Monday, August 31, 2009

Home, Cool Home

This week's newspaper column. Read it in the Hattiesburg American.

This past Saturday marked the four year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and the recovery is ongoing.

Inland a bit, damage to buildings and infrastructure was limited to consequences resulting from the business end of fallen trees and lack of electricity. Still, almost everyone who went through the experience had an unpleasant run-in with the modern state of homebuilding in America.

Two days after the storm, my Mother’s next-door neighbor commented “Yesterday was the worst day of my life!” as she packed up her car in preparation for driving north to stay with relatives while things were sorted out. “My house was so hot I couldn’t stand it.”

Curiously, in her estimation, the day after the storm was worse than the storm itself. Why? Because her house, as designed, was uninhabitable without the benefit of electric air conditioning. In a hot and sometimes muggy climate, her home was constructed with low ceilings, and the windows - placed for “look” instead of sized and located for comfortable ventilation - were painted shut.

All across the hurricane-affected area people evacuated their homes and set up living spaces under porch overhangs, if indeed the home had a covered porch. Hurricane parties ensued as melting freezers emptied and barbecue grills took flame.

Upon subsequent observation, the houses least affected by Katrina’s electricity-less aftermath were older homes. Turns out, as far as environmental compatibility goes, the older the home, the more human comfort it offered.

A century ago, before electricity was common and without the luxury of 24/7 air conditioning, even the most uneducated builder knew how to construct a home that worked in tandem with the environment. The high ceilings, ample windows, transoms, breezeways, and porches were not accidental. Those elements, common to all older homes in the south, were not add-ons for the sake of curb appeal; they acted in concert to cool the home efficiently, inexpensively, and most of all, naturally.

Here’s how it works.

Hot air rises leaving cooler air below, so tall ceilings allow for the hot air to collect above human living space. Operable transoms allow that hot air to migrate out of interior spaces and escape from ceiling and attic vents thereby pulling cooler air in from under shaded porches.

Breezes also help cut the body’s perception of heat. The passive airflow rendered by convection was important in the design of every older home, and breezeways channeled cool winds from tree-shaded yards throughout the home.

Those principles are just as valid today as they were a hundred years ago. Armed with information on how our physical universe works, we can employ environmentally compatible methods in the design of new homes and the renovation of existing structures.

Just because homes have not been designed to work with the environment over the past few decades does not mean they cannot be; it just takes a willingness to do so.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Katrina Revisited

photos by Victor Sidy

Yesterday was the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's devastating crash into the Mississippi gulf coast. Today's Sunday papers are full of "where are we now" reports as community leaders, planners, and concerned citizens gathered for what now has become an annual assessment of planning strategies and a debriefing of progress made.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the design world focused its attention on flooded New Orleans and the hard-hit Mississippi Gulf Coast. A healthy atmosphere for brainstorming was the default mode as Katrina had washed away much of the built environment leaving a blank canvas in her wake.

Four years on, the consensus seems to be that state and federal government policies and the lack of affordable insurance have become the biggest obstacles standing in the way of rebuilding the coast. (Check out today's editorial cartoon by Marshall Ramsey of Jackson's Clarion Ledger newspaper.)

I think it only appropriate to reprise the design effort that gave name to this blog and refocused its author on helping manifest a uniquely American architecture.

In response to the storm, I teamed up with the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture to suggest a way of rebuilding that is livable, humane, culturally rich, sustainable, and organic. In the year after the storm, we developed a set of guiding principles for "The New American Village" and presented - with drawings, models, and multimedia - the work at a symposium and museum exhibition at the University of Southern Mississippi on the one year anniversary of the storm.

The amazing model you see here was produced in the drafting room at Taliesin, near Spring Green, Wisconsin, and shipped down to Mississippi in pieces. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the inspiration for the model; Frank Lloyd Wright toured the country some seventy years earlier with his Broadacre City model lecturing on, among other things, a vision for how the automobile should impact the way Americans build.

The model-building team was headed up brilliantly by Michael DesBarres, a graduate student apprentice, now graduated, at the FLlW/SARC. Apprentices Ryan Hewson and Christian Butler made up the core model team. Ebbie Azimi, Niloufar Karimi, Marsha Fader, Pei Liu, Derek Pasieka, and Jeff Graham - all Taliesin apprenti - participated in the creative effort. Nicholas Sorlein, an installation artist (now living in North Carolina), who had the title of "Director of Non-Linear Thinking" when he worked in my office, also pitched in on the effort as did Tom Barthelemy, a former apprentice who's also worked in the office for a time.

Architect and former apprentice Victor Sidy heads up the program at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. Dean Sidy's forward-thinking vision, rooted in his time spent as both an undergraduate and a graduate apprentice at the school, builds on Frank Lloyd Wright's legacy of living architecture - always in fresh and multifaceted ways.

So here they are: The New American Village Guiding Principles for designing livable communities anywhere:

NATURE - Draw Design Inspiration from Natural Elements

BALANCE - Spaces Work Together in Dynamic Synergy

GEOGRAPHIC CONNECTIVITY - Everything is Connected – No Disconnects, No Dead Ends

SOCIAL CONNECTIVITY - Everyone is Connected - No Throw-Away Individuals

DIVERSITY - Foster Inclusiveness as an Ethic


SUSTAINABLE BUILDING AND ENERGY SYSTEMS - Employ Environmentally Compatible Systems – Be Creative!!!

ARCHITECTURE THAT BELONGS WHERE IT IS - Buildings are Responsive to Local Environment, Indigenous Culture, and Nearby Materials


THE HUMAN SPIRIT! - All Spaces are Sacred

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Bake Locally

One of the supreme joys in life is fresh baked bread.

Cafe Boheme, an independently owned local coffee shop and bakery, is a beautiful example of sustainability.

Proprietors Paul and Dominique think of their place as much more than an eatery. Yes, the coffee is brewed with care cup by cup; Paul is a coffee snob, thankfully. And sure, the breads and pastries baked by Dominique and her staff are prepared with ample portions of love. I can taste it.

The greater service of a place like Cafe Boheme is the cultural sustainability it brings to the community. Be it an organized event like a poetry jam or art talk or a causal meeting with friend, local establishments like this foster rich cultural interaction you just can't find at a WalMart.

And we're all better off because of it.

I particularly enjoy the sneak peeks into Paul's adjoining painting studio for tasty visual morsels.

Thanks Paul and Dominique. The fresh pumpernickel loaf has already been properly introduced to the bread knife. Delicious - for the soul!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful?

...from the shelf marked "OVERDUE LIBRARY BOOKS."

I didn't realize this was a caption contest, but we have a clear winner: Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful?

Thanks Michael Kowalchuk for the creative sharpshooting.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

American Bicycling - It's a Wilderness Out There

When roads are designed with an automobile-only mentality, the health of the citizenry suffers.

I live in what - geographically - would be an ideal walkable and bikeable neighborhood. My wife Vickie and I both teach at the university two blocks away. There are a dozen restaurants, a grocery store, the city zoo, three coffee shops, a variety of retail offerings, churches and several liquor stores within easy walking and biking distance from our house.

Problem is there are very few sidewalks and no designated bike lanes.
So people drive their cars. Everywhere.

I, however, refuse to bow to "autonationalism" - a term coined by architect/futurist Doug Michels to describe the romantic American ethos of automobile-only travel - and drive two blocks to the university like all of my neighbors do. So I walk or ride my bike on unfriendly terrain, including the there-and-back dash across a busy 4-lane state highway. Though it does get the blood pumping, I feel a bit like Lewis and Clark traveling without the benefit of "trail." Most of the time, I come out unscathed.

(Read a past newspaper column about the time I didn't.)

John Paul Frerer (18) from Tupelo, Mississippi wasn't so lucky. He was recently hit by a truck and killed while riding his bike on a public road in preparation for an upcoming triathlon.

The trouble with autonationalist roads - aside from the health disadvantages - is that they breed a mentality of complacency in drivers. The underlying assumption is that no one travels without a car, so why look out for them.

And then it's over.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Diamond Zephyr

A few years ago, a client asked me to "draw up some plans" for some garden apartments (flats, two levels high) on a slender piece of land near the university here in town.

I had designed a couple of small apartment projects for him before so I knew what he expected. But after two projects with fairly conventional massing, I thought it was time to expand horizons.

When I presented the design concept, I showed him the garden apartment scheme and he thought it was dandy.

And then.

And then I pulled this out. The Diamond Zephyr.

"Look," I said. "You can have the same number of apartments, but instead of going out, go up!"

Spectacular views. An architectural icon clearly visible from the Interstate and most parts of town. What an opportunity!

He didn't buy it.

Nevertheless, here she is ... lonely... proud ... looking for a new owner. Any takers?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Solar Power. Warning: Not for Dummies

This summer at the MREA Energy Fair, one of my goals was to find the best new manual on residential photovoltaic design out there.

Pickings were actually much slimmer than I had anticipated; you'd think that with the ascent of renewable energies lately there would be a flood of new books on the market. Wrong.

Surprisingly, after asking around, recommendations for this book kept popping up: Solar Power Your Home for Dummies.

Normally, I stay as far away from "For Dummies" books as I possibly can. (The dummy-themed titles always seemed to me to be a bit condescending.) But when one insistent vendor assured me that "no dummies have ever read this book," I acquiesced. And I'm very glad I did.

Rik DeGunther infuses a healthy dose of wit with a mountain of concise, digestable information about the different types of PV systems, practical advice on selection and installation, and a good many helpful charts and illustrations. It's a cut-to-the-chase reference manual for professionals and, at the same time, is written in a way that newbies to solar energy can understand. Companion volumes (which, full disclosure, I have not read) include Alternative Energy for Dummies and Energy Efficient Homes for Dummies.

DeGunther is an engineer, product designer, writer, and apparently has an affinity for loud guitars. In addition to his books - including a golf manual on the mechanics of putting - DeGunther is a weekly columnist for the Mountain Democrat newspaper.

I did not include a link to the book on in this post. (You can find it in about 3 seconds.) But in the spirit of sustainability, why not buy locally, and support your neighborhood independent bookstore.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Streetsmarts with Streetsblog

Get your dose of local mobility at the Streetsblog network. links to over 300 local blogs from around the country that focus on sustainable transportation. From Savannah to San Francisco, or Miami or Missoula, you'll find what's going on in communities throughout the United States - maybe yours!

The site also links to sustainable transportation advocacy groups, so it's a convenient jumping-off place for research on complete streets, walkable and bikable neighborhoods, and transportation policy. Give it a look.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Price Postscript - The Angel in the Details

You've heard the expression "the Devil is in the details." Well, there may be some truth to that, but upon close examination, there are angels to be found there as well.

A prime example - the pressed copper frieze weaving in and out of the building, both inside and out. What a choice example of ornament that is integral to the building. The articulation becomes one with the building, where the part is a representation of the whole. Variations on the theme keep the motif fresh.

(Contrast this approach with ornament "applied" to the surface like cake decoration.)

Below, yours truly along with my wife Dr. Victoria Johnson and Price Tower Arts Center curator Scott Perkins on a cold winter day in Bartlesville.

Wow, Bartlesville...

Thursday, August 20, 2009

More Baby Daddy

Price Tower photo: Joe Price
St. Marks images: Frank Lloyd Wright et alii

Though not an exact replica, the genetic code is intact.

On the left, the constructed Price Tower. On the right, the design for St. Marks.

Check out this St. Marks Tower plan drawing that was revised and noted by Mr. Wright in 1952 as instructions for the layout of the Price Tower plan.

Compare this composite sketch with the plans of the Price Tower and St. Marks Tower shown in the previous two posts.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Price Tower's Baby Daddy

perspective image: the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation
plan image: Francis Ching

Frank Lloyd Wright started working in earnest on a rotated plan skyscraper in the late 1920's when he proposed a series of towers for St. Mark's in-the-Bouwerie in New York.

Rector William Norman Guthrie, who had hired Wright to design a home (unbuilt) for him in 1908 when he was teaching at the University of the South, was quite the client. Known for being an extremely unorthodox and flamboyant member of the Episcopal clergy, Guthrie saw an opportunity to return "beauty" to the church.

He once wrote Wright "to do anything at St. Marks meant to be an ecclesiastical outlaw."

The towers, intended to be erected for the purpose of generating income for the parish, were to be eighteen stories high springing out of a lush, park-like setting at ground level.

Notice the similarity of the St. Mark's plan to the Price Tower plan (in the previous post) composed a quarter of a century later.

Sadly, the St. Mark's project stopped when contractor's cost estimates came in - as Guthrie put it - as "terrible factual revelations."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Frank Lloyd Wright's Price Tower

Plan image: the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

When was a teenager, the only arts-related offerings at my high school were mechanical drawing and architectural drawing - so I took them both.

Mechanical drawing was pretty dry. I loved drawing isometrics, though, and the holy grail of mechanical drafting at that time - the screw jack - was a challenging and fun exercise for this eager student, and in retrospect, quite the organic form.

Architectural drawing was another story. My love for architecture truly began when I discovered three Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in the textbook: Fallingwater, the Johnson Wax office building and tower, and this fine jewel of a building - the Price Tower.

I remember being mesmerized by the geometry of the plan. The dynamic marriage of the square with 30/60 degree geometries blew my mind (and still does).

I had the opportunity to visit the newly renovated Price Tower a couple of years ago, and I was not disappointed. The two-story apartments (with lower level living area and sleeping mezzanine above) contrast magically with adjacent office flats. And the exterior 30 degree concrete stair puts you right out there in the wind with all of the cool exterior forms and materials.

It's well worth a trip to Bartlesville, Oklahoma to experience this treasure. Stay at the Inn at Price Tower and take in the Price Tower Art Center -curated eloquently by Scott Perkins - for interesting exhibitions directly or obliquely related to organic architecture.

Monday, August 17, 2009

What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us?

Today's newspaper column.

Sometimes, a little humor sheds light on big ideas.

In a scene out of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Reg – played by John Cleese – heads up an angry group of insurrectionists tired of paying taxes and “not getting anything in return,” and hell-bent on taking back their government. The heavy-handed federal government was, in this case, the Roman Empire.

“They’ve bled us white” clamors Reg. “They’ve taken everything we had, and not just from us, from our fathers, and from our fathers’ fathers!”

Defiantly, in a rousing call to arms, Reg yells “and what have they ever given us in return!?”

Amember of the group sheepishly raises his hand and suggests “the aqueduct?”


“The aqueduct.”

“Oh, yeah, yeah, they did give us that, that’s true” admits Reg.

“And Sanitation” said another.

“Oh yeah, sanitation,” chimed in Reg’s sidekick. “Remember what the city used to be like?”

“Alright” Reg retorted, “I’ll grant you, the aqueducts and sanitation are the two things the Romans have done…”

“And the roads!” piped another insurrectionist.

“Well obviously the roads! The roads go without saying, don’t they?” Now Reg is showing a bit of irritation, but staying on message, he plows forward. “But apart from the aqueducts, sanitation, and the roads…”

“Irrigation?” “Medicine?” “Education?” Everybody’s into the act now and you can see where this is going.

But never one to let facts get in the way of a good populist uprising, Reg insists “All right! But apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health - what have the Romans ever done for us?”

Fast-forward to modern America and the sentiment Reg embodied in this silly little skit is alive and well. People love to bash the government – at all levels. It may be human nature.

But before pontificating on how the best government is the least government, or spewing out dogma about how bad government is, why not try engaging with public officials to problem-solve issues you care about.

Fact is, there are many areas where government involvement is not only viable, but necessary and beneficial. Take the interstate highway system, for example. If not for the federal government, a contiguous country-wide system of fast-traveling highways would not exist. That poster child of “big-government intervention” continues to pay dividends today in business efficiencies and personal over-the-road travel freedom long after the funds were allocated for its construction.

Transitioning to a clean energy economy is just one of the big ideas that government must take on if it is to become a reality. I bet you can think of others.

Watch the scene from Life of Brian.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Tragedy of Suburbia

Click here for James Howard Kunstler's insightful talk about the tragedy of suburbia from the TED Talks series.

Thanks to my friend Jody Mabary for passing this along.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Mountain Spire on Mount Inspire

I've heard many people dismiss cellphone towers out-of-hand as a blight on the landscape. I suppose that comes from the fact that most cell towers ARE a blight on the landscape.

Let's face it, an appeal to the aesthetic sensibilities of modern man is generally not very high on the priority list of those putting up said towers, and more likely not on the list at all.

But what if cell towers took on new life? A public observation deck, energy-producing wind turbines mounted to the frame, housing - I hesitate to say the possibilities are endless, but there are certainly a great many undeveloped opportunities.

Some existing towers, by virtue of interesting geometric framing, can be quite beautiful. Here and there, an effort is made to make a tower "more than a steel stick," but a decade into the new millennium, those occasions are rare. The next generation of towers will be characterized by a conscious effort to incorporate "elegance" into the design.

Single use towers may indeed someday be a thing of the past.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Notes on Creativity

quick thumbnail sketch of FLlW by James Polk

Creativity emulates, it never imitates. ---Frank Lloyd Wright

Creativity is the real magic of our universe. It is the shape of our courage and the force of our souls. Creativity is the matrimonial language of form and space, consummated in the physical and spiritual expressions of humanity.
---Adriana Diaz

Creativity is a type of learning process where the teacher and pupil are located in the same individual.
---Arthur Koestler

When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.
---Buckminster Fuller

Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.
---Erich Fromm

Odd how the creative power at once brings the whole universe to order.
---Virginia Woolf

All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.
---Pablo Picasso

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.
---Albert Einstein

Creativity is what happened before someone points to an object of beauty and says, "I've made up my mind, I want one exactly like that," never after.
---James Polk

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Modern Dogtrot

Before the air conditioner came into common use less than four generations ago - that's the home where your great-grand parents grew up - buildings were designed to condition themselves. The American Dogtrot is a prime example.

(The photos are of a typical 150 year old dogtrot.)

Raised off the ground with a central open breezeway, the dogtrot house cooled itself naturally by encouraging air movement around, through, and underneath the structure.

Centuries ago, every professional builder knew how to construct a home that worked with the environment - they had no choice. Today, technology makes it possible to equip houses with mechanical air conditioning and heating, running 24/7, 365 days a year. But just because we can run air conditioners continually, should we?

The dramatic rise in energy prices over the past decade has given us cause to reconsider this relatively recent silver bullet approach. Ignoring Mother Nature is getting harder and harder to do "on the cheap." Why not design first for environmental compatibility and utilize mechanical heating and cooling as a back up system?

A home designed with natural heating and cooling systems integrated into the layout costs less to operate year-round without necessarily costing more to build, and as a bonus, natural ventilation leads to better indoor air quality for healthier living. With conscious and creative architecture, the same building materials can be combined in a different way to produce an environmentally compatible result.

Here's my take this age-old environmental prototype - the Modern Dogtrot.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Future Shock

OpEd Piece: Hattiesburg American

Lately, I’ve been revisiting Alvin Toffler’s influential book Future Shock.

Though written forty years ago, Toffler – a futurist by profession – predicted many of the things we’ve recently become accustomed to as normal.

He foresaw the “throw-away society” where advancements in automation make it cheaper to produce a new product than to fix the old one.

When computers were huge vacuum-tubed hulks housed in separate big rooms, he predicted that distance learning would someday be the norm as everyone will have a small networked computer in their home.

And at a time when the ideal was to get a job and keep it for the rest of your life, he forecasted lifestyles that are transient, with individuals moving from job to job and from place to place when opportunities arise.

Central to the premise of his book was the historical observation that technological change has been happening faster and faster with the passing of time. He interpolated into the future to lay out a scenario where the rate of change continues to speed up to a dizzying pace, and thus society will be forced to adapt along with that technology.

Toffler: “We may define future shock as the distress, both physical and psychological, that arises from an over-load of the human organism’s physical adaptive systems and its decision-making processes. Put more simply, future shock is the human response to overstimulation.”

The green movement is a modern-day manifestation of what Toffler was talking about. Advancements in green technologies just keep coming.

Today, technology has improved to the point where the cost of clean renewable energy, when scaled up to serve everyone, is at par with pollution-based energies (not even accounting for the value of clean air). Non-toxic finishes are beginning to compete with traditional toxic-emitting materials, and zero energy buildings are now outperforming the lifetime cost of cheaper energy-guzzling construction.

Yet, the acceptance of green technologies is causing quite a stir in our national debate.

Toffler suggested a cure. “To survive, to avert what we’ve termed future shock, the individual must become infinitely more adaptable and capable than ever before. “

The fast pace of advancement in the green movement does require that we adapt to processing change as never before. Change, much demonized by some, is not a boogie man. In fact, change is the common denominator for every advancement we’ve ever had.

The friction you hear from fossil-fuel industries and some political leaders (i.e. drill baby drill) is the sound of resistance to that technological change. (Can you think of the sound of ripping Velcro?)

Yet technology speeds on with advancements in solar, wind, and other renewable energies happening faster and faster. It is inevitable that the green economy will overtake the dirty economy – to everyone’s advantage - at some point in the future.

Unless, and until we learn to adapt to and embrace that change, the transition will be very, very painful.