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Can Big Chem Meet Green Building Standards?

Several weeks ago, I attended a brief talk by a green building consultant. Before the talk, I might have called him a LEED consultant, but in his remarks he made it clear that he was not tied to the USGBC’s rating system. He noted that “LEED-lovers” had concerns about Green Globes, but he expressed just as much willingness to consult based on the plastics-friendly rating system as on LEED.

I had wondered whether LEED consultants would find the prospect of the new International Green Construction Code (IgCC) – which is ideally to be evaluated by local code officials – to be a threat to their business model, and as confirmation, he had very little good to say about the IgCC.

But now I am reading that the ICC, ASHRAE, AIA & USGBC have signed an agreement to develop a joint ANSI standard based on both LEED and the IgCC. Leading Building Industry Groups Agree to Streamline Green Building Tool Coordination and Development:

Washington, D.C. — (Aug. 21, 2014) — The International Code Council (ICC), ASHRAE, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IES) and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) announce the signing of a memorandum to collaborate on the development of Standard 189.1, the International Green Construction Code (IgCC) and the LEED green building program.

The unprecedented cooperation aims to create a comprehensive framework for jurisdictions looking to implement and adopt green building regulations and codes and/or provide incentives for voluntary leadership programs such as LEED.

Treehugger’s Lloyd Alter asks whether this signals the end of the plastics wars:

Big Chem has been relentless and had racked up a string of victories, but the USGBC was not without its successes. Just last week they inked a deal with four other organizations to collaborate on the development of the International Green Construction Code.

Now, the USGBC and the ACC are actually setting up a committee to work together, with the USGBC issuing a press release with the surprising title U.S. Green Building Council and the American Chemistry Council to Work Together to Advance LEED.

Alter’s question is whether ‘science-based’ means the sort of science we see from Big Oil, Big Pharma and Big Ag, where studies are commissioned to prove what needs to be proved, or whether materials will still have to meet stringent tests like those found in Cradle-to-Cradle certification.


In a New York Times OpEd, They Don’t Make ’Em Like They Used To – Inferior Products and Labor Drive Modern Construction, Henry Petroski rants about materials and workers:

Workmanship has declined in parallel. There continue to be expert craftsmen — carpenters, roofers, painters — who work with precision and pride, but they are increasingly being pushed out by cheaper labor with inferior skills (which is, of course, why the labor is cheaper). …

As an architect, I see good and bad work all the time. I have swum in old pools with playful, elegant ceramic tile curbs that I know I could never hope to have duplicated today. I have taken measurements in old buildings with tight brick joints and expertly-mitred woodwork the sort of which I never see when I do punch lists today. I have been to project meetings where an electrical subcontractor objected to the difficulty of the work – running utility outlets in a furniture store – by claiming to be installers, not designers.

As pointed out in the Times comments section, many great old buildings survive and many shoddy old buildings don’t. But that argument only works if there are great new buildings with excellent craftsmanship. Even the most costly of today’s buildings should probably be called assemblages or installs because to a great extent, builders do a lot more assembling and installing today than cutting, molding, fitting and building.

This is not the fault of homeowners, but of the industries whose practices favor the use of inferior products and labor that drive modern construction: the developers, lenders, builders and Realtors who, to make quick money, have created a stock of domestic and commercial infrastructure that is a waste of resources and will not last.

As pointed out in the Times comment section, cheapskate homeowners are just as complicit as anyone else. But as also pointed out, homeowners have less and less money to spend on quality work. Petroski goes on:

I can’t help but think that this experience, multiplied by those of millions of homeowners, affects how we as a country view our public infrastructure. We have seen short-term fixes and shoddy workmanship at home, and we see our bridges and roads the same way.

I’m running across that hyphenated word, short-term, in more and more articles. We have short-term energy policy, politics, and attention spans, but long-term climate, water, healthcare and employment problems that we are hoping will just go away. Unfortunately it may be our infrastructure that just goes away.

Architects Upset

From a lifetime of reading trade magazines, my memory is filled with plans and photos of many, many buildings and the names of a great many firms. I can connect the famous architects with their buildings, and the famous buildings with their architects, but I also recognize a lot of firm’s names even though I don’t remember exactly what they’ve built.

The names Billie Tsien and Tod Williams were immediately familiar to me, as were Liz Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, from countless in-the-news and featured architect articles, but I couldn’t have named any of their projects from memory. So when I read Building Faces Wrecking Ball. So Does Couples’ Friendship. my reaction was, “Oh yeah, them.”:

Two celebrated architect couples, whose careers took off almost simultaneously in the hothouse of New York City design and who supported each other’s successes, are barely on speaking terms.

One pair, Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, designed the former home of the American Folk Art Museum on West 53rd Street; the other, Liz Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, just recommended demolishing it as part of their plan to expand the Museum of Modern Art next door.

I had forgotten that Tsien and Williams figured at all in the PMA’s appropriation of the Barnes collection but while I had sympathy with opponents of that move, I thought this quote was a bit snippy:

“It’s delicious irony that the architects who needlessly pressed their personalities onto the ‘re-creation’ of the building to house the Barnes Foundation collection now protest the decision to demolish their museum,” said Jay Raymond, a former teacher at the Barnes and a litigant against the move.

My career hasn’t led to design ownership of many projects – I usually take someone else’s design and work out the kinks, making it code-compliant, energy efficient and buildable. But I have designed one or two houses that turned out well, and remember being offended to find one in the portfolio of some former coworkers without any credit to me. I suppose I’d be disappointed if one of my friends redesigned one of those houses. But I wouldn’t be devastated.

In my view any architect that is not inured to having their work reimagined or rejected or value-engineered must have been incredibly fortunate or entitled this far.


At The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova pens, THE OPEN-OFFICE TRAP

The open office was originally conceived by a team from Hamburg, Germany, in the nineteen-fifties, to facilitate communication and idea flow. But a growing body of evidence suggests that the open office undermines the very things that it was designed to achieve. In June, 1997, a large oil and gas company in western Canada asked a group of psychologists at the University of Calgary to monitor workers as they transitioned from a traditional office arrangement to an open one. The psychologists assessed the employees’ satisfaction with their surroundings, as well as their stress level, job performance, and interpersonal relationships before the transition, four weeks after the transition, and, finally, six months afterward. The employees suffered according to every measure: the new space was disruptive, stressful, and cumbersome, and, instead of feeling closer, coworkers felt distant, dissatisfied, and resentful. Productivity fell.

Speaking from within the architectural profession, when we do office spaces, I currently see plans with enclosed, windowed offices – for the pointy-haired bosses – surrounding an interior officescape of low walls or or modular furniture – for the support staff.

Such layouts are largely determined by the clients. As architects we try to make office layouts as efficient as possible – we suggest ways to bring daylight and views to those open areas – but the clients usually tell us exactly who will be in offices and who will be in open office areas.

What is driving open layouts is status and money. Employees with higher status, or a demonstrable need for privacy to do their jobs, get private offices. Providing individual offices doesn’t necessarily cost that much more than a good quality modular work station, but a firm can write off the depreciation of a modular system on its taxes in a way that it can’t write off permanent improvements. They can also move and bring their investment along to a new space.

It’s going to fall

Architects always squirm a bit when we hear about a building collapse, especially when people are injured or killed. The 1981 Hyatt Regency walkway collapse, in Kansas City, was a big deal because all the professionals involved probably thought they had exercised due diligence – but changes that subtly weakened the structure had slipped by during construction.

In Philadelphia a building under demolition collapsed onto a neighboring thrift store that was still occupied. Talking Points Memo reports that several workers nearby were worried by what they saw:

For weeks, people working nearby had watched with growing concern as a demolition crew took down a vacant four-story building next to a thrift store at the edge of downtown Philadelphia.

A roofer atop another building didn’t think the operation looked safe. A pair of window washers across the street spotted an unbraced, 30-foot section of wall and predicted among themselves the whole building would simply fall down.

On Wednesday, that’s what happened. The unstable shell of a building collapsed into a massive heap of bricks and splintered wood, taking part of the Salvation Army thrift store with it and killing six people. Fourteen others were injured.

But no one reported their fears. Every morning on the light rail I hear, “If you see something, say something,” meaning suspicious-looking people or packages. I wonder what would have happened if one of those workers, or a passing engineer, had called the authorities to express their concerns. Would they have been ignored, as were the engineers at Dhaka, or would they have been thanked for their vigilance? Or would they have been told to mind their own business?

In light of the Ag-Gag bills, do we now have to stop and wonder who we might be reporting to the authorities, lest we be charged as a whistleblower? With revelations about wiretapping of journalists, monitoring of phone records and increasingly pervasive video surveillance, can we afford to even voice our fears to each other?

Now Showing

Knowing I attended CMU, a coworker just had to tell me about this story:

A Carnegie Mellon University student’s march across campus, half naked and handing out condoms while dressed in mock papal finery from the waist up, “crossed over the line,” Bishop David Zubik said on Tuesday. … someone sent the diocese photographs of the young woman, whose pubic hair was shaved in the shape of a cross.

The photos were taken when the College of Fine Arts hosted its fourth annual spring carnival parade, the Anti-Gravity Downhill Derby, on April 18.

Someone snapped a picture.

Art students at CMU dabbled in nudity while I was there, but Spring Carnival parade was run by the social societies – mostly frats and sororities. On my first semester at campus, in the lobby of the ugly student union building, was a TV with a grainy student film repeating over and over. At one point, a boy chases a girl (through Schenley Park, I suppose) as each shed articles of clothing. Yeah, I watched that one a lot.

Sometime later four art students, two boys and two girls, posed frontally nude, again in Schenley Park, then posted the pictures all over campus – with black magic marker over their genitals and faces – to advertise an art showing. One of my friends snagged a copy and cleaned off the marker. One girl looked boldly naked, I thought, while the other seemed to be having second thoughts. Too late.

In a later year, the school paper reprinted Playboy’s pictures of Teri Hope, a Carnegie Tech alumna who was playmate of the month in 1958. The pictures were fairly tame compared to many magazines you could buy at the school store, but feminist students were predictably outraged.

One of the reasons I chose to attend Carnegie-Mellon was the brochure in which they asked students about the place. They were brutally honest, but still it seemed preferable, and less expensive, than the manicured little campuses I saw presented elsewhere.

I’ve often wondered where I would have gone if I knew then what I know now. One choice I didn’t even know about was the Boston Architectural Center, where you worked in the field by day and studied at night. Now it is the Boston Architectural College, but everyone called it the BAC. I’ve known a few people that were attending – one was commuting in from New Hampshire (sheesh). I’d like to think I could have handled that sort of schedule, but it is daunting to consider now.

Another choice was Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, in NYC. Cooper was a free school, but I was frankly intimidated by their rigorous application requirements, which seemed to assume that applicants had a burgeoning portfolio. I had good test scores but nothing like a portfolio.

As Felix Salmon writes for Reuters in, The tragedy of Cooper Union, Cooper may start charging for tuition, and losing its unique status. The story reminds me a lot of the independent Barnes Foundation being made into just another museum after its board was coopted by rich Philadelphia art patrons.

…Cooper Union has always been an extremely special educational institution, the kind of place where a little went a very long way. The faculty was not well paid; the facilities were bare-bones. But the students were fantastic, because Cooper could pick the very best of the very best.

While the Cooper Union ethos never left the students or the faculty, however, it did seem to desert a significant chunk of the Board of Trustees and the administration. Starting as long ago as the early 1970s, the board started selling off the land bequeathed by Cooper, not to invest the proceeds in higher-yielding assets, but rather just to cover accumulated deficits. Cooper hated debt and deficits, but that hatred was not shared by later administrators, who would allow debts to accumulate — bad enough — until the only solution was to sell off the college’s patrimony, thereby reducing the resources available for future generations of students. If you visit Astor Place today, the intersection once dominated by the handsome Cooper Union building, the main thing you notice are two gleaming new glass-curtain-walled luxury buildings, one residential and one commercial, both constructed on land bought from Cooper Union.

Then, when you turn the corner and look at what hulks across the street from the main Cooper Union building, you can see where a huge amount of the money went: into a gratuitously glamorous and expensive New Academic Building, built at vast expense, with the aid of a $175 million mortgage which Cooper Union has no ability to repay.

Designing Towards Abundance

Writing about their latest book, The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability — Designing for Abundance in Metropolis, William McDonough and Michael Braungart expand on their Cradle to Cradle advocacy:

Human beings don’t have a pollution problem; they have a design problem. If humans were to devise products, tools, furniture, homes, factories, and cities more intelligently from the start, they wouldn’t even need to think in terms of waste, or contamination, or scarcity. Good design would allow for abundance, endless reuse, and pleasure.

Such talk may seem counterintuitive to peakists and doomers, but in Depletion and Abundance, Sharon Astyk also saw past energy depletion to a possible future of abundance. McDonough & Braungart envision a more industrial future than Astyk’s Nation of Farmers, though:

This concept, we believe, could move the dialogue far beyond a simple interest in recycling, because we noticed that the entire recycling effort grew from a negative belief. The theory being put forward by most sustainability advocates, and increasingly by industry, goes something like this: Human beings create enormous amounts of waste and should strive to become “less bad.” Use less energy. Poison less. Cut down fewer trees. According to these current “best practices,” all people can hope to achieve is eco-efficiency, minimization, and avoidance, to recycle a limited percentage of objects humans use daily—bottles, paper—and fashion them into, unfortunately, a lesser product, one that can be used once more, or twice more, or maybe even five times more. But then where does this product go? Into a landfill? An incinerator?

Rather than simply conserving, McDonough & Braungart think it makes more sense to design our way out of scarcity and into abundance:

… eco-efficiency — setting a metric of tolerable levels of a gas—is simply not sufficient for positive design.

Eco-efficiency might also seek to curtail consumption: water use, for example. But that consumption limitation is premised on the notion that we live only in a world of scarcity and limit, that the ecological world is insufficient for the world of human activities and industries. This is just not true.

It sounds great, but it also sounds like a tough sell. In the wake of the West, Texas explosion and the Dhaka, Bangladesh collapse, in a global business-scape where cutting costs is paramount, it is frankly difficult to conceive of industry taking such prescriptions to heart.