Saturday, 30 November 2013

Getting personal: how do you use air conditioning?

Sometimes a little thing is worth talking about.

I regularly deliver a lecture, in various settings, about air conditioning.  It's interesting; most  young architects and architecture students think of air conditioning as inherently the opposite of energy efficiency.  They assume it's to be avoided, if you can only crack the magic 'passive' cooling conundrum, possibly even evil.  But the same idealistic young architects design buildings that in even moderate climates can't maintain comfort without some sort of conventional air conditioning, and guiltily value it's contribution to their own productivity.

Yet if you understand the principles of refrigerative A/C, or even better, absorption chillers that run on low grade heat to generate cooling, you can sometimes admit the nagging reality.  At the heart of most air conditioning systems lies a ruthlessly efficient way of creating heating or cooling.

To understand this, you need to understand that the energy efficiency of air conditioners is indicated by the EER (Energy Efficiency Ratio) for the cooling mode, and by the COP (Coefficient of Performance) for the heating mode. These indicators give the ratio of the total cooling or heating output and the energy input, because the heat pumps in an air conditioner move heat around, rather than convert fuel to heat.
With EER and COP of around 6 for a modern split system, air conditioning can be getting a very big bang for the buck you spend on your primary fuel source.
What makes air conditioning profligate, is the WAY it is most often used, to cool big lumps of otherwise ineffectively designed space.  Yet we are aware of alternative approaches that leave most of that unoccupied volume to overheat as much as it likes, while we cool where the people are.  So we have 'displacement systems' from floor plenums, driving pollutants towards the ceiling to be exhausted with much of the heat from the lights, and low speed registers built into theater seats to create bubbles of conditioned space. And in our most perceptive moments, we remember about the personal comfort systems found on airplanes and long distance coaches.

So it was with some delight I came across the work of a young academic at UTAS in Launceston Tasmania.  Tim Law took inspiration from those personal systems we already know, and married the thought up with the fact that existing buildings will continue to dominate our built stock, often inhibiting aggressive interventions. He has designed and got to production stage a climate control device that effectively air conditions the minimum space of the desk-bound worker, 'the person rather than the space'.  At first, it may not seem novel, but it actually is, because it is not tethered by a way of disposing the hot air that conventional portable air conditioners produce.  Tim's device rejects the heat directly to a fixed volume of phase change material, installed within the unit itself.

OK, it's not immediately obvious how the phase change storage regenerates efficiently overnight. Is this just another way of using ingenuity, not to cut down energy use at all, but like ice storage before it, merely to level out the usage to take advantage of off-peak tariffs?  I suspect the key is in the total loads the system tries to handle.  It's not the small conditioned bubble that saves the money, but the large volume that can be left to swing much further away from comfort.

I suspect we will be seeing  quite a number of improvements on conventional air conditioning, and that air conditioning will remain in the spotlight in climate change adaptation scenarios.  So we need the work of people like Tim Law, to turn air conditioning from part of the problem, to part of the solution.

See an enthusiastic presentation video by Tim Law here.

Heliostats happen (updated)

There is obviously interest in heliostats.  While I have been a bit preoccupied with other things, and failed to add much new to my blog, the heliostat pages seem to attract the most readership.  So, here is a bit of an update.

I have now had the opportunity to visit the retail areas of Central Park, since their 'hard opening' some weeks ago.  The heliostat mirrors do not appear to be functional yet, so my initial impressions cannot advance our assessment of what they actually do, or how well they do it.  But some aspects of the design do become easier to understand, and therefore if one is so inclined, open to criticism.

The thing that immediately struck me was that there is a big difference between the architectural renderings of the key spaces, and the sensation of those spaces in real life.  The scale of both outdoor and indoor 'public' space is much less expansive that the renderings suggest.  But in particular, the sectional complexity of the shopping spaces turns out to be rather humble in its impact as you move around what is in reality a very small retail mall.

Even more disappointing is that when the heliostat mirrors are finally tracking a beam to the skylight at the top, it's hardly likely it will make a positive difference to the lighting of the central indoor space.  There is a significant 'diffuser' on the skylight: a glass bottomed pond.  The rippling water varies the transmitted light continuously at a rate far greater than the rate at which daylight normally changes.  Normally, one of the arguments for natural light as opposed to artificial is the psychological value of its variability.  But this arrangement goes far beyond the intrinsic subjective value of natural light as opposed to artificial.

I can't convince myself that this is a rigorous technical lighting decision, because of other issues with the general lighting quality.  So, for instance, on going inside the mall, one realizes that the highlighted portions of the interior will be significantly brighter than the adjacent areas, and to balance the user's adaptation levels, quite large amounts of permanent supplementary artificial lighting is required. That lighting is provided by some designerly chandeliers, which even on a cloudy day struggled to achieve any liveliness.  But wait, there is more.
Once one tunes in to the technical issues of the lighting, one questions the material finishes in a different way.  The distribution and modelling characteristics of daylight are everywhere hugely affected by the internally reflected component.  So it comes as something of a surprise that at Central Park there is a cute faux 'timber look', even down to the dark brown planked floor.  The colour and the material are very low reflectance, and literally suck out the diffuse reflections on which better daylight distribution would depend.  And to make things seem almost laughably inept, there are long walls finished in similar materials, taking up major portions of the places where a competent shopping mall would have had shop windows spilling their own light.
Genzyme HQ, Cambridge, Ma
I hate sounding unrelentingly negative.  But these few comments go to the heart of my recurring themes.  First, I have a pet project of encouraging people to actually look at the pretty pictures that accompany the spin doctors' press releases. When you do that, you see what I am describing, even in the official photographs of the opening of this aspirational shopping experience. Second, when you take the trouble to tease apart the principles of technical performance, you can more easily find positive precedents for inspiration.  In this case, for instance, the heliostat and reflective chandelier of the Genzyme HQ building in Cambridge Ma. is a much better technical solution to daylight distribution.

Back to the iconic cantilevered frame of the heliostat.  It is remarkably close in every way to the renderings, yet it too undergoes a strange perceptual shift as one walks into the site.  Closer to the buildings than the usual hero shots illustrate, the cantilevered plane closes up the normal sky view between buildings. It is a very counter-intuitive sense of intimacy, and on balance wasn't a good feeling. Certainly from below, the experience is not exhilarating, though it may well be for those privileged to access it from above.  Some time soon, I will take the trouble to photograph the views that don't yet appear on the internet..  But to be fair, I am waiting for the heliostat to be commissioned.  When that happens, I will top up this post.

Other heliostat links:
A nice little review article on DesignBuild Source by Justin McGar here.

A more recent press release, with the image of the whole heliostat that actually includes the motorised primary reflectors on the roof of the shopping centre building.  Click here for the article.

I dread to think how inconvenient it would be for residents looking down if one or more of the lower mirrors' tracking goes awry.  But that is just my paranoia about depending on moving parts!

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

The new rational architecture

I have been struggling for some time with the idea that much of today's architecture which strikes the casual viewer as arbitrary in form, is in fact no less rational than the stripped down international style boxes of the mid 20th century.  Of course, fundamental to this proposition is that 'rational' does not denote any particular privileged truth, but merely means that something is derived by logical steps from a starting point taken as axiomatic.

I was reminded of this by two separate but related experiences in my work with residential flat buildings (better known in the rest of the world as 'apartments').  The first was coming across a press release promoting a particular Melbourne development.  I quote:
"With extended frontage to the river, Sanctuary features a striking exterior that is inspired by a wind-blown spiral of autumn leaves.  The angular balustrades on the facade are composed of both solid and glazed elements that alternatively reveal and conceal the building behind, in response to the movement around the building. This orchestrated pattern, at first seemingly random, gives the architecture a subtle complexity."
However truthfully it might report the thinking of the designer, in fact the first sentence is a distraction.  The essence of the design process for an apartment building is the 'flat plate' concrete structural solution, that became the dominant construction method for this building type in Australia in the 1970s.  By adding only slightly to the thickness of the concrete slabs, engineers were able to accommodate the additional reinforcing steel to resist shear at the columns and thereby eliminate beams. This approach provides a completely flat soffit, under which walls could be arranged in almost any pattern, without having to pay regard to beams or column heads. The columns are not constrained into any particular regular grid, and the edges can cantilever within a certain range.  Those cantilevers can also be be extended by up-turned or down-turned edge beams.

My second experience of the day came at a project coordination meeting, where one issue discussed was the prescribed minimum ceiling height in our local regulations.  It became quickly apparent that both the developer and the architects considered the floor to floor heights assumed by the planning authorities to be a serious constraint on the total amount of space they could fit into an allowable building envelope.  Yet they also expected to be able to alter the arrangement of individual apartments at will, after planning approval is granted.

When arranging a floor plan, there are certain elements like the elevators, that insist on lining up vertically.  More subtle is the influence of plumbing.  If you don't line up your wet areas vertically above each other, there will be floor waste and shower traps, and possibly unwelcome horizontal waste pipes to be accommodated within the ceiling zone of the storey below.  Quite apart from the unpleasant experience of the sound effects of someone's ablutions while you are perhaps sitting in your dining room, to accommodate such pipework requires additional space which minimum floor to floor heights do not allow.  That is why the authorities insist that planning permission be based on assumptions of greater storey heights.  All up, the discussion reminded me that even with flat floor plates, it isn't altogether a free-for-all when it comes to planning out the apartments.

Still, the net result is that there is no particular tyranny which requires any strict repetition between floors – or certainly not one that constrains the exterior expression of the successive layers of terraces.  What appears at first sight in the Melbourne project to be a gratuitous superimposition of irrelevant metaphor in the design development, turns out to be clear-sighted, rational exploitation of the potential expression of the discipline of form.  Arguably more so than the ascetic aesthetics of early modernism.

Of course, this begs the question of whether there are other constraints, that should become the parameters to which these new, freer forms should respond.  It is the relative weakness of many architects, in identifying the contextual and environmental factors that logically constitute such constraints, that often offends.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Greenwash olympics

Being a Sydneysider and an academic with an interest in sustainability, it has been an article of faith for me that the 2000 Sydney Olympics were deservedly hailed as a milestone in the history of the event.  Sydney pitched for and won the games by emphasizing the sustainability credentials of the bid.

The sustainability initiatives began with the main site itself, a heavily polluted brownfields wasteland.  Former activities had included the city's main abattoir, as well as industries that had apparently specialized in leaking heavy metals, hydrocarbons and dioxins into the silt of the adjacent harbour bays.  To rehabilitate the site involved the development of pioneering encapsulation and other strategies.  The Athletes' Village was watered down by commercial development interests from its idealistic competition winning scheme, but at the time of its construction still managed to be the largest residential building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) installation.  Of course it was overtaken very quickly for that particular title, but the village did do the job of proving real estate agents wrong about the post-games marketability of smaller, better designed, more energy efficient dwellings.  For the main venues, the sustainability initiatives were largely in developing analysis and evaluation tools, including embodied energy inventories of materials, that enabled the application of life cycle thinking in their design.  There were lots of other smaller initiatives as well, like district grey water treatment and duplicate reticulation of recycled water.
All-in-all, it has been suggested that Sydney added a 'third ideal' of sustainability to the two Olympic ideals of sport and culture.  No subsequent pitch for hosting the Games has been able to avoid credentialing its bid with claims of sustainability initiatives.
Of course, one of the issues that has undermined this rosy picture, is the difficulty of maintaining a genuine use for the Olympic Games venues after the closing ceremony cheering dies away.  Unless that long-term use is socially and financially sustainable, even better than normal environmental sustainability practices loose something of their cachet. 

There has been a fairly grim, and relentless reporting, of just how difficult it has been for most cities to avoid the stadia and other crowd pleasers turning into white elephants.  Perhaps the worst is Greece, where the financial crisis has resulted in funds for maintenance being withdrawn, and venues literally abandoned.

My interest in this issue was given a nudge when my Chinese speaking partner mentioned a Taiwanese video which extols the success of the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing, in hosting a sequence of varied events, and the technological wonders the venue provides to make it all possible.  Very large amounts of money as daily rent are mentioned, as well as the suggestion that the venue is booked out through 2015.  This did not seem to accord with my memory of other discussions on the internet.  My first reaction was that all those articles disparaging the post-games use of the stadium were probably a subtle form of anti-Chinese sentiment, perhaps dangerously out of date with reality.

At first, I thought I had guessed right.  Most googled links seemed to be dated 2009 (the year after the Beijing Games), and like a lot of the blogosphere, they seemed to repeat the same few snippets reporting a disastrous lack of bookings.

But after a while, my collated list of events hosted by the Bird's Nest over the four intervening years started to resemble the ones breathlessly touted in the Taiwanese daytime TV show.  I realized again that you can't believe a lot of what you see on the internet, and that daytime TV anywhere is mainly a totally unreliable mashup with a bent towards sensationalism, when they run out of conspiracy theories.  In this case, they managed to put an editorial spin on a bunch of images, that made it look like technical miracles were performed to change overnight from a football pitch to a car racing track, from competitive skiing on artificial snow to a rock concert.  The reality seems to be that an initial interest by local tourists has dramatically waned, with the 50 yuan entry charge too much for many visitors, and the big events few and far between, with any but the rock concerts and Italian league soccer games failing to fill the 98,000 seats.  The revenue falls well short of the outgoings.

It's thought provoking what other factoids turn up. For instance London's stadium is a deliberately 'temporary' structure, that uses only 10,000 tons of comparatively 'ordinary' steel, compared to 42,000 tons of never before seen alloy needed to hold up Beijing’s Bird's Nest.  That would seem to be a telling comparison of embodied energy and other normal sustainability metrics.  But it's hard to be confident of such information even from an engineering trade site, given the same article quotes the circumference of the stadium in square feet, and passes without comment over listing PVC coating on the retractable fabric roof.

What, if anything, can one conclude?  With considerable certainty: sustainability and the Olympics is an oxymoron.  Even if it does have some identifiable effect on tools and design practices employed by building professionals, and possibly sends some positive messages to the general public, the rhetoric is shameless greenwash.


Monday, 7 October 2013

Mysterious mathematics 3

Don't read this if you are sick of rants.

I wanted to do a follow-up of my previous posts on architecture and mathematics.  What better way to start than googling the two terms.  Bad mistake.  It can give you indigestion.  Not the number of hits, but the knotting stomach induced by the sheer inanity of some amateur design journalist grappling with the subject.  If you are masochistic, go to 10 Amazing Examples of Architecture Inspired by Mathematics on Flavorwire. The bloopers make you cringe.

First up, an innocent enough project for a building for an undefined Buddhist program, incorporating a mobius strip surface.  To justify it, the author manages to describe the lumpen stasis of a traditional stupa and its circumambulatory path as a 'twisty space'.  She should visit one sometime.

This introductory example of the mathematical marvels in architecture is also conspicuously a project, not an actual, built building.  I wish they would stop doing that, especially when there is a perfectly good, prize winning built example of a Klein Bottle House (the proper 3D version of the mobius strip) near Melbourne, Australia.

At least Walter Netsch's US Air Force Academy’s Cadet Chapel in Colorado Springs, Colorado has the merit of having been built.This piece of full sized origami is described as shaped like a tetrahedron,which it clearly isn't.But what can you expect from an author who first quotes the definition of a tetrahedron as a four sided object with triangular sides, and then promptly confuses it with pyramids, which have five sides including a square base.

I can afford to gloss over the geodesic domes of the Eden Project because it doesn't have anything offensively wrong.  But I am offended by the breathy, guileless description of Foster's office tower in London known as The Gherkin.  According to the author: "the modern tower was carefully constructed with the help of parametric modeling amongst other math-savvy formulas so the architects could predict how to minimize whirlwinds around its base."  Give me a break!

Yes, parametric modelling is a key feature of the practice's characteristic approach to generating apparently complex shapes.  Which are surprisingly buildable, because of the way the parts can be scheduled for automated manufacture and reliable logistics in assembly.  This use of bespoke software is lucidly explained in Chris Abel's admirable book Architecture, Technology and Process,  and incidentally, compared at length to the way Gerhy uses the CATIA software suite to solve his complex building geometries.

OK.  I am actually grateful for the reminder of the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair. And this time, the author commits no bloopers, probably because she simply names the dominant geometry as the use of hyperbolic paraboloids employing steel tension cables.  Why do I miss mention of Felix Candela and his much earlier experiments with the same form in concrete?  Or the factoid that these curved forms can be generated from repeated straight lines, which made them buildable by conventional building materials.  Therein lay the fascination with their mathematics for architects like Candela, trying to build his formwork out of timber, before casting it in plastic concrete.

Mathematical allusion is getting pretty desperate when the owner of this Toronto home, named the Integral House is "a calculus professor who wrote textbooks and wanted to incorporate the mathematical sign into the home’s name and design. Undulating glass and wood walls also echo the shape of a violin."  Might be delightful, but the maths is in the room acoustics and the material choices and assemblies of the 200 seater performance venue, not in the trite simile.

 I've previously pointed out that any undergraduate architecture student could generate Barcelona’s Endesa Pavilion by trial and error in ten minutes, with the free SketchUp modelling software.  The "mathematical wizardry" is entirely that of the people who make the program run fast enough to use, not in translating the solar geometry algorithms.

I'll gloss over Cube Village, built by Dutch architect Piet Blom, because the author doesn't attempt a mathematical description of it.

And then, joy of joys, a truly worthy project.  Gaudi's Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona.

The author enthuses over the virtuoso exercise in numerology, itself unremarkable in the tradition of mystical religion.  She does mention the hyperbolic paraboloids of surfaces, and even the "catenary arches".  She obviously has no idea of the true magic of Gaudi's insight, that the optimum shapes of the compressive structure in masonry could be empirically developed, by modelling them as pure tension, upside down as catenary chains, loaded with intuitive estimates of the superimposed loads.

And so we end with a mathematical whimper, a fractal gas station makeover in Los Angeles.  This might seem a bit unfair.  There is something serious about fractal geometry, and there is definitely something important about how the form generation potential of meshed surfaces has lately influenced architecture everywhere.  My angst is two-fold.

On the one hand, I refer back to the insight that hyperbolic paraboloids can be generated from straight sticks or cables to employ conventional building materials.  Employing a software package like 3D Studio Max automatically creates 'mesh' substitutes for the complex curved surfaces, and thereby turns them into forms that can be clad by combinations of flat sheets cut or folded into triangles, the joints typically filled with generous beads of mastic.  This is the main reason why we can now build all the rendered fantasies that so dominate the architectural magazines.  But it is also the reason why so many of these tortured forms end up with all those slivered triangles all over their surfaces, as they do in the example used.

My second reason for despair?  The author clearly doesn't understand any of this.
Read the original here.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

What is it about Australian architecture?

To judge a building as the best of its kind in the world is a risky business.  By what authority, by what criteria?  And always the shadow of all the buildings that nobody nominated to be considered.  Nevertheless, the World Architecture Festival in Singapore appears to have gained some traction as a competition for recognition as the best each year.  Perhaps this is happening because the WAF is so much more than a magazine promotion, or an endowment by a rich patron.  Unencumbered by the sometimes strange thematic abstractions of the Venice Biennale, the format of the Festival is a celebration, a combination of competitive presentations to juries and a place to hear keynote speakers, an opportunity to be challenged and stimulated.  It is an event that increasing numbers of architects around the world are apparently treating seriously.

The competition is definitely international enough, to take notice of regional strengths.  It is in that context that one realizes just how over-represented are Australian architects amongst the premiated projects.  This year, the supreme prize for buildings went to the Auckland Art Gallery extensions by Sydney firm Frances-Jones Morehen Thorp, who last year collected the prize in the office building category.  The award for the best landscape project has gone to a botanical garden at a former quarry outside Melbourne; The Australian Garden was designed by landscape studio Taylor Cullity Lethlean and plant expert Paul Thompson.  There were numerous other category wins by Australian practices, and a solid representation of high commendations.  Future Building of the Year went to Australian practice Cox Rayner Architects for the National Maritime Museum in China.

All of which begs a few questions.  I will leave the harder task of identifying the complex web of unifying threads to someone who, I hope will write a long-form piece about this. But as an immediate reaction, it's almost like Australian architecture represents a direct line of transmission from early modernism, picking up mid-20th century Scandinavian influences, and eschewing the subversion of traditional ordering systems that has been one of the strident slogans of the new parametrics. I can't help noting that almost without exception, the Australian projects are formally and spatially disciplined, inviting very strong elemental readings of roof, wall and floor, with an enthusiastic display of authentic materiality, and at least an evocation of craft.

Less obvious perhaps, and best exemplified by the winning landscape project, the Australian designs seem to share a propensity for both abstraction and understandable narrative, with strong metaphors but few similes.  Least obvious, and maybe a figment of my hopeful imagination, they also seem to be exceptionally driven by contextual fit, to the point of the best being actually adaptive reuse.....think the reworked harbour infrastructure of JPW's Sydney Cruise Terminal, the disused quarry as botanic gardens, the extensions to the Auckland Art Gallery, the  Left-Over-Space House by Cox Rayner Architects, winner of the House category.  Even in the sole premiated project on American soil, Housing winner 28thStreet Apartments, expatriate Australians Koning Eizenberg rework a historic 1926 YMCA to insert new housing on a small site in south Los Angeles.

I do find it equally interesting that the judges have been rewarding this casual conservatism. Less spectacularly than the post-WW2 identification of design culture with Italy and Scandinavia perhaps, Australian architects seem to be steadily positioning the country as a notable source of considered good design.

Many blog and zine sites have covered the World Architecture Festival.  But the first place to look should be the event's web site.
Click here.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Knowing half or half knowing?

Readers of this blog would know that my over-riding theme is the problem of architectural knowledge: why it is so riddled with half-baked notions of how things work, and why it doesn't get better over time.  
I owe my original concern with this issue to Wayne Attoe's 1978 book Architecture and Critical Imagination and his articles subsequent to its publication.  Attoe diagnosed the principal barriers to the progressive improvement of the shared architectural knowledge base, as revolving around the unhealthy dominance of rhetoric in competitively positioning architecture as a business, a process that is aggressively opposed to the traditions of testing theories against evidence.

Attoe's thesis accounts for the lack of progress in the improvement of architectural knowledge, and might even explain the dominance of oversimplified headline claims for the projected performance of buildings, but it doesn't entirely explain the sheer painful imprecision, the half-knowledge as I call it, of quite simple fundamentals.  I was reminded of this by an article on ArchitectureAU about Making more of our relationship to light, meaning in this case, predictably, daylight.

For a while now, I have been speculating just where in the symbiotic relationship between architects and the 'journalists' of the design media, the blame for the naivete really lies.  In this instance, I got an unpleasant  answer to that  question because the author is described as  the director of a Melbourne based firm of architects, and a graduate lighting student at QUT. who in 2012 traveled to Vicenza to take part in a daylight design workshop run by the University of Florida.  So, as far as I am concerned, he has no excuse if the article is less than elegantly accurate.
I want to try an experiment.  I get too little feedback on this blog, so I thought I would run a little competition this time: spot the good, the bad and the downright dangerously wrong.
The rules are simple:
  1. 'Control-Click' the link to the article.  That brings it up in a new window in your browser, so you can leave this post open at the same time, and switch between the windows any time.
  2. Read the article.
  3. Pick an example of a statement of a lighting principle that you think is genuinely useful, or one that you think is wrong, or one that might be right, but is getting garbled.
  4. Open a Comments panel to this post, quote the bit from the article, and briefly explain why you picked it.

There are no prizes, but I will respond to each comment if it needs further clarification, and I will definitely bestow generous praise on anyone who gets something really, really right!

To access the article, click here.

If my challenge for you readers to do the detective work doesn't inspire, I promise to do the follow-up myself.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Figuring out Zaha

I reacted badly recently, when a comment on some architectural blog, about one more curvy carved 200m tall office tower, questioned "what are they teaching architecture students at university these days?"  I lashed out in reply that to the best of my knowledge, most such buildings (and the even more wildly curvaceous museums or opera houses) that actually managed to get built, were by architects in their sixties and older.  Not by recent graduates..  Then I thought I better check how old was Zaha Hadid, the most curvaceous of them all, and conspicuously the only woman in this company of old (mostly) white men.

It might have been an innocent query on Google asking "how old is Zaha Hadid?" (thanks, Wikipaedia. Born 31 October 1950), but the top rated link told me much more that I also needed to know.  I have singled out Hadid's work on this blog for both exasperated chastisement and grudging admiration.  The ambivalence had not bothered me, in as much as I see no problem in seeing both good and bad in an architectural oeuvre growing so quickly and conspicuously.  But it has bothered me that I have neither the benefit of first-hand contact with the architect, nor opportunity to study her buildings in the flesh, and therefore could not satisfactorily connect them.

And so to the point.  This post is simply to commend an article that does precisely that. THE FIRST GREAT FEMALE ARCHITECT is a recent reprint in The Economist Intelligent Life supplement, of an article written in 2008 by Jonathan Meades, author of Museum Without Walls.  It is an erudite, intimate exploration of not only the architect/artist, but of her milieu in London and in British architecture.  Like all literate critique, it is a construction of allusions, many contentious.  But then, so is Zaha Hadid's architecture, and I now feel like I understand better why.

Without further ado, read it here.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Tastefully green

By now my readers would be used to my predilection for puns.  Admittedly, this post title is worse than usual, as I refer to the continuing efforts to introduce into the densest urban fabric of our cities some meaningful local food production.  The issue was brought to mind by a tasteful photo spread in Inhabitat, headlined Shanghai Shopping Mall Sprouts a Flourishing Urban Farm!

The K11 mall is spruiked as an ‘Art Mall’, and as Inhabitat explains, seeks to break the mold of the average consumer shopping experience in China.  Its urban farm is one of its most unusual and inviting aspects.
Located in the middle of the mall, the farm uses soil-free cultivation methods and it provides a bit of green respite for urban visitors.  The mini-farm is currently producing tomatoes, eggplants and hot peppers, but with autumn on the way they will soon be switching to different seasonal produce. The vegetables are grown using automatic irrigation systems, and LED lighting supplements the daylight that floods in through the mall’s windows.
Indeed, the farm is tastefully displayed, much of it behind glass and branded like much else in China was the potent combination of high-end information technology references in English.  I sound like I'm cynical, but I am trying not to be.  It is actually hard to give credit where it is due, for an effort which is about raising consciousness of the possibility of urban food production, while questioning whether it distracts from the realities of how that might be brought about.
There are many attempts at quantitative treatment of the true proportion of our total resource expenditure that is conventionally dedicated to feeding the city.  But for some reason, it is very rarely highlighted.  For popular consumption, the outcomes of such analysis are usually buried in the metaphor of the 'ecological footprint'.  While useful as a scary headline, that tends to mask the sobering detail.
To see, for instance, a simple graph of the embodied energy of feeding ourselves, as a proportion of recurring energy consumption by a typical, developed world household, conveys a subtly different message.  Who would like to confront the suggestion that we might be using five times as much energy for our food to get to our door, as for otherwise running the dwelling?
Exactly how the fabric of the city might be modified to achieve a meaningful impact on the status quo, has also been the topic of thought and experiment.  But it would be fair to say that most often when food is introduced into discussions of urban sustainability, the conversation relies heavily on the romance of residents growing nominal amounts, either individually or as communal activity.  It kind of sneaks in under the social banner of a triple bottom line framework.

Meanwhile, rare is the city in the world that is not gobbling up its surrounding agricultural land, pushing out even the market gardens that traditionally were able tuck themselves into pockets of flood prone land between suburbs.  It will be interesting to see what intimations of catastrophe eventually force us to confront this issue. What I would like to see are the prototypes of urban agriculture that are actually capable of producing commercial quantities; the diversity and complexity of ecosystems that supply a greater proportion of our needs. Urban forestry, vertical fields, professional farmers able to make a living, rather than mere cute spectacle. 

Houdini Tower

Don't know how I missed this. Oh, that leads to a lot of lame jokes.

Korea Will Soon Be Home To The World's First 'Invisible' Skyscraper reads the headline in Business Insider Australia, a site that doesn't seem to have all that much with business.  The article goes on to describe a proposal from GDS Architects, for a very tall tower clad with an LED facade system with optical cameras to display what’s directly behind the building. When turned on, the “reflective skin” of the building will give the illusion that Tower Infinity is blending in with the skyline.

Better to read the original article, replete with illustrations. It's amazing how easy it is to whip up alternative realities these days in Photoshop, describe them with verbs that blur the distinction between the imagined rhetoric and the built outcome. No point my summarizing the breathless claims here.

Why the reference to the great escapologist in the headline of this post?  Harry Houdini famously claimed that he could make an elephant disappear in a crowded room.  While the simile is attractive, the metaphor is compelling.  It was Houdini's explanation of the trick that is the most relevant: that he would do it by distracting us.

BMW had a go at this idea, and executed it in the flesh, for a promotion,  As a car advertisement, it was amusing, and the question could be safely asked: Who in their right minds would actually do this for real?  Ad campaign over, the car could be safely relegated to the BMW museum, or wherever they retire such engaging toys.  But a building?
So, why exactly would you want to make a very tall tower very near Seoul's international airport invisible?  I guess you really wouldn't.  It's just an excuse to propose a giant billboard.  After all, "the building’s projections may also be used for broadcasting special events, or for advertising purposes, according to GDS Architects".  But that isn't the real distraction.

For the price of a couple of undergraduate renderings and a well placed media release, GDS Architects have as much promotional exposure as if they had actually built a worthwhile building.  Magic, isn't it?

Read the rest of the article here.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

The little house that could

Australian Fibro House Wins 2013 Solar Decathlon China  

In one of the least heralded pieces of news, I find my faith in architecture almost restored.  Mercedes Martty, writing in Sourceable, reports that the Illawarra Flame 'fibro' house was the only entry in the prestigious competition (held for the first time outside the US or Europe), to take an existing home, and convert it into an energy efficient one.  But that did not stop the building producing more energy than it uses, by combining PV solar panels on its roof, employing a combined solar panel and air heating system, and providing for greywater recycling that uses an artificial wetland integrated into the garden, to filter the water.

Refreshingly, the project scored 957.6 of a possible 1000 points in the competition, and beat out an international field of notably more bespoke designs.  Perhaps it isn't quite as glamorously edgy as some previous winners of the original Solar Decathlon competition sponsored by the US Department of Energy. But the approach adopted by the consortium of University of Woolongong students and local trade apprentices from TAFE Illawarra, is of tremendous significance in influencing the general public.

As reported by Architectural Record magazine, the home-spun vernacular of the winning entry is anything but unsophisticated:
Aided by complex computer modeling, the Australian team pioneered the use of second-generation, poly-crystalline photovoltaic panels, compliments of their sponsor BlueScope Steel, to fashion a dual system that maximizes solar power generation efficiency. The house is not only a retrofit of an existing structure (a first in the solar decathlon), but also a dramatic turnaround for an energy-guzzling housing type prevalent in Australia that uses fiber cement sheets for construction. The team incorporated off-the-shelf systems and indigenous solutions and the result was what the architecture jurors called “modest and humble, yet innovative.”
For those unfamiliar with Australian vernacular, 'fibro' is the local endearment for a thin fibre reinforced cement sheet, with which post-WW2 austerity housing was clad.  These houses are still to be found in the outer suburbs of Australian cities, though like Levittown near NY (the famous estate of 'little boxes on a hilltop'), many have been extensively renovated and reclad.  Arguably, many contemporary MacMansions are also effectively elaborations in composite construction of these earlier prototypes.

Be that as it may, the win reinforces the importance of paying attention to our existing building stock, which vastly outnumbers the potential new build of the immediate future.  It demonstrates that even poorly performing buildings of the post-WW2 perieod are suitable for effective retrofit, and that such improvements can lead to building performance that may outperform equivalent new build.

Congratulations to the people whose dedication made it happen.
See more at:

The next Solar Decathlon is scheduled for October 3-13, 2013, in Irvine, California.
Mercedes Martty
An Australian suburban fibro home transformed to achieve net-zero energy consumption has won the 2013 Solar Decathlon China, one of the most important energy competitions in the world. - See more at:
Australian Fibro House Wins 2013 Solar Decathlon China - See more at:
Australian Fibro House Wins 2013 Solar Decathlon China - See more at:
Australian Fibro House Wins 2013 Solar Decathlon China - See more at:
Australian Fibro House Wins 2013 Solar Decathlon China - See more at:
Australian Fibro House Wins 2013 Solar Decathlon China - See more at: