Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Truth, Well Told

Alan Durning

Next Monday, May 2, Alan Durning, founder and executive director of the Sightline Institute will speak at the University of Oregon. He will present a series of case studies demonstrating how Sightline uses facts and keen storytelling to shape public debate and influence major policy decisions in the service of a sustainable future. His lecture promises to offer a rare behind-the-scenes look at how the Sightline Institute does its work. It will be about, as the title suggests, The Truth, Well Told. Above all, it will be a testament to the power of information.

Alan’s appearance at the UO comes on the heels of his participation as one of our keynote speakers at last October’s 2010 AIA Northwest & Pacific Region Conference here in Eugene. As I reported at the time, he is an outstanding orator and provocateur. Listen to Alan and you will believe that every one of us can make a difference. He has the power of conviction and wields it with authority. His mission is to make the Northwest a global model of sustainability comprised of strong communities, a green economy, and a healthy environment.

The lecture is sponsored by the university's Sustainable Cities Initiative (SCI). The SCI is a cross-disciplinary organization at the University of Oregon that seeks to promote education, service, public outreach and research on the design and development of sustainable cities.

If you have some time to sneak away from work or school on Monday afternoon, join Alan and other like-minded folk for what is sure to be an interesting talk!

What: Alan Durning: "The Truth, Well Told"

When: Monday, May 2, 2011, 3:00 PM

Where: University of Oregon, 107 Esslinger, Eugene, OR

Sunday, April 24, 2011

April AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

Summer Gorder, LEED AP BD+C (my photo)

The success of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) green building certification system has certainly surpassed its creators’ wildest dreams. Since 1998, LEED has become the de facto metric for establishing a building’s green credentials. Thousands of projects spanning the globe have achieved Basic, Silver, Gold, or Platinum certification. LEED has spurred or spawned entire industries, including a burgeoning new breed of LEED consulting services.

AIA-SWO’s April chapter meeting featured the dynamic Summer Gorder, LEED AP BD+C, president of eco:REAL LLC. eco:REAL offers a wide array of LEED certification services, from preliminary feasibility assessment through LEED project administration, whole building energy analysis, and specification & submittal review services. eco:REAL is part of design collective 202, a Portland-based collaborative group of architects, interior designers, engineers, and contractors that bridge disciplines to provide integrated building solutions.

Summer pursued an interest in sustainable design and construction throughout her studies in the Department of Architecture at the University of Oregon. Following graduation, she landed a position with Sienna Architecture during the firm’s halcyon days. Her portfolio while there included experience with a Living Building project in Oregon and a neighborhood development in Dubai targeted for LEED certification. Unfortunately, a perfect storm of circumstances led to the demise of Sienna in early 2009. Summer was unemployed but undeterred. She quickly founded eco:REAL to capitalize upon her knowledge base and fill a need in the construction industry for a thoroughly integrated approach to sustainability. Today, eco:REAL offers services to not only the design community, but also other construction and development-related businesses, non-profit organizations, and public agencies.

Summer’s presentation to AIA-SWO described how LEED has evolved over the years. Because the USGBC operates using broad-based consensus processes, LEED continues to improve with the input of its membership. The rating system is now much more comprehensive than when it began, broadening to include a suite of nine rating systems for the design, construction and operation of buildings, homes and neighborhoods. It is also increasingly user-friendly in response to well-founded criticism regarding the cost and complexity of the certification process.

Summer focused upon LEED’s most recent incarnation, v3 (also referred to as LEED 2009). Its noteworthy revision was to simplify the point scale such that there are 100 possible base points plus an additional 6 points for Innovation in Design and 4 points for Regional Priority. The Regional Priority points were added to address concerns that LEED was not appropriately site or climate-specific (architects could too easily make material or design choices to garner LEED points even though they might be unsuitable for the project). With LEED v3 buildings can qualify for four levels of certification:
  • Certified: 40 - 49 points
  • Silver: 50 - 59 points
  • Gold: 60 - 79 points
  • Platinum: 80 points and above
As with previous versions of LEED, points are distributed across credit categories for Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, Materials and Resources, and Indoor Environmental Quality. Prerequisites in each category receive no points and are mandatory for all projects.

LEED v.3 incorporates five overarching categories corresponding to specialties available under the LEED Accredited Professional program. Those categories are:
  • Green Building Design & Construction
  • Green Interior Design & Construction
  • Green Building Operations & Maintenance
  • Green Neighborhood Development
  • Green Home Design and Construction
According to Summer, the USGBC intends to continuously upgrade LEED every two years or so. The next version is anticipated to be LEED 2012. Among the expected changes will be an attempt to encourage expanded reporting of whole building performance with a focus upon operations by including specific prerequisites for metering. Other possible changes include an expansion in the number of credit categories (from 7 to 10) and prerequisites (from 9 to 15), and greater alignment with other rating systems and requirements. The changes could include new credits for use of reclaimed wood, walkable streets, reduced automobile dependence, and low vehicle miles traveled.(1) The process to introduce LEED 2012 involves public commentary followed by ratification of a final draft by the USGBC membership.

Each iteration of LEED adjusts to the raising of the sustainability bar. Summer noted that LEED Silver has become the baseline level of certification for many public agencies. From an energy consumption standpoint, basic certification barely registers above code as state governments ratchet up minimum standards. Future versions of LEED will undoubtedly reflect this raising of expectations.

As someone who has not yet pursued LEED credentials, I was surprised to learn that the professional accreditation process is no longer directly administered by the USGBC. Instead, the independent Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) is responsible for managing all aspects of the LEED professional accreditation program, including exam development, registration, and delivery. It oversees a catalog of LEED professional credentials, including LEED Green Associate, LEED Accredited Professional (+ specialties), and LEED Fellow.

A major shortcoming of GBCI’s credential maintenance program is that many educational sessions that offer AIA Sustainable Design credits will not necessarily qualify as GBCI CMP credit hours. At the moment, the only GBCI-approved education reviewing body is the USGBC; thus, the only SD credits offered by the AIA that would qualify for GBCI credential maintenance are those authored by the USGBC. Summer was not confident that the GBCI would soon approve the AIA as another education reviewing body. Certainly, the AIA would have to appreciably increase the rigor by which the SD designation is applied to educational offerings under its sanction.

Summer pointed out that we must think of “green” as a thought process and not a prescription. LEED alone does not assure that a project is truly sustainable. LEED is merely the low-hanging fruit, a fundamentally limited means by which to measure the green merits of a project. The rating system’s greater value may prove to be the degree to which it has and continues to raise awareness of the building sector’s impact upon the global environment. In this regard, the work of Summer Gorder and her colleagues at eco:REAL is vitally important. The world needs more eco-evangelists like Summer, professionals who are spreading the gospel of LEED to the widest possible audience.

(1) I’ve always thought it is absurd that projects sited on greenfields many miles from urban centers can secure high levels of LEED certification without concomitant penalties for their total dependency upon travel by automobile.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

So Much to Do, So Little Time

If you try to stay abreast of the latest architectural happenings in our little corner of the world, the coming week will keep you busy. On Wednesday alone, there are three concurrent events, an absolute surfeit of possibilities to consider. Here’s a rundown of just some of what’s on tap over the next few days:

Hutong to High Rise - An Introduction to China's Rapid Urbanization by Gary Reddick
Monday, April 18 – 5:30 PM
115 Lawrence Hall
University of Oregon

Urban population growth is one of the greatest stories of modern life, one that is unfolding all across the world. As a result, for the first time in history, the majority of human beings live in urban areas. Nowhere has this migration and transformation of human settlement been more profound than China. In just two decades, China's urban population has grown by over 300 million people. This lecture will begin a series of discussions, to look at the images and implications of urban models unlike anything we have seen before.

Gary Reddick, AIA, is president of V3 Studio, an award-winning northwest architecture firm. In addition to many other endeavors, Gary leads the firm’s work overseas in China, Vietnam and Dubai, where he has traveled extensively since early 2005 on a wide variety of urban design and master planning projects. An Oregon native and University of Oregon graduate, Gary has been active in Portland as a civic leader, artist and architect for over 30 years.

A recognized expert in urban planning and smart growth, Gary has dedicated his career to helping build quality architecture and increase the livability of communities throughout the western United States. He has been a featured speaker at the International Making Cities Livable conference, at the Congress for New Urbanism, and at the Oregon Livability Conference.

AIA-SWO April Chapter Meeting – LEED 2012 update by Summer Gorder of eco:REAL LLC
Wednesday, April 20 – 5:30 PM
The Actors Cabaret
996 Willamette Street, Eugene

Summer Gorder, eco:REAL LLC

AIA-SWO’s April chapter meeting features Summer Gorder, who will present the latest updates in LEED version 3.0, including changes to the rating systems, new eligibility requirements, and the tools to meet the prescriptive Credential Maintenance Program requirements in the most cost effective way. She’ll also discuss the latest trends in the sustainable building industry, including AIA's adoption of the 2030 Challenge, the International Green Construction Code, and what the USGBC has in store for LEED Rating Systems in 2012.

ecoREAL is part of design collective 202, a collaborative group of architects, interior designers, engineers, and contractors that bridge disciplines to provide integrated building solutions.

Building Modern Eugene
Wednesday, April 20 – 6:30 PM
Shelton McMurphey Johnson House
303 Willamette Street, Eugene

Interior of Cliff May-designed home (photo from Doug Kramer's Rancho Style website)

The Building Modern Eugene lecture series explores how Eugene became the city it is today and where it will go in the future. I’ve already reported about two of the talks: one by Dick Williams with Grant Seder, and another by Otto Poticha. The next lecture in the Building Modern Eugene series at the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House will feature Joe Barthlow. He will present a “hands-on” look at the restoration of his Cliff May-designed mid-century modern home.

NAWIC Joint Construction Association Meeting
Wednesday, April 20 – 5:30 PM
The Boulevard Grill
2117 Franklin Boulevard, Eugene

The Eugene chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction is hosting a joint construction association meeting, inviting all members of NAWIC, CSI, AGC, AIA-SWO, CFMA, OSN, HBA, ASLA, and ASHRAE to celebrate NAWIC-Eugene’s 48th anniversary. The meeting will feature Carrie Fortier, CPA and Senior Manager with Jones & Roth, who will lead an evening full of networking and discussion on the topic of building communication skills.

Dinner & Program is $18.00 for NAWIC members and $20.00 for non-members (to pre-pay by credit card go to http://nawiceugene.com/events.shtml#1). RSVP by Monday, April 18 by emailing Twylla Tatum at ttatum@deltasg.com.

Thursday, April 21, 2011
5:30 PM drinks/networking
6:00 PM presentation/informal discussion

Seven Directions Affordable Housing & Health Clinic by Pyatok Architects, Inc.

From my vantage as a post-post-post emerging professional, DesignSpring appears to be active and creative, providing the up-and-coming generation with a forum for networking, education, and collegiality. This is no doubt a testament to the group’s leadership and bodes well for the future of the design professions in Eugene-Springfield.

Architalks is DesignSpring’s lecture series, intended to provide its membership with the opportunity to hear from and interact with prominent practitioners. This week’s Architalk features Michael Pyatok, FAIA. Mike is currently a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Architecture at the University of Oregon. He has been an architect and professor of architectural design for more than 40 years. At the heart of Mike’s work is the participatory design process he uses to deeply involve residents, community members, and stakeholders in the revitalization of low-income communities.

I can tell you from personal experience that Mike is passionate about his work. He’s a captivating speaker, unafraid to tackle the politics of design as he advocates on behalf of inclusive, sustainable communities.

Mike will be giving a short presentation of his work followed by an informal group discussion open to questions and comments.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Otto Poticha Speaks!

Otto Poticha, FAIA

The second in the Building Modern Eugene lecture series at the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House featured none other than the effusive Otto Poticha, FAIA. Never one to shy away from an audience, Otto spoke last Wednesday evening on the topic of Eugene architecture—where it has been and where it is taking us now.

According to the Book of Poticha, the story of Eugene architecture begins upon Otto’s arrival in Oregon. With his young family in tow, Otto moved to Eugene in 1962 from the Midwest. He was attracted to the city by its reputation as a wellspring for a new brand of regionally-specific modernism, inspired by the endlessly varied Pacific Northwest landscape. The uniformly high level of work produced by local architects likewise impressed him. The fact that Eugene was a small town on the verge of becoming a genuine city appealed to Otto.(1) A single well-designed building could make a real difference. He surmised that Eugene’s architects were respected shapers of the community’s future.

By contrast, Otto left behind a far more conservative culture, architecturally speaking. He arrived from a place where bankers wielded greater influence than architects upon the design of everyday buildings. Familiar and formulaic was the rule of the day, rather than risk-taking and moving forward. It’s no surprise Otto chose to pursue his career here. Compared to the Midwest, Oregon beckoned like the proverbial land of milk and honey.

Back in the 60s and early 70s, Eugene was the lumber capital of the world. It was prosperous with good schools, good policing, and stable employment. Downtown businesses still thrived. “Dragging the gut” was a popular pastime on weekend evenings. The large student body and diverse faculty of the University of Oregon contributed greatly to the qualities that made Eugene a “unique place.”(2) Some of the city’s most significant modern architecture, including the civic center collection—City Hall, the Lane County Courthouse, and the Federal Building—was designed during this period.

Then again, Eugene’s moneyed lumber barons didn't flaunt their wealth by investing in expensive buildings. They drove around in crummy pickups rather than show their employees they had made some money. For the most part, private developers and land owners built cheaply. It was in the public sector where the most creative work was accomplished. Even there, though, parsimony was the default condition. Among the legacies of that miserliness is the entire generation of post-war K-12 school buildings. Built quickly to meet the burgeoning needs of the baby boomers, the structures now suffer the consequences of economic expediency and sporadic maintenance.

By the early 80s, the spirit of innovative architecture that existed in Eugene when Otto first moved here had largely vanished. The deleterious effects of that period’s economic recession left many of Eugene’s architects with no choice but to leave and seek work elsewhere. The city’s visual infrastructure decayed, as retailers vacated downtown storefronts and buildings turned shabby. Oregon became increasingly conservative in its fiscal outlook, culminating in the 1990 passage of the Ballot Measure 5 property tax limitation legislation.

Otto believed this conservatism still consumes the production of architecture in Eugene. One effect is our community’s aversion to change.(3) Eugene is also disinclined to substantial investments in the public realm. We lack money to improve our built environment simply because we’re unwilling to pay for anything. Otto quipped that our city motto should be “woe is me.” He made the case that government can afford to be extravagant, even if individuals cannot.

Another impediment to bettering Eugene’s built environment is paralysis by consensus. Otto hates consensus. In some respects, consensus mitigates risk but the results are too often vanilla. Eugene has decided vanilla is okay even though there are many other flavors. Consensus needs to be codified, so the outcome of well-intentioned public processes is sets of written rules. Otto lamented that architects have become clerks dependent upon the crutch of these rules. Creativity and truly innovative, out-of-the-box thinking is effectively stifled.

Ten years ago, Otto famously described Eugene as “butt ugly.” He continues to stand behind that assessment. It’s hard to disagree with him: too much of Eugene is characterized by lowest-common denominator development and an absence of will to do much about it. To really see Eugene, he said, just look at the city after its camouflaging cloak of leaves has fallen and the tawdriness of the environment is laid bare. Much of Eugene really is ugly.

So what did Otto see in the future for Eugene? Is there any hope for our city?

Otto felt there is hope if we can overcome our distaste for risk and change. Given the makeup of Eugene’s business community (largely comprised of small businesses with limited capital) Otto argued that the public sector must take the lead. He made the case that leadership with the courage of conviction and a dedication to improving Eugene’s public realm is necessary. Visionary leaders move forward with ambitious plans. They don’t fall back upon the false comfort of the status quo. Visionary leaders would care to understand the features that make Eugene, Eugene. They would support projects that take chances, shake things up, and make positive changes.

Otto presented downtown Eugene as a case study: it will never be a regional shopping draw again but there is potential for it to become a mecca for the creative class, a place where people want to live, work, and actively engage in urban life. For this to occur, Otto stated we should not copy work done elsewhere because nowhere else is Eugene. Our downtown should be as unique as we think our city is. Making it so is where the art of architecture comes into play. There’s a big difference between creating architecture and merely building. Architecture with a big “A” will be the means by which downtown becomes a place everyone immediately associates with Eugene because there’s no other place it can be. Otto is certain that artful architecture has the power to instill pride in Eugene.

Ironically, Eugene is Otto’s home rather than Portland because the design scene in 1960s Eugene seemed more progressive to him. Today, no one would claim that our city is nearly as visionary and willing to embrace change as Portland is. “When you're in Portland you feel a pride in the community," Otto said. “In Eugene, there is no such pride." A significant measure of Portlanders’ esteem is derived from the Rose City’s urbanity, the product of forward-thinking politicians and talented architects, landscape architects, and urban designers. To instill community pride in Eugene, we must similarly accept change and take on stewardship for this place we call home. If Eugene’s urban spaces are important to us, we will care for and maintain them. Such is the hallmark of a truly sustainable city.

It’s been Otto’s crusade since he arrived in Eugene to convince The Register-Guard newspaper that architecture is an art. Moreover, it is the most difficult of arts, requiring consummate artistry and skill. If we can summon our best efforts as architects and take farsighted leaps of faith, perhaps Otto will amend his assessment of Eugene. If we’re fortunate, there will soon be a day when he no longer considers Eugene “butt ugly” and the R-G celebrates the triumph of architecture over mediocrity.

*  *  *  *  *  *

The next lecture in the Building Modern Eugene series at the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House will feature Joe Barthlow. He will present a “hands-on” look at the restoration of his Cliff May-designed mid-century modern home on Wednesday, April 20 at 6:30 PM.

(1) Otto suggested Eugene is a “smaller town” today than it was when he arrived in 1962. Not, of course, in the literal sense but rather when it comes to the community’s self-perception.

(2) Despite its impact upon Eugene’s culture and economy, the University remains even today more a foreign country within the city’s boundaries than an integral part of the community. Otto reported that none of his colleagues at the School of Architecture & Allied Arts rose to his challenge to testify at the recent public hearings regarding the fate of the proposed extension of the EmX bus rapid transit system in west Eugene. I previously blogged about the “town & gown” dynamic and the historic disconnect between the UO and the local architectural scene.

(3) Otto asserted that many of those who oppose change are transplanted Californians who witnessed the decline of their slice of heaven on Earth and vowed not to relive that experience upon moving to Oregon.

Monday, April 4, 2011

House Bill 3429

Some Oregon architects are apolitical, believing that discretion is the better part of valor. Why risk expressing an opinion when circumspection is the safer course? There are times though when even the most politically disinterested among us are spurred to action. Such may be the case with Oregon House Bill 3429, currently under consideration by the State Legislative Assembly.

HB 3429 would prohibit the use of state funds for public buildings not conforming to rules that preference the use of wood as the construction material. Specifically, the bill says that the Oregon Department of Administrative Services (DAS) shall adopt rules regarding the construction of buildings by public bodies that are financed in whole or part through state funding. The rules shall include, but need not be limited to, provisions designed to ensure that the building materials used are, to the maximum extent practicable, made of wood.

The motivation for this proposed legislation is reasonable: a perfect storm of circumstances has led to a precipitous decline in timber harvests.(1) The calamitous results have included the shuttering of mills across Oregon and the impoverishment of rural communities. For a state whose history is inextricably tied with forestry and wood products, the collapse of the industry has proven to be an existential crisis. How large a role in Oregon’s future economy should lumber play?

Generations of architects in Oregon have famously exploited the practical and expressive qualities of wood. Wood is a strong, lightweight and flexible building material. It is organic, sustainable, natural, recyclable, and renewable. Wood is also visually appealing, warm, and inviting. The material cultivated a regionally appropriate aesthetic that is immediately associated with the Pacific Northwest.

So what’s the problem with HB 3429? Simply stated, design professionals should determine the best building material for intended applications, not politicians. All construction materials have their benefits and uses, and wood is no exception; however, legislating a preference for wood isn’t necessarily in Oregon’s best interest.

Bureaucrats should likewise not assume the role of design arbiter. If passed into law, the bill’s provisions would entrust the DAS with enforcement of requirements for wood construction in state-funded buildings. If the department determines that the construction of a building subject to the rules fails to comply, it could demand the return of any unexpended state money for the building and may disqualify the responsible agency from receiving future disbursements of state funding for building construction.

Notwithstanding the costs to apply the rules and defend decisions (where exactly would that money come from?), the proposed legislation would burden projects with an overarching criterion that relegates other fundamental design and construction properties (such as maintenance, construction efficiency, LEED contributions, etc.) to lesser consideration.

What will be threshold of acceptability be? Would it be a calculation by weight or volume of the portions of a building that are comprised of wood products? Their relative dollar value? Countless variables influence the design of every project.(2) How would the DAS account for these in a timely, fair, and well-considered review?

The rules would inevitably necessitate exhaustive analyses of construction materials alternatives. They would be required to justify why products other than wood are specified for use in a project. For example, if concrete tilt-up or formed walls, masonry, glass, or steel design is proposed, there would need to be an objective analysis that determines why these products, rather than wood, must be utilized. I’m not sure what this analysis would look like, which is part of the problem.

There would also need to be a state funded mechanism to ensure that the law is followed. The bottom line? HB 3429 could be wildly impractical and expensive to implement. If there are proposals detailing how the legislation would be administered, enforced, and funded, I haven’t seen them.

Support for HB 3429 comes from the Oregon Forest Industries Council, Stimson Lumber, and other forest products companies. They’re working hard to advance this concept into law. The bulk of the opposition to the bill is coming from advocates for sand & gravel and concrete companies. They see a direct threat to their industry, a zero-sum game where there will be winners and losers. The forest industry’s gain if HB 3429 passes into law would be their loss.

Oregon architects have yet to signal an opinion about HB 3429, though AIA Oregon lobbyist Cindy Robert’s initial response to a query from AIA-SWO president Paul Dustrud is that our State component will adopt a position opposing the bill.

FYI, a public hearing and possible work session regarding HB 3429 will occur this Wednesday, April 6, 3:00 PM, in Room HR C at the State Capitol in Salem. If you feel strongly enough, contact your state representative and express your views regarding this proposed legislation.

(1) These well-documented circumstances include federal tightening of restrictions for logging on public lands, international competition, the export of unmilled logs, and the collapsed housing market and consequential drop in timber prices. Additionally, the US Green Building Council only recognizes wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as eligible for LEED credit, disqualifying most Oregon-grown lumber.

(2) Variables include the building’s intended occupancy, type of construction, location of its property, sustainable design considerations, life cycle costs, acoustical performance, fire and life safety, and insurance requirements.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Disaster in Japan: An Update from AIA Japan President Hisaya Sugiyama

(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Alexander Tidd, via Wikimedia Commons)

The following is only a brief excerpt of a much longer report recently submitted by AIA Japan president Hisaya Sugiyama wherein he compiles the best information available to him about the magnitude of the devastation wrought by the Sendai earthquake and the events in its aftermath. Hisaya’s words undoubtedly reflect the feelings of many in Japan who have been stunned, overwhelmed, and struggling to find ways to help those suffering in the Tohoku region. He knows his profession must respond, but how can it best do so? Hisaya is confident that question will be answered as a resilient Japan recovers and rebuilds.

On behalf of AIA Japan, Hisaya expressed gratitude for the sincere and immediate expression of support and camaraderie from his colleagues around the globe. He knows he is a part of a compassionate professional community that extends well beyond the shores of Japan.

Here is just part of what Hisaya shared with us:

An enormous number of lives were lost. There are many people still missing two weeks after the devastation occurred and are presumed dead.(1) Several coastal communities were literally wiped off the map. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes and some lead nomadic lives between shelters, not even knowing where they are going next. However, the people of the region and the rest of the country have already shown the resolve to overcome all the difficulty and somehow find meaning in this tragic turn of events.

To pay tribute to the victims and to find the right path for the rest of the population of Japan, we need to get to work and do many things right. No more petty skirmishes between political parties. No more indecisions about how to deal with the dwindling pension reserves and snowballing healthcare costs. No more turf wars between ministries sacrificing quality of services to the populace. This series of events and the hardships Japan is experiencing in the aftermath should be a blessing in disguise, a warning against further procrastination, an ultimatum telling us that we have no longer have the luxury to dillydally in addressing the problems we face.

On the ground, the recovery of corpses still continues, along with the removal of debris and mechanical drainage of sea water remaining in areas that sank lower than those surrounding. In Miyagi Prefecture, the estimated volume of debris is said to be as much as 23 times the typical annual amount of waste disposal of the region. The cost as well as what to do with all that debris is a big issue. (They still try to separate materials manually for possible recycling, but inclusion of sea water complicates the process, and as to radiation tainted materials, there is not even a guideline for handling.)

Also hampering the process is the issue of ownership. Thousands of cars tossed around by tsunamis can be traced back to the owners at least on paper, but there are so many of them, and finding the ownership does not mean being able to contact the owners. Even house debris has shifted around; in most cases the owner of the structure and whatever found inside is different from the owner of the land on which they were found. The government finally issued a decree allowing for removal and disposal of vehicles and structures that are obviously non-functional. (Workers are still trying to safe-keep personal items, such as photo albums, in case the owners come back to retrieve them.)

Fishing boats pose an issue one notch more complicated. While the ownership can be identified sooner than cars, their bulk is much bigger. They require much bigger equipment, and in many cases they cannot be removed without damaging or taking down a building or two nearby. The national government decided to pay for removal of house and car debris, but somehow the removal of ships is said to be the responsibility of individual insurers.

In terms of architecture and urban planning, this could be a great opportunity to rebuild communities in the most desirable fashion; in a sense, a utopian opportunity. An optimum built environment suitable for new lifestyles that are ecologically sound, symbiotic with natural forces, based on a new paradigm in economic growth represented by knowledge-based industries in addition to the traditional piscatorial, agricultural, and manufacturing industries.

These will all depend on the vision of the leadership, whoever might take that role at all levels in all fields. It remains to be seen whether there will be a centrally concerted effort to produce a grand master plan for the Tohoku Region or if each township will employ architects and planners and hurry to implement a hodgepodge of rebuilding projects.

Japan Institute of Architects, of which I am a member of the international committee without being a JIA member, has mobilized some members in the region to help municipalities in the initial assessment of building damages; i.e., safety, repair needed, unfit for occupancy, etc. While the Japan Society of Civil Engineers, The Japanese Geotechnical Society, and the City Planning Institute of Japan have issued a joint communiqué, JIA has not made any public announcement.

I have been using all my imagination to figure out what an architect can do in an emergency situation like this. For example, we see in news coverage how selflessly some people are working as rescue workers, doctors, nurses, mental health counselors, truck drivers, city hall employees, journalists, construction workers, police, and military. Unfortunately, what we do as architects does not seem to be so urgently needed in the confusing reality of affected areas.

However, when the rebuilding starts in a few months time, architects should provide leadership and creativity in master planning of old and new communities; propose extra safety measures in buildings of different types, and promote economical and eco-friendly solutions. This may indeed be a good opportunity to really promote green architecture.

Even for temporary housing projects, for which economy and speed tend to take precedence over all other issues, architects can intervene in the planning process to give something extra for the comfort of future residents, such as a plaza to foster neighborhood communication, small spaces for meetings, thoughtful site planning for maximum privacy between units and separation of pedestrian and vehicular access, etc.

Architects have to work with professional groups like JIA and AIA to have our presence noticed and our expertise appreciated. Our profession, at least in industrialized countries, is there to give an added value to the built environment. It is important to remain concerned and actively engaged in order to offer our expertise especially when the harsh reality of the conditions of the affected tends to highlight the bare minimum and overshadow that little extra which would make lives much more livable in a long run.

AIA Japan Chapter is a very small chapter with very little resources. We may not be able to do much as another group vis-à-vis the disaster. But at least we can try to identify and convey the issues we are facing, and provide opportunities for discussions for professional awareness of and possible solutions to such problems through our upcoming Northwest Pacific Region / COD conference in Japan in November.(2)

Hisaya Sugiyama, AIA
President AIA Japan
March 30th, 2011 in Tokyo

(1) 11,232 people were confirmed dead as of March 30. Of this number 8,799 were identified (and 8,412 were taken back by their families). 16,361 are reported missing. 174,367 people are presently living in 2,065 temporary shelters.

(2) Click the link to learn more about how the Sendai earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear event are impacting planning for the conference.