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Building Envelopes: Greater Performance from Fewer Materials

A month or so ago I gave the kick-off talk at the Building Enclosure Council National Symposium, taking a very quick and dirty look at two kinds of history of building enclosures.  I have had a keen interest in building enclosures since I co-chaired the Technology Conference for the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture with Andrew Vernooy in 2001, which we titled “Building Skins:  Where Design and Technology Meet”.

One of the first projects I did in my career was an addition to a 19th century stone house in Austin that had 20-inch thick limestone walls.  I really admired that old house with its single-material walls and high thermal mass that actually performed beautifully without insulation or a vapor barrier.

As I have traveled I have admired a very long lineage of single-material walls. Ancient stone or brick walls acted as the structure, thermal barrier, and enclosure as well as interior and exterior finish.  I love the ruins of the ancient Hittite city of Hattusa in central Turkey where massive stone walls constituted virtually all construction—from dwellings and markets to gigantic ramparts.  Another great example is Machu Picchu in Peru, which is made almost entirely of carefully crafted stonework.

Ancient City of Hattusa, Turkey

Ancient City of Hattusa, Turkey

Stone walls, Hattusa

Stone walls, Hattusa

Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu, Peru

Centuries later, at the beginning of the 20th century, Cass Gilbert designed Battle Hall at UT Austin with very similar construction.  Its walls are just one thickness of stone all the way through, but they have performed very well both aesthetically and thermally for more than a century.  Even when air conditioning was added, Battle Hall’s high thermal mass has helped keep it temperate even during our hot Texas summers.

Battle Hall, UT Austin,  1910

Battle Hall, UT Austin, 1910

Battle Hall interior.  Photo (C) Nathan Sheppard

Battle Hall interior. Photo (C) Nathan Sheppard

There is a second history of walls that conceives of them as layers of various materials, each of which accomplishes a particular function.  Early versions of this can be seen in Roman buildings, like the Pantheon, that have a structural core faced with very different materials for the inside finish and the outside skin.

The Pantheon, Rome

The Pantheon, Rome

The Pantheon interior

The Pantheon interior

Over the last 20-30 years we have become very adept at making walls out of layers with many materials where each material is performing a separate role: one for structure, one for insulation, one for water-proofing, one for vapor barrier, another for interior finish, and another for exterior finish.  We are interested in getting the best performance out of each material with its own specific characteristics.  The coordination of so many materials may not be so great, with different  people doing each installation, often months apart in the building process.   A lot of glitches can happen at the intersection of those various materials, and the result is often not perfect.

Might we get equal or better performance out of fewer materials?  We have experimented with this idea in several projects we have done at Page, learning lessons from older single-material walls.  At the Torcasso residence, located in New Mexico, we used only rammed earth for some of the walls.  They are thick and solid and that single material provides everything needed: structure, vapor barrier, insulation, interior finish and exterior finish.

The Torcasso Residence, New Mexico.  Photo (C) Robert Reck

The Torcasso Residence, New Mexico. Photo (C) Robert Reck

Torcasso Residence interior, New Mexico.  Photo (C) Robert Reck

Torcasso Residence interior, New Mexico. Photo (C) Robert Reck

robert reck

In Austin, we designed a small office building for Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates.  It features thick, unreinforced concrete walls, which serve as both the structure and the environmental barrier, and we used the walls’ thickness to significant thermal advantage.

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Construction of Wiss, Janney, Elstner Building, Austin.

Construction of Wiss, Janney, Elstner Building, Austin.

I am not a building science nerd, and I certainly continue to be interested in walls made up of layers of materials capped by a rainscreen.  However, it also seems appropriate to explore another longstanding genre of wall construction that optimizes simplicity of construction and high thermal mass.

 

 

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Posted June 12, 2016

Architects: Give Credit Where Credit’s Due

I’m always struck by the list of credits in movies.  I love the way that everyone who contributes to the success of the film gets acknowledged.  Making a building requires the same kind of complex collaborative enterprise as making a movie, yet for some reason, we have this crazy convention of crediting only a single architect by name.

I’m writing an article for A+U about the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth with the title: “Architecture is a Team Sport.” The University of Texas at Austin owns all the working drawings for the Kimbell, and we had an exhibition of some of them in Battle Hall last fall.

Duane Manning, the guy actually responsible for 90% of the drawings when he was a young architect, came to the opening.  I was making the remarks there and commented about what a pity it is that he had not been recognized earlier for his contributions to the building.

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This made me think about other people I’ve met over the years who also played critical roles in the creation of this amazing architectural landmark. So I went back through all my files on the Kimbell and tried to piece together some of the people and roles as source material for the article in A+U.

Richard Fargo Brown had an enormous impact on the design of the building.  He was the first director of the Kimbell well before there was any architecture associated with it.  He wrote a program for what he wanted in the museum that is an uncanny prediction of the building to come.   Brown was the one who specified much of how the building would be articulated in its final form – that it should be low, flat and symmetrical, that it should be day-lit (in part by courtyards), and that its construction should be expressed explicitly as an important part of its architecture. “In the end that’s what we got,” he said.

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Brown added, “Lou Kahn listened.” One must give credit to Brown for his vision and also to Kahn for his embrace of that inspired vision.  The Kimbell does not have tall, monumental spaces like Dhaka, Exeter or the Yale British Art Center that Kahn typically loved at that stage of his career; instead, it was low and flat and modest, which is exactly what Brown conceived.

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In the A+U article, I focus on one particular element of the Kimbell–the inventive skylights at the tops of the vaults and their reflectors.  During the design phase, Marshall Meyer, a real leader in Kahn’s office, showed an early conceptual sketch to Kahn who liked it and presented it to the client.  Richard Kelly, a lighting designer, changed both the general shape of the reflectors and the material they were made out of (from glass to perforated aluminum).  The precise shape and performance were computer-modeled and revised again by Kelly and Isaac Goodbar. The perforations didn’t work well in the first two mock-ups and Frank Sherwood in Preston Geren’s office, associated architects on the Kimbell, resolved the problem by suggesting the perforations appear in some places but not others.  The result is the magical light that really defines the experience and is a signature element of the Kimbell.  It is hard to call this just a “Kahn” detail.

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The point of the article is that architecture really is a team sport, and we should acknowledge that fact more than we do.  The truth is that all buildings have many, many people seminally involved in their creation.  Why are we so hell-bent on singular attribution?  Why don’t we credit everyone in greater detail?  At Page, we alphabetically list everyone on our website who was involved in a particular project.  It is an explicit way of saying we’re all in this together.

 

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Posted June 10, 2015

Invisible Resiliency

Recently, I experienced a sort of cosmic convergence of unrelated things happening.   First, an 18-year old undergraduate student came to my office to discuss an essay he’s writing about a building of his choosing that he admires.  He chose the Dallas Fort Worth Airport (DFW).  Initially, I thought that was a dubious selection, but he explained beautifully what he admired from a lay perspective.

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He was in awe of how the airport gets tens of thousands of people into and out of the facility and deals with their associated needs every day–routing them just where they all want to go, funneling them through security, feeding and entertaining them and connecting them with their air routes.  He also understood the complexity of fueling systems, maintenance, equipping, baggage conveyance, security requirements and other infrastructure needed to support the aircraft end of the operation.

He got it that DFW is not flawless, but he found it quite phenomenal that it managed to handle all it has to deal with: baggage, food, people, planes, trucks, fuel, supplies, power, parking, police… The list goes on.

dfw-airport-from-north-800px

Hearing this through the eyes of an 18 year old, I thought, “Of course, DFW is really impressive in terms of what it accomplishes.  Why aren’t we constantly more impressed when building manage these herculean tasks?”

The very next day I was at DFW for an AIA jury to select the Latrobe Prize recipient this year.  The jury convened at the airport because jurors were flying in from all over the country.  We met at the Grand Hyatt, located smack in the middle of Terminal D. You fly in, work, stay and fly out.   This is not my favorite way to travel, but I did not have any say this time.

As it turns out, the topic of this research prize is resiliency.  In response to the post-Katrina and Super-Storm Sandy world, the prize received proposals discussing how to withstand the impacts of climate change, hurricanes, floods, droughts and other calamities.  Having read all the proposals, and having focused intently on resiliency, suddenly a snowstorm hit the airport.  This mini-calamity was certainly not at the scale of a flood or hurricane, but it was an unusual weather event in an area that typically doesn’t get much snow.

DFW Airport snow storm

I was pretty blown away by how well DFW handled the challenge.  My flight, like many others, was canceled, and I was seven hours late leaving for Austin.  Many people were stranded overnight.  The airport issued cots, and I noticed all of the food operations seemed perfectly capable of serving the many more meals they were called on to deliver.   All of the myriad issues pertaining to interface with ground transportation also seemed to operate admirably.  I’m watching how civilized this all was, and it struck me: this is invisible resiliency at work.

Maybe we, as architects, have lost perspective on how fundamentally we are constantly called upon to build in resiliency–maybe not at the scale of a flood or hurricane, but certainly for an unexpected snowstorm.  It was the combination of the student making me re-examine DFW, the Latrobe Prize making me think about resiliency, and then observing snow at DFW that made it occur to me: this is something that really matters in the way we do architecture every day!

We are constantly called upon to make buildings as bullet-proof as possible—especially some particularly demanding building types like a hospital, an airport, a stadium, or a mission critical facility.  These are building types we frequently deal with in our practice at Page, and their complexity and demanding performance challenges are actually quite exhilarating to deal with as designers and as a delivery team.

Our new addition to Austin Bergstrom Airport is an excellent example.  We are adding a front-door pavilion to the airport (see images, below) where people will come in, go through security, have coffee or lunch and proceed to their gate.  The addition is above a complicated international customs floor as well as the loading dock, which handles all the moving in and out of supplies for the entire airport.  The new addition resolves a complicated puzzle, and it has to do so keeping worst-case scenarios in mind.  Without being so conscious of it, we were working hard to create the kind of invisible resiliency we have come to expect of buildings in the 21st century.

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Posted April 7, 2015

Low Budget, High Impact: The New TDECU Stadium

As the University of Houston Cougars complete their first season in the new TDECU Stadium, I’m reminded of a Houston Chronicle article on the project a couple of months ago that posed: “How do you take a big pile of concrete and make it look good?”  Good question, and one that is all the more relevant when the budget is extremely low.  The Chronicle went on to conclude the way we did it at TDECU Stadium is a winner.

Photo ©Tim Griffith

Photo ©Tim Griffith

The University of Houston (UH) is a lean and mean university.  A lot of its students are from families with modest incomes, and the university offers many strong, but affordable programs.  They have an excellent School of Architecture, with a faculty that is really outstanding.  I recently reviewed a promotion portfolio for Matthew Johnson, a younger faculty member there who worked for both Steven Holl and for Allied Works, and whose firm just won a TxA Design Award this year.  Donna Kacmar is another outstanding faculty member who has just completed a book on the virtues of small houses and was instrumental in the outstanding “Women in Architecture” exhibit currently on display at Houston Center for Architecture.

Photo ©Tim Griffith

Photo ©Tim Griffith

 

Photo ©Tim Griffith

Photo ©Tim Griffith

I’m very keen on UH, especially as a place where people of ordinary means can get a very good, education. The efficiency required for this kind of affordability applies in spades to the new football stadium.  The university did not have a lot of money for the building, and from Day One they said we would have to stir up some magic.  They needed us to make a significant building with a very small budget.

Photo ©Tim Griffith

Photo ©Tim Griffith

Stadiums have a lot of specific, complex requirements, including clear sight lines, concessions that feed hoards of people in short spans of time, TV access that must be flawless, ability to load and unload thousands of people in and out all at once, luxury accommodation for premium seating and suites, team and visitor security, locker rooms for pampered athletes, etc., etc.  Just storing the amount of ice for beverages to serve 40,000 spectators (while keeping it fresh and distributing it all at once) is an astonishing task.  This is one of the coolest things about architecture—dealing with how to make things work.

Photo ©Tim Griffith

Photo ©Tim Griffith

In addressing these issues, we worked with a handful of extraordinary sports designers from DLR Group: primarily Greg Garlock in Omaha and Don Barnum and Bob Carlson in Kansas City.  All of them are great to work with, and they essentially eat and live sports.

Photo ©Tim Griffith

Photo ©Tim Griffith

In addition to making a fine-tuned sports machine, we had to make the building fit in the campus and into the larger city on a site that is prominently located on Cullen Blvd and is at a gateway to the campus from the new light rail line.

Above all, the stadium had to be a nexus.  This is where tens of thousands of people experience the UH campus in a very intense setting that leaves a strong impression of what this school is.  Kids may grow up with their only exposure to UH being a football game they attended, and their decision about where to go to college may be significantly shaped by that.  I think when they leave this stadium they will come away with a sense of a place that is vibrant, alive, and promising. To quote again from the Chronicle’s article, for University of Houston, “the new TDECU Stadium is a game-changer.”

I am a long-standing advocate of creating outstanding architecture built on a shoestring budget.  Much of the world has to work within tight budgetary constraints, and we need to be able, as architects, to deal with those constraints skillfully and powerfully.

 

 

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Posted December 2, 2014

Comparing and Contrasting Two New Museums In Michigan

While in Michigan recently, I paid a visit to two new and strikingly different museums, both designed by well known architects: the Broad Museum by Zaha Hadid at Michigan State University, and the University of Michigan Art Museum by Allied Works. After visiting both, it reminded me why it’s important for architects to find opportunities for work that are sympathetic to what they do.

Located on a primary thoroughfare that runs by the campus, the Broad Museum is relatively small and it sits on its site as a pristine object, almost as a piece of sculpture would — like a really big Calder.  The buildings around it are traditional campus buildings and the Broad creates a stark contrast to all of its neighbors.  It’s a very constrained site, so it could probably never grow.  It will likely always be the object it is.

Broad museum 2 Broad museum 3

As one would expect of a Hadid project, it’s a very aggressive design– angular and full of drama.  It is totally “in your face”, and this seems about right for this type of museum which is all about “in your face” contemporary art.

Inside, one of the galleries is long and thin, with a mix of light and dark spaces that would certainly not readily accommodate a pre-conceived show very well because the space is so particular.  The piece that is in there is gorgeous–a really long, thin assemblage of denture-making materials that is just perfect in its spot.  It was clearly made for its location and allowed the artist to play off of the eccentricity of the space.  The architecture seems to be leading and the art within is reacting. Hadid’s work is good for that: her buildings are strong and demanding and the artist is responding well.

Broad installBroad stair

There are few neutral zones in the building so art needs to be commissioned and made specifically for the spaces to really work.  I think it would be difficult to show anything but contemporary art there. A conventional exhibit might be lost or overwhelmed. This is a museum that’s meant to provoke a response, and it is one kind of legitimate museum architecture.

At the University of Michigan, it’s an entirely different experience in the substantial recent addition to a large pre-existing museum building.  This distinguished institution has an extraordinary established collection full of history and tradition.  Here the architecture, designed by Allied Works, needs to give way to the collection.  The architecture is orderly and quiet, and the art, which is beautifully displayed in light-controlled spaces, is resonant.  The architecture is respectful of the art and is often deferential to it.  The extraordinary art collection that represents centuries of values and ideas is not about to change itself and accommodate the building.

Michigan museum 2Michigan 1

I have great respect for this building.  It is an elegant, impeccably detailed enhancement to a splendid university campus.  It fits into the context of the existing building and the larger campus gracefully, but without being cloying or invisible.  It has a real presence; it is certainly not egocentric or just about itself.  It acknowledges beautifully both the world around it and within it.

Univ of Mich 2Univ of Mich 3

I am delighted that the people at Michigan State understood that what they were doing was creating a provocative event that artists could play off of and respond to.  They got the right architect for that task.

I am also glad the people at University of Michigan comprehended the value of their campus context and their distinguished art collection and got an architect who would respect that and make a strong building that had the confidence to support a larger and longstanding enterprise.  They got the right architect for that as well.

I have been on a number of architect selection committees where the institutions did not understand the importance of finding an architect whose work would be sympathetic to their organization’s mission and values.  It is not just important to get good architecture, but it is also important to get the right architect.

 

 

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Posted September 28, 2014

Constructing the UT Pan American Performing Arts Center

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the construction site for our new UT Pan American Performing Arts Center.  We’re using load-bearing masonry walls, and at this stage, with the project half-complete, the building has the look of a modern-day Roman ruin.  I love this stage of construction when the structure is coming out of the ground and turning into interesting forms and spaces.  The whole building process is incredibly exciting and inspiring.

PanTx1

This will be a big building and a real landmark.  It will serve as the campus gateway and will feature a 1,000-seat performance hall as its centerpiece.  It is part of a complex for the arts on a campus originally designed by Kenneth Benston in the 1980s.  His work was inspired by Louis Kahn’s buildings in Dacca, Bangladesh and Ahmedabad, India.  Those Kahn buildings were masterpieces of masonry construction, and Bentson did a good job of learning from them.

PanTX2

South Texas is a very hot, semi-tropical climate where the terrain is absolutely flat—not so different from Dacca and Ahmedabad.  Masonry has long been a prominent building material in the region.  As a kid, my grandparents lived in this area, and I have keen memories of the powerful brick buildings in a landscape full of citrus and palm trees.

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From the start, we wondered if we could make a real masonry building here—not brick veneer on a steel or concrete frame, but thick, strong load bearing walls.  In fact, real masonry walls turned out to be a very practical and economical structural system for this building in this region.

In the end, the walls will be a hybrid system—much like Kahn used and much like the Roman’s used in the precedents Kahn so admired.  We will use both brick and concrete block, and the block will often be employed to create formwork for concrete lintels, piers and arches.  This general construction technique is quite common in Mexico, just across the border, but is not so common elsewhere in the United States.   It is  fascinating to watch it go up.

PanTX4

There are large, circular and arched forms in the walls.  These impart a great sense of strength and power that isn’t so palpable in the kind of frame construction we normally do.  There is a definite toughness about it, and it reminds me of the experience of seeing Kahn’s work in South Asia years ago.  There will be extensive glazed walls once the building is complete later this year that will provide a nice counterpart to the masonry in the finished building.

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In addition to the main performance hall (which is clearly visible in its roofless form in the construction photos), there will be four rehearsal halls for choir, band, orchestra and mariachi.  They form a village of rectangular rooms behind the concert space.  When completed, the building will serve, not only as an important educational facility for the university, but also a cultural and performance center for the larger Rio Grande Valley.

PanTX9

 

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Posted March 24, 2014

B. L. Harbert International

Having started my career with several construction jobs working for building contractors, I have always had a keen interest in how the construction industry works. The movement to construction management a couple of decades ago has certainly changed the way buildings get built. Contractors are often primarily coordinators who self-perform little of the work, leaving the primary job of building to sub-contractors.  The result can sometimes be a very balkanized job site where it is hard to ascertain an overall approach to creating the building.  It is also hard for workers to feel the kind of pride in construction that existed when a single entity—their company–took the primary role of actually making the building.

By contrast, I am extremely impressed with work I recently observed by B.L. Harbert International, a construction company based in Birmingham, Alabama.  I was on a trip to a very challenging building site in a developing country and had the opportunity to see first-hand how they work in the field.

In this project, Harbert is making extensive use of American materials, which are assembled in Alabama, then containerized and shipped, in just-in-time fashion to the job site.  Clearly, they have to plan how the building is going to be built, to sequence it precisely, and to think through the entire construction process.  I haven’t seen this methodology in ages, and it encourages me greatly to witness Harbert in action.

The amount of foresight is phenomenal.  As a container arrives on the site it is dismantled and distributed to all of the various trades who need its contents.  Then those same containers are often converted to workshop shelters for assembly of intricate mechanical and electrical systems.

There were 1,400 workers on this one building site. Harbert had its own employees, including some 200 ex-pats, and they self-perform a great deal of the job with a minimum of sub-contractors.  They had hired hundreds of local workers, many of them unskilled when they came on the job.

Harbert has invested a lot in training these local workers.  In that process, the workers have gained greatly increased skills, which they can use for the rest of their lives.  Often, Harbert had to buy the workers shoes and work clothes and had to teach them fundamental notions of efficiency.  There is a great deal of concern for these workers and a sincere desire to help them work better and more safely.

I was really impressed with how much the Harbert management is committed to the local workers.  It’s clear they embrace these people as well as care about making a good product.  The workers are well paid by local standards and Harbert gets solid results from their investment.  Seeing Harbert organizing their workers, teaching them, and then getting good work out of them was really gratifying.

I’ve visited Harbert’s headquarters in Birmingham. Their offices are in an extremely well designed modern building.  They clearly appreciate good architecture and are willing to put their money where there mouth is.  They have great policies for employees: an on-site gym, running trails, fresh foods in the office, etc.  It seems to be a very well run operation that really respects employees. Overseas, I observed the same sensitivity, directed over there to respect for local customs, attitudes and cultures.

It was a real joy to see such a sophisticated and efficient construction firm that cares about their people and takes great pride in building very fine buildings in very difficult circumstances.

B. L. Harbert International headquarters in Birmingham, AL

B. L. Harbert International headquarters in Birmingham, AL

 

 

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Posted January 22, 2014

A perfect building? Quite possibly, yes.

This summer I visited Vancouver, certainly one of the most spectacular urban settings in the world.  While there, I met with Mark Reddington, partner of LMN Architects of Seattle, and Ken Cretney, chief operating officer for the Vancouver Convention Centre.  Ken came on board with the center six months before the building was finished; as such, he wasn’t the original client for the project and is now responsible for the building’s ongoing function and performance.  LMN are the architects for the Convention Centre West, the only building to win a National AIA Award for Interiors, for Architecture, and for Urban Design.  The building has also been recognized by The Committee on the Environment (COTE); by World Architecture News (both as the Most Sustainable Building in the World as well as recipient of its Effectiveness Award, and by the Urban Land Institute (ULI).

Convention Centre on Vancouver's waterfront

Convention Centre on Vancouver’s waterfront

The building interfaces beautifully with the street

The building interfaces beautifully with the street

This is a truly amazing building.  It interfaces beautifully with the street, the city, the water, and with a park that outlines Vancouver Island.  At street level, there is retail that gives a pedestrian friendly face to a building type that can be daunting. All of the typically unsightly elements associated with large convention centers (e.g., buses, trucks, parking, loading docks) are underground; thus, there reduced congestion around the building.  As I learned from Mark and Ken during our tour, there were all sorts of issues from a sustainability perspective, including marine ecology.  The solution to that problem was to create a new enriched environment for the marine life in Vancouver Harbor.  In terms of form and character, it’s substantially built with local materials, employs extensive local artwork and it absolutely celebrates daylight.  I find it extraordinary that it does all these things extremely well and never feels like one design consideration trumps or overwhelms the others. In fact, they all reinforce one another.

Ample daylight throughout the interior

Ample daylight throughout the interior

Substantial use of local materials

Substantial use of local materials

The net result is a building that makes a real difference, both to the city and to its citizens.  It is also a highly effective marketing tool.  As Ken noted, “the architecture really enhances any event held here.  Conventions are more exciting and dynamic… because of the building.”  He pointed out the main ballroom, which has a moving wall to reveal beautiful views of the harbor and the mountains beyond.  The interior is a warm, ingratiating space full of light that encourages people to stay.  In short, the building contributes to its primary purpose: having great events.  Ken added that if convention committee people see the building, almost invariably they book it.

The architecture enhances any event held here

The architecture enhances any event held here

This project is a huge economic engine and generates a lot of money for the city’s hotels, restaurants, and tax revenues.  The success of the design brings in millions of dollars to Vancouver, which now competes with the global cities for significant events.  Equally important, the building makes a visible contribution to the city’s residents who go by and engage with it every day.  It’s a source of pride and excitement; people go there just to hang out.

Twilight and crowds gather in front of the building

Twilight and crowds gather in front of the building

I genuinely love buildings like this one.  They make the life of a city and the lives of its residents better!  This is the true potential of architecture – to transform the energy, vitality and economy of a place.  The power of the building goes way beyond what you can see in a photograph and attests to just how meager an experience of image alone is to the real understanding of great architecture.

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Posted November 7, 2013

Micro-housing’s time has come … again.

Several years ago, I visited the Weissenhof Estate, an experimental residential complex built on a hillside outside Stuttgart in 1927.  Some of the most recognizable names in 20th century architecture were contributors to the buildings and the project’s success, including Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Peter Behrens, among others.  Their goal was to provide affordable housing, something urgently needed in Germany between the wars. The units were designed to accommodate a mixture of income groups, from blue-collar workers to upper middle class.   Weissenhof has become a landmark in the development of modern architecture, but the original intent was really to address a pressing social problem.  It was an extraordinary effort – very simple and very economical.

The Weissenhof Estate, Stuttgart, Germany 1927The Weissenhof Estate, Stuttgart, Germany 1927The Weissenhof

I am speaking at a conference this month that addresses these same affordable housing issues we’re facing in America now.  I will be talking about the promising notion of micro-housing, an approach that I think has real viability.  In 1950’s America, the average house size house was 1,200 square feet; it’s more than double that today, and yet families are smaller.  We create a lot of built space today that is just not needed.   This kind of consumption wastes construction resources and is expensive.  Looking back at what the Germans accomplished in the late 1920’s, we can learn lessons from architects that were working like crazy to provide just what was really needed – lean, elegant design that was still quite amenable and comfortable.  I think we should be trying to do that again now.

Recently, Architectural Record covered a micro-housing competition in Denver. There were four winners, all published. I was dismayed by the results.  Each winning entry seemed extravagant.  The whole idea of micro-housing is to stay simple, purposeful.  The winners all proposed extensive perimeter, which means high initial construction costs and long-term higher energy bills.  Building forms were intricate and clearly complicated to build and difficult to maintain.  They were, of course, cool-looking with scaffolds and lots of meandering exterior stairs and even detachable pods that could be floated on the adjacent river.

Proposed micro-housing project, DenverProposed micro-housing project, DenverProposed micro-housing, DenverProposed micro-housing, Denver

Are we as architects really trying to solve serious problems, or are we just interested in self-indulgent play?  How can we create the most live-ability in a housing project while also being energy efficient and economical in terms of other resource consumption?  These are equally critical forces in affordability.  Could a very striking, innovative visual character emerge from a genuine investigation of real problems as it did in Stuttgart?

I’d like to laud the premise the Germans set out almost a century ago.  The units at Weissenhof are small but very nurturing places to live – even a hundred years later!  Couldn’t we make some equally great micro-units now that grow out of current needs and technologies?

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Posted July 25, 2013

What role for architects in planning future cities?

A recent article by Aaron Betsky in Architect magazine took issue with a New York Times-sponsored program called the Energy For Tomorrow Conference.  Betsky was specifically concerned that the Times had not included any “urbanists, planners, or even an architect” but did include “leading urban expert Jeremy Irons.” He queried, “What are architects when we’re thinking about the future of the designed environment… chopped liver?”  Betsky suggested several prominent architects would have been an appropriate addition, including OMA and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, among others.  While I agree we should expect some architects and urbanists at such a conference, I question some of Betsky’s suggestions.  Are the starchitects he mentioned really contributing to energy efficient, sustainable cities?

Early in his career, Rem Koolhaas of OMA advocated for density and intense urban vitality, but then seems to have decided object buildings were the thing.  He has done projects that seem remarkably anti-urban and marked his career with buildings that don’t make great cities.  The gargantuan CCTV tower in Beijing is a prime example.  That building required demolishing an entire neighborhood in order to install a prominent object.  The streetscape and pedestrian quality suffer in order to create a geometric, one-liner statement that has a crushing scale at ground level. Do snazzy object building with poor pedestrian environments around them really make a sustainable city?

The CCTV complex in Beijing

Above: The CCTV complex in Beijing

I have written before about the problems of the accumulated object buildings by starchitects in the Dallas Arts District that fail to create a good urban environment.  OMA was involved there as well with the Wyly Theatre where both the main entry and lobby (the most lively parts that might enrich an urban neighborhood) are submerged a level below the street, but easily accessed via underground parking.  Creating an auto-centric building in a downtown environment – one that is desperately trying to make real headway toward mass transit and pedestrian-friendly movement – hardly seems the sort of decision one would want to hear about in a conference dedicated to energy savings and sustainable cities.

Above and below: The Wyly Theatre in Dallas

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Christopher Hawthorne of the Los Angeles Times recently slammed the new Perot Museum of Nature and Science in the same Dallas district, calling it “bullhorn urbanism.”  That’s what we, as architects, have become known for: big, loud, sexy object that are more about themselves than about making a city.

The Perrot Museum in Dallas

Above: The Perrot Museum in Dallas

Look at Dubai and dozens of huge cities across China which have received huge press in architectural circles. They are what we have touted as great successes, but they are not sustainable urban environments.  If that’s the best we can do, then we don’t deserve to be at the tables of forward-thinking conferences.

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Above: The Dubai skyline

To Betsky’s credit, he observes a little later in his piece, “Perhaps they are right.  The one bit of designed infrastructure going in up in New York right now, the Calatrava station at ground zero, is a farce…” I wonder if this is the reason they’ve left architects out of the discussion.  We have got to start talking about real issues that are important to a larger society and not just about glitzy structures.  We need architects and planners to speak up on this topic – and loudly.  We need our media to be focused on real, relevant issues the larger culture cares about.  Then we will be invited to the table when those important matters are being discussed about the future of our cities.

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Thinking about Building Technology, Contemporary Practices, Sustainability, Texas Architecture, Urbanism
Posted June 11, 2013