Monday, April 30, 2012

The 2012 Oregon Design Conference

Saint Joseph the Worker Catholic Church by Sparano + Mooney Architecture (photo from the firm's website)

With its focus upon the NEW NOW, the 2012 OregonDesign Conference posed obvious questions and difficult ones too. How do we adapt to the new realities? What are the new models for thinking and doing? What opportunity does the future hold? How has the profession, architecture education, and the world of design changed over the last two years since we last convened at the Salishan Resort on the Oregon coast?

Every Oregon Design Conference I’ve attended has introduced me to extraordinary thinkers and thinking. The 2012 edition was no exception. The keynote speakers were outstanding, as was each of the breakout sessions I attended. The talent, genius, courage, and inspiration on display were truly awe-inspiring.

The conference organizers/AIA Oregon staff (led once again by the incomparable Bob Hastings, FAIA) took full advantage of social media by broadening the conversation online. They blogged, tweeted, and posted to Facebook throughout the 2½ day event. Their efforts are now archived on the conference website under the “LIVE” tab. The conference blog features the complete Powerpoint presentations by several of the keynote speakers (although at the time of this writing the link to Carlos Jimenez’s file appears to be broken).

Following are snippets from the conference blog, posted shortly after each of the keynote presentations:

Anne Mooney, LEED AP & John Sparano, AIA (all conference speaker photos by me)

The Undiminished Character of the American West – Anne Mooney & John Sparano
The new now for this husband and wife architect team is characterized by rigorous research of materiality, history, and regionalism of each project. Committed to green design, they apply aesthetic and technical innovation and a heuristic process. Several California and Utah institutional and residential examples bring these concepts to life. The results are beautiful, sensitive and emotional.

Carlos Jimenez

The Act of Remembering – Carlos Jimenez
Houston-based Carlos Jimenez shared his inspiration and reflections on the important of context – between memory and the new and the now. Coming from Costa Rica, where color is a celebration of the intensity of the local environment, Jimenez considers trees as a metaphor for design possibilities. His presentation touched on the cycles of nature and included a project his office created for Rice University, where he is a professor. It was Rice’s first green building, in more ways than one. International work includes projects in France and Spain. Jimenez is a former University of Oregon Pietro Belluschi Distinguished Design Professor.

Walter Hood

Getting Lost in the Forest of Speculation – Walter Hood
When does conventional thinking need to be challenged? If you’re Walter Hood, that’s every day. A provocative artist and landscape architect, Hood and his Hood Studio are based in Oakland.

From a strong viewpoint that people matter, Hood is breaking new ground in urban design, turning cross-walks into parks, blowing up creeks, and maximizing the public realm to better serve those it’s created for.

His inspirational presentation covered projects large and small from all over the country, including Powell Street Promenade and the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Check out the Hood Studio portfolio for examples of their work, which aptly characterize the new normal.

Mark Frohnmayer

Sustainability is a Social Networking Exercise – Mark Frohnmayer
After blazing a trail in the computer games world, Mark Frohnmayer became a sustainable business entrepreneur, helping Oregon reshape its vision for new opportunities. He founded Arcimoto, a manufacturer of affordable, sustainable vehicles that aims to be a driver in the green transportation space. The Arcimoto platform consists of a three-wheeled chassis, motor, control electronics, and chemistry-agnostic energy storage bay. Arcimoto will be opening up its platform for other designers in true open-source style so others can build on and from that foundation.

Thomas Kosbau

The Science Fiction Writer/Architect – Thomas Kosbau
How are we adapting? For Thomas Kosbau and ORE design + technology, it’s based on the premise that creative potentials in current scientific research and the natural world can be synthesized into architectural and industrial design solutions.

Their current projects range from the DeKalb Market, a pop-up retail concept constructed of salvaged shipping containers, to the Riverpark Farm, New York City’s first portable rooftop farm, to a bio-mimetic cactus that harvests drinking water from the air.

VENA water condensers by ORE design + technology (rendering from the firm website)

I was unfamiliar with the work of Sparano + Mooney Architecture and ORE design + technology; their portfolios were profoundly impressive and inspiring. One of the reasons I’m a big fan of every Oregon Design Conference is being introduced to new and emerging voices that herald innovation and promise. If the keynote presentations were any indication, the NEW NOW is rich, varied, complex, and meaningful.

Jonah Cohen, AIA, LEED AP

Speaking of emerging voices, Thursday evening’s Pecha Kucha presentations were likewise wide-ranging and expressive. In particular, THA principal Jonah Cohen stole the show with his passionate, poetry slam-inspired performance.

I found noteworthy all the breakout sessions I attended. University of Oregon professor Kevin Nute intrigued with his ruminations on weather-generated indoor animation, while Mary Coolidge of the Portland Audubon Society alerted the audience to the hazards posed to bird populations by the extensive use of glass in architecture. Don Rood of the Felt Hat and Tyler Whisnand of Wieden + Kennedy correlated branding and the power of storytelling to how buildings once reflected the values of those who built them. Van Evera Bailey Fellows James McGrath and Rick Browning shared the results of their research, projects that allowed them to reflect on professional issues and challenges of personal interest and professional value.

* * * * * *

I've now attended every Oregon Design Conference since 2004. The quality has consistently been top-notch. I strongly encourage any of you who have not taken the opportunity to attend in the past to do so in 2014. Perhaps it's merely the restorative effect of the bracing ocean winds and salt air; the bottom line is that I always come away reinvigorated and recommitted to the ideals of the architectural profession, and yearning to do the best architecture possible.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

April AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

The April AIA-Southwestern Oregon chapter meeting featured three perspectives from evangelists for living small. Michael Fifield, FAIA of Fifield Architecture + Urban Design, Todd Miller, AIA of Todd Miller Architecture, and Jim Russell of ideabox, LLC each offered an inspiring take on the trend toward downsizing the way we live and impact the environment.

Minimal Live/Work Studio by Fifield Architecture + Urban Design (photo by Mike Dean)

Small Unit Design/Small Lot Considerations
Michael Fifield is resolute in his advocacy for scaling back the American dream. The bottom line is that large houses on large lots are not sustainable nor are they best suited to the needs of most homebuyers.

Demographic trends support his contention that there is a demand for a greater diversity of housing types. Between 1970 and 2003, family households comprised of married couples with children decreased from 40.3% to 23.3% while the number of non-traditional households (i.e. persons living alone) has increased significantly. These trends have not reversed course since 2003. So why, Michael asks, do we continue to build so many 5-bedroom, 3½ bath McMansions when alternatives are clearly called for?

An obvious answer is to design smaller units on smaller lots. Smaller lots translate to reduced sprawl, saving open space for agriculture, recreation, and nature. Smaller lots lessen demands upon infrastructure, result in fewer miles traveled by automobiles, and foster densification. Higher densities allow for walkable communities and more efficient public transportation.

Increasing the proportion of small housing types would be a response to the dilemma of the non-traditional household. Small dwelling units consume fewer natural resources, correspond to less embodied energy, and reduce life-cycle costs. Of course, small housing options are also less expensive and more affordable.

Michael believes architects can overcome the residential real estate market’s aversion to downsizing by truly meeting buyers’ needs. For example, visual and auditory privacy, safety and security, identity, adequate storage, flexibility, parking, and affordability can all be achieved with smaller homes. Michael knows we can creatively utilize specific design principles to make the most of living compactly. As architects, we simply need to be willing to challenge the conventional.

Oregon Cottage Company Bungalow, by Todd Miller Architecture

Tiny Houses
Todd Miller knows a thing or two about how to build inexpensively and in a way that minimizes the impact upon our environment. After stints constructing housing solutions in both Haiti and Mexico, Todd established his own firm dedicated to applying appropriate technology to meet basic shelter needs. Knowing there is a cost associated with any decision related to building, he promotes passive and active solar, wind, and geothermal technology, as well as straw bale, cob, rammed earth, and sustainably harvested timber-framing construction types.

Todd has achieved some notoriety for being at the forefront of the tiny house craze. Through an offshoot of his architectural practice, Oregon Cottage Company LLC, he designs and builds quaint little homes for those seeking a simpler, more sustainable way of life. They’re well-crafted and include a full kitchen, sleeping loft, shower, and toilet. They’re also mobile since Todd builds each 8’ x 20’ cottage atop a towable, dual-axle flatbed trailer.

His tiny houses have attracted clients from as far away as Nova Scotia and Connecticut. Micro-homes appeal to people who wish to free themselves from the shackles of a lifetime of debt, help the environment, and live simply. Their mobility is an attractive hedge against economic uncertainty: there’s nothing like the freedom to easily pack up and move your house when and if you need to.

The prices for the Oregon Cottages start at $22,000 for a shell-only option. Fully featured models are offered in the mid-$30,000 range. The company also sells full construction documents for $250 apiece.

These designs may not appeal to everybody but they do represent a real alternative for those who want to minimize their footprint. Todd’s tiny houses may be small but they have a big future ahead of them.

aktiv House, by ideabox LLC (photo from ideabox website)

The Right Amount of Everything
Jim Russell and his partners created ideabox with the goal of providing each of its clients with a “cool house, with awesome materials, that’s just the right size, and at a price that works.” Through ideabox, they’re rethinking prefabrication and what it means to own a manufactured home.

Cost, sustainability, and edgy design are how ideabox sets itself apart in a competitive market. Michelle Kaufmann ’s prefabricated home designs possessed the kind of hip, modernist styling favored by readers of Dwell magazine but at over $400 per square foot they were far from affordable. In contrast, Jim described how ideabox homes are affordable while still scoring high on the coolness scale.

He rhetorically questioned whether fabricating and selling housing like other consumer products is the way to go. Why shouldn’t the process of purchasing a home be more like buying a car? What if you could “test drive” a home before you bought it? What if you could customize your purchase by selecting from an available menu of options?

Jim’s goal is to see ideabox become a recognizable brand, and being perceived as cool is a key to achieving that objective. It doesn’t hurt when one of your company’s enterprises goes viral. ideabox recently partnered with the Portland Ikea store to create aktiv, a concept house designed around Ikea fittings and furniture. Somehow, a blogger got the story wrong, reporting that Ikea was producing a flat-pack, assemble-it-yourself house. Despite Ikea’s own denials, media outlets all over the world picked up the story, including the Today Show, Ellen Degeneres, and the Tonight Show. ideabox was “trending”: within days, its website recorded two million hits. Jim received 4,000 email messages and hundreds of phone calls inquiring about aktiv in less than a week. ideabox couldn’t have bought better publicity.

*     *     *     *     *     *
Michael, Todd, and Jim delivered big ideas about small spaces. As Michael pointed out, smaller homes address a real and growing need. It behooves architects to design small houses to be really special. If we do, everyone will soon wonder why they ever thought bigger necessarily meant better.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Incremental Growth

Rendering of Capstone Collegiate Communities’ project for downtown Eugene (Humphreys & Partners Architects L.P.)

A (literally) big news item on the downtown Eugene development front these days is the huge apartment complex proposed by Birmingham, AL developer Capstone Collegiate Communities. If built, the $89 million project will occupy the old PeaceHealth Medical Group (formerly the Eugene Clinic) site astride Olive Street at 13th Avenue. It would consist of five 5-story apartment buildings with a total of 1,234 bedrooms in 379 units. Two 7-level above-ground parking structures would provide 1,014 on-site parking spaces. 

Boosters believe the project will further revitalize downtown Eugene by greatly increasing the resident population. AIA-Southwestern Oregon executive director Don Kahle is one of the more exuberant cheerleaders. In his March 16 column for the Register-Guard, Don imagines Capstone laying the foundation of a whole new era for downtown. He declares “Students will breathe life into the center—the soul—of our community.”

Harriet Cherry of PIVOT Architecture and David Funk of bell+funk are likewise big supporters of the Capstone proposal. They jointly penned a guest viewpoint in the April 19 edition of the Register-Guard in which they assert the residents’ demographic is “very attractive” and would contribute to a safer environment because of its sheer size. They believe the project will draw the downtown population we’ve yearned for.

The project has its critics too. There are those who oppose Capstone’s request for a ten-year property tax exemption. Others object to the magnitude of the proposed development, or the possibility its youthful monoculture will enjoy partying too much, or that Capstone’s profits will come at the expense of homegrown developers, and so on.(1)

The Eugene Community Advisory Team, led by steering committee members Paul Conte, Sherrill Necessary, and Jean Tate, occupies a middle-ground. It wants to ensure that one of the most significant developments ever proposed for downtown Eugene contributes to the community's overall interests. Its primary mandates include ensuring that City Council’s decisions are consistent with the Envision Eugene pillar to “protect, repair, and enhance neighborhood livability” and hosting public forums to disseminate information about the project.

I haven’t attended ECAT’s meetings or the other public forums, so I feel somewhat unqualified to debate the project’s merits and/or shortcomings. Regardless, my gut compels me to side with those who think Capstone’s ambitious project may be disproportionately large for Eugene.

Map of downtown Eugene; the Capstone site is in purple.

In their book A New Theory of Urban Design (1987), Christopher Alexander and his colleagues at the Center for Environmental Structure advanced the concept of piecemeal growth, one of seven detailed rules for growth.(2)  As defined by Alexander and his team, the rule of piecemeal growth requires that no single project be too large. Furthermore, it mandates a reasonable mixture of project sizes and distribution of functions within an overall framework.

The benefit of piecemeal or incremental growth is that it allows for fine-grained adjustments over time. Assuming growth is desirable at all—in the case of downtown Eugene, I believe it is—development in smaller increments is less likely to result in undesirable outcomes. The entire enterprise of designing a desirable downtown is risky, especially when the stakes are highest. In the case of the Capstone project they are very high.

Fundamentally, we can view the urban fabric as a complex adaptive system subject to the effects of interrelated groups of activities. Because of their complexity, it is difficult to fully understand cities, let alone plan them well. Another analogous model is to view cities as living organisms. Like any life form, they are vulnerable to structurally disruptive effects. Predicting the impact of changes carried out in big chunks isn’t easy if we factor in the highly interdependent systems of which cities are comprised.

Arguably, one effective mechanism for improving the urban environment has been trial and error. Minor missteps provide feedback useful for recalibrating future choices. Small errors are relatively easy and inexpensive to correct. Bigger, coarser mistakes are far less so.

Of course, small is relative; a huge new skyscraper in Chicago might stir barely a ripple. On the other hand, few here in Eugene would characterize Lane Community College’s Downtown Campus as small. That ambitious multiuse project (now under construction) is set to significantly impact downtown’s future. And yet it would be dwarfed by the Capstone venture. As I said above, Capstone’s project would introduce 1,234 student residents downtown, nearly a thousand more than the LCC apartments will. That’s a big number.

What might the consequences be for downtown if Capstone’s big gambit fails to pay off? What if the student housing bubble bursts, the project’s anticipated market never materializes, and the development fails to achieve full occupancy and profitability? Would Capstone ever locate a buyer to take the property off its hands? Can downtown Eugene afford a forlorn white elephant?(3) The last thing we need is our own Pruitt-Igoe.(4)

Demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, 1972, St. Louis

I’d love to be wrong about this. Incrementalism isn’t necessarily the best course. The clear prescription in some instances is catalytic change, a dramatic challenge to the status quo. Beneficial evolution in nature doesn’t always progress in a linear fashion; sometimes it surges forward. Perhaps the Capstone project will be the tipping point past which downtown Eugene will once again pulse with life as the heart of our city. Perhaps it is exactly the kind of change we’ve been looking for.

Then again, bigger isn’t always better. If we as a community are to make mistakes, my preference would be for them to be small and manageable. I prefer incremental growth.

(1)   A critic of a different sort is Otto Poticha, FAIA. Otto believes the project is “innovative, creative, and out of the box” but he’s no fan of the design by the Dallas, TX office of Humphreys & Partners Architects.

(2)   The seven rules for growth are:
  1. Piecemeal growth
  2. The growth of larger wholes
  3. Visions
  4. The basic rule of positive outdoor space
  5. Layout of large buildings
  6. Construction
  7. Formation of centers
(3)  Retired architect Dan Herbert authored another recent commentary about the Capstone project. He echoed councilor Alan Zelenka’s suggestion that the city mandate guidelines for adaptive reuse of the Capstone project’s parking structures. Dan went further to propose the guidelines include the residential components as well. I agree. Our buildings need to be flexible and adaptable to change over time. What works now may not work as well in the future. We cannot be blind to the reality of change as a constant.

(4) Yes, this is hyperbole. Pruitt-Igoe and its legacy of misguided public policy, poverty, segregation, and crime are orders of magnitude beyond what the Capstone project might become under the gloomiest of scenarios.

Saturday, April 14, 2012


Progress, by Arthur Brown Durand, 1853

I wrote this post last week while sitting at my parents’ kitchen table in Vancouver, B.C. I didn’t upload it until I returned home to Oregon because they lack an Internet connection. In fact, my elderly parents don’t have a computer, or a tablet, or a smart phone. They’re not Luddites; they simply fail to see a reason to own any of these technological marvels.

There was a time not so long ago when we all got along perfectly well without the Internet. That’s no longer the case today. The wheels of commerce fall off when computers cannot talk to each other. We shop and bank, file our taxes, and monitor our investment portfolios online. Retailers track our buying habits. For better or worse, we’re tethered together in an electronic ecosystem.

The rapid rise of social networking is a case in point. Facebook is only eight years old; Twitter even younger. Those of us who use these services (or Linked-In, or Skype, or Google+) on a daily basis are so obsessively interconnected that we cannot imagine our lives without them. The irony is that few, if any of us, could have envisioned the explosion of Internet-based social networking a mere decade ago.

If you’d asked the college-aged me back in the late 1970s to imagine today’s hyper-connected world I wouldn’t have been able to (if I had, I’d be a wealthy man today). Instead, my disco-era visions of the world in 2012 would have included hackneyed dreams of space exploration, dramatic breakthroughs in medical research, or utopian communities. Surely we’d be commuting to work in flying cars by now. Without doubt work itself would occupy fewer of our waking hours thanks to robotics and other labor-saving advances, and our free time would correspondingly expand.

The point is the future has a way of surprising us. Progress isn’t always predictable, nor does it always follow a straight line. Despite the prognostications, our daily existence has not become simpler and filled with leisure. Instead, our lives are more complex than ever and subject to the interaction of myriad systems beyond our individual control. At the same time, our society is more diverse and more tolerant of differences. We live longer and healthier lives. We’re increasingly aware of the harm we are doing to the environment and marshaling the will to do something about it.

While in Vancouver, I read Walter Isaacson’s riveting biography of Steve Jobs. Jobs was emotional, ruthless, and self-absorbed. He was also a fearless genius, a self-identified rebel, champion of the “insanely great.” Jobs believed his customers didn’t know what they wanted until he showed it to them. He created Apple, a company that played an outsized role in conceiving the future we now live in.

We don’t know who the next Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or Mark Zuckerberg will be. There is undoubtedly a visionary in the pipeline who will likewise impact our lives and culture in ways we cannot foresee. That visionary may be an exceptionally gifted and charismatic architect or planner whose “killer app” resets the paradigms under which we practice.

What will this leap of imagination be? I like to think it is out there, just beyond our grasp. The Internet transformed the way we learn, interact, and conduct business. There may be a breakthrough that likewise transforms the design of our built environment. Picture our world if we had a solution at hand which wondrously solves some of the most vexing problems confronting architects.(1)

I suspect my parents wouldn’t immediately appreciate the importance of such a breakthrough. Nevertheless, I’m hopeful it will occur and alter our current trajectory to move us toward truly sustainable communities and lifestyles. That would be progress.  

 (1)   The scope of these problems, which boils down to unsustainable growth, is much greater than architects alone can address.

Saturday, April 7, 2012


The annual HOPES (Holistic Options for Planet Earth Sustainability) conference, founded by the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts, works to promote a deeper understanding and broader application of sustainable design principles. Today, it remains the country's only ecological design conference developed and managed entirely by students.

Here’s the A&AA press release:

Dirt is taken for granted –– it is stepped on, bulldozed, cleaned up and swept under the rug. Seldom is dirt viewed as a valued resource, but the 18th annual Holistic Options for Planet Earth Sustainability (HOPES) conference will explore dirt in depth April 13-14 at the University of Oregon. Free and open to the public, the event will be located in Lawrence Hall on the University of Oregon campus, 1190 Franklin Boulevard, Eugene.

With the popularity of "victory gardens" and the "food not lawns" ethic in Oregon, this year’s conference hopes to appeal to the DIY aesthetic and strengthen community ties. Sponsored by the Ecological Design Center at UO, HOPES 18 will investigate the properties and opportunities in dirt, including how we utilize it in food production, construction and otherwise interact with it.

“Many members of the community have their own sustainable projects at home,” says Melissa Hansen of the Ecological Design Center. “We are pleased to have this exchange of ideas with them. This year’s events are hands-on projects people can do on a smaller scale.”

Keynote speakers this year are:

Diana Balmori, a New York City landscape architect, will speak on her new book, A Landscape Manifesto, Friday, April 13, at 5:30 p.m. Her projects include New York’s High Line Park, and she is well known for innovation in blurring boundaries between landscape and architecture.

Walter Hood, a San Francisco-area landscape architect and artist, will speak on the social value of design Saturday, April 14, at 10:30 a.m. Known for his landscape/art installation work at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, he specializes in landscapes for disadvantaged communities.

Dan Phillips, a Texas architect who specializes in reclaimed materials, will speak Saturday, April 14, at 4:30 p.m. on "Gentrifying Icky," a process of recycling trash into appealing homes.

Workshops and panels will discuss worm composting, permaculture, earthen finishes, sustainability and urban gardening. Events include a demonstration house tour and work party, a “Trashy Fashion Show,” displays of exotic materials and an open house at the Baker Lighting Lab.

HOPES began in 1995 as a means to promote sustainability and as a way for students and faculty to network with designers. Lectures and workshops may qualify for LEED credential maintenance.

I have yet to attend HOPES; unfortunately, this year will be no exception as I will be out of town during its run. Those of you who have attended previously can attest to the depth and quality of the conference. For detailed information and preregistration, visit HOPES’s Facebook page is at