Thursday, May 28, 2009
Sunday, May 24, 2009
The Living Building Challenge
The magnitude of the dilemma we are facing cannot be underestimated: buildings are the source for the majority of man-made greenhouse gases generated today, the leading cause of global warming. Between now and 2030 (the milestone date targeted by Ed Mazria and his organization Architecture 2030 by which all new buildings and major renovations shall be carbon-neutral, using no fossil fuel greenhouse gas emitting energy to operate) the inventory of buildings globally will roughly be double what it is presently. The Living Building concept must become the accepted norm if we are to overcome the impact our buildings have upon the environment.
The Cascadia Region Green Building Council issued the Living Building Challenge to all building owners, architects, design professionals, engineers, and contractors to raise the bar and define the most advanced standards for sustainability in the built environment. The Challenge requires buildings to have no carbon footprint, generate all of the power required to meet their needs, and capture and treat all of the water they use on site.
The Living Building Challenge standards are intended to complement, and not supplant, the efforts of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED system to make green building mainstream. The aim of the Living Building Challenge is to push projects even further toward fulfilling the ultimate obligations of the building industry to sustainability.
Lisa described how the Living Building Challenge is not based on the accumulation of credits, like LEED is. Instead, the Living Building designation is based on criteria established by prerequisite standards, and actual measured performance. The criteria are simple to understand and remarkably few in numbers:
- Responsible site design
- Limits to growth
- Habitat exchange
- Net zero energy
- Materials red list
- Construction carbon footprint
- Responsible industry
- Appropriate materials/service radius
- Leadership in construction waste
- Net zero water
- Sustainable water discharge
- A civilized environment
- Healthy air: source control
- Healthy air: ventilation
Beauty & Inspiration:
- Beauty and spirit
- Inspiration and education
A Living Building meets all of these listed prerequisites.
The Living Building Financial Study
Clients are often concerned about costs vs. benefits of building greener communities. The Living Building Financial Study investigated the economic obstacles to creating Living Buildings. Lisa’s team (including SERA, Gerding Edlen Development, Skanska Construction, Interface Engineering, and New Building Institute) attempted to establish the cost increment for Living Buildings, understanding that the results of the study will vary in response to a given project’s unique circumstances. The study compiled construction cost estimate and payback calculations to create financial models representing Living Buildings for the various building types and climate zones.
Not surprisingly, the results of the financial study indicate that the cost premium and payback period for Living Buildings vary considerably depending upon the type of building and its location. While the incremental costs associated with developing Living Buildings are not insubstantial, the estimated payback periods are surprisingly brief in many instances.
Site Plan, Oregon Sustainability Center (photo by Eugénie Frerichs)
The Oregon Sustainability Center
As described on the Oregon Sustainability Center blog, the project is “the collaborative vision of a unique public/private partnership between city and state government, higher education, nonprofit organizations, and the business community . . . At the core of this project is a 200,000+ square foot urban, mixed-use high-rise positioned to become the regional hub for Portland and Oregon’s sustainability activities.” Lisa’s firm, SERA, is part of the Center’s development team, which also includes GBD Architects, Gerding Edlen, Glumac, Hoffman Construction, Interface Engineering, and PAE Consulting Engineers, and several others.
The Center is expected to meet the Living Building Challenge and thereby create a world-class facility that will stake Oregon’s claim to leadership in climate change, land use planning, smart growth, green building, and environmental stewardship. Its program is to house sustainable technology and research incubator spaces, nonprofit and business offices, and higher education facilities in one high-rise building.
Lisa reported on the progress of the Oregon Sustainability Center’s feasibility study. Work is proceeding at breakneck pace: the development team was only just selected this past March. The team conducted a weeklong eco-charrette in April to set the direction for the living building design approach. Early design explorations are now underway, which have determined that a living building on an urban scale is possible. The ideas that are taking shape employ “biophilic” design, consciously seeking to express the human-nature connection. This has resulted in schemes that have adopted forms reminiscent of raindrops and nautilus shells, as well as more abstract expressions of natural behavior (including a “torque” scheme that mimics the behavior of a sunflower as it tracks the sun across the sky).
Thursday, May 21, 2009
As I mentioned in my March 28, 2009 blog post, Erickson was unquestionably Canada’s greatest architect of the 20th century. It is not an exaggeration to say that he was as important to modern architecture in Canada as his American contemporaries were collectively in the United States(1). I had the great fortune to have spent some time with the man at the height of his powers, working as a practicum student in the Vancouver office of Arthur Erickson Architects in 1979.
Years ago, Philip Johnson praised Erickson as one of the most talented architects in the world. However, Johnson wryly noted that Erickson’s fame was largely confined to Canada because he lived and worked “in a province of a province of the United States.”(2) Today, most American architects and students of architecture know little, if anything at all, about his design philosophy and influence. I predict that with his passing Erickson’s work will acquire a new audience as the importance of his legacy to architecture is remembered.
(1) I would number Gordon Bunshaft, Philip Johnson, Anthony Lumsden, Walter Netsch, Cesar Pelli, I.M. Pei, Kevin Roche, Paul Rudolph, and Minoru Yamasaki among Erickson’s American peers.
(2) Erickson’s practice and home life were centered in Vancouver, British Columbia. Up until recently, Canada’s political, cultural, and financial centers of power were primarily located in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. For many Canadians, British Columbia was an easily ignored and pleasant backwater, hence a “province of a province of the United States.”
Saturday, May 16, 2009
Best-selling author and architect Sarah Susanka made the case in her 1998 book The Not So Big House that bigger isn’t necessarily better. A graduate of the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts, Susanka urged us to “focus on quality rather than quantity” when designing residences. In some respects, the success of her book was remarkable when set against the late-nineties backdrop of a rapidly expanding real estate bubble. We increasingly regarded our houses as investments rather than as homes. Many purchasers, laden with more money than good sense, equated quantity with quality. After all, four-and-a-half bathrooms were better than three, or so we thought.
We have since been chastened by the collapse of the housing market and the attendant economic downturn. We’re not likely to see another real estate bubble. The rules of the game have changed. The new reality is that the contraction of our economy may be permanent, a consequence of the increasing scarcity of easy credit, cheap energy, and other resources. Houses will no longer be viewed primarily as commodities. Our lives – where we work, how we grow our food, where we choose to live, and the houses we dwell in – are destined to be rescaled. The American penchant for “super-sizing” and “McMansions” is a thing of the past.
Despite the dwindling of many critical resources, one article of trade will always remain available in unlimited quantity: good design.
Buy stock in good design because it's become a currency of choice. We are transforming ourselves from a consumption-driven society to one that values place, history, and meaning in our homes. We’re pointing toward smaller, more urban (and urbane), site-sensitive houses that are as unique as their occupants. More than ever before, we're designing sustainably and building for the long haul.
Good design is what makes it possible to imagine living as comfortably and happily in a smaller home as one might in a much bigger house. Eugene architect Dan Hill coined the term "qualisizing" to describe how we should design and build the new homes of the future. A "qualisized" home could easily be as small as 400-500 square feet per person in size. The concept is to design well and build with an emphasis upon quality rather than quantity. Evaluating a home’s site for the best exposure to sun, wind, and rain can have a huge effect on the outcome and quality of the living environment. Planning for change such as growth and/or downsizing in a family can be important driving forces in a design. Efficient use of space just makes sense on so many levels. Smaller homes also consume fewer resources to build, heat, and cool.
Good design doesn't have to be expensive. A window shifted three feet from center to better view the best location for a flower garden doesn't cost a penny more, but adds to the pleasure of every morning's cup of coffee for years to come.
Good design ensures meaningful homes whose primary aim is to enrich the lives of their occupants, rather than impress the neighbors. Cookie-cutter, pattern-book houses may be functional, affordable, and constructed soundly, but they can also be soulless. Fundamentally, good home designers are tailors who take the measure of their clients’ dreams to create dwellings that are completely original and unique to each customer. The results are homes that are rich in detail and specificity, more like jewelry boxes than shoeboxes. The best homes are our refuge in difficult times and backdrops for the celebrations of life during the good times.
The core of Sarah Susanka’s message is that the sense of “home” that we all seek has everything to do with quality. Creativity, imagination, and inventiveness are needed more than ever. Readers responded to her book The Not So Big House precisely because it gave homeowners the language they needed to ask for what they want: a house that values quality over quantity, and emphasizes comfort, beauty, and a high level of detail. In this era of new frugality, it will be our investments in good design that will be a prominent measure of the value of our homes.
Monday, May 11, 2009
Like most architects who traveled to San Francisco to attend the 2009 AIA National Convention, I could not leave without taking some time away from the Moscone Center to explore the city. This wasn’t my first trip to San Francisco, but there was much that I had not previously seen, both old and new.
San Francisco is rightly famous for its varied neighborhoods, its spectacular prospects, picturesque Victorian homes, and wonderful parks. Despite its hilly topography, this is a city that is best experienced on foot. In many respects, San Francisco’s scale and the fabric of its urban environment are more noteworthy than the individual examples of architecture; the whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts. Nevertheless, I had my list of buildings to see. Fueled by determination and a supply of granola bars, I visited all by walking from one to the next.(1) Following are my thoughts on just a few of these buildings:
Wright Writ Small
The V.C. Morris Gift Store (now the Xanadu Gallery), was designed in 1948 by Frank Lloyd Wright. Construction of the Morris Gift Store allowed Wright the opportunity to realize at a much smaller scale the now legendary spiral ramp theme of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Although it was built before the more famous Guggenheim, the design for the museum predates that of the store.
The store is situated mid-block along Maiden Lane, a narrow alley near Union Square, the center of San Francisco’s tony downtown shopping district. The Xanadu Gallery’s website describes the architecture thusly:
“The street entrance is an updated Romanesque arch, which according to Wright beckons the passerby in rather than vulgarly displaying its merchandise on the sidewalk . . . The brickwork itself, a rare enough sight in San Francisco architecture, is beautifully laid, and draws attention quietly rather than competing with the surrounding street. A delicate line of translucent panels with a raised geometric motif that is classic Wright lights the outside wall.
“The arch gives way to a glass tunnel atrium, then on to the spiraling interior. The entire space seems to rotate beneath the luminous bubbles of the cast white plastic ceiling. The latter evokes the organic geometry of the Johnson Wax Building interior, and creates the effect of opalescent, filtered sunlight. The inside walls of sand colored, poured concrete flow around this dome of light, marked by occasional lit portholes. Setting off all this luminous pallor is Wright's curving built-in cabinetry. Everywhere the attention to detail is perfect, from the grand modular display tables to the whimsical brass and Lucite pedestals. The sum is a perfect synthesis of theatrical and organic splendor.”
I appreciate the work of Frank Lloyd Wright much more now than when I was younger. This might seem surprising, given that it was Wright’s design for Fallingwater that set me on the path to becoming an architect. But it was along that path that I was led to believe that Wright’s architecture had lost its relevance and that it was primarily the cult of personality surrounding him that sustained his fame. I’ve since realized that Wright will always remain relevant to contemporary architecture. While idiosyncratic, and often impractical, too many of his designs betray a real genius. The V.C. Morris Gift Store is one of those designs. It is visually rewarding at every scale, rich in detail and quirky by turn. Movement along the spiraling ramp constantly shifts the perspective of the viewer. It is a most convincing essay on the interrelatedness of time, space, and architecture.
San Francisco Federal Building
Can Someone Translate Morphosis For Me?
The second building on my hit parade was the San Francisco Federal Building, designed by Thom Mayne and his firm, Morphosis. Of course, Morphosis also designed the Wayne L. Morse United States Courthouse here in Eugene. Both buildings are significant because they are large projects for the federal government, designed to fit within tight budgets while meeting ambitious targets for sustainability.(2) They are also representative of Mayne’s penchant for an architecture that is confrontational and cognitively dislocating rather than one that is conventional or comforting.
There is plenty to admire about the design of the San Francisco Federal Building, most notably how much architecture was wrested from every dollar spent. The 18-story structure was lauded by the New York Times as a "literal symbol of government transparency in an era when the fear of terrorist attacks is prompting government agencies and corporations to turn their offices into armored compounds." The south elevation is dominated by a draping, perforated metal scrim that provides shade for the floor-to-ceiling windows. This screen morphs at its base to form the roof of the first floor daycare center and the coffee shop that prominently occupies the southeast corner of the site. While not completely discernible during my visit (the light was flat and gray on a drizzly Sunday morning), I’ve been told that the scrim is alternately delicate and transparent or hard and opaque, depending upon the time of day. There is a moiré effect, the layering adding greatly to the visual richness of the façade.
However, not unlike our courthouse, the architecture of the Federal Building is also inscrutable and cryptic. Why must the column next to the main entrance lean at such an unsettling angle? To what end is the enveloping scrim folded and cut as it is? Why do other disquieting features read like so many architectural non sequiturs? Why did Morphosis introduce these seemingly arbitrary gestures? Because I visited on a Sunday, I wasn’t able to enter and study the building from within, although I suspect that getting inside would not have helped me much. I left the Federal Building with the impression that I am not among the initiated, that I do not fully understand Thom Mayne’s intentions simply because he communicates with a sophisticated alien language I cannot yet and may never be privileged to comprehend.
Visiting architects admire the generous canopy that keeps the grass dry.
The impenetrability of Morphosis’ design intentions is undoubtedly deliberate. To a great extent, that is the appeal of the firm’s work. You are left with your uncertain readings of the designs and pondering the architects’ aesthetic objectives.
It’s revealing that Thom Mayne relishes his role as an iconoclast. “Architecture with any authenticity represents resistance,” he has said. “Resistance is a good thing.” Then again, resistance is futile if it is meaningless. I suspect this is not the case with the San Francisco Federal Building. If he were to translate for us the underlying message of his firm’s architecture, we might learn that it begins and ends with Mayne himself. My guess is that his buildings are ultimately a self-conscious reflection of his maverick persona: sharp-edged, steely, intimidating, and enigmatic.
California Academy of Sciences
Big Boxes for Science and Culture
I was prepared to dislike the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum before I saw it in person. I’d seen photographs of the building, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Mueron. I was also familiar with the outcry that accompanied the unveiling of the architects’ design. Regarded by many at the time as being without scale and insensitive to its remarkable site within Golden Gate Park, the museum would have much to prove upon its opening in 2005.
On the other hand, I had read nothing but rave reviews about the new building by Renzo Piano (another Pritzker laureate) for the California Academy of Sciences, also located in Golden Gate Park. Opened just last year, it is deservedly famous for its outstanding commitment to sustainable design principles. The museum’s living roof has achieved icon-like status, conceptually an undulating, green section of the park lifted into the air. Below, exhibits are clearly organized within a classically symmetrical plan. The Academy is immensely popular, as I experienced during my visit.
The Academy's "living roof"
The museums face one another and engage in a dialogue across the large Music Concourse. Whereas the de Young appears mute and turns inward, the Academy is transparent and engaging. Both replace predecessors that were irreparably damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that shook the Bay area. Both are essentially big boxes of similar size and expense. Both are designed by internationally renowned architects. It’s impossible to avoid a comparison of the buildings.
The M.H. de Young Memorial Museum
Given my preconceptions, I was surprised upon visiting the two museums that I preferred the architecture of the de Young Museum to that of the Academy. It’s perhaps easiest to explain my preference by distinguishing the design intent of each building. Witold Rybczynski, architecture critic for the online magazine Slate, wrote that they represent two different visions of the role of the contemporary architect: problem-solving vs. art-making. Rybczynski asserts that Piano seems to be more directly concerned with the former, while Herzog & de Meuron's self-absorbed architecture is a result of the latter.
The Academy: a carnival fun house of the natural sciences
Architecturally, what you see is what you get with the Academy of Sciences. The interior of the museum is a carnival fun house of the natural sciences. The building is transparent, visually connected to the surrounding park. There is nothing hidden. Piano’s characteristic attention to technology, detail, and exactitude is fully on display. There is no artistic pretense evident beyond the emphasis upon craft and science, although it could be argued that Piano’s refined technological fetish is unnecessarily mannered. Altogether, the Academy appears precise, fragile, and brittle.
The muscular cantilever over the de Young's cafeteria terrace
By contrast, the de Young is muscular, moody, and slightly mysterious. Herzog & de Meuron focused upon melding the building with its site, but not by broadly opening its perimeter enclosure to the park as the Academy of Sciences does. Instead, the surrounding landscape is brought inside by lozenge-shaped courtyards (some lushly planted) that divide the museum into three slender blocks. The building is permeable because it pulls the surroundings in. The permeability is also expressed at a different scale in the detailing of the all-enveloping copper skin. Dimpled and perforated, the porous copper cladding will oxidize and slowly turn green over time, further blending the de Young with Golden Gate Park (the architects say the skin is an abstraction of the effect of light filtering through the canopy of trees).
de Young: the Wilsey Court
At times, I found the flow of gallery spaces through the three parallel blocks disorienting; however, the casual interconnection was intentional. Visitors are allowed to experience the housed collections in a flexible way. They can view them in a linear fashion, or jump from one block to another to experience both the distinctions and connections between the art of different cultures and eras.
The de Young's "fifth elevation"
The predominantly low-slung form of the de Young has as its counterpoint a twisting tower that looms 144 feet-high above the treetops. The tower’s observation floor offers splendid views of San Francisco in all directions and of the roof of the museum below, carefully composed as the building’s “fifth elevation." Allusive, brooding, and vaguely post-apocalyptic in appearance, the de Young is as much about regarding the world around it as it is about the artifacts it contains.
de Young: Fern Court and stair to lower level
I like the de Young Museum because Herzog & de Meuron approached its design with an artist’s sensibility. They chose to elevate the project above an exercise in mere problem-solving and engineering. Its organizational parti presents unexpected juxtapositions that challenge traditional museum presentation. It is awkward, engaging, and visceral in a way that the technologically sophisticated Academy of Sciences is not. Renzo Piano may excel in problem-solving, but his Academy lacks the artistry evident to me in Herzog & de Meuron’s landmark building.
(1) My guess is that I may have trekked as many as seven miles during my meandering, day-long walkabout. As dense and compact as San Francisco is, it’s still a big city. I did ride the Muni streetcar on my return leg from Golden Gate Park back to my hotel near Union Square.
(2) The San Francisco Federal Building has been certified LEED Platinum by the U.S. Green Building Council. The Wayne L. Morse United States Courthouse is LEED Gold-certified.
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Alder Fuller, PhD, is dean and founder of Euglena Academy in Eugene, where he has developed a thoroughly integrated curriculum linking systems sciences, nonlinear dynamics ("chaos theory"), cellular automata theory, biology, and climate change. Dr. Fuller’s provocative message is that we have already crossed a “tipping point,” a threshold beyond which earth’s temperatures will continue to rise regardless of anything we attempt to halt or reverse it.
I’ve just returned from San Francisco, having attended the 2009 AIA National Convention. I’m grateful to AIA-SWO for the opportunity to represent the chapter at this important event. It’s a responsibility that is accompanied by many benefits, not the least of which is networking with remarkable colleagues from around the country.
AIA-SWO was well-represented in San Francisco. The members from our chapter and other attendees with chapter-area ties included:
- Greg Brokaw
- Frances Bronet
- Scott Clarke
- Michael Fifield
- Don Kahle
- Alison Kwok
- Joel Osborn
- Otto Poticha
- Bill Seider
- Frank Thaxter
- Christine Theodoropoulos
. . . and me (I believe Geoff Kirsten and Cy Stadsvold were also there but I didn't cross paths with them).
I’m sure that I’m forgetting someone; my apologies to whomever I may have left off the list. Overall, attendance was down this year compared to last year’s convention in Boston, not totally unexpected given the state of the economy. Predictably, much of the buzz overheard during breaks between the educational sessions was about business prospects and the lack thereof. It’s clear that this recession has adversely impacted large and small firms alike nationwide. The Institute itself has not been immune. The national office will instigate two week-long furloughs of its staff this summer in order to mitigate budget shortfalls attributable to lower dues revenues associated with non-renewed memberships.
Despite the sobering economic realities we are confronting, the convention itself was terrific. This year’s theme – The Power of Diversity: Practice in a Complex World – was amply supported by a wide range of sessions devoted to issues of diversity in the profession. Particular attention was paid to generational variety, as two of the convention’s three general presentations featured some of the brightest young minds in architecture. Sustainability was another overarching topic, underscored by the many offerings furnishing SD learning units.
One of the new young lions, Cameron Sinclair (co-founder of Architecture for Humanity), noted that it is during those times when systems begin to break down that architecture becomes political. If the 2009 AIA Convention is evidence, it’s true that our current financial and environmental crises are awakening us from a stupor of complacency and spurred many in our profession to action. Teddy Cruz (principal of Estudio Teddy Cruz) challenged us to design the political and economic process with as much care and passion as we apply to our architecture. Gavin Newsom, the mayor of the City and County of San Francisco, asserted that diversity builds a stronger society, that tolerance advances democracy, and that compassion is essential to a better world. He regards design as the ultimate sustainable resource.
There’s more that I can report about the convention than I can fit here within this President’s Message. I hope to post further thoughts on my blog, so look for them soon.
Randy Nishimura, AIA
2009 President, AIA-Southwestern Oregon