Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Greenest Building in the World

I sometimes like to enter a hyperbole into the Google search terms, just to see what it comes up with.  The headline of this blog is one of my favourites.  I do it partly because I know you can't expect Google to actually make a technical judgement; that I am only really getting whatever rises like froth to the top of Google's murky PageRank algorithm, sometimes no more than a measure of chutzpah.

And so it seemed this time.  The top-ranked page turned out to be an article by Neil Takemoto, writing for the SustainableCitiesCollective web page, about the Bullitt Centre in Seattle.  The Bullitt Foundation funds a variety of conservation projects, and committed itself to the rather ambitious Living Building Challenge for its newly built headquarters.  The first small crack in the credibility of 'the greenest' claim comes with the realisation that they really only mean it to be that in the company of conventional office buildings.

I should immediately declare that I feel terribly guilty. As one does for being at all negative about anybody's sincere efforts to truly test the envelope of business as usual.  The more especially because as I delved deeper I found that the Bullitt Foundation really has made an effort to give access to rich and useful information about the various initiatives and innovative technologies that the building employs.  More of that later.  Let me get the little negatives off my chest quickly.

In this case, the problem revolves around the contested terms that describe energy self-sufficiency.  Thus, the Bullitt Centre is described as Net Zero Energy, while the very first item in the bulleted list of its attributes states that it is "expected to use less than one fourth the energy of a typical building of its size".  Whether or not this apparent semantic contradiction confuses, relies on the reader having come across the variety of terms with their different system boundaries, which are used to describe the energy neutrality of buildings.  In this case, it is entirely possible that on the one hand the author is describing the energy demand, or energy load of the building, and that both the designers and the users have done well to very significantly reduce that demand.  If so, it is plausible that the big photovoltaic array, which tops the building like a peaked baseball cap, could just about generate the electricity portion of that demand.  Other initiatives, like the geothermal heating, would help with the rest.  Hence Net Zero Energy.  But even if that is actually the case, we would be well served by a little additional information: that most likely the building is grid connected and uses the rest of the city as its storage battery, or 'energy flywheel'.  My criticism in this regard is really of Takemoto's article.

As I often complain, short online articles give you a sort of hamburger patty version of a hearty T-bone steak and veggies.  In most such news items, even on the most committed web sites, fundamental claims for the performance of a building cannot be taken at face value. 

But the good news is that you can take the trouble to follow the link to the dedicated web page of the building.  If you more or less ignore the predictable vision, the tributes to the philanthropic partners, and the on-line leasing pages, you will find a blog.  This turns out to have an exhaustive photo record of the construction, with key technologies explained through a collection of informative articles.  There is a good selection, from geothermal drilling to the use of timber framing (where conventional office buildings would have steel or concrete).  While the information is still a bit ad hoc rather than systematic, it would be churlish to complain too much.

Finally, to give credit where credit is due, Takemoto makes no claim that the building is sustainable, and the web site is reasonably circumspect in its use of the word.  In this way, they are much more responsible than the many others who have so corrupted the term, as to make it almost useless.

It's worth linking to the original article, just for the panel that sums up the "20 imperatives of the Living Building Challenge.  Read it here.

For a quick primer on Zero energy buildings, you could do worse than Wikipedia here.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Mysterious Mathematics

Any regular reader of this post (and I don't really have too many of those) would know that one of my pet peeves is misinformation.  My usual objection is to the limited technical performance data to be found to properly explain how buildings work, and how that holds back the growth of architectural knowledge.  What I rarely mention is some of the trite naivete that bedevils at least some writing about architecture.

Under the intriguing title "Architectural Icons Inspired by Mathematics" Kristen Avis writes in Architecturesource about.... well, the supposed role of mathematical inspiration in architecture.  I have no idea what compels her to invent it as she goes along, but she makes a brave effort to establish the claim that at least some architects are mathematical geniuses.  Unfortunately, that's just not true – with the possible exception of Christopher Wren, who really did change careers from famous mathematician to even more famous architect, responsible for much of the reconstruction of London after the Great Fire.

The reality is actually much more interesting.  The greatest strengths of architects are visualising forms and space, and using analogies, metaphors and similes for everything from planning principles to structural solutions.  You could almost say that their skills are in bypassing mathematics.  

One of the best illustrations of this is exactly the example Avis uses to headline her article: the Sydney Opera House.  According to Avis, Utzon spent over six years searching for the means to realize exactly the shells he wanted.  And if her invented quotation is to be believed, he didn't care how long it took, or how much it cost.  Had she bothered to consult any of the numerous sources, she would have known how far from the truth that is. 

For sure, Utzon's mind would have been fully engaged in the search for a solution, but the people who were trying to employ the mathematics and computational power for that purpose were in fact the nascent international firm of engineers led by the formidable Ove Arup.  Where the engineers failed with mathematical theory, Utzon succeeded by approaching the problem directly.  For him, the 'aha' moment came from the realisation that the surface of a sphere was by definition of a uniform curvature.  And that therefore thin slices of it could work as formwork for precast concrete ribs, using the simple expedient of blocking the one big steel form out at different lengths.

These were hardly esoteric mathematical investigations.  The story of the shells actually makes the opposite point.  Neither Utzon nor Saarinen (the jury member credited for plucking the evocative sketches from the refusees pile) actually understood enough about structures to know the original forms were impossible to build as shells.  But Utzon was in fact remarkably flexible in changing from the unrealisable thin, flat shells of his competition drawings, to what are in technical terms not shells at all, but a bunch of pointy arches leaning on each other.

In a similar way, Utzon's ideas for the interiors, never realised, were powerful practical observations from the natural world.  Thus the metaphor of the walnut to describe the separation of the interior halls from the exterior shell, and the attempt to develop the forms of the hall interiors from his simile for propagation of sound in the image of the stone dropped into a pond.

For the same reason as she misses the practical, experimental essence of Utzon's work, Avis invents a fanciful but incorrect interpretation of other key buildings.

Thus – notwithstanding the heady mathematical reverse engineering in Prof. Mark Burry's inspired, lifelong work with Gaudi's Sagrada Familia – the simple fact is that we have the  original physical models Gaudi used to ensure that his brickwork remained in pure compression.  He did it, possibly ignorant of any mathematical theory, by the simple expedient of building the models upside down in string and weights.  Any forms that the strings took up in simple tension could be relied on to be in simple compression when turned downside up, so to speak.

And I hate to break it to her, but the apparently complex forms of the Endesa Pavilion in Barcelona can be produced by a nine-year-old pushing and pulling on a SketchUp model. It is not necessary to use 'genius mathematical formulas'.  Arguably in this case, were it not for the necessity of being able to measure the outcome in order to construct it at full size, physical model studies using a simple sundial might well be even quicker and more efficient than relying on software.

Avis comes closest to an accurate proposition on mathematics and architecture, when she quotes Mark Burry on the loss of esoteric number systems to guide the development of proportions and patterns in buildings.  There is no doubt in my mind that those number systems still should be understood, and still could be deployed in contemporary design.   They were transmitted by artists through the experience of millennia, critically examining satisfaction with proportions and other aesthetic concerns.  But otherwise, complex mathematics will now inevitably reside in the software, and quite contrary to Avis' hopes, are likely to be less and less understood directly. As we already see with Rhino and Grasshopper, the complex digital models are most likely to be manipulated with parametric sliders, to produce mathematically optimised but not necessarily good architecture.

If architects generally are to be credited with any sort of mathematical insight at all, the best that could be said is that some of them, like the artist Escher, sometimes produce forms which the true mathematicians recognize as giving concrete expression to some of their more difficult to explain ideas.That is quite enough of a miracle.  For the rest, mysterious as it might seem that certain number systems and aesthetic satisfaction converge, we are not much helped by inaccurate and fanciful misinterpretation of the relationship between architecture and mathematics.

For anyone who doesn't trust me on this, I commend reading that wonderful passage in the middle of Umberto Eco's book Foucault's Pendulum, where in a few short sentences he demonstrates that human beings with their ten fingers and various other anatomical attributes, were destined to attribute magic to some numbers, rather than others.

And anyone who needs a quick, authoritative review of the story of Utzon's's shells, could do worse than to read  Eric Ellis in The Spectator from 2008, fortunately available online, here.


A much better story of the Opera House shells was sent in by Nino Bellantonio, and has been posted as an item in its own right at Mysterious mathematics 2: The Sydney Opera House
Well worth reading!

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Curious Rituals

I have long had a nagging feeling, that our interaction with the ubiquitous communication environment around us is profoundly changing the way we use our bodies, and indeed the way we use space.

A relatively short and profusely illustrated downloadable e-book (viewable for free at confirms that previously ill-formed concept.

Well, not so ill-formed, courtesy of a sporadic reading of Dan Hill's musings on City of Sound, and elsewhere.  His specialty has been 'urban Informatics', a term that does nothing to describe 'a career focused on integrating design, technology, cities, media and people'.  So I wasn't entirely surprised to find that Dan is the author of the introductory essay in this publication.  But as perceptive as is Hill's contribution, it almost gets in the way of the 'Aha!' moments that follow in the main part of the 'book' scroll down and chuckle.

I am just delaying you from going there if I attempt to precis the thesis or summarize the examples.  Suffice to say that as amusing it is to merely recognize the often bizarre body language of the new age of personal devices, the implications for architecture need to be considered at suitably serious levels.  So off you go, hit the link above.

Friday, 15 February 2013

"Sorry green design, it's over"

When you want to rip into something, it's really hard to come up with a title that is more damning than their own headline.

I compulsively check the website Dezeen for what is the latest in architecture and design.  The site isn't particularly good, its editorial content and editorial style formulaic, but it's quickly accessible, carries lots of images, and importantly for me it often has drawings of buildings that it publicises.  Well, today I got my just deserts.  If I ever wanted confirmation that the design community may aptly be compared with the most parasitic manifestations of fashion generally, this article by editor-in-chief Marcus Fairs couldn't do a better job.
".....sustainability turned out to be unsustainable. We just didn't have the time; we couldn't afford to be green. We thought the products looked ugly. We didn't enjoy the preachiness or the guilt."
trumpets the editor somewhere around the middle of his rant, the culmination of the litany of one liners glibly conflating sustainability with the handmade and with one-off up-cycling.  I read on, desperately waiting for the hook, thinking I'm being wound up for the real message.  But it turns out that is the real message of this article.
"'s message did not adapt and it ran out of steam. It fell foul of the law of diminishing returns: it's easy to make the first cut in your carbon footprint, but every subsequent one gets more difficult. And because the back-to-nature, made-do-and-mend doctrine supped from a limited gene pool of visual stimulus, it became an aesthetic trap. Once you've hewn furniture from raw timber, there's not much further you can go.
Technology however is intrinsically optimistic: each new development, each new device brings the promise of a new future. Each new way of arranging atoms or bits opens the door to a new solution cloaked in a new form. And since these elements are infinitely configurable, technological development is more sustainable than sustainability, since it will never run out of ideas."
I know, the word 'sustainable' was really debased almost as soon as it was defined, along with the much more problematic metaphor of 'green'.  But don't these people get it?  Sustainability isn't about engaging the attention span of a bright young thing with a high pain threshold for tight pants but a low one for diminishing returns.

For anybody who thinks, 'sustainable' never was confined to the exaggeratedly, and exploitatively organic.  It always engaged the potential of technology to change the balance between consumption and irreversible exploitation.  Perhaps there was reason to be sceptical that you could have such a thing as healing architecture, for instance.  But yes, we did develop LED lights and low consumption computer displays, and high yield photovoltaics all at the same time, so that we can begin to think of future buildings as giving back more than they take.  All that an article like this does, is to deny that complexity which has always been the promise of design, and substitutes for it a glib superficiality.  Okay, I know it has always been like this.  But it still hurts.

If you are a masochist, read the full article here.

And for balance, to explain why the editor's stand might be perfectly understandable, glance at this article, also in the same day's Dezeen.  It is on the work of Sou Fujimoto with the image of Final Wooden House as its anchor.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Yes, Virginia, photovoltaics do work

One of the headline snippets in today's in inhabitat news blog is that world installed solar photovoltaic generating capacity has surpassed 100 gigawatts.  Good news enough in its own right. Read about it here.

But for me, as an architect committed to buildings that gobble up less of that generated energy – or better still give back as much as they take – these big news always concentrate too much on the big items like fields of solar collectors working as centralised generators.

I personally think the real future is in building integrated photovoltaics, and the distributed generation which they make possible.  Quite frankly, I think that a building with good integrated photovoltaics is just much more sexy than a great big field of concentrating collectors.

Nevertheless, the central issue is how do all those dispersed BIPV integrate with the large-scale energy grid.  So I thought it was a good excuse to point interested readers at a surprisingly readable source of information, on how much progress has been made in the world's most committed and advanced market.

The European Photovoltaics Industry Association has put out a short version of 'Connecting the Sun'.  It is, as I say, a surprisingly readable report on the stuff that a normal architect, or possibly even a normal building engineer may dismiss as all too hard, all too big, and altogether too much somebody else's business.  This report is not specifically about buildings.  But if you want to bolster your faith in making the effort to integrate photovoltaics into a building that you design, it's well worth the added distraction to at least skim the eighteen pages or so.

Why the odd headline to this post?  Well, I live in hope that all those climate change skeptics try reading this little report, too.  At least then they would confine themselves to just arguing about the evidence of global warming, but would stop knocking the development of sustainable energy sources.  They are good for the planet, and good for us, regardless.

Download the short version of the report here.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Saving John Andrews

Scarborough College, Toronto, 1965. Image:  Philip Drew
Anyone would think that I read nothing else than ArchitectureAU.  In the latest issue, architectural critic Philip Drew traces of potted history of Australia's first truly influential architect on a world stage, John Andrews.  He is impelled to action by the threat of demolition facing the Sydney Convention Centre at Darling Harbour.

I am of the age that explains why I was an early and ardent fan of Andrews.  There is no disputing the seminal impact of a number of his buildings.  Starting with Scarborough College in Canada and continuing through the Cameron Offices in Canberra, he actually brought to fruition buildings in the nature of mega structures, that others only managed to illustrate as rhetorical projects.  Arguably, his success was due to his ability to express the guiding principles of his designs in brutally short and evocative words, conveying a quintessential Australian pragmatism in suitably colourful language. These days I am forcefully reminded of him whenever I see Bjarke Ingels of Danish firm BIG present on TED.  Same ruthless logic with a structuralist twist.

To be clear, John Andrews was held in such high esteem that when it came to appointing an architect for the new building for the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, they trusted him to work the miraculous transformation of the program, rather than any of his eminent fellow students, or modern masters who worked there as teachers.  When describing the design of Gund Hall, Andrews would point to the generative placement of the toilets in the circulation system.

I make much of this side of John Andrews, because notwithstanding my own admiration, Philip Drew ignores the obvious.  What was great about Andrews' buildings because of their simply stated organising principles, often came at the cost of similarly simplistic, powerful statements about things he was determined to do, but which were actually (to use his own favourite pejorative term) bullshit.  I have the privilege of being able to quote him presenting his designs from the late 60s and early 70s.

A lot of those things were not particularly important.  About Scarborough College, Andrews said he was absolutely determined to do a building without columns (apparently there is one in the plant room). 

Other things made some of his buildings temporarily remarkable, but were not really great ideas.  The vertical stainless steel space frames supporting acrylic sunshades and window cleaning platforms, which clad what became the American Express Tower in Sydney, were sold to the developer as an idea based on completely circular logic and an economy of truth about the actual cost.  Not surprisingly, the photogenic facade disappeared in favour of a much more practical curtain wall during the building's makeover by others.  The same building had a stunningly convincing diagram for how it dealt with largely imaginary desire lines at footpath level, from which generated a really hostile subterranean space for shopping and dining.  Not surprisingly, this badly oriented and unloved space also disappeared during the makeover.

Cameron Offices Site Plan
Andrews justified the Cameron Offices in Canberra, as a skyscraper laid down horizontally, a good 40 years before Stephen Holl claimed the phrase to describe one of his adventures in China.  But then he elaborated it with the compelling rationale about sun angles giving rise to a deterministic geometry of courtyards and office wings.  Philip Drew refers to this sort of headline logic as a pioneering climatic sensibility.  And as far as he goes, he is right.  But he does not mention that the courtyards were never going to be allowed to be randomly accessed by the security conscious government departments which the building housed, and therefore their hopefully benign environments enjoyed as anything other than a view.  The ultimate frustration of those occupants, with the extremely long circulation paths, ramps and half levels resulting from a misguided social construct, contributed to the demolition of most of the complex, while other, more pragmatic mega structures by other architects of the 1970s continue to function.

Unfortunately, this sort of story can be told about so many Andrews buildings, that you could almost generalise the problem.  Buildings, one after the other with powerful generative ideas.  Let down by one or more equally determined ideas about materials, systems of construction, whatever, but sooner or later irritating enough to compromise the whole.  We might be saddened by the loss of the artistic integrity of his powerful buildings important in their time.  But frankly, we shouldn't be surprised.  John Andrews is a great and influential architect.  But to be one of those, you have to be first and foremost a salesman.  John has always been good at selling his ideas, the bad with the good.

All that said, I agree with Philip Drew that the Sydney Convention Centre does not deserve demolition.  Read Drew's article in full here.

For a short, interesting read about the powerful 'structuralist' thread through Andrews' work, supported by a good collection of images, go to here.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Big gestures

The southern end of Sydney is undergoing a major architectural renaissance, with buildings by several of the world's leading architects.  The developments include the brownfield site of the former Carlton and United brewery, but also the University of Technology precinct on the other side of Broadway, one of Sydney's major road arteries. Partly to satisfy the agenda of the Sydney City Council, partly driven by the involvement of the University, sustainability is meant to be high on the list of priorities.

It is a moot point what, besides some default bolt-ons, is really being incorporated in these high-density developments.  But there are certainly some signature items that make the architectural community and the casual lay observer think that something radical is going on.

On Jean Nouvel's twin residential towers, some of the vertical greenery by Patrick Blanc are being installed, but they have just been upstaged by the lifting into place of the 110 tonne frame of a very large heliostat cantilevered from the 29th floor.

I was involved with an earlier tedious, painstaking, and ultimate pointless attempt to optimise solar access to generate the massing of a larger number of residential buildings on the same site. So I am under no illusions that Nouvel's bold gestures, and Foster's overwhelmingly methodical presentation of their contribution, broke through a previous barrier to the sensible development of this complex piece of Sydney. But that said, I have to work hard to maintain my enthusiasm that either the vegetative facades or the heliostat are anything but distractions.

The planting on the otherwise unrelieved glass curtain walls still produces a somewhat cynical response, to what might be more sensibly scaled and varied ways of living at high density in the city.  Effective passive environmental control, even in Sydney's benign climate – or perhaps especially in this climate – they certainly are not.

The heliostat makes me edgy for another reason.  The renderings have been spectacular, the promise of the night-time display of LED lighting undoubtedly likely to impress.  But for the life of me, I have not been able to find a sensible diagram that actually shows how winter sun angles might interact with the surfaces available for the installation of the mirrors.  The latest image, part of an online announcement on ArchitectureAU after the lifting of the frame, illustrates my point.

It shows the heliostat slung off the bottom of the cantilevered sky garden (complete with swimming pool).  The two-storey depth of the truss is clearly necessary structurally, but as far as I can tell develops exactly the sort of overshadowing of the mirrors, that will make the heliostat least effective in the middle of the day in winter when reflected sun is most needed.  By the same token they will receive the least shade in midsummer, when in Sydney shade in public places is a precious commodity.

But I have learned never to guess the complex 3-D geometries of sun and shade without the benefit of a 3-D model.  I could be wrong.  I just wish the architects would stop publishing renderings of what they hope will happen, and let us have instead some of the evidence which I sincerely hope they have bothered to investigate.