Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Architects' little helper

How to specify photovoltaics

Note: The Architizer guide to photovoltaics is no longer accessible. Apparently, it was accidentally taken down and will take a while to restore.

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?