Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Architects' little helper

How to specify photovoltaics

 It's been getting hard for the architectural aggregator sites to differentiate themselves. And of course, how to make money from similar content. 

Sooner or later, it had to become obvious that while many forums are now talking about architecture, and usually expanding into other branches of design as lifestyle accessories, few are focusing on how buildings really get made.

One of the older such sites, Architizer, has decided to focus on this new direction:
"Moving forward you can count on Architizer for the latest trends in practice, in-depth investigations into building-products and cutting-edge news on technology in our field.
Every week we will dive DEEP into a specific building-product, exploring how to specify it, who is pushing technological boundaries with it and how it can be used to create truly incredible architecture. We will work to answer some of the most frustratingly obvious questions that architects have, that seem to never get answered — how to stop a flat roof from leaking, how to make a door disappear or how to attach metal cladding to a building."
This week’s topic is photovoltaics. It is a technology that has been moving both slowly and quickly the same time. Photovoltaic panels have been available for at least 30 years. For most of that time, usually seen as the typical bolt on systems, oriented and tilted at an angle  determined by solar geometry, they have been perceived as inefficient and poorly integrated with the host architecture.

The need for building integrated photovoltaics has been long recognised.  Only in the last 10 years or so have there been enough built examples to fill a couple of case study books, and frankly, not many of the examples were particularly inspiring. But that has changed lately, with rapid advances in new materials for the photovoltaic cells themselves, and the ways of combining PV with conventional building materials.

The Architizer review article provides a convenient and timely update, with relatively comprehensive, and well-balanced technical detail.

Go to 'How to specify photovoltaics'

On that page, you will also find links to other articles in the same series.  And how do they make money out of it?  Well, if you need to, you can sign up for the Source, a service to connect specifiers with manufacturers.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

How big is small?

There is a movement called 'Tiny House'. Gentrified versions of shacks from the past.  Not surprisingly, prompting debate whether these often virtuoso exercises in seductive, photogenic object design actually show us a way forward in  housing affordability.

But it's probably the wrong way to see them.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Worth reading

I don't do book reviews......except one, over two years ago. Can I pick a winner? Sometimes yes.

I am really pleased to pass on that Chris Abel's book The Extended Self was recently unanimously voted winner of the International Committee of Architectural Critics 2017 Bruno Zevi Book Award.

As I said way back then, Abel interests me specially, because unlike most other architectural theorists, he doesn't set up an implied opposition between an architecture that does least ecological harm, and Architecture explained by some other cultural imperatives.

Read my review here.
Better still, read the book.

Today's most sustainable building. Not.

I occasionally check what Google turns up, if I just enter 'world's most sustainable building' in the search.  I am an optimist.  I expect the list to update, and the candidates to get ever closer to model sustainability.

But so far I have generally been disappointed.  Few buildings seem to rise to the top as contenders, even fewer pretenders drop off the lists.  And the terms 'sustainable' and 'green' are ever more debased.  A high LEED or BREAM or GreenStar score seems to be enough to qualify a project to be marketed with both labels.

But there is some hope.  There is a bit of polite push-back.  And it's being read or listened to, because the top ranked link in my google search tonight is actually entitled:

It's an article in Treehugger, by Lloyd Alter; not particularly rigorous, certainly not strident, an almost gentle reminder that there is more to a sustainable building than being less bad than other buildings of the same type.  Which, let’s face it, is all that a high score on one of the rating frameworks tells you.  It's an old complaint. And simply repeating it is getting almost boring.

So the other attraction Alter's article is that when he identifies shortcomings that would disqualify the Bloomberg headquarters, he actually points out examples where each aspect he criticizes has been done better.  So for instance, in relation to the claimed credit for incorporating combined heat and power:

".......CHP plants usually generate heat and power by burning natural gas. The most sustainable office building in the world wouldn't burn fossil fuels. The Bullitt building in Seattle doesn't; it has solar power and gets its heat through ground source heat pumps."

Or addressing the all too obvious lack of accounting for embodied energy:

The PowerHouse Kjørbo, an office building outside of Oslo designed by Snøhetta, was designed to produce not only more energy than it needs from its solar panels, but "generates more energy than what was used for the production of building materials, its construction, operation and disposal." It actually pays back its embodied energy.

The review does not pretend to be a comprehensive checklist for what does make a truly sustainable building.  But it is one of a series by the same author on Treehugger, which may achieve by polite conversational style what dense books and manuals clearly have not.  Worth reading.

Bloomberg HQ
The PowerHouse Kjørbo
Bullitt Center

Friday, 27 October 2017

What is sustainability?

As banal as it seems, this question came up for me recently, with just as much uncertainty as it has for the last thirty or more years.

I was one of the judges of the sustainability awards last night, run for the last eleven years by Architecture and Design, the Australian buildings and products news magazine. Before the event, it wouldn’t have been fair to the organizers or the enthusiastic participants, for me to be too negative about my experience as a judge.

But now that the awards are over for this year, the need for a full and frank discussion of what we’ve learnt outweighs those considerations.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Lovable cities

We all know about the ranking tables that claim to tell us which cities in the world are the most livable. Melbourne, Australia, regularly tops such rankings. I suspect we also share misgivings, that what those tables tell us is nonsense.

Why aren't we talking about it more? I meant to, months ago, when I came across an article about the work of three academics at Deakin University – which incidentally is located on the margins of Melbourne.  The article leads off:
"Liveability has become one of the most important ideas to influence international urban governance and planning. On one level, this should be no surprise – after all, who can disagree that cities ought to be places where people can live? But from here things get tricky.
While debate continues on a precise definition of liveability, the idea has manufactured industry standards in empirical urban rankings based on an ever-growing number of data points. It seems timely to ask whether liveability, in its current state, tells us enough about the quality of cities as places to live."
As the authors explain, the answer to the question isn't simple. To begin with, it pays to understand who generates those tables and for what purpose? Though it's an oversimplification, most such rankings are for the guidance of corporate types, and reflect their needs and preoccupations as expatriates, rather than engaging with the sentiments of people for whom those cities are home.

Probably well aware that they are being cute, the authors set about a discussion of lovability. To quote again:

"The power of lovability is in re-engaging with people to understand the nuances of their interaction with places. Lovability is a powerful concept that, fused with other data, can cut through numbers to provide more direct, relevant information that could guide urban planning and policymaking by identifying a city’s assets through the eyes of its people. It also forgoes the increasing focus on urban competitiveness that liveability has encouraged in favour of richer and more meaningful qualitative data."

It's worth reading the original article published on The Conversation.  Short, and not too academic. The 2015 Melbourne Lovability Index Industry Report is available upon request.
The Conversation

Funny though. All the data in the world is unlikely to capture the qualities Italo Calvino does about Venice in Invisible Cities.  Or Jean-Pierre Jeunet in his love letter to Paris in the film Amélie.

Seemed like a good idea at the time

I have been interested in green walls and green roofs on buildings for quite a while. 

You could almost say that I was spruiking them – with less enthusiasm for the green veneer popularised by Patrick Blanc, and rather more for the larger scale vegetation of the Bosco Verticale by Stefano Boeri in Milan.

But lately, I have been pulled up short by a very sobering thought. How safe is all this greenery if there is a fire?

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Vertical forest 2.0

There must be something in the air.  Well, there is....lots of air pollution in the many cities around the world, eating up their hinterlands of agricultural land and forest remnants.  In reaction, we have witnessed an increasing number of projects at both urban and building scale, to reintegrate greenery with buildings.

Urban forests can help establish green corridors.  Green roofs can add a bit more vegetation.  But by definition, it is difficult to replace the net surface area of plant material found in natural forests, when so much area is dedicated to roads and other impervious infrastructure, and walls, glazing, PV panels or water harvesting roofs on buildings. 

The only chance we have of 'multiplying' the green surface of a given piece of land is to put plants on the vertical facades of buildings.

That thought was given very literal interpretation most famously in Patrick Blanc's green wall at the Museé du quai Branly in Paris, and later at 1 Central Park in Sydney.  Those 'green walls', and others less famous, both before and after, represent an approach which is a close simile to the fragile ecologies of cliffs in nature.  As a consequence they are vulnerable to disruption both natural and (for lack of a better word) administrative.  For instance, the greenery on 1 Central Park is looking decidedly ragged because of the natural forces of wind and sun, but is even more threatened by the reluctance of the owners of many apartments to contribute to the expensive upkeep.  In my view, that kind of green wall will only ever make a small, perhaps negligible contribution to greening the city.

There is another way, dubbed Bosco Verticale ('vertical forest') in Milan.  When I first posted about that project, it was in the context of my cynicism about the fashion of photoshopping lush greenery on every skyscraper competition entry.  To support my doubts, I marshaled the reasoned criticism of  Tim De Chant who concludes that there are a couple of orders of magnitude difference between the effort required to achieve nominal tree presence on buildings as opposed to that spent on resuscitating the region’s natural habitat.  But without repudiating my previous opinion, I have come to see the point of the vertical forest approach.

The difference between green walls and the vertical forest is technical, but simple.  Where the former relies on a thin veneer of plants supported bu a thinner scaffold of growing media in mats or pots, the vertical forest approach sets out to create substantial volumes of soil in which to plant shrubs and trees.  The penalty is the extra weight to be carried by the structure, but the benefits are greater.  As with thermally massive construction, you have the inertia of both temperature and moisture regimes, that make the system much less vulnerable to exposure.  Even the issue of the extra weight is not so problematic, given it's dead weight acting vertically, the most easily resisted load on a structure. The sort of large structural planters used on the lower terraces of  WOHA's Singaposre Park Royal are arguably a sub-set of this vertical forest approach. 

As with most pioneer schemes, the Bosco Verticale projects a single emphatic image, distributing its green terraces relatively uniformly over the building.  What prompted this post is a recent project announcement in Brisbane, Australia, where the balance between the conventional window wall surfaces and the part of the facade given over to the 'forest' is actually quite different.  In fact, so different, it would be easy to jump to a conclusion that the green parts are tokenism.

Closer examination of the scheme reveals  a subtly different reasoning.  The primary motivation is explicitly that apartments should 'feel' like houses in a garden, rather than more ambitious objectives of replacing larger ecological systems.  To that end, the architects respond with a simple apartment layout that maximises the apparent interface between the repeated two storey planted 'courtyards, and adjacent interiors.  Arguably, the precedent for this is Correa's Kanchanjunga Apartments in Mumbai, India, but with plants, rather than walls.

Developers may still begrudge paying for part of their building more for the plants, than for the measurable occupied spaces.  And regulators may be slow to avoid penalizing the extra space within the built volume.  It may still be a pale imitation of nature in a real forest, or even in a good urban park, but this latest example may be an effective demonstration for how to integrate elevated greenery that is both more robust and more economical than the green wall prototypes. If so, we can expect more people willing to pay a premium for their houses in the sky, with at least an illusion of arcadia outside their high rise windows.

See the Architecture & Design article here.

My previous posts:
Wrong green
No trees please.
Trees in the air 2

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The root of a housing crisis: we’re building the wrong thing

I am not sure to what degree this problem is relevant to the rest of the world, but it is an urgent discussion in relation to Melbourne and Sydney, Australia.  Writing in the Conversation,   of the The Australian Population Research Institute leads off:
As is well known, the shortage of affordable separate housing in Sydney and Melbourne means that most first home buyers and renters cannot currently find housing suited to their needs in locations of their choice.
Summarily setting aside the building industry's insistence that the market will continue to demand more apartments for small or single person households for a younger demographic, Birrell suggests the contrary conclusion.  His research suggests that in the medium term, immigration in particular will drive a greater need for homes for family formation.

But then Birrell criticizes current industry and academic research for using crude extrapolations of present assumptions about dwelling types, only to do exactly the same himself. Simply put, he assumes that family formation will continue to be identified with single detached dwellings, regardless of their decreasing share of the new build housing stock, and the continuing loss of older detached housing for apartment development sites.

A more sophisticated analysis would acknowledge that, as the populations of Sydney and Melbourne recognise the advantages as well as compromises of genuinely urban city living, there is likely to be a very significant growth of demand for family accommodation in apartments.  If that simple proposition is reasonable, then Birrel's headline still holds true, but for a subtly different reason.
The problem is not that we are failing to build single detached dwellings in places families want to live now.  The real problem is that all the best sites where families will be happy to live in the future, are being more or less permanently rendered unavailable for larger apartments.
It has to do with the nature of the land title for ownership of apartments in Australia.  Title is overwhelmingly the fragmented 'strata' title, where once a building is subdivided into individual apartment lots for sale, it is extremely difficult to re-consolidate, or even to reconfigure.  Profit in the current Sydney and Melbourne markets is maximised by building an overwhelmingly large proportion of single bedroom and studio apartments.  And there seems to be no truly effective planning instrument that prevents this outcome, with local government consistently unable to enforce its requirements for more forward looking mix of apartment sizes.

Read the Conversation article here:

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Complex urbanism

To give this piece its full title: Complex urbanism wears simple, at times casual clothes.

I am no longer actively teaching architecture, but sometimes I still feel like getting a message off my chest.  And so it is with some thoughts about Jean Nouvel.  Nouvel seems to conjure up some extraordinary pieces of architecture distinguished by uniquely simple diagrams.  Which to my mind, are too rarely remarked on.

Yes, the seminal Institut du Monde Arabe was justly famous not only for its remarkable dynamic abstraction of mashrabiya screens as mechanical irises, but also lauded for its resilute geometric solution to a difficult gap in the Paris built fabric.  That clarity of thinking is no longer easy to recognise.  For me the overall scheme is disappointingly disfigured by the major additions filling in the plaza, and now stomach bumping with a banal billboard the Notre Dame across the river.

But Paris has been good to Nouvel, and he has been good for Paris.  He has twice employed the same fundamental strategy for inserting museums as 'pavilions in a garden', while also healing gaps in the city's characteristic block perimeter facades.  

As a way of turning the diagram into built form, its almost simplistic: run a gossamer thin glass screen to the height of the adjacent buildings, and enjoy the freedom of laying out your building in the sequestered landscape behind.  The Fondation Cartier in Paris from 1994 established the trope.  But while the building behind is a thoroughly enjoyable modernist glass ensemble, it arguably holds no further profound lessons for the architectural pilgrim.

Its next manifestation, in the Musée du quai Branly you find the same diagram for the screen and the garden, but also a richer vein of arguably interesting thinking.

First, there is the misdirection.  That famous green wall seems to be the first and often only image associated with the Branly in many articles and web entries.  In life, it turns out to be the facade of the minor, administrative wing of the museum. Its real function seems to be to respectfully extend the corner from the Avenue de la Bourdonnais, at just the right height, and just the right weight.  The greenery allows Nouvel to compose the facade with a different rhythm and scale to that of the apartment buildings, while minimizing any clash that would otherwise occur.  Importantly, that facade is just as long as is needed to anchor the corner, and no more.

The real urban work is being done, as in the Fondacion Cartier, by the inscribed glass screen, forming the perceived edge to the remainder of the block, while revealing the garden behind.  

In this garden, the much larger museum building wallows like a beached whale, stitched together by an internal armature for which the declared analogy is a river.  Regardless of what that sounds like, I actually mean it as a compliment.  Like Frank Gehry when asked 'why?' about his Barcelona fish restaurant, Nouvel is entitled to say 'why not?'  This lesson is simple.  Almost any analogy will work, if the architect extracts from it its essential organisational or expressive potential, rather than render its superficial connection to site or context.  And if in design development the analogy doesn't work out, a good architect abandons it, gets rid of it, and starts with another, better one.

But for me, the biggest lesson is what is hidden. Therefore I learnt it not from experiencing it directly in the museum.  I have never come across anything more than a cursory mention of the artists in residence studios, that occupy the apartment buildings on the Avenue de la Bourdonnais.  No diagram, no plans, no images.  Yet that is where, I infer, Nouvel makes one of his profound departures from the modernist idiom.  

If I am right, I figured it out staying in a semi-basement apartment in Paris, accessed tortuously, like the famous sequence from Mon Oncle, but more dark passages than irrational stairs.  At the end of that transit was the apartment, almost miraculously opening a shuttered window back to the quiet courtyard.  It was a great place to come to rest and enjoy.  It didn't really critically matter how you got there, as long as the 'there' lifts your spirit. 

The proposition is that for personal and domestic places, the delight at the destination does benefit from the romantic, almost secret path.  But it needed no clarity of the 'parti'.  And so it is, I suspect, with the artists' studios.  See that 'mess' where the new museum building collides with the back of the apartment blocks?  I am pretty sure it was made that way.