Blog

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.

17
Feb
2014

the elephant in the room

By 2030, California, Texas and Florida will increase by 12 million inhabitants.

By 2030, California, Texas and Florida will increase by 12 million inhabitants.

– those committed to changing the business-as-usual of the industry must define a new species of building, one that operates at scale.  The US population is growing — it’s tripled in the last 100 years and by year 2030, California, Texas and Florida will each increase by an estimated 12 million people, accounting for more than half of the nation’s growth.  Which means a lot of new homes will be built.  Who is building these new homes? Developers will build roughly three-quarters of these new homes.  What’s more, nearly a quarter of developer-built homes are constructed by the top ten developers in the country.  The developer is the elephant in the room. That is the challenge.

75% of new homes will be developer-built.

75% of new homes will be developer-built.

Here is the opportunity:  by 2030, three-quarters of construction will have been built during the previous 20 years.  In other words, if we start now, we can get this done – but only if we engage the developer toward positive and constructive change.

07
Feb
2014

the butterfly effect

If a single flap of a butterfly’s wings can be instrumental in generating a tornado, so also can all the previous and subsequent flaps of its wings, as can the flaps of the wings of millions of other butterflies, not to mention the activities of innumerable more powerful creatures, including our own species. – Edward Lorenz, pioneer of the chaos theory

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04
Feb
2014

architecture of the fittest – 01

Belvedere Civic Core

Belvedere Civic Core

Fossil records support a theory on evolution whereby isolated populations, subjected to a new environmental pressures adapt rapidly, often within several or a dozen generations. We humans, occupants of the habitat we callThe World, now find ourselves in a like predicament – confronted by a changing environment, we must adapt and do so quickly, achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 (See Ed Mazria’s 2030 Challenge).

According to the Punctuated Equilibrium theory described above (the debate continues between these adherents and the Gradualists like the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys), the isolated population, having adapted to the new environment, now reintroduced to its original habitat, out-competes its sister lineage.  The homebuilding industry is developer-builder driven (20+ percent of the market is built by the ten top builders). In evolutionary terms, the Developer-Builder is the general population which operates on the premise of stasis.  We, let’s call us Team 2030 – the Ecohome-read’in, LEED-A.P.’in, xeroscap’in, carbon-sequester’in, Greenspec-tot’in, , Biophiliacs — those committed to changing the business-as-usual of the industry — must define a new species of building, one that operates at scale.