Category Archives: Architecture

EcoOptimism in Climate Week

photo: David Bergman/EcoOptimism

photo: David Bergman/EcoOptimism

The UN Climate Summit had its ups and downs (China being one the downers) but some of the accompanying events left me feeling more optimistic. First, of course, was the People’s Climate March, the largest environmental protest in history. I began the march with a contingent from The New School (where I teach), but when we finally began marching (lined up on 72nd Street, it was two hours before we began walking on Central Park West) I found myself just ahead of the area that included architects walking under the banner “We Have the Solutions.”

That slogan – a fact, really – was reinforced at a talk at the Center for Architecture early Thursday morning. The speaker was Edward Mazria, founder of Architecture 2030. Mazria has been in the ecodesign world longer than almost anyone around. In my book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide, I called him “a green architect before such a term existed.” (He’d probably hate that description.) He came to prominence when, in 2003, he crunched some energy numbers and determined that buildings – and hence architects – were responsible for a much larger percentage of total energy consumption than anyone realized.

The numbers were published in Metropolis magazine. Susan Szenasy, who moderated Thursday’s talk and is the editor and publisher of Metropolis, said she initially took a lot of flak for placing the blame on architects. But as Mazria pointed out – at one point with a slide that just read “opportunity” in huge type – it also meant architects, along with building owners and others, have the ability to have a huge impact.

photo: David Bergman/EcoOptimism

photo: David Bergman/EcoOptimism

Building design and construction fall into two categories: new construction and renovation. And it’s the latter that holds some of the greatest potential because there is so much existing building stock relative to new buildings, and most of it is in need of energy upgrades. Remaking 2% – 3% of building stock per year using best practices would put us on the necessary path toward a net-zero energy goal. As this is close to the current rate of renovation, the idea, Mazria said, is “eminently doable.”

In a previous post, I wrote that architects – as polymath optimists – are uniquely suited to helping devise and advocate for the solutions we need. (Or, as the banner at the People’s Climate March observed, the solutions we already have.) The take away from Mazria’s exuberant talk was that architects have a pivotal role in determining our future. Indeed, the event was titled, only slightly hyperbolically, “Design! Life Depends on Us.”

Mazria observed that architects and planners have done this before when modernism, for all its faults in hindsight, helped bring cities out of the grime of their unhealthy 19th century state. It’s a profoundly EcoOptimistic point that architects can be one of the major forces in achieving the necessary goal of eliminating our production of greenhouse gases.

 

Cities, Community and Sustainable Development

The impetus for this post arises from a call for blog submittals on the topic of “Cities and Sustainability” for the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week Conference. Here I propose that community is a necessary part of sustainability.

While the environmental advantages of urban living remain unintuitive to some – a vestige of an earlier environmental movement belief in the virtues of living off the land — anyone who has looked into ecofootprints (or carbon or water footprints) knows that urban dwellers consume significantly less resources than do suburbanites or even most rural denizens. We travel shorter distances, more often by foot or mass transit than by car. Our homes are smaller and stacked, requiring less material to build and fill them with as well less energy to heat, cool and light them. The primary downside, perhaps, is the need to import most of the food supply. But this, too, may be a misplaced criticism since so much of the food supply is grown globally. If anything, then, the transportation and distribution of food is more efficient in cities than in spread out development. And for local, seasonal crops, we’re seeing a growing movement to urban gardens, which have the potential to provide a portion of food needs along with “reconnecting” urbanites to nature (addressing the Thoreaus amongst us).

So the rapid urbanization of the population is, in many ways, an environmentally positive – even necessary — event. Too often left out, however, is the question of what life in these cities is or will be like, and this has at least two significant implications for sustainable development.

Modern urbanization has taken several physical forms: horizontal expansion of low-rise districts, vertical densification where geography limits outward pushes, and ground-up creation of entire new high-rise cities. What most of these lack, due to the artificial influences of zoning, economics and modern architecture, are the street life and vitality of older cities. The tendency, even in the greenest buildings, is toward characterless and anonymous (or, alternatively, monumental) structures that pay little attention to the street or the community. A resulting combination of a lack of pride of place and, as I have written previously (1, 2), design that discourages neighborhood interaction, leads to a diminished sense of community. This loss of belonging to something larger than one’s self contributes to the perception that environmental issues, both local and global, are someone else’s problem.

This also has bearing on the potential for another positive environmental movement: the sharing economy. Sharing objects and services means less consumption has to take place, saving both resources and money. The good news is that urban living, by definition, has a good deal of sharing built into it: sharing of lobbies, floors and ceilings, of sidewalks, parks and transportation. But the possibilities are greater, ranging from tool libraries and community gardens to cars, communal cooking and guest facilities. These are often a part of what’s come to be called “intentional communities” such as cohousing where people band together to form communal groups. But urban areas in general have great potential for sharing, due in no small part to proximity and convenience – so long as a community exists that is conducive to sharing.

There is a reinforcing loop present in this. A strong community sets the stage for sharing, and sharing tends to strengthen the community.

We know that cities objectively represent a more viable path to sustainable development than either suburban sprawl or off–the-grid lifestyles. The much needed — and too often missing – part is attention to the quality of urban life, particularly as cities get denser. Density can be justified on both environmental and economic grounds, but true sustainability demands more. This is the premise behind what I call EcoOptimism: solutions that symbiotically address ecological and economic issues while also improving our lives. Urban living, if developed with people and community in mind, is perhaps our most fundamental EcoOptimistic path.

Before you can make a community resilient, you have to have a community

FAB_1sm

The US federal government is broken and international agreements, it seems evident, are not about to happen any time soon. How then can global problems like climate change and pollution be tackled?

The ineffectuality of large-scale top-down governments, at least as they currently exist, leaves us with two possible, non-exclusive routes: a bottom-up popular approach and, perhaps counter intuitively, a corporate driven approach.

We see some evidence of the latter, albeit not nearly enough, in programs from Walmart and a few others to enforce environmental requirements on their supply chains, and in the growing endorsements by some energy and related companies of some form of a carbon fee. This business world trend, which is occurring in spite of the oversized voice of the US Chamber of Commerce, is a very positive sign in that it exposes the knee-jerk claims that a carbon tax would be a job and economy killer.

Creating public desire for environmentalism

But I want to concentrate here on the other option, creating public demand for environmental thinking and responsibility, because this is potentially the most likely route to both engaging public support and, by extension, electing governments that respond to that demand.

“Resilient communities” has become a major theme in environmentalism. The basic concept is to create ways by which communities can prepare for and respond to disasters, natural or otherwise, with less reliance on others, including national governments. It’s a fine goal (though it won’t and isn’t intended to obviate the need for wider scale programs). But the concept ignores a first step that is both necessary and desirable: before you can make a community resilient, you have to have a community.

I started writing about this topic in the post Community and Sustainability. My basic premise is that neighborhoods that don’t have a sense of community, almost by definition, are not conducive to fostering individuals’ interest in topics or problems with impact beyond their own self-interest.

Living (or working) on a block or in a neighborhood where anonymity is the rule discourages any sense of ownership, of belonging to something larger than just you. Simultaneously, this means you have less incentive to participate and less sense of responsibility to a community. This can contribute to any number of “quality of life” problems like noise and littering. If you don’t know your neighbors, you’re less likely to care.

A starting point is asking why, in so many places, it seems we don’t have strong communities. Though it may be partially a product of nostalgia, we commonly hear that communities used to be more important and more central to people’s lives. Reasons for this abound, ranging from the trend away from extended families living in proximity, to fewer stay at home moms (as was the social and economic norm back then), the loss of local coffee shops and watering holes and, of course, the advent of the Internet. The common factor in all of these is that there are fewer places and occasions for in-person interaction: fewer places to meet your neighbors, fewer chances for unplanned exchanges.

LES streets

I’ve been pondering this while looking at current and proposed developments here in NYC and elsewhere, and comparing them to urban streets like my own. New urban apartment buildings and their streets bear little resemblance to the low-rise walk ups on my block. Aesthetics aside, there is a huge difference between a block-long building containing a hundred or so apartments entered via a single massive lobby, and a series of varied buildings with each with a dozen or two units, with entrances (perhaps on those quintessential gathering spots called stoops) every 25 feet or so. Add to that the difference between streets lined with a combination of generic large chain stores with ubiquitous bank branches versus smaller local businesses run and staffed by people in the community.

Rediscovering urbanism and suburbanism

As I’ve been emphasizing in several recent posts here, particularly Towers in the Block and the series on density, we need a re-envisioning of design, both urban and suburban, with an eye toward community and livability. We need to reinvestigate the older ways of fostering community and devise new interpretations that take into account increasing density, new construction methods and economic realities, and new social patterns.

Without this, we run the risk of continuing and expanding the anonymity and attendant self-focus of modern urban and suburban life styles, resulting in a population closeted in their homes and, when they emerge, being further isolated in their cars or their headphones. That self-focus, it can be argued, is the root of many of our political problems as well as our inability to deal with environmental issues, and is at least in part an outgrowth, a fault, of the physical structure of our non-communities.

 

Density Part 3: Kenneth Jackson’s “Future” of New York

[This post is part of a continuing series within EcoOptimism analyzing the pros and cons and different types of urban density, beginning with the post Height vs Delight and continuing with Density: It’s Not the Sky that’s the Limit.]

The urban historian Kenneth T. Jackson is a towering figure among New Yorkologists, so it seems appropriate that he’d be a supporter of towers themselves. In an Op-Ed this Sunday in The New York Times, he takes to task the opposition to the proposed upzoning of East Midtown in Manhattan.

Illustration from the Municipal Art Society in its response to the rezoning showing “how the height of the new buildings the City is hoping to see realized around Grand Central Terminal will impact the area.”

Illustration from the Municipal Art Society in its response to the rezoning showing “how the height of the new buildings the City is hoping to see realized around Grand Central Terminal will impact the area.”

Historic preservation, he says, has gone too far. “Its goal seems to be to preserve anything that will maintain the streetscape, whether or not the individual structures have significance….Presumably, its leaders would be happy to stop any change at all between 59th Street and 125th Street.”

New and taller construction is necessary, in his vision of NYC’s future, in order to maintain the city’s pre-eminence. Buried in this belief are two huge and, I believe, mistaken assumptions. The first is the basic premise that NYC must be pre-eminent.  While it sounds irreverent and disloyal to say otherwise, the fact is that NYC is but one of many major 21st century urban centers. We are no longer in a world dominated by New York, London and Paris, and haven’t been for a while. (Though midtown Manhattan is still the largest central business district in the world, at least according to Wikipedia.) True, NYC is still seen as the financial capital of the world, but in many ways this is vestigial in a digital and globalized scenario and, furthermore, it’s highly questionable whether it’s in the city’s best interests to remain focused and therefore dependent on a single “industry.” Many have argued for the economic diversification of the city, with an eye to the income and job generators of the future: creating more baskets for the eggs, etc. Potential growth sectors that have been discussed, in addition to silicon alley, include sustainable design and related industries, distributed manufacturing (MakerBot originated in Brooklyn), biotech, urban agriculture and, of course, the arts.

The second assumption Jackson makes is that the solution to securing the city’s future is in the clouds. Unfortunately, he doesn’t mean the digital cloud, in which information is dispersed, but the physical clouds encountered at skyscraper heights, in which people are concentrated. Jackson laments “Of the 100 tallest buildings in the world now under construction, only three are in New York and only one is in East Midtown.”

But why are height and the city’s ranking in numbers of tallest buildings the determinant of growth and importance? The essential defining property of a city is density: a concentration of people that enables commerce, community and exchanges of ideas.  But like most things, there is a point at which density (of people, buildings and traffic, not to mention bank branches, Duane Reades and Starbucks) reaches diminishing returns and begins to undermine the attributes that constitute the vitality of a city.

Jackson claims that density in Manhattan has decreased from a population of 2.3 million in 1910 to 1.6 million today. But that’s a very misleading way to define density. It excludes the additional 1.6 million people who commute to work in the city every day, as well as the number of tourists. And the East Midtown upzoning plan is not designed to increase residential space; it’s for commercial towers. This will effectively worsen a basic problem of Manhattan and many cities in general: the separation of working and living areas. This results in what are perhaps the two greatest problems of modern cities:  expense of living and transportation congestion. According to an NYU Wagner Rudin Center report, “Manhattan is the top work destination in the country for ‘extreme commuting,’ work trips that are more than 90 minutes long each way.” And as many of us are all too aware, NYC is the most expensive place to live in the US, all of which would lead to the conclusion that the city needs more living space, not office towers.

Regarding transportation, Jackson blithely puts aside another extreme: the crowding on the existing east side transportation infrastructure, claiming the MTA “could handle more, not fewer, riders” based on the statistic that ridership has fallen since 1947. Try telling that to any rush hour rider. In a breath, he ignores the fact that there were two more train lines on the east side then (before the Second and Third Avenue Els were demolished) and merely says that the long-awaited and far from finished Second Avenue subway will relieve some of the congestion on the crammed Lexington line.

There’s a more convincing argument for upgrading midtown’s office spaces. A study by the eco-consulting group Terrapin Bright Green concluded that the bulk of the mid-century office buildings in midtown are outmoded in terms of both space and energy efficiency and, more significantly, cannot be viably upgraded. The singularly most devastating finding, from the point of view of either environmentalists or historic preservationists, is that these buildings would need new skins – the old curtain walls are energy sieves – but the structures of the buildings cannot support the weight of better insulated facades. That’s in addition to the fact that their low ceilings with many interior columns are not “Class A” spaces, the most desired type. (At least, that is, for conventional financial institutions with trading floors and old-school work cubicles. The newer growth sectors have more varied needs.)

The city’s thinking is that replacing these buildings is not economically viable for developers given the existing zoning limitations. Given the coziness between developers and the Bloomberg administration, one has to take with this a grain of salt.

Like the city (and most economists and politicians), Jackson seems to wholeheartedly swallow the “growth is good” Kool-Aid. We have to be very careful how we define growth. Growth is not the same as betterment, and the opposite of growth is not stagnancy. Jackson writes:

Is New York still the wonder city, the place that celebrates the future, the city that once defined modernism? Or should it follow the paths of Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston and Savannah in emphasizing its human scale, its gracious streets and its fine, historic houses?

The answer for a metropolis competing on a global scale must be no, because a vital city is a growing city, and a growing city is a changing city.

Leaving aside the question of what’s wrong with the human scale and gracious streets (btw, I’d substitute “livable” for “gracious”) of Boston or Philadelphia – or, for that matter, Paris — Jackson has reduced this critical issue to a false dilemma. The choice is not solely between economic vitality and quaint neighborhoods. Nor is it between unbridled development and historic preservation. For cities to succeed economically, environmentally and socially, we have to look at a wider, more holistic picture than simply the one that gives us the tallest buildings and the most claims to the “greatest city.” We have to include affordability, reducing inequity, increasing livability and, yes, a sense of history. These are not the constraints Jackson seems to regard them as. They are the sources of our future “growth” and our flourishing as individuals, as communities and as a world.

 

Density: It’s Not the Sky that’s the Limit

Image source: Global Bhasin

Image source: Global Bhasin

In the minds of many, density is a core problem of urbanism, a huge drawback compared to the tranquility found elsewhere. Urban density has been vilified as the concrete jungle and was one of the primary reasons for the mid-century escape to suburbia. That’s even held true in my boomer generation, who were the product of urban flight for the supposed “American dream.” While many of us swore off the suburbs as soon as we were able to leave the culturally bereft nest, a surprising (to me, at least) number re-emigrated upon having children. (My source for this observation is a highly unscientific poll at my recent college reunion, but the overall growth of suburbia – until now — seems to bear this out.)

We environmentalists and urbanists know better than to deride density (and are often all too ready to proclaim so). Density is what makes the vitality of places possible, along with lowering eco impact. There’s no way I’d trade my rather tight NYC apartment for a bigger spread that required owning a car to visit a friend or buy groceries. And while I could see myself enjoying a small garden out back, I surely don’t miss mowing a three-quarter acre lawn.

But on the other hand, I also wouldn’t trade my low-rise urban digs for a cookie cutter place in a modern tower, no matter who the starchitect was and no matter how much better the view was than the sliver of sky I can see from my third-floor walkup. Even if it had the coolest new and energy-saving appliances.

Why, you ask? (At least I hope you’re asking. Unless, that is, you already know.) I love my block of walkups where I know everyone in my 12-unit building and many of my neighbors; where I know most of the store and restaurant owners. I can’t walk my dog without bumping into a familiar face.

Now I realize that’s not for everyone. There are plenty of people who prefer their privacy, and for them a secluded country house sounds ideal. But the current movement to cities, and the accompanying diminished growth rate of the suburbs – while it hasn’t yet quite reached the level of suburban flight – indicate that the trend in the 21st century will likely be different from the second half of the 20th.

And that’s all for the good, environmentally speaking. Though there are issues, such as the transport in of food and transport out of garbage, city living has a lower per-person ecofootprint due to decreased use of cars and smaller living spaces, which are often stacked vertically, thus saving land, materials, and heating and cooling impacts. My NYC ecofootprint is half the average American’s.

The Attraction of Density

Logically, then, this would seem to indicate that the more we concentrate human population and, hopefully, devote remaining land to agriculture and natural ecosystems, the better off we and the environment are.  The reductio ad absurdum to this would have us all living and working in sky-high megastructures occupying the least amount of land area possible. (The great and powerful Google tells me this is technically a reductio ad ridiculum, but let’s stick to the topic at hand.)

Many architects have tried to realize this conclusion, ranging from the late Paolo Soleri ‘s relatively earthbound Arcosanti to the more conflicted Frank Lloyd Wright, who evolved from the explicit sprawl of Broadacre City to the mind boggling (as well as budget- and structure-challenged) Mile High Tower. Which leads us to a modern interpretation called Sky City. Where Wright’s vision never made it much past the sketch stage and Arcosanti is far from complete after decades of construction,  Sky City is on the fast –and I mean really fast — track to surpassing the world’s current tallest building, the 2,717-feet high 160-story Burj Khalifa. The pre-fabricated building, located in a small Chinese city, is set to break ground and will supposedly take a mere six months to construct its 220 stories reaching a height of 2,749 feet.

Sky City, planned for construction in Changsha, Hunan. Image source: BD&C

Sky City, planned for construction in Changsha, Hunan. Image source: BD&C

The rationale for the building, which is not connected to any street grid and resides basically in a field that is nine times the size of its actual footprint, is that it’s a highly efficient use of a dwindling supply of land, and that vertical transportation (that is, by elevator)  is much more efficient than horizontal. Was this a true arcology, a self-sufficient city, that might be correct. Yes, alongside its 10,000 inhabitants, it will contain many of the elements of self-sufficiency:  shops, schools, athletic facilities and even vertical gardens. But self-sufficient it isn’t. Notably lacking is places of employment, particularly offices and manufacturing.  Schools, hospitals and offices comprise a mere 10% of its total space. That means most of its residents will be commuting to jobs outside the tower. It’s more than a little difficult to imagine the vertical and horizontal rush hours.

Can a city (or streets) be vertical?

That isn’t my biggest issue with the concept, though.  My concern comes back to the reason I wouldn’t move from my street of 100-year-old walkups to this environmental high achiever. It’s about community. As I discussed in an earlier post, community is an essential part of human dwelling as both an end goal and as a means to creating “ownership” or buy-in of environmental issues. When you feel part of a community, you also become a stakeholder in its local environment and then, by extension, in larger eco issues generally.

Can community be achieved in a building housing 4450 families, especially when that building, from the outside, appears as an undifferentiated and seemingly infinite stack of identical windows that could contain anything from apartments to offices to classrooms?

That’s not quite a fair criticism in that there is a lot going on inside the tower. The floors are not disconnected from one another and accessible only via the detaching experience of elevators as most buildings are. Instead the core, up to the 170th floor, is tied together with a six mile long ramp which is dotted with courtyards for athletic and social activities. That could help create local neighborhoods within the continuum, but my suspicion is it still won’t really result in any sense of belongingness; one could be anywhere in the tower and not identify with a subset of the 220-story whole. Living in Sky City will be not much different from the anonymity engendered in typical, less lofty residential towers where the only meeting places are in the enforced brevity of elevators and perhaps the laundry room, if the building has one. Though the interior inclined street is an attempt to recreate the vitality of streetscapes such as those found in older cities, for a number of reasons it will fall far short of those urban ideals.

I encountered another attempt at solving the high-rise community problem during, oddly enough, at that recent Yale College reunion. Together with the National University of Singapore, Yale is establishing Singapore’s first liberal arts college. Given that city-state’s density and lack of open land, the decision to build upward seemed pretty inevitable. But Yale’s residential colleges (similar to Harvard’s “houses”) have long thrived on the communities created by breaking the 5000 student undergraduate population into twelve smaller parts: low-rise clusters with their own dining halls, courtyards, common rooms, libraries, etc. (When I was there, before the days of primitive cable, each college had a TV Room since few students had their own and, in any case, couldn’t rig an aerial on the roof.)

Image source:  Yale NUS College

Image source: Yale NUS College

The high-rise interpretation in Singapore, designed by the firm Pelli Clarke Pelli, puts three residential colleges on a relatively small plot of land. Each college retains the backbone of an individual courtyard and dining hall, but stacks the dorm rooms into towers. (The last residential colleges built at Yale, designed in 1958 by Eero Saarinen did much the same thing, though they’re not as tall. They were renovated fifty years later by the eco-oriented firm KieranTimberlake Architects in order to, among other goals, enhance the somewhat lacking social aspects compared to the older neo-Gothic colleges on the campus.)

To address the issue of undifferentiated vertical stacks of dorms, according to Pelli Clarke Pelli, “Tower floors are grouped into neighborhoods around skygardens.” Their description continues “The tower designs and those of the courtyards, dining halls, and common rooms will differ in each residential college.” That should go a long way toward creating individual characters for each of the colleges, much more so that the homogeneity of Sky City, but still I wonder if the mere insertion of the sky gardens every so often will truly break the towers into neighborhoods.

Image source:  Yale NUS College

Image source: Yale NUS College

The fact that an environmentally-aware firm is undertaking this challenge makes it all the more interesting that they are including social aspects in the design, in effect integrating the “people” part of the people, planet and prosperity triple bottom line. (At that Yale reunion, I also encountered for the first time the improvement on the original “people, planet and profit” definition substituting prosperity for profit. And I thought I was going just to see old friends.)

So what IS the right density?

Treehugger editor Lloyd Alter has written about the “Goldilocks density,” describing it as “Not Too High, Not Too Low, But Just Right.” His focus there is not on the social advantages of density, but on energy consumption which, it turns out is more related to walkability than height.

“[W]hat we need to do is not…make everything like Manhattan; It is more likely that we in fact want to make everything like Greenwich Village or Paris, with moderate height buildings that are more resilient when the power goes out. That’s the Goldilocks density: dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can’t take the stairs in a pinch. Dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages. Dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity.”

It’s disconcerting then to see the plans for what The Atlantic Cities calls “China’s most promising eco-city,” which, as it happens, is a joint venture with Singapore. Among Tianjin Eco-City’s environmental claims are “90 percent ‘green trips’ via walking, biking, electric vehicles and streetcars powered by renewable energy.” But judging by the photos of the model, it looks much more like a realization of LeCorbusier’s Plan Voisin; its rigid composition of mid- and high-rise towers resembles Co-op City or the infamous Pruitt Igoe more than Greenwich Village or Paris. The towers appear to be completely disconnected from any street grid and, more importantly perhaps, completely disconnected from each other. It’s hard to imagine anyone walking to a supermarket or a drugstore. When you can’t distinguish one building from another because they are identical slabs arranged in some geometry that happened to look organized on paper, and when you can’t easily walk or bike to stores, schools or workplaces, there will be very little sense of identity to one’s neighborhood and, I’ll venture to guess, not nearly the degree of “green transportation” the designers and developers claim.

Tianjin Eco-City model. Image credit: GreenLeapForward.com

Tianjin Eco-City model. Image credit: GreenLeapForward.com

LeCorbusier’s Plan Voisin. Image credit: oobject

LeCorbusier’s Plan Voisin. Image credit: oobject

The density of Tianjin Eco-City may lead some designers to expect that people will walk rather than drive, but walkability isn’t about just proximity, just as community isn’t about density. It’s not only about walking, but about what you experience while walking. Steve Mouzon calls this “walk appeal” to distinguish it from walkability. From what is discernible in the photos, Tianjin’s walk appeal looks to be nil.

Tianjin Eco-City sidewalks as currently built. Image credit: Tianjin Eco-City

Tianjin Eco-City sidewalks as currently built. Image credit: Tianjin Eco-City

Finding models to emulate

None of this is exactly breaking news. More than 50 years ago, Jane Jacobs talked about the importance of street life and the perils of high density. But the contemporary question is: how to interpret Jacobs for a world that needs — and a market that demands — higher density? And the answer is not all that elusive. One is found in the fact that the densest cities are often not those with the highest towers. Los Angeles has a higher density (people per square mile) than New York does.  Many of the densest cities are unfamiliar names in places like Indonesia and India. (Though some of these data are a quirk of how cities’ boundaries are determined.) This tells us that building ever higher is not inevitable and that, even though Sky City’s density, by itself, is off the charts, a city of Sky Cities – for a variety of reasons — would no more be the answer than would an expanse like the Los Angeles valley.

Another answer may be in the imagery, some fantastical in the best sense and some dystopic, found in science fiction books and movies – images of continuous (but not homogeneous) urban fabrics, alive with activity.

We have ready-made answers available, as Lloyd Alter points out, in the likes of Paris or Amsterdam or small and medium size American cities (provided they aren’t of recent car-centric vintage and you don’t include their surrounding suburbs in the model). These are both dense and “livable.” They are set up for walking and biking, and do not require driving. They may or may not be large enough or dense enough to support subways, but that diversity of size is a good thing; not everyone wants to live in cities where the population climbs into the six, seven or eight digits. And for those who can’t bear even smaller populations, there should be ample space left over.

Density Part 2: Height vs Delight

A Tale of Two Trade Shows

A few years back, I attended the GreenBuild expo when it was in Boston. I try not to incur the footprint and cost of travelling to conferences (not to mention the discomfort that only begins to describe air travel these days), but this was a relaxing train ride from NYC. While there, I walked a few frigid (and empty) blocks to a meeting that was being held at the coincidentally scheduled Build Boston expo. As I entered that show’s exhibit floor, I noticed an immediate and distinct difference. There was a strong smell of new materials – akin to that new car smell – that was totally absent from GreenBuild. The eco-materials and products at the green show were devoid, according to my discerning nose at least, of the telltale scents that probably indicated the presence of volatile organic compounds and assorted endocrine disruptors.

GreenBuild 2008 in Boston

GreenBuild 2008 in Boston

I was reminded of that experience when I attended back to back trade shows this past week. On Wednesday, I spent the day at LEDucation 7, an industry show and conference revolving around the advances in LED lighting. (Disclosure: I’m on the board of the group that organizes LEDucation.) Then the next day I walked the Architectural Digest Home Design Show.

I looked at both through the lens of ecodesign and found both encouraging and discouraging points.

LEDucation, obviously, is about LEDs and, hence, concerned with energy efficiency. Having attended that show in each of its seven years, watching the growing number of exhibitors and attendees is itself an indicator of the level of interest. With the evolution of LED technology, some of the attention is shifting from displays of raw technology to more sophisticated characteristics like color rendition and control of glare – qualities that affect public acceptance of the mysterious new guy who’s trying to replace the familiar light bulbs we’ve grown up with and that have been the worldwide standard since the late nineteenth century. Not an easy task.

The evolution of LEDs has been exciting to see, and the emphasis is broadening from a singular goal of energy efficiency to embrace some of the wider goals of comfort: how does the lighting look and make you feel? How well does it do its job from both a technical and a perceptual gauge?

What was missing, with perhaps the sole exception of one of my favorite new companies, Little Footprint Lighting, was any attention to other ecodesign criteria such as sustainable materials and finishes, future upgradability or disposal/recycling.

Little Footprint’s LED desk lamp (at right) is made from recycled plastics from electronics (shown in bowls from left)

Little Footprint’s LED desk lamp (at right) is made from recycled plastics from discarded electronics (shown in bowls from left)

This is not entirely the industry’s fault. One rationale is that the biggest environmental impact of lighting – by far – is in energy consumption.  (I’ve personally confirmed this by creating LCAs or Life Cycle Analyses on some of my own lighting designs.) Another factor, at least until relatively recently, has been that LEED (the de facto eco-rating system for buildings) did not count eco-materials and finishes used in mechanical equipment including lighting.

So there is a narrow eco focus within the lighting industry. The cutting edge research and development at most companies is in new light sources, without involving the wider picture. On the other hand, there are inventive, usually smaller, companies producing light fixtures from recycled and renewable materials. Unfortunately, they tend to not incorporate light sources other than those incandescent “toasters,” as I call them, or problematic compact fluorescents. Until recently, I could lay claim with my Fire & Water designs to being the only company tackling both energy efficiency and ecodesign. Happily, with the presence of companies such as Little Footprint, that is no longer true.

But the separation between design and ecodesign remains; products, by and large, are either categorized as ecodesigned or “regular” design. I’ve posited the disappearance of this division in my “Green Design as (Un)usual” sequence. Prior to the 1960s or so, we had “Design as Usual,” in which environmentalism was not a concern.  To be more accurate, Design as Usual before the Industrial Revolution necessarily meant designing to accommodate nature because there was no other choice. The advent of modern building techniques and systems, like central heating and air conditioning, changed that dependency – for both better and worse – leading to the globalization of architecture; the same split-level or glass tower could be built anywhere, regardless of climate.

Image from the author’s book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide

Image from the author’s book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide

The sixties and seventies brought us “Green Design as Unusual” – experiments in ecodesign that, more often than not, were far from the mainstream. Earthships, adobe huts and the like. (That’s an unfair overgeneralization, of course.)

Our present period, with perhaps just a bit of rose-colored vision, could be called “Green Design as Usual” in that we’re beginning to see ecodesign included more frequently and in more (I hate to use the word) ordinary projects. On the near horizon, is a return to Design as Usual, redefined now to implicitly included ecological goals.

But we’re not there yet, as was made very apparent by my second trade show tour of the week, the AD Home Design Show. I went in expecting to find a growing emphasis on green design, with much of it falling into the category of greenwashing as businesses attempted to cash in on the movement. While I didn’t find as much greenwash, it wasn’t for the reasons I would have liked. Rather, there was appallingly little evidence of green design – not even the lip service green leaf signs that were sporadically displayed in previous years to flag the “earth friendly.” At one of the few booths that outwardly wore its green colors, Listone Giordano, I asked whether their product literature included information on their renewably sourced woods. When they answered no, I thought they were going to explain that their clients no longer needed it spelled out. Instead they said that their clients were not interested. Not a good indicator of our potential to achieve Green Design as Usual, let alone progressing beyond.

In fact, if there was a discernible theme to the show, I would have to say it was “excess.” Not what I would have expected amidst just the barest hints of recovery from the Great Recession (in which the building and design industries were among the worst hit). Stashed incongruously within the over-the-top and out-of-the-budget appliance displays, there was a lone small booth showing pervious paving. My bet is that no one outside of a few fellow greenies noticed it.

Perhaps the best (or is it the worst?) example of this excess was a display of color glass, flower-shaped urinals. Yes it’s a desirable goal to better integrate nature into our buildings. As the study of biophilia tells us, it generally makes us feel, work, learn and heal better. And there’s also the science of biomimicry: studying how nature does things in order to improve our own methods. But making a urinal look like a flower could constitute only the shallowest definition of biomimicry. (As opposed to a urinal that maybe used natural enzymes to break down the waste into nutrients.) You might say that, rather than learning from nature, these designs piss on it.

glass urinals

The observation is not an inaccurate metaphor, unfortunately, for the state of far too much design – even these days, more than 40 years after the first Earth Day. We still regard nature as a resource that we can endlessly take things from and dump things into. My complaint about lighting had to do with seeing light fixtures only in terms of their energy consumption and not as part of a larger system of flows of materials and energy, constrained by the finite limits of a planet. There’s only so much aluminum or oil or neodymium (a rare earth metal used in electronics) to be had. But if the LEDucation displays are any indicator, the lighting industry is at least addressing a part of the problem. Purveyors of brass encrusted commercial-style ranges for homes can’t even make that claim.

stoves

I know this isn’t exactly an optimistic observation for a blog called EcoOptimism, but it does no good to be blind to reality. The positive take-away is that there are still many eyes to help open, many businesses (and their customers) who do not yet realize that green business is (or can be) good business. What we’re seeing is not so much a direction that’s failed as one that is still finding its footing.

 

 

 

Is “Cargotecture” Greenwash?

It’s certainly all the rage, at least in design circles, and some very interesting things are being done with shipping container reuse. Much of it was fomented by the uber-cool firm LOT-EK. But lately we’re seeing buildings in China using the containers. Problem is: one of the main rationales for reusing shipping containers is, um, reusing them. The containers are most often used to ship – literally — boatloads of goods from China to the US. But since there is far less shipping back to China, the containers tend to amass here instead of being sent back empty.

So finding new uses for them here can make sense. But building with them in China? Presumably those are virgin containers, having not yet been vessels for the overseas shipment for the “consumption of mass quantities.” (For you younger readers, that’s a reference to the Coneheads from early Saturday Night Live.)

Playz Shanghai

Tony’s Farm hotel and office in Shanghai © Playz Architects/ Bartosz Kolonko

We’ve recently seen two shipping container based projects in China. First, Treehugger posted this Shanghai building for Tony’s Farm, an organic food producer. Then, Inhabitat wrote about a LOT-EK building that is a shopping and “living center” in Beijing.  The latter design at least uses the containers in a mostly intact form, unlike the Shanghai building where, as Treehugger’s Lloyd Alter remarks (in response to a comment I posted), “many of these boxes have little more than their corners castings and a frame, and since containers are monocoque construction, without the corrugated walls the frames are not very strong, so I would not be surprised if these were custom made to order and never were full containers in the first place.”

LOTEK Beijing

Sanlitun South in Beijing by LOT-EK

So is this greenwashing? I’m not quite sure. I’m really hesitant to criticize LOT-EK, whose work I admire. Their application of the containers at least seems more off-the-shelf, lending it more credibility than the Shanghai project by Playz Architects.

And then there’s a related question that I’ve been posing for a while. Even if the containers have been used for shipping, is this actually recycling at all? I say no; it’s reuse. I’ll expand on this (perhaps nitpicking) distinction in an upcoming post, but the gist is that much of what commonly gets called “upcycled” is, in my opinion, mislabeled.

What’s an architect to do?

Some not-so-startling news – at least to those of us directly affected – was released last week by the American Institute of Architects.  The gist of the sobering report: architectural firm billings have dropped 40% since 2008 and more than 28% of positions have disappeared.

(We always, by the way, seem to be one of the professions hardest hit by economic cycles. In a previous period, I recall a newspaper headline that went something to the effect of “In This Recession, Be Glad You’re Not an Architect.” I couldn’t find that despondent headline in Google just now. But, searching the New York Times, I turned up apparently similar articles from other downturns: “Recession is Ravaging Architectural Firms” (1992), “Many Architects Are Losing Jobs in the Recession” (1983), among others.”)

 

 

 

 

The situation assessed more bluntly at planetizen.com

I brought this up in my return visit on Curtis B. Wayne’s radio show “Burning Down the House” this past Sunday (archived here) in which we were discussing ecodesign and economics. While our larger topics concerned the origins of suburban sprawl and how that subsequently became the “American Way of Life,” I used those statistics as a segue to talk about what it is that architects and other designers can or should be doing in a future that is likely to preclude making things – buildings and objects – on the same material scale as in the previous century.

On the face of it, there’s a conflict of interest in a designer advocating a less materialistic world. Are we, in effect, talking ourselves out of jobs? (You know, the jobs that don’t exist in the first place….) Certainly we have to spurn McMansion commissions, or at least urge our less eco-minded clients to adhere to the advice Sarah Susanka provides in the Not So Big House. And it’s rather hard to justify designing yet another chair or teapot when the world is not exactly lacking in those.

But – and here comes the EcoOptimist’s sunny side of the storm – architects and designers are particularly well suited to the imminent task of advocating for and persuasively cajoling us into the “better place” that can be the outcome of our dual eco crises. As I’ve mentioned previously, designers are, virtually by definition, optimists; “Designers look at a thing or a problem and immediately start imagining what could be.” And as my blog’s alter ego might say, “problems, have we got problems.” So that optimism has plenty of targets to address.

Designers, obviously, also have to be visionaries. How else to see to possibilities amidst the economic and ecological rubble? Or to envision potential utopias where others fear post-apocalyptic dystopia? Accompanying that, most designers have the ability, developed through years of sometimes contentious client and public agency meetings, to communicate their visions. (One hopes, of course, that they are not so good at communicating that they are able to white- or green-wash a less than visionary idea. I’m looking at you, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. Plan Voisin and Broadacre City, as enticing as they may have looked at the time, did not help.)  Environmentalism and ecodesign have long-standing PR and image problems, with most people connoting the movements with personal sacrifice. Designers, working in teams with others as they often do in their projects, can both devise positive solutions and create imagery that allows the public to envision how our lives would be affected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s often been stated that architects are “Renaissance men” (apologies for the gender specificity), with their endeavors encompassing math, physics, sociology, psychology – and sometimes, for those designing private residences, couples counseling – as well as, of course, the expected 2D and 3D arts. This generalist background, which unfortunately is becoming less the norm in architectural education, is necessary for dealing with complex, multidisciplinary issues in a systems manner. Specialists, on the other hand, are not usually equipped to synthesize the factors outside their expertise; consciously or subconsciously they focus on what they are familiar with. (Old medical joke: What’s the difference between a general practitioner and a specialist? One treats what you have; the other thinks you have what he treats.)

Here, then, is the upside of that AIA survey. Yes, conventional building and object design, along with their attendant jobs, are going away. That’s a good thing in terms of environmental solutions. Turns out it’s also a good thing for architects and designers, as well as the world at large, in that their abilities can provide a much-needed service as we all search for and develop those solutions.

A post in The Atlantic Cities about the AIA survey asks: “Where are all the out-of-work architects going? Possibly to jobs in real estate and city government. And that could be good news for everyone.” In past recessions, architects, especially recent grads, have often found their careers re-routed. Coincidentally, a few years back, the AIA embarked on an initiative to encourage architects to run for public office, observing “architects learn creative problem solving and other skills that can make them effective community leaders.” The emphasis there is on architects’ strengths in listening and consensus building. Fair enough and important enough, but the potential goes beyond that I think, to employing those multidisciplinary, generalist skills mentioned above into a – and I use the word hesitantly – holistic synthesis.

So designers have both an opportunity and a responsibility to redirect their talents. For reasons of both necessity and choice, we designers need to apply ourselves to developing and communicating our constructed futures. We need the work, and it’s good work to be doing.

Sleeper No More

I promised there’d be shorter and sometimes less weighty posts intermixed with oh-so-profound lengthier ones. So at the risk of undermining EcoOptimism’s high principles, here’s the first:

Not sure if it technically qualifies as EcoOptimism, but this is definitely optimism of some sort. (Well, the Woody Allen sort, which means it must incorporate at least some undertones of irredeemable pessimism.) The house from Sleeper has been renovated and updated with lots of high tech goodies, some of which address energy efficiency.

The house was sold in foreclosure in 2010, for less than half of its 2006 purchase price, so I guess we should go easy on the optimism aspect.

At the very least, it makes me want to rewatch Sleeper.