ruminations about architecture and design

Friday, November 30, 2012

more predictions by towers of ilium

Here are some trends in architecture and real estate that I want to talk about:

1. The housing bubble in Toronto will pop. Will it happen quickly or slowly?

2. The new energy code will feature incremental improvements.

3. Triple glazed windows are inevitable

4. Spray foam insulation will continue to improve and costs will continue to decline.

5. Non-ferrous reinforcing in concrete will expand in use. This will be a big, slow trend over the next 50 years.

6. We will have another real estate bubble, probably global, in 2020ish.

7. The loss of labor in architecture firms as a result of the recession will not impact productivity. The software is just too darn good. Direct service to clients will be more common.

8. Construction delivery methods will not experience significant productivity gains over the next several decades--if ever. Building complexity will only increase. Data and power distribution systems will get marginally more efficient, but will be offset by improvements to environmental control systems.

Only a few people who read this blog will understand what I am talking about. More pictures next month.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

things go boom

Gas explosions, like airplane crashes, always make the news. They are rare and exciting, and the stories they generate are unique and full of human interest. Slower disasters have trouble getting any press, partly because the human brain seems more tuned into fast events. We have trouble planning ahead, because the state of nature we occupied for millenia didn't reward planners as much as it did those with fast reflexes.

Architects like to think that they're planning for the long term, but most of our activity consists of reacting and responding to things that move on weekly and monthly time scales. We consider longevity in the context of decades, not centuries. Adaptable planning features---like extra storage space, more robust construction, flexible mechanical systems--are usually the first good things to go during the cost-cutting process. It's often cheaper to destroy buildings than save them. And, we can all make the claim that "this time we'll get it right."

Sunday, November 25, 2012

the mcdonald's effect

My wife and I were discussing how McDonald's has been making a concerted effort to make their store interiors more warm and inviting over the past few years. This is probably because they are trying to compete with Starbuck's and Panera for "linger" customers. The color and texture palette in recently renovated stores includes wood panelling, stone accents, softer lighting, and beige wall surfaces.

My wife pointed out that these efforts could have a negative impact on how people view the quality of certain "warm" materials. It would be quite a blow to designers if clients started criticizing the use of wood and stone as being too "McDonald's."

Sunday, November 18, 2012

on the reliability of the internet

With the exception of this blog, I happen to think that information resources on the web are improving, and will continue to improve over time. The qualification is that it often depends on the question you ask. A good question depends on "pre-knowledge" and it also sets you up for being able to evaluate the flood of data you get from the initial Google search.

As an example of this phenomenon, I happen to think the detail shown above is quite useful for describing a common building condition. Because of my training I can identify everything that is shown here and I could use this image to describe it to someone else. A person without "pre-knowledge" might not know what to make of this.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

an observation

Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt had a brief article at the website Economix about the abject stupidity of American infrastructure. He pointed out how overhead electric lines are a thing of the past in most of Europe, and as a consequence, people there do not experience the frequent power outages that prevail in most American neighborhoods during bad weather.

I surmise that utility companies have concluded that there is no profit to be had in burying electric transmission lines. Consumers will complain when  power goes out, but because we have no alternatives but to wait for repairs, we make no demands for regulations that would compel the utilities to improve the situation.

This is called the glory of the free market.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

spin department #58

Towers of ilium should not be considered the final word on anything, especially on subjects like energy production. However, this blog does have ambitions as a tool for improvements in people's knowledge. So, I draw your attention to the graph above, published by an organization called the International Energy Agency, which makes a claim about how U.S. domestic liquid petroleum production is poised to increase substantially over the next two decades. It was part of a report issued recently that makes projections about future energy production patterns. Most people are familiar with the report because of recent news stories that have trumpeted how the U.S. will soon overtake Saudi Arabia as a petroleum producer.

According to sources that I trust more the IEA, this graph, and much of the information in that report, is bullshit. The U.S. is not on a path towards increased fossil fuel production at the rate or total volume implied by this graph. The U.S. will not become energy independent in fossil fuels--nor would doing so have any impact on prices we pay at the gas pump. Saudi Arabia has more oil buried under its soil than the U.S. This is a simple geological fact. More to the point, the production projections shown in this graph are an example of "bubblenomics"--and bear a striking resemblance to claims made by many idiots about the certainty of ever increasing home values.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

meanwhile at Google

Part of the cooling system at a data center that might help keep this blog alive.

It's  quite lovely. The bicycle looks a bit hokey, but who am I to judge?

Sunday, November 11, 2012


I'm finally reading the Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov. It's something that I've been meaning to do for about 20 years, and I suppose that it was worth the wait. I'm not far into it, but I find its premise to be deeply disturbing, for it harnesses the optimism of  post World War II technocratic determinism and projects it onto a future of the entire galaxy. The anachronisms are amusing and annoying--the gender imbalance, the cigar smoking, print newspapers....

Yet, I can appreciate the vision. The Freudian inevitability of human destruction and social collapse, the conversion of science and technology into magic, and the wisdom/madness of crowds. Ultimately, I think Asimov is a bit optimistic.

Friday, November 9, 2012


Lighting design is one of those areas of architecture that I can confidently say I will never master. I'll be lucky to achieve amateur status--and if I don't keep up with technological shifts I could be severely shortchanging my clients. So, I have to learn more about how to delegate the task to those who really are lighting designers.

It's a common story in this line of work--the person who thinks he knows everything is the biggest fool. But, he'll have such self-confidence that he'll win commissions and design mediocre junk that he'll think is the best thing ever put on the planet by human hands.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


Where is this? (A person who claims to be a follower of this illustrious blog knows the answer)
I'm fairly certain that it's the U.S.-- maybe Vegas or L.A. based on the palm tree and those desolate mountains in the background. Maybe the other question I should ask is: When is it?

My architectural education often stressed the importance of "Place" and how the designer had a responsibility for creating a sense of "Place" that was unique. Yet, we crave familiarity to such a more powerful degree than novelty, and the success of so many American buildings and cities and products is their "placelessness." Golly, that Starbucks coffee is good wherever you go and I'd rather risk a McDonald's cheeseburger than the brisket at Honest Shep's Meat Shack.

Now I'm being mean and rambling. People call this place home. Or they did. Maybe it was wiped out in a flood or a war yesterday and the news was lost in the final hysteria of the election cycle. Thank goodness that towers of ilium is here to preserve the image of their memory. We're all about public service here.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

retail aesthetics

This photo doesn't quite do justice to the craftsmanship of the shelving and fixtures of this store. Retail architecture is probably one of the toughest design challenges in architecture. At what point to expenditures on the quality and character of the design yield diminishing returns? To what extent will people associate the architecture with the brand? How trustworthy is market research into the topic?

This place works hard to make the purchase of wine and beer feel like a sophisticated experience. The wood and black metal creates a nostalgic atmosphere and the rolling carts are both whimsical and functional. I wonder where they found the wheels?