Sunday, September 27, 2015

Natural Play Environments

The September meeting of Willamette Valley Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute featured a thought-provoking presentation by Eugene landscape architect Anita Van Asperdt on the topic of natural playgrounds. Anita explained how such settings are increasingly popular, a response to the “nature deficit disorder” unwittingly fostered by well-meaning albeit overly protective adults who mistakenly believed they could not safely leave kids to creatively play by themselves in unstructured, wild and wooly nature. Nature play is an antidote for our youngsters’ obsession with digital distractions, from video games to social media, and an alternative to parents’ over-programming of their kids’ time. Today’s natural play environments offer children a means to explore the world in much the same way preceding generations did throughout human history before our modern world intervened. 
Originally from the Netherlands, Anita graduated from Larenstein College. After her education there and work with the City of Amsterdam, she moved to the United States, where she received an advanced degree at the University of Oregon and raised her two children. She’s worked as an adjunct assistant professor at both the U of O and the University of British Columbia, for which she has taught study-abroad design studios in Amsterdam. Presently, Anita serves as the chair of the Eugene Collaboratives of the Cascadia Green Building Council
Anita and her firm, LandCurrent, are experts in the design of natural play environments. Landcurrent has designed projects as diverse as the Hoquarton Trail and Park in Tillamook, the Cooper Mountain Natural Area in Beaverton, the Urban Design Master Plan for the Courthouse Neighborhood in Eugene, and several commercial designs and contemporary garden projects. Further afield, Anita led the design effort for a natural play and discovery area commissioned by the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, as well as the design of three distinct natural play environments for the Ottawa Montessori School in Ontario, Canada. 
Anita Van Asperdt
Though she’s worked here in Oregon for many years now, Anita continues to be influenced by Dutch landscape designers, who have been leaders in advancing the concept of nature play. She cited the example of the Speeldernis (which translates to English as “Playderness”), located in Rotterdam. In her opinion, the Speeldernis is an exemplary nature play area, despite the fact that it might seem dangerous to the American eye. Instead of covering all areas with soft wood chips to avoid injuries, the design of the Speeldernis helps children develop their own sense of caution and safety. 
This was a key point of Anita’s presentation: letting kids learn about caution by themselves may actually be safer for them than providing overly-designed and purposely-safe environments. Children are capable of understanding risk. Given the chance to do so, they can perceive, gauge, and judge risk on their own. They instinctively develop the ability to understand when something may be unstable, or slippery, or otherwise unsafe. The development of this sense comes easier with nature play, rather than with activity in more structured playgrounds. Notably, the Speeldernis has only reported one serious accident (a broken collarbone), in ten years of use. 
Nature play also helps kids learn empathy and encourages them to take care of one another, by providing challenges which encourage teamwork. This means that the children’s wellbeing is not only enhanced by their own sense of safety, but also by an increased willingness to help one another. Such empathy, trust, and teamwork are valuable for every child’s development. 
In addition to presenting a more challenging, engaging space for play, the Speeldernis provides opportunities for city kids to learn about the environment. Rotterdam is a large city, so natural playgrounds and parks provide relief from the dense urban setting. Kids discover nature by themselves in the Speeldernis by interacting with it, and observing the different plants and animals around them. This un-programmed learning is one of the many benefits of natural playgrounds. 
Unstructured natural playgrounds such as the Speeldernis also allow kids to interact with the environment in more spontaneous and creative ways. In normal playgrounds, play structures are focused; intentionally, there are limited ways to use the structures, and these ways are obvious in the design of the equipment. Anita explained that manufacturers have moved toward more naturalistic designs; however, these designs focus first and foremost upon controlling how kids use the equipment in order to exercise a manageable “standard of care.” 
This is not the case in more natural playgrounds; instead, kids get to decide how they interact with their environment, and how to manipulate elements such as rocks, dirt, branches, water, and so on to create their own creative play experiences. This lack of structure provides cognitive benefits for kids, enhancing creativity and independent thought. Fundamentally, nature play is not about equipment; it’s about giving children the freedom to choose how to play, how to explore, and letting nature be nature (rather than a “safe,” plastic facsimile). 
Nature play means choosing among many possible adventures: Following meandering paths. Finding quiet, shady nooks from which to watch and contemplate. Just hanging out, or talking to friends. Scaling and sliding down a hill. Climbing a tree. Building a fort. Playing with sand and water. Watching birds and butterflies. Collecting and sharing pretty pebbles. Ideally, natural play environments foster both active and passive moments of play. 
Anita talked about how a blue-ribbon group of experts, led by Robin Moore and Allen Cooper, has developed a comprehensive set of guidelines for nature play areas. Entitled Nature Play & Learning Places: Creating and Managing Places Where Children Engage with Nature, the document provide a road map for park and recreation agencies and other providers of children’s play spaces to follow when addressing the challenges of planning, designing and managing quality natural play and learning areas.
Nature Play & Learning Places describes how to create places for nature play and learning, navigate risk and site management challenges, and includes inspirational photos of nature play and learning places from across the country. In Anita’s opinion, the book reflects the movement toward the proliferation and importance of natural play environments in our future. 
Anita began her presentation with an eye-opening and yet far-from-surprising graphic describing how much times have changed in just the past century: the great-grandparents of today’s children were afforded enormous freedom to explore their world; their kids not as much, and their grandchildren even less so. Today, their great-grandchildren simply aren’t allowed to spend time outdoors by themselves, unsupervised. Looking back at my own childhood, I’m amazed by how different it was a mere 50 years ago. My brothers and I had the run of the neighborhood, and we took full advantage of the chance to exercise our imaginations and bodies by truly playing without boundaries. We didn’t need the structure of a day full of appointments to keep ourselves entertained and occupied. 
The advent of natural play environments represents a swinging of the pendulum back toward a time when it was normal for kids like me to learn about and connect with nature in the course of play, when it was okay to play in trees, poke at bugs, and make mud pies. Thanks to Anita for highlighting the importance now more than ever of spontaneity, exploration, creativity, and nature in the development of children!   

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Architecture is Awesome #9: Windows

Window, Robie House (1906), by Frank Lloyd Wright
This is another in my series of posts inspired by 1000 Awesome Things, the Webby Award winning blog written by Neil Pasricha. The series is my meditation on the awesome reasons why I was and continue to be attracted to the art of architecture. 
I grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia, a city blessed by spectacular vistas. My childhood home enjoyed dazzling views of the mountains across Burrard Inlet. Wintertime was a particular treat, as sparkling white snow returned every year to blanket those peaks. It was the kind of scene of which postcards are made. 
As dramatic as the mountain backdrop was, my favorite window provided me with equally enchanting if more immediate prospects. There were the neighborhood trees, whose leaves would bud, burgeon, turn colors, rustle, and drop. There were the birds and squirrels, always entertaining. There was our laundry on the clothesline, billowing and flapping in the breeze. The sights, sounds, and scents of our backyard may not have been especially remarkable, but they still evoke vivid and fond memories for me. 
By Vancouver standards, our house was old. Its windows were single-paned, mostly double-hung types with small lites. My favorite window, located in a nook off of our kitchen, wasn’t large but its low sill let me sit comfortably next to it and press my nose against its glass. Framed by nicely proportioned and white-painted wood trim, it invited light into our kitchen with a minimum of glare. It demarcated inside from outside, protecting me when I wanted it to, or erasing barriers when I drew it open to invite fresh air in. It was perfect. 
I remember whiling away hours staring out that window. It provided plenty of fodder for my lively imagination. The cold, gray days of winter were particularly fertile times. While cosseted safely indoors during a storm, I’d watch the rain slide down as wind-bent branches scratched the glass. I’d pretend I was in a castle, girded for threats posed by dragons and enemies outside the walls. Foggy days were mysterious and moody; I would see ghosts in the mist. On the coldest of mornings, I’d wake up to find Jack Frost had been at work, a delicately frigid tracery left as his mark. 
Being in the kitchen, condensation frequently appeared on my favorite window on those cool winter days. I would finger paint in the condensation, the damp glass providing an obliging and mutable canvas for an impatient young artist. It was a time for day-dreaming, make-believe, and the simple joy of drawing. 
During my late teens, my parents moved our family to a new, larger home. Its attractions, as least in my father’s eyes, included its expansive “picture windows.” Ironically, I believe the smaller windows of our old house connected the childhood me more intensely with what was on the other side; the uninterrupted panes of our big new windows would not have done the same. I know I would have missed the sense of framing and enclosure provided by our old home’s smaller windows. If I had grown up in the new house, I have a feeling I wouldn’t have gravitated to one of the wall-to-wall, mullion-free, insulated glass openings as I did so naturally to the “window place” in our old home.  
Humans are drawn to light and views. Windows frame our panoramas, connect us with our surroundings, and protect us. They are lenses, focusing and/or mediating our relationship with the world outside. In architectural terms they are powerful centers, ripe with symbolic and functional potential. My life is richer today because an AWESOME window I enjoyed as a child rewarded me with limitless fuel for flights of fancy. 
Next Architecture is Awesome: #10 Choreography


Saturday, September 12, 2015

Hierarchical Clarity

Henry Mercer’s Museum, Doylestown, PA (photo by KForce used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).

Bill Kleinsasser successively produced version after version of his self-published textbook Synthesis. I’ve reprinted excerpts from several editions, of which the following is from the earliest I own. He was constantly distilling his lessons down to what he considered their essence. In the end, Synthesis was striking for its clarity and brevity. 

Although I’m sure Bill believed each edition was an improvement over the one that came before, I’m finding in retrospect it is the earliest copy of Synthesis I have that is the richest and most rewarding to read again. Like Henry Mercer’s Museum, it is a wandering, eclectic, and sometimes eccentric collection, an anthology of essays roughly organized around Bill’s evolving notions about frames of reference for architecture. 

In the following passage, Bill addresses the fundamental principle of hierarchy in buildings and its enrichment through holistic imagery: 

Answerability, Unity, Dominance, Subordination
In built places, as in speech or music, confusion results if the relative importance of elements is not clarified. Every design situation that has its own intrinsic structure of relationships and physical organization of places should make this clear. Some elements will be supporting and subordinate, while others will be dominant. 

Henry Mercer was aware of this discipline. In his Museum, the central space dominates. Many other spaces are important also, but clearly less so. In Fonthill, it is the saloon that dominates; furthermore, the saloon is the “main house,” which dominates over the utility core and the octagonal servants’ wing. In the Tileworks, the studio and courtyard are expressed as the major spaces, and they both contrast with and clarify the spaces for the kilns, preparation of clay and plaster molds, and storage. 

Mercer also used this principle in the organization of individual rooms. Almost all large rooms in his buildings are composed of major spaces with smaller spaces within or around them. This is especially clear in the studio of the Tileworks; the saloon, library, studies, and certain bedrooms of Fonthill; and the library and “stove plate room” of the Museum. 

Hierarchical organization reduces and explains constituent parts. It induces a sorting-out or mental reconstruction that confirms situational order. Arbitrary hierarchies, or course, are only confusing. 

The remembrance of whole places, which might be called holistic imagery, may be useful in the establishment of hierarchical clarity. If memories (or dreams) of whole places are successfully translated to the language and requirements of new situations, they may strengthen as well as enrich the organization of new places. Mercer’s Museum is essentially a system for display and easy movement, but it is also dominantly and magically reminiscent of both castles and caves. The Tileworks is essentially a factory for utility and storage but its imagery makes it also answerable to the characteristics and symbols of a cloistered Spanish mission. Fonthill is part castle, part cave, part garden, and labyrinthian; and an observer is always aware of these characteristics in the dynamic interplay of changing light and spatial complexity. In each building, Mercer’s imagery organizes the whole while appropriately serving the new and special circumstances.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Survey Says!

The AIA-Southwestern Oregon board of directors conducted a survey earlier this summer, inviting all chapter members, associate members, and affiliates to comment upon issues ranging from volunteer role expectations to perceptions of the key benefits of AIA membership. The outstanding response from the membership provides the board with invaluable input as it strategizes how best to navigate the profession’s rapidly shifting playing field. 
AIA-SWO president Jenna Fribley, AIA provided a terrific summary of the survey results; you can find a complete version of her report by clicking on the link below: 
In my opinion, the results of the survey point to the value of maintaining a strong AIA chapter with a local presence: the chapter is of greater value because of its ability to address the unique needs of its membership. This value would be jeopardized if AIA-SWO relinquished its administrative functions and surrendered its leadership to an overarching AIA Oregon, as is being discussed currently as a possibility. 
For your convenience, I’m reprinting Jenna’s narrative here: 
This is Your AIA-SWO
In an effort to improve the efficacy and relevancy of the AIA-SWO chapter, the Board is taking a 30,000 ft view of how the chapter operates and what initiatives provide the most value to our members. In July we distributed an online survey so that we could collect direct feedback from members to better inform our conversation and strategic direction. We were ecstatic to receive 55 responses to the survey, a 27% percent response rate! (For reference, 10-15% is the generally accepted average.) Of course, collecting the data is only the first step. Review of the responses revealed mixed results, reinforcing the fact that we have a broad demographic of members spanning a wide range of experience, practice, geography, and perspectives. 
Is it possible to be TOO special? We are the only chapter in the ENTIRE WORLD who has a formal Volunteer Rate dues program, and AIA-National has asked us to reconsider this procedure because it is arduous to process the paperwork and it costs additional administrative and postage fees at both ends. Thus, the first half of the survey asked questions about the existing volunteer rate program and members’ expectations of volunteer roles. 
The survey responses varied greatly, ranging from members who really appreciate the discount to others who feel strongly that it should be dissolved entirely. This is actually quite representative of the Board’s internal struggle with the issue as well. On the one hand, we want to reward members for participating on committees and in leadership roles, and we appreciate that the volunteer discount can also help lessen the financial burden of renewal. On the other hand, the discount costs the chapter roughly $4000 in dues revenue and fees, which then perpetuates the need for us to task volunteers with fundraising (which is typically the biggest complaint). Furthermore, there is concern that the discount program undermines the value of member engagement by disincentivizing participation by members who don’t take the discount. 
For 2016 the chapter will implement a revised Volunteer Incentive program. To appease AIA-National, we will simplify the renewal process; there will be no dues reduction on the renewal form and there will be no special mailings/forms/envelopes. Although there will not be a lower rate available, all members are eligible to pay incrementally via the online installment plan. 
Independent of dues renewal, our chapter will send a survey where members can indicate their preferences for volunteer roles. As a token of appreciation, volunteers will receive 3 vouchers for regular chapter programs that they can use for themselves or for guests. (This represents up to a $75 value for 3 non-member tickets). It is our hope that this revised program will continue to reward volunteers, alleviate the logistical and financial burden of our current system, and encourage attendance at chapter programs. 
The second half of the survey inquired about what AIA benefits members value the most, and then specifically what types of support and programs members are seeking at the local AIA-SWO level. Most of the high-ranking items are initiatives/programs that we are currently implementing or are in the process of launching (for example, the new E/S CoLA - Eugene/ Springfield Committee on Local Affairs). However, the one item that was specifically requested by multiple respondents, and that we are NOT currently providing, is a bi-directional mentoring program. 
Understanding the hierarchy of members’ priorities will serve as a great road map for allocating our efforts moving forward. There is certainly room for improvement and refinement in all areas of our chapter’s scope. Furthermore, the needs of the chapter will perpetually change as the profession evolves, and we will continue to adapt the chapter’s scope accordingly. 
We need to be effective and relevant....individually as professionals and collectively as the AIA-SWO. The Chapter is only as effective and relevant as the group of individuals who propel it forward. Is there something you wish the chapter was more engaged in? Reach out to other members, take action, make it happen! 
I personally want, and am striving for, an AIA-SWO where members are excited to contribute some energy because they are passionate about all of the great things we are doing! We are a group of creative thinkers trained to transform visions into reality, let’s rally together as a cohesive and energized tribe, empowered to make a positive difference in the world. 
This is YOUR AIA-SWO, what do you want it to be?

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Aerial Videography

The video accompanying this blog post is of the recent construction activity underway at the new Roosevelt Middle School in Eugene.(1) Mahlum and Robertson/Sherwood/Architects designed the state-of-the-art facility, and John Hyland Construction is building it. The $42 million project is on target for completion a year from now. 
Commissioned by Eugene School District 4j and shot by Spot On Aerial Photography, the video is a high-definition, cinematic experience that is definitely impressive. Even absent a post-production soundtrack (say, an epic, soaring instrumental), it brings to mind the kind of documentary filmmaking that shows best in an IMAX theater. As an architect, it hardly matters to me that the subject of the video is something as commonplace as a construction site. Recorded through the lens of a camera carried by an unmanned aerial vehicle (AKA a “drone”) it offers unique perspectives that previously were only available to projects that could justify the steep expense of manned flights. 
The relatively low cost and proliferation of drones is quickly revolutionizing the way construction companies do business. Inexpensive aerial documentation is increasingly a common means to gauge the progress of a project. More and more, contractors rely upon drones to document jobsite safety practices, identify quality issues, assist with problem-solving, and facilitate dispute resolution. 
Additionally, the real-time data gathered by GPS-equipped drones can generate point clouds from which project engineers produce 3D models of the work under construction. Contractors use these models for such varied purposes as measuring bulk quantities of excavation and fill, rapidly confirming layout and staking, and reporting compliance with erosion-control regulations. Users can add audio narration or incorporate GPS data on each video frame with a text-captioning device. 
A simple aerial video can take anyone, anywhere, on a journey over the site. Often, the video reveals more than could ever have been seen from the ground. Not surprisingly, realtors and developers are exploiting the marketing potential of aerial videography to great effect. If a virtual walk-thru is great, a virtual flyover is even better. 
There are issues with the use of drones. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) strictly regulates their use through Certificates of Authorization (COA) or Experimental Airworthiness Certificates, which to the best of my understanding have been limited in scope. Presently, the FAA is looking at new regulations that would expand the opportunities for businesses like Spot On Aerial Photography to operate drones. 
The use of camera-carrying drones grants us superhuman powers. It stirs within us deeply held dreams of flying like birds. It provides us with perspectives we seldom could enjoy before. Aerial videography is mesmerizing because it is so often beautiful and transcendent, even when the focus of the camera’s eye is merely a construction jobsite.
I’m looking forward to seeing many more construction videos shot from drones. They’re fascinating, informative, and fun to watch.

(1)   “He was able to see things in the aerial photos that would not have been evident from photos taken on the ground. Then he would mark up and archive the photos so that he would have accurate and timely information to work from the next day.Automated flights will, assuming Google and Amazon will convince regulators to allow them, will pave the way not only for more-frequent aerial progress updates, but also for using photos to generate point clouds that can be used to creating 3D models of work in progress. It’s a feature that Potts believes will revolutionize the precision with which contractors gauge progress and keep projects on schedule and budget.    (1) The Register-Guard posted a slideshow on its website with recent (September 4, 2015) photographs of the project under construction