Archive for the 'architecture' Category

More than Green Building we need Green … Planning

December 15, 2010

My little jaunt to the east coast two months ago really underlined the transport related inefficiencies of my life for me.  My friends’ wedding was held in a beautiful old brownstone in Brooklyn.  Their quiet tree lined street was just half a block from 7th Ave, a bustling thoroughfare which offered just about everything the shopping heart could desire (and I know because I ran up and down it at least a dozen times over two days on wedding related errands).

Its not all bad; today for instance, I am working from my favorite down town coffee shop.  I plan to stop at the grocery store on my way home and then maybe drop by the library to see if any holds have come in.  None of that will require a car (yay) so I can leave it parked on the street from yesterday evening to to tomorrow morning.

But yesterday and tomorrow, as most days, require a 25 minute commute out to the farm where our office is located.  I can’t carpool because none of my (few) coworkers have the same schedule or come from remotely the same area.  There’s no bus (ha!).  Biking is possible but far from easy.  So every day I drive … alone.  And then there’s the weekend to consider.  More than two weekends a month I drive to either Madison or Minneapolis to visit family and friends … and when I stay in La Crosse, its often because someone from there is driving to visit me.  Its not a sustainable lifestyle.  I don’t enjoy it.  All of this is by way of saying … that I’m thinking about it – we all should be – and when I get the chance I’m going to need to make a change.

I am not saying that I think East Coast Metropolis is the only or even the best way to live green.  Its certainly much easier to curb one’s personal transportation needs there but I question their supply lines – where is the food coming from?  the other consumer goods?  where is the wast going to?  My own preference is a small midwestern city (*cough* Madison) but I don’t think there is actually an ideal location for green living in the US right now.  Which means that we all have some work to do.

So … I was already thinking about this subject when I happened on this (by no means recent) post on the NY Times’ blog Freakonomics.  In his post “Green Building: LEEDing us where?”, James McWilliams notes that all the green buildings in the country are doing very little to address the structural un-greeness of our built environment.

Concerned consumers are flush with noble intentions, but too often these intentions succumb to external realities.  A closer look at LEED—and green building in general—illustrates the nature of this conflict. Progressive cities across the U.S. offer tax incentives for builders to incorporate energy-efficient designs into their structures.  A quick review of my own environmentally conscientious enclave in Austin reveals rainwater collection tanks, native landscaping (“xeriscaping”), gravel driveways, solar panels, compost heaps, massive recycling bins, cork floors, self-composting toilets, compact fluorescent bulbs, and bamboo cabinets. These features are all vivid testimonies to an enduring environmental ethic.  Truth be told, my own home has a “five star” green rating from the Austin Energy Green Building Program.  I’m rather proud of it.

But a book as insightful as Owen’s forces me to wonder: do such efforts matter all that much?  After all, step beyond the privileged confines of our ever-greening abodes, and you’ll discover that most American cities are, by design, ecological train wrecks.  Don’t get me wrong, Austin is a wonderful place to live. But the fact remains: its overall blueprint runs counter to a truly sustainable lifestyle. Homes are large, if not steroidal, by the standards of densely packed urban centers like New York or San Francisco.  Cars are a necessity. Sidewalks are maddeningly intermittent. Bicycle lanes and bus routes are haphazard. Sprawling “house farms” and strip malls ring the city.  Air conditioners run full blast for seven months. Traffic snarls. We have no light rail or subway.

Of course, these are structural inefficiencies.  Generally they’re beyond individual control (although Austin voted down light rail twice!). Nevertheless, they place our personal environmental decisions—such as the choice to build a LEED-certified home—in a troubling context. Take the long view. From the moment of European settlement onward, American faith in Manifest Destiny has inspired aggressive development driven by land acquisition and individual choice. Sprawl started to become ingrained in the American character over two centuries ago and, as a result, middle America has inherited cities that value expansion over intensification.  To an extent, this vexed inheritance turns our cork floors and compost bins into empty expressions akin to the sun-starved solar panels adorning the Merritt Center.

“We have built our country as we have built it,” writes Owen, “and we’re obviously not going to tear it down and start over.” True enough.  What we can do, though, is expand the notion of what it means to be an environmentalist.  Tree huggers, organic farmers, and green builders will always play necessary roles in raising environmental awareness. But if Owen is right—if our only real hope is to live smaller, live closer, and drive less—future environmentalists will include inner city pioneers who make the urban core a more desirable place to live.  Police officers, school teachers, pastry shop owners, landscape architects, urban planners, coffee freaks and policy geeks—these people will be the real heroes of twenty-first century environmentalism.


Compare and Contrast

October 16, 2010

As previously noted I’m in New York right now.  I love the buildings here – not comprehensively but actually even the ones I don’t like set up interesting contrasts to the ones I do.  And although in civic architecture my tastes lean to the neo classical, I can appreciate newer work.  For example, I really did enjoy the MOMA building for itself as much as its art.  I strolled through the galleries looking at art on the walls but in the circulation spaces I looked at the building itself.  And it happened that as I was leaning on a rail people watching for a moment I realized that the view in front of me was strikingly similar to a photo I’d taken earlier in the day at the main branch of the New York Public Library.

On the surface, no two spaces could be more unlike each other.  However the bones are remarkably similar.  Each of these shots shows a main hall at the piano nobile level reached by ascending a grand stair (out of view in both).  Each space is largely open and has numerous small reveals into other more private areas of the building.  For each shot I am standing off to the side and watching the action below from behind a barrier.  The proportions are slightly different (the MOMA space is much taller than it is wide, the reverse of the library hall) but the dimensions are similar.

I also enjoyed the more direct contrasts afforded by the carefully crafted views of the surrounding city that were created through well placed windows. In a sense this turns the city itself into a permanent exhibit of the museum, offering angles and perspectives not available from street level.  I’m not sure if I should credit the original architects, Philip Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone, or the extensive renovation completed in 2004 under Yoshio Taniguchi, for this splendor but I certainly appreciated it.  There were a number of moments which stopped me in my tracks to observe the city outside (often causing unintentional traffic jams in the process).

All in all, I liked the MOMA far more than I had anticipated (being more of a Metropolitan Museum of Art type girl under normal circumstances).

As previously noted I’m in New York right now.  I love the buildings here – not comprehensively but actually even the ones I don’t like set up interesting contrasts to the ones I do.  And although in civic architecture my tastes lean to the neo classical, I can appreciate newer work.  For example, I really did enjoy the MOMA building for itself as much as its art.  I strolled through the galleries looking at art on the walls but in the circulation spaces I looked at the building itself.  And it happened that as I was leaning on a rail people watching for a moment I realized that the view in front of me was strikingly similar to a photo I’d taken earlier in the day at the main branch of the New York Public Library.

Action! Design over Time

October 15, 2010

New York City.  That’s where I am.  And that’s most of why I haven’t posted since Monday – its been a crazy week getting here.  I’m in town for a wedding (sort of … its a long story) but I got in a day early because, being the country mouse that I am, I only get to New York about every five years so I wanted to make the most of it.

In the afternoon I hit the MOMA, which was on my to do list because a friend had talked up their temporary exhibit on the modern kitchen as it was conceived between the wars.  It was good but disappointingly small, however the rest of the museum amused me much more than I might have guessed so it was a good trip.  Here are some of my favorite ideas from the “Action! Design over Time” exhibit in the Architecture and Design galeries at the MOMA.

“We are living in a storm where a hundred contradictory elements collide, debris from the past, scraps of the present, seeds of the future, swirling, combining, separating under the impervious wind of destiny.”

Adophe Rette, La Plume, 1898

from MOMA’s Action! Design over Time

“The objects of utility in our lives have freed the slaves of a former ages.  The are in fact themselves slaves, menials, servants.  Do you want them as your soulmates?  We sit on them, work on them, make use of them, use them up; when used up, we replace them.”

Le Corbusier, the Decorative Art of Today

from MOMA’s Action! Design over Time

“Function, combined with good taste, results in good design.”

voice over from video Good Design

from MOMA’s Action! Design over Time




Straw Bale Roofing

September 29, 2010

albertson roof 1

Last Friday, miracle of miracles, I actually got to be out on the job site rather than just perched in front of my laptop as a factor of my work at Whole Trees.  Roshni and I got tagged to come for and “all hands on deck” day at the Albertson house.  We went for a day and a half to help “stuff” the straw bale roof.  I’ll borrow below from my own text about this process originally written for the whole trees “Log Blog” here.

Straw bale roofs are a really fun process, Whole Trees, style.  After the rafters are placed we stretch an interior finish of canvas between them and then create a good strong vapor barrier and fireproofing layer with a techfoil and airkrete layer.  Then a tightly stacked layer of strawbales are laid out to cover the whole roof surface.  But the work is far from done.  The bales are tightly cinched down to the rafters below by wires threaded up through the bales and secured to wooden purlins which run in the opposite direction.  Read the rest of this entry »

Guest Pontificating over at Digging in the Driftless

September 5, 2010

I don’t have any energy to write a new post for this blog because I’ve been devoting my extra typing time to my mom’s blog Digging in the Driftless.  For those who weren’t already aware, I am (slowly and thorough an un-ending iterative process) designing a house which my parents eventually plan to build on their land west of Madison and move to in 2012 and mom occasionally conscripts me to write green building related posts about the process.

This last installment deals with trying to keep bank financing out of the green building process  – as my parents hope to.  This is it … or you can read it and several comments in situ here.


Last Tuesday, Denise posted about how she and Doug are planning to apply the Goldilocks Principal to their building time line.

Rather than build their new home and move into it directly from their existing house in Madison, they are planning to sell their current house and seek  small interim shelter  through the construction phase before they move into their new home.

This is a great strategy for paring down the design to essentials, but it has another very important benefit.  By selling their house before they start to build, they will have the capital  for their eco-dream home without a bridge loan or mortgage.  I am an architect (in training) not a finance expert, but I do have  strong feelings about Read the rest of this entry »

A Dime Novel Hidden in the Corn Crib

April 8, 2010

I found this pen and ink sketch of several corn cribs during a little random internet trolling the other day.  Its labeled as being from Eric Sloan’s An Age of Barns.  I don’t have all that much to say about it other than … isn’t it a lovely form.  I love those slanty walls and open slats, which seem beautiful as well as practical solutions for keeping rain out and air flowing.  I’ve never personally seen one set up on glass panes before.

What Type of Natural Builder Are You?

March 25, 2010

I’m in Darrington, WA today enjoying the small town life of my dear friend Catherine.  Last night we strolled to the local library and watched a documentary about building with Cob that was very intriguing.  The woman who presented the film also brought in her entire personal library of natural building including several issues of a private newsletter on the subject of cob called the Cob Web.  It contained a quiz to determine your style of natrual building which made me laugh out loud.  I’m reproducing it here:

1. When planning your structure, do you

a) draw it

b) model it

c) copy it

d) talk about it

2. When working on the foundation, do you

a) use a level

b) eyeball it

c) intuit it

d) not bother with a foundation

3. When mixing cob, do you like to

a) use your feet

b) use your whole body

c) use a cement mixer

d)what’s “cob” again? Read the rest of this entry »

Unhappy Hipsters

March 15, 2010

This blog makes me snort milk out my nose.  The premise is extremely simple – it points out some of the ridiculous moments created by trendy modern architecture.  The blog is composed almost entirely of re-subtitled images from Dwell.  Each one individually is funny.  Taken together they are a pretty scathing indictment of architecture today.  For me its a strange coin flip reaction – each new post could make me laugh out loud and scorn all of architecture OR click on the dwell link to find out more about the really cool storage solution or artsy piece of furniture in the shot … or both.  Here’s a sampling but really you should go to the website.  I went through the first 8 pages in under a day.  I feel like it must have been created by a disgruntled architecture student but … I have no way to know.

Read the rest of this entry »

Le Tour Eiffel

February 22, 2010

I came across these blue prints today while browsing design is mine and was blown away by their beauty.  It reminded me again of how attracitve I can find industrial age iron work and the supreme irony that in its own time it was regarded as the height of ugly utilitarianism.  They just didn’t know how bad it could be.

For those unaware of the story, Read the rest of this entry »

The Boston Three-Decker

January 16, 2010

Apropos of nothing, I was in Boston last summer and fell in love with their pervasive architectural form the three-decker.  The friends I was visiting live on the second floor of one and I find it quite a charming abode.  They’ve got autonomy over their walls, a passel of architectural detail and interest, views and light out every window and a nice neighborhood.  But interestingly, although three-deckers are now seen as a characteristic regional treasure they were once reviled as havens for the undesirable and early zoning administrators worked hard to legislate them right out of existence.  I spent a day in the Boston Public Library during my trip and this is what I came up with on the subject. Read the rest of this entry »

Whole Trees in the New York Times

November 4, 2009

new york times

If you have read any number of my previous posts, you’re probably aware that I read the NYtimes online pretty reguarly and quote it with some frequency on this blog.  Well here’s the man bites dog story of the year.  Today the New York Times is covering me!  Well almost … its covering Whole Trees.

Earlier this year Anne Raver, who writes for the Times, emailed our info page asking about what type of wood to use in a greenhouse.  We got into a little conversation and the upshot was that she got pretty excited about Whole Trees and sold her editor on doing an article about us.  She came out and visited the farm for a weekend in October and the long and the short of it is … the article is out TODAY.

Read it here. See the Slide show here. Tell your friends.  I just don’t know how I could feel any cooler today.

whole trees pano

It’s on!

October 20, 2009


This morning I walked up to the post office desk at 8:34 and asked the clerk to put my fulbright application on their fastest truck to New York.  He somewhat condescendingly informed me that it would go on a plane.  All the better!  The online form was submitted at nine o’clock last night and the hard copy will be in UN Plaza by noon tomorrow and it is all officially out of my hands now.  I’m tracking the Express Mail package via the website.

I’m taking deep breaths.

I had thought that getting the application mailed would leave me feeling light as a feather but actually I don’t think it has quite sunk in yet.  I’m still just nervy and tired from the last intensive weekend of proofing and editing and careful rewriting of my essays.  But now they, my forms, my transcripts, my language evaluation and three recommendations (very mysterious in their sealed and signed envelopes) are on their way across the country.  If you are interested in reading said essays I’m attaching them below.  If you find a typo or a mistake … don’t tell me.  What I’m looking for now is knocked on wood.  I am thinking of beginning an experiment to see if I can do everything in my life from now to next April with my fingers crossed.

Read the rest of this entry »

Architectural Irony

October 7, 2009

windowless rooms

What’s the definition of irony again? In drama, it occurs when the audience is made (painfully) aware of something which completely bypasses the character.  In architecture we might say its what happens when a designer spends all day (painfully) in a room which is shouting out contradictory messages of which the hapless other occupants are totally unaware. Read the rest of this entry »

Pallet House

September 28, 2009

pallet house

This pallet house was featured on designboom earlier this year and I came across it recently in an unrelated search for work.  Its a pretty snappy concept I think.  They meant it as refugee housing in post-war or disaster situation but it could also be standard low income DIY housing in a lot of the world even without a nasty event.

The idea is that its made almost entirely of shipping pallets (readily available anywhere in the world today), simple and structural and requiring few other materials to get it set up as a quick shelter.  But then over time it can be added to – sided, roofed, covered with plaster, have windows and other details added – and turn into a semi-permanent residence.  Very cool idea by I-Beam Design + Architecture.

Click here to see what I-beam themselves have to say about it … and to see a lot more images and videos of the concept.

Graham Foundation … thanks in advance!

September 17, 2009


Ernest R. Graham (1866–1936)was a prominent Chicago architect who was a protégé of Daniel Burnham.  The Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts makes project-based grants to individuals and organizations and produces public programs to foster the development and exchange of diverse and challenging ideas about architecture and its role in the arts, culture, and society.

I heard about the organization and their grants to architectural research last Friday when I dropped by Ozayr’s office for a little academic/psychological checkup and check in during my whirlwind one-day tour of the cities.  He’s been recommending that I apply for supplemental funding to augment my potential Fulbright grant (which will cover only living and international travel expenses, not academic or research costs).  Friday he listed a couple specific places, including Graham Foundation and we looked up the deadline … it was September 15th!

I had a bit of an ARGH! moment  because the week ahead was already totally booked up with a Whole Trees booth at the I-Renew energy fair, out of town house guests and a really nasty sore throat as well as the usual clutter.  However I couldn’t deny that it was a fabulous opportunity so on Monday after work I sat down and looked over the application and in the next thirty hours (it was due 11:59PM CST) I pulled together what I think is a quite decent application.  For anyone interested, here it is: Read the rest of this entry »

Stuff (nonsense)

September 9, 2009

This is the post I wrote for Digging in the Driftless this morning.  I liked thinking about this topic so much that I wanted to put here as well.

Stuff … we all have it.  I’m as guilty as the next person of accumulating questionably necessary possessions.  I was reminded of that only this morning when I ventured down to the basement of my apartment building to get my tent out of the storage area.  In a 20 by 20, one bedroom apartment I have three closets liberally stuffed with … stuff.  I don’t use it on a daily or even weekly basis.  My storage unit holds a few genuinely useful things – two boxes of winter clothing, some camping gear, assorted boxes from my last move and my bicycle.  But there is also a broken lamp, two printers I don’t use, a shelving unit I should give away, and a pile I’m unsure about.

It wasn’t so long ago that I lived 5 months in a tent just like it with everything I needed for comfort and convenience.  In 2007, I sublet my apartment in Minneapolis and packed my car packed with some work clothes, an air mattress and sleeping bag, my camera, laptop and a few drafting supplies and not much else.  I went to Biloxi Mississippi where I volunteered my labor and design skills to the Gulf Coast reconstruction effort.  Of all the lessons and skills I gained along the way the most important was how happy I was living with so little.

stuff 2

My tent home, complete with “stuff” in Biloxi, MS

Read the rest of this entry »

Old Stomping Ground

August 23, 2009

rapson visit

I was back up in the Twin Cities this weekend for a last visit to Malea before she moves (sniffle), a chance to she Shawna before she pops and a meeting with Ozayr.  I had a fabulous time and the weather couldn’t have been more beautiful.  I couldn’t resist taking a couple of snaps of my old stomping ground at Rapson Hall on my way to see O, who gave me scads of good advice and left me feeling quite energized.  He also left me with a borrowed book.  I really wouldn’t believe that I HAD been to his office if I didn’t walk away with a 700 page book on the theory of something.

Here’s a little touch of maroon and gold color on campus.  This kind I can appreciate; when I see it on a T-shirt I fire up with Badger pride.

rapson visit 1

Higher Gas Costs for More Sustainability

August 18, 2009

I think if I keep posting in this vein I’m going to start getting hate mail but I just find it such an interesting twist on all the complaints about rising gas prices.  Just a week after writing up $20 Per Gallon I am posting this profile of British green designer, Lucy Pedler, who was interviewed this week for the Building Sustainable Design website.  In addition to discussing her career as an architect who has charted her own path professionally and become an organizer for sustainable design she editorializes a bit about the recent recession.  She actually wishes that the hike in fuel prices had gone on longer:

“I know that’s an odd thing to admit but I had hoped the recession would be more catastrophic – that it would change the way people think about their lives, because we can’t keep consuming the way we do. Frankly, we’re running out of stuff.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Bank Robbers and Blueprints

August 14, 2009

If you aren’t already familiar with the Whitest Kids You Know … you should be.  This particular sketch contains a delightful explication of the way architectural plans work so its doubly hysterical.  Watch and laugh.

Thinking Out Loud – Metaphorically

August 14, 2009

I’ve had the idea in the back of my mind for a couple of years now that I would like to win a Fulbright to study sustainable architecture in the Netherlands.  I’ve been kicking it around and mentioning it casually for a long time  now …and I think the time is right.  The application deadline is in October, which means being a great deal more concrete about the whole thing than I am right now … and very quickly too.  So I’ve been spending my coffee shop internet time the last month or so surfing, reading accounts of other students in the Fulbright process, papers on sustainable design, little articles on current events in Dutch and trying to sort it all out in my head.   I’m going to start using this blog for its original purpose again – a place to siphon off some of the ideas that are rattling around,  making it hard to think.  Last night I sat down and typed up the long rambling version below the fold and this morning I distilled it into the following three two graphs.

Here’s what I’m thinking right now:

I am fundamentally interested in why the Dutch are so much further advanced in their process of creating sustainable, livable buildings.  [For the moment we’ll take it as read that they are and I’ll back it up later.]  There are any number of reasons ranging from geography and the financial system to the socio-cultural but one of the most obvious and concrete is that in the Netherlands they legislate for sustainability and in America we have a legal building code which often prevents environmental innovation.

So my interest, really, lies in the way the Dutch have used legislation to aid their progress in forwarding sustainable design.  Here’s why I think this is a good Fulbright proposal subject: It’s concrete; it requires academic research that needs to be done on site; I can tie it into culture as much as I choose to; and best of all it is applicable to the united states within a  fairly quick timescale. Due to the way our building codes are administered on a local basis so I could go into this with the goal of teasing out concrete concepts that can be applied to one (or many) local building codes to improve municipal sustainability.

If anyone has any thoughts on this I’d love to get some input.  If you want to get the long rambly version of what I’ve been thinking about all this, read below the fold. Read the rest of this entry »