Blog

05
Oct
2015

architects and community engagement

We believe in win-win solutions. Obstacles can be surmounted with creative thinking and a few skills. One area where architects can make a difference is in the public arena. An example: Using an design skills in 3D modeling, I was able to explore and propose a sewage tunnel that relocated a neighborhood sewage pumping station away from our neighborhood.

Here’s the story:

My neighborhood in Charlottesville, Virginia was faced with the threat of a much enlarged sewage pumping station (we already didn’t like the one we had much less the idea of one 4x it’s size). Engineers were paid to develop alternative options each of which had some impact on someone. No one could agree. The cheapest solution was to target the one in our neighborhood and without agreement, we had no doubt we’d see a new enlarged facility in our midst.

The neighborhood was frustrated with the options presented by engineers.  I decided to see if I could find an alternative option. Using a 3D sketch program (SketchUp), I developed a model of the surrounding area and introduced a flat plane at the level of the existing pumping station. With this datum established I could better visualize where the topography might accommodate a relocated station (while not an engineer, I made an educated guess that the new station would likely be at or around the same elevation of the existing one). What I discovered was that local sewage and water authority site was at around the same elevation as the pumping station, separated by a ridge. This was a lightbulb moment – I realized a tunnel might be a viable solution that everyone could embrace.

RWSA-OPTIONSA neighborhood up in arms can be a powerful force and the tunnel idea might not have found legs but for the energy put forward by the neighborhood — after all, the tunnel was more expensive than enlarging the existing pumping station.  The neighborhood’s activism rallied the support of the Charlottesville City Council.  The engineers liked the idea.  An agreement was reached.  Funding was approved.

Last week the tunnel boring machine arrived in our neighborhood having tunneled from the sewage treatment center to our neighborhood. It did take a village and the many skills of its inhabitants contributed to the implementation of a happy solution.   Architects do have a unique set of key problem-solving skills and the combination of public engagement combined with creative thinking and visualization skills all contributed to that finding of the win-win solution.

16
Sep
2015

Sustainable design requires creative solutions

A sustainable architect needs to solve for more than would the typical designer.  I liken our process to solving the Rubic’s cube – where all the goals, challenges and givens must be in alignment.  The typical architect might be solving for the nine squares/side cube, we are solving for the 16 square/side Rubic.  Take for instance HEDS-designed RiversEdge House: Good urban design suggested house be sited in alignment with street grid.  Classic #PassiveSolar approach would rotate the primary windows toward south and shade with deep overhangs.  But the street grid wasn’t on a north-south axis.  To solve for both passive solar and urban siting, we angled the front wall toward south while maintaining the overall orientation to that of the street.

This project was designed as part of the RiversEdge community and speculative – we were the developers.  We know first-hand that passive solar takes advantage of free energy from the sun at no additional cost to the builder – a win-win solution.  RiversEdge5-heds

31
Aug
2015

Harness the Sun at the Community Level

huangbaiyuhouse_blog

Design for passive solar home in China proposes wind turbine and vegetable gardens on roofs.

Passive solar design is well understood yet little considered at the community design level. New York City planners had the foresight to lay out the NYC street grid with solar aspect in mind. For community planners, considering solar path is so simple yet largely ignored.  Imagine laying out streets and houses around the sun so that rooms enjoy daylight without solar heat gain, where front and rear yards are oriented on the north-south axis and sideyards to east and west. Thus floor plans can more easily be adapted to locate the service spaces to the north (kitchen, closets, baths) and living spaces (living, dining, bedrooms) to the south.  This simple idea can have a profound effect on the long-term energy use of the individual homes and of the neighborhood collectively and with little or no cost, has big marketing potential. Community developers and planners should wake up to the logic of this win-win solution.

village_blog

The design of this new community in China (team led by Allison Ewing while Partner at William McDonough + Partners) was designed to take advantage of solar path at all scales of design, from the community to the room.

 

28
Aug
2015

Charlottesville VA architect Chris Hays interview with Home Style Green

Charlottesville VA architect Chris Hays Interview with Home Style Green

Charlottesville VA architect Chris Hays talks with broadcaster Matthew Cutler-Welsh about how homes can improve your life.  The covered outdoor space of the Dogtrot House has transformed the lives of its inhabitants who spend their waking hours in the courtyard space during the summer and shoulder seasons.  It’s gratifying to see how a well-designed home can make life better.  Listen in ITunes

Green Style Home

13
Aug
2015

Allison Ewing shares her green design expertise at Hanley Wood’s Vision 2020 Symposium

Allison Ewing shares her expertise on green design at the Hanley Wood Vision 2020 Video Symposium. She discusses why the building is at a Darwinian crossroads and it’s time to evolve an Architecture of the Fittest. Architects must find solutions that are attractive to home developers who will build 75% of new housing in the coming decades. Nature, with 3.8 billion years of R&D has a lot to teach us about adaptive — and cost effective — strategies in a changing environment. Ms. Ewing discusses how bigger is not better, rather connecting people with the landscape is fulfilling, and how creative designers are finding clever solutions to living richly in a small setting. She tackles creating the zero energy home, the use of low-embodied energy materials and new technologies such as 3D printed buildings which will transform how we build. Some researchers are even exploring buildings which are self-assembling, patterning processes on nature.
https://twitter.com/Ewing_Allison, https://www.facebook.com/HaysEwingDesignStudio, https://www.linkedin.com/pub/allison-ewing/b/929/710

27
Feb
2015

adaptation

Lichen grows on the sunny side of the bark of a tree, capitalizing on the warm of the environment. I’m fascinated by the compass termite amitermes meridionalis, native to northern Australia, that builds its nest like a sundial.  The long axis of a nest (which look like a tombstone) runs north to south to minimize exposure to intense mid-day rays.  The south face of the nest is made of a higher thermal mass material – cob, the north face made with straw bale.  Its air conditioning system involves small capillaries as intake and a large central chimney as exhaust, a wonderful example of thermoregulation. 

With 3.8 billion years of R&D, nature proliferates in well-adapted solutions — solutions solved in context and the context is EARTH.  Learning from nature, taking nature’s advice, is the premise for the book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, authored by Janine Benyus.

25
Nov
2014

the not so big apartment

Nature has more to teach us on size: Scientists are observing radical changes in body size in countless mammals, birds, insects, flowers… as a result of climate change. The arctic fox, adapting to a reduction in food supply, is getting smaller, allowing the population size to remain stable.

Hong Kong presents an interesting corollary to this problem of population density relative to habitat size.  How to live well in a small setting.  This is a pressing question and the architect Gary Chang posits an intriguing answer.  His 330 square foot Hong Kong living quarters, the apartment equivalent to the Swiss army knife, transforms into 24 different spaces: wall of books slides away to reveal a linen closet, which in turn slides away to reveal a soaker bath, a bed folds down over the soaker bath to transform into sleeping quarters and so forth. What I love about Chang’s idea is that a room is only a room when you’re in it; when you’re not cooking, the kitchen disappears behind the wardrobe where you slip into a smoking jacket. Clever man.

hk1 hk3

29
Jul
2014

shape in context

Bermann’s Rule (1847) – members of species are larger in colder parts of their range attributed to surface to volume ratio.

Bermann’s Rule (1847) – members of species are larger in colder parts of their range attributed to surface to volume ratio.

The natural world has many examples of adaptation to climate. The northern white-tailed deer has a lower surface area to volume ratio than does its more diminutive southern cousin and radiates less body heat per unit of mass, allowing it to stay warmer in the colder climate.  The southern white-tailed deer has a higher surface are to volume ratio facilitating heat loss through the skin, helping to cool the body.  The former is built to retain heat, the latter to cool.

vtvaThe advent of heating and cooling systems coupled with improvements in the building envelope and cheap energy have led to the homogenization of homebuilding. Compare the floor plan of a developer home in Vermont to one in Arizona. Apart from a little white cladding here and stucco there, the blueprints are the same. I grew up in a 1770’s home in Vermont that was four rooms over four (more volume to surface area). The traditional home in Virginia (where I now reside, apparently I can only live in states that start with “V”) is two over two (more surface area to volume). The former built to heat, the latter to breathe.  Vermont has 6006 heating degree days (measurement that reflects the demand for energy needed to heat a building), Virginia has half that number, 3304.   Vermont has 747 cooling degree days while VA has 1422 (twice as many).  Without air conditioning, modern heating, homes from the 18th century were adapted to conserve or reject heat — a strategy seen in nature and one which, when applied to the building industry, has low first costs. This is a strategy the Developer-Builder can easily adopt. It’s called Regionalism.

16
May
2014

safety in numbers

In Aristotelian terms, techné, craftmanship, craft or art, was considered the imperfect practice of nature.  Nature was regarded as teacher and keeper.   In the three millennia that have elapsed since the Greeks first pondered the making of things, techné has been replaced by technology which sees nature as something to harness, nature is conceived in subjective (human) terms.  We have much to learn from nature, from the birds and the bees, as we consider how to retool our thinking.  Take for instance the penguin that survives extreme cold by huddling, thereby creating a microclimate.  Living in a community, apart from the social benefits, creates a microclimate where the free exchange of heat and cold is sanctioned; in winter the upstairs neighbor benefits, in summer the gift is exchanged (through radiation and surface transfer). Happily, this is a strategy the Developer-Builder can embrace because party walls equals less expensive perimeter equals lower costs.   Safety in numbers.

05
Mar
2014

engaging the developer

The developer-builder operates under a series of environmental pressures the most important of which is to sell homes while making a profit.  The Developer-Builders consider first costs, first because profit equals marketability less first costs.  Lifecycle benefits have no power over a builder unless those costs can be justified in sales.  Not surprisingly, strategies such as solar aquatics systems, solar panels, geothermal, etc., have no attraction to the Developer-Builder because the long-term costs savings are realized by the Owner.  So where is the magic line between additional up-front costs and increased marketability?  Robert Hauser of Stonehaus Development in Charlottesville, Virginia thinks an increase in costs of 3-5% is an acceptable risk if his company can successfully brand its houses as energy-efficient.

That leads us to consider adaptive options that are within the Developer-Builder risk-tolerant zone.  So the question is, how can we achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 in a cost-effective way?  We must do so optimizing passive strategies: community, massing, envelope design, and passive solar – all strategies with lower first costs. This is what it will take to transform a profit-driven industry.