ruminations about architecture and design

Friday, February 28, 2014

interminable terminology

In Germany they refer to EIFS as ETICS--which stands for Exterior Thermal Insulation Composite Systems. EIFS (pronounced "ee-fus") is a much better word. It's nice that the Germans invented EIFS but it's crazy to have an abbreviation that describes it that is nearly useless.

The rule with EIFS systems is that they need to have a drainage plane behind the insulation. In some climates, like Massachusetts, you can get away with a face-sealed system, but when things go wrong, they can go wrong in the worst way possible.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

casino prediction #29

Since towers of ilium has very little access to facts, inside information, or common sense I feel safe predicting that the Everett Casino plan will beat out the competing Revere/Suffolk Downs plan. Despite the fact that Revere voters gave the nod to the project (following the East Boston defeat last year) I don't think that Mohegan Sun can adapt their plan effectively to the new site and the competition that Wynn will mount.

I get the impression that Wynn is the key decision maker in his casino empire. Mohegan Sun is a conglomerate, and consequently won't be able to make aggressive moves as quickly as Wynn.

I'll turn out to be wrong about this.

It doesn't matter that I prefer the architecture of the Mohegan Project more.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

the blank slate

Feeling a little blank today.

Michael Sorkin had a rambling, contradictory essay on China in this week's Nation magazine. That is more appropriate than any argument that attempts to simplify and summarize any aspect of China or its relationship to the rest of the world. He had a memorable quote:

"The hubris of architects and planners is that they dictate the boundaries and experiences of the public. The opposite is true."

The urbanization of China seems to be taking on a similar form to what continues to happen in America and Europe--i.e. city ring growth--which we often label as suburbanization. High density cities are an artifact of pre-mechanized transportation. Pick your poison: Being stuck in traffic every day for half an hour during a five mile commute or driving 20 miles in the same period of time. The former option concentrates pollution and restricts overall mobility.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


I did not have the opportunity to go inside this building yesterday. I can only speculate that it was as poorly designed as the District Court Building and the Registry of Deeds. I think that old buildings that have a lot of character but poor functionality are preserved because people focus on the difficulty associated with replicating the details. If it was built once, it can be built again, but what if there isn't a good reason to do that?

Are we at peak car? I predict that total vehicle production per year will peak at 110 million cars sometime around 2025. At this point in time, self-driving cars will be gaining market share.

Paul McMorrow had a critical editorial on the 2024 Boston Olympics Plan.

Monday, February 24, 2014

the price of reality

Homeowners are doomed by just a few simple words: "We'll just touch this room up a bit...."
The inability to accurately predict project scope  should not be regarded as an error in need of correction. If people can summon the will to do something, and organize the resources to at least start it, then its success is merely a matter of more resources. The unpredictability of construction projects should be acknowledged in the beginning. Much effort can be wasted on trying to control scope when it should be focused on improving the outcome.

Easy for me to say.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

is older slightly better?

I had a conversation with a client yesterday in which I made the very unoriginal claim that older institutional buildings--say built in the 19th century or early 20th century--outlast buildings from the post-war period (i.e. the modernist stuff that towers of ilium complains about so frequently). I have no comprehensive statistics to back up this claim, but from what I've observed at school campuses, efforts to preserve and continuously renovate old structures are made more readily than decisions to demolish younger stuff.

Scale and context is important, but I'm staking my claim on the proposition that older buildings have robust geometry and materials that outperform the steel and concrete atrocities of the 50's, 60's and 70's.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

justice architecture

This miserable looking building is the Quincy District Court. I spent a day inside this place as a juror some ten odd years ago. It was an instructive experience. In the educational video we watched prior to the trial the Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court apologized for the poor quality of the facilities provided for people going through the legal system.

I blame architects for this. The extreme, uncompromising ideology  of the modernist era made designers and clients blind to human needs and basic good principles of building construction. Many from that era would complain about value engineering, and I will concede that the short-sighted stupidity of many institutions, both public and private, made for some bad decisions. But, the architects fought for geometry and finishes that were absurd, inhuman, and dysfunctional.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

transit oriented development forest hills edition

This is an image of a proposal by the design/development firm Urbanica for a parcel of land near the Forest Hills T station in Boston. I have no complaints--why isn't it under construction yet? There's probably a slew of traffic studies being conducted, plus more community meetings, plus design reviews, plus financing, plus some lawsuits, and environmental remediation....

Open for occupancy by 2017 is my prediction.

Monday, February 17, 2014

where boston can put the olympics

I spent some time looking at a map of Boston and have concluded that when the Boston Olympic Committee makes their recommendation for a site of the games they will pitch the Seaport District. Specifically, the area immediately to the south of the Convention Center would host the stadium and the high rise apartment hotels of the Olympic Village. The Dry Dock Plaza would be the aquatics center.

The alternate area will be the neighborhood immediately north of Upham's Corner in Dorchester. In many respects, that would be a better location, but the romantic pull of the the Boston Harbor is strong.

I'm beginning to understand that the ulterior motive of the Olympics Bid is to force a discussion about some of the underutilized areas of the city. I grudgingly support that.

Friday, February 14, 2014

the amazon model of commerce

I won't deny that I did nearly all of my Christmas shopping on Amazon, but I can't claim to have any brand loyalty to the company. I know that every dollar I save when I click "Buy" is the result of poorly paid warehouse workers who remain hidden from sight. Of course, every object I buy comes from the labor of poorly paid factory workers, so there's little justice anywhere.

Amazon pretends that it doesn't exist in an architectural sense, but courts and state sales taxes are beginning to feel differently. In the history of human communication there has never been a good distinction between data and the physical world. Data manifests itself as matter, and from the point of view of quantum physics, there's no matter all--just data interacting with itself.

I hope Google keeps paying their electric bill so this blog can continue to exist.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Completely vapor open walls

Everyone still seems to be confused by  the differences between air barriers and vapor retarders. Codes, contractors, and designers have given too much focus to vapor retarders, and more specifically, vapor barriers than is warranted. As Joe and John have pointed out, if you aren't in Canada then being obsessed about vapor barriers is a waste of time. We should all be more concerned with air barriers, because if we're actually concerned about water management, then we should all be on board with the fact that pressurized air can transport much more water vapor through a the building enclosure than vapor diffusion on its own.

As a designer, I would like to have a one-stop shopping solution for the AVB and WRB. Sto Corp, among others, seems to be heading in the right direction with many of their products, but I'm a bit puzzled by the Sto Energy Guard system that is detailed above. They take responsibility for the exterior insulation, a waterproof air barrier, the substrate joint treatment, and a drain screen, but they don't take responsibility for the "Code Compliant Paper WRB. Why not? And why isn't their "waterproof" air barrier satisfying the requirements of the WRB? And why is their XPS insulation better than another product?

So, if I use a vapor impermeable, code approved WRB in this assembly in a mixed/humid climate or a cold climate I might be making a big mistake. Sto gives me a hint that I should I be using a vapor permeable "paper" WRB which implies felt paper or Tyvek, but they don't want to stick their neck out and state that explicitly.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

the downward spiral--retail edition

A marijuana store may be opening in this location on Boylston Street--less than one hundred feet from my office as the crow flies. Towers of Ilium likes to pretend to be open minded, but the prospect of hundreds of glassy eyed dope fiends polluting my daytime neighborhood gives me pause. If devil weed is sold in this urban location we can easily assume that more unsavory criminal elements will gain a foothold and usurp the fine character of the businesses that make Boston a great city. Eventually, the pot smokers will corrupt the investment bankers, real estate agents, boutique retailers, panhandlers, and even the architects who frequent the streets and alleyways of the Back Bay. College students will stumble around in a stoned haze, bumping into trees and getting lost in subway stations. Tourists, overcome by the dank clouds of the narcotic, will ponder outdated maps hopelessly before spending their hard-earned currency on leftover bread at Au Bon Pain or Starbucks.

Where is Whitey Bulger? How can he save us from this horror? Petition the FBI to release that fine citizen; that protector of the working class, so that we are spared the open air consumption of the evil weed.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

the 2030 challenge and various laws of thermodynamics

Towers of ilium is in favor of the 2030 challenge. I'm also interested in squatting 1000 lbs. I don't expect either goal to be achieved, but the purpose of some goals is to remind us of the clear sunrise on the shores of some mythical paradise. We are an optimistic and ambitious species, able to deny thoughts of decay, destruction, and death in spite of the overwhelming evidence...Oh sod off on that topic--where was I?

Oh yes, architecture cannot achieve the the 2030 challenge--which requires that all buildings be carbon and energy neutral in sixteen years. Some building types, like high density residential, will come close to this goal, but I do not see how it can be applied to all structures. I will note several obstacles:

-Political: Promises can be made and broken by any government. More likely, most governments will ignore the challenge entirely because they will have other priorities.
-Energy Sources: Fossil fuels will be moderately priced and relatively abundant for the next several decades. Renewables will not have a price point that can consistently beat traditional energy systems.
-Architects, Clients, and Users: Building design and usage can only squeeze so much blood out of a thermodynamic stone. Renovation projects in particular do not allow for a blank slate retrofit of enclosures or systems to the degree that would meet the challenge. Most alterations are done piecemeal and on tight budgets.

Monday, February 10, 2014

icons and idols

I was going to comment on Mao's picture in Tiananmen Square, but I Google images gave me this bit of joy.

Anyway, the practice of putting up statues, pictures, and symbols of revered people is deeply human and has employed thousands of architects and artists over the centuries. Muslims tend to avoid it, but leaders of Muslim countries have no problem with depictions of their visage. It can be a dangerous thing to do. Warhol makes a good gesture here, but he was an expert.

The United States is monument crazy, but I like to think that we celebrate a broader range of people. Boston is littered with statues and memorials. With glacial pace, the identity of these people so honored drifts into obscurity. Eventually, most will achieve the anonymous status of Medieval sculptures.

Friday, February 7, 2014

contrived, tacked on, and still a good idea

Architects frequently operate as though they have a better grasp of the future than anyone else. This porch is a good idea--but it's also an afterthought, so it may look a little bit off. The service of architecture, however, is not to the precognitive abilities of the architect, but to the multitudes of end users. The architect will always forget something. The users will have changing needs. The world moves on.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

quality control and its limits

Any architect who has an ounce of experience with real-world projects should have an appreciation for the building trades. Good buildings depend on good craftsmanship more than on good design.The relationship between the artist/designer and the builder can be framed in rough mathematical terms:

A design that has a quality level of 7 that is executed by a craftsman who produces level 9 work can result in a level 8 final product.

A design that has a quality level of 9 that is executed by a craftsman who can produce level 7 work will result in a level 7 final product.

I stand by the claim that good design will not make a person into a better craftsman. An architect who wants level 9 and level 10 work should seek out clients and contractors who can deliver that. Trying to make chicken soup out of chicken shit is a futile and frustrating endeavor.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

what is a detail? (part IX)

A gutter is a pretty straightforward item for a building, but it also represents an opportunity to make a design statement. That's what we tried to do here and I think it came out pretty well. The contractor even mentioned that it works.

At the most basic level, an architectural detail is a graphic depiction of how part A meets part B somewhere in a building. Many important details are hidden from view in the finished product, but if they aren't designed and executed properly then bad things can happen. Or not. It can be hard to predict sometimes.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

the cape house is not dead

However, I am more convinced than ever that its viability as a house style is too compromised to make it anything more than a niche design product. Everybody likes Capes. Everybody liked Howard Johnson's. So it goes.

The design challenge that I cannot solve, and I doubt anyone can solve, is making a Cape work on the small lots that dominate American housing developments. The more interesting design challenge, which I haven't made a real effort to solve, is how to liberate the Cape design of a surplus of formal spaces.

Monday, February 3, 2014

monday observations

-I am opposed to the death penalty for Jahar Tsarnaev. A part of his soul died when he walked away from that deadly knapsack last April. What is left of him can contemplate the consequences of his actions for the next few decades. We have enough food to keep him alive.

-I have mixed feelings about Division I athletes bucking the authority of the NCAA. I derived some benefits from the inequities of that system.

-The absurdity of a 2024 Olympic Bid for Boston continues to aggravate me. Fortunately, other sensible people have raised opposition to it.

-I am considering several home improvement projects for 2014. I made an earlier resolution to avoid them, but reality has a way of changing my mind.

-Somewhere, there is good data on energy use of modern buildings. I'm too lazy to find it.

-The Cape House is dead.

-The random picture on this blog is from a post at BoingBoing.