Wednesday, 26 December 2012

American architects embrace energy modelling?

Well, if not today, maybe tomorrow.  

I was trying to read the subscription on-line copy of the November/December  issue of Eco-structure, an American Institute of Architects magazine. My irritation with the avalanche of advertisements was shading out my interest in all the new technologies and initiatives they were trying to bring to my attention.  And then, I came across 'AIA Perspective', by Jeff Potter, the 2012 President of the Institute.

Jeff was really only doing the marketing for An Architect’s Guide to Integrating Energy Modeling in the Design Process, published in October.  For that he apologizes, then makes an impassioned plea for his fellow practitioners.  I can't give you a live link to the article, so I take the liberty of quoting extensively from his statement:

By not making a credible, evidence-based claim for performance, we are abdicating our responsibility to both the client and the user. This will further erode our reputation as well as the value of our work.  Furthermore, if we do not have a firm grasp on how our buildings will actually, not theoretically, perform, it will have a negative impact on the quality of what we design.  What’s the alternative? A good beginning is to learn the ABCs of energy modeling.
This is the point where eyes glaze over. Energy modeling sounds boring and wonkish. Yet architecture is not just the thrill of shaping form; it’s also the science of delivering value. We do ourselves, our profession, and, frankly, other members of the building team a disservice if we acknowledge only the aesthetics and leave the question of performance to someone else. Being able to say how a design works has historically been part of what we do for our clients. These days it may be the leading question clients ask. The challenge of climate change and the smart allocation of limited and increasingly scarce resources offer new opportunities to reassert our responsibility.
The message closely echoes my own concerns about architects, and recent developments in the provision of architectural services. At the moment, the initiative to move in the direction Jeff Potter advocates is unlikely to be led from the architecture schools, where the capacity to deliver courses in the science of architecture is arguably at historic lows.  But professionals could, if they see the urgency of his message, devote some of their compulsory professional development to the cause.  If you want to change the balance of your professional reading, you can do worse than bookmark

Friday, 14 December 2012

Architecture “no longer interested in anything but its own image”

There seems to be an outbreak of introspection in the online architectural media.  Two posts ago I praised ARCHITECTURE.AU for hosting an article reflecting on the limited usefulness of the ‘hero shot’.  Today, Deezeen magazine leads with the above headline linking an article by UK critic Owen Hatherley.  It's hard to do better than to quote from that post:
Hatherley says sites like Dezeen and Archdaily “provide little but glossy images of buildings that you will never visit, lovingly formed into photoshopped, freeze-dried glimmers of non-orthogonal perfection, in locations where the sun, of course, is always shining.”
He adds: “In art, this approach to reproduction is dubious enough, but in architecture – where both physical experience and location in an actual place are so important – it’s often utterly disastrous, a handmaiden to an architectural culture that no longer has an interest in anything but its own image.”
Of course, there is irony in that this elegant summary of a much more complex article – written for The Photographers’ Gallery in London as part of a series of critical essays on photography in the 21st Century – is itself published on one of the two sites named and shamed.  That the irony is intended is made obvious by the image of the preening critic chosen to headline the report.

As must be obvious by now, I share Hatherley’s concern.  But if I am to be honest I have to declare that I am a voracious consumer of both Dezeen and Archdaily, because without them I simply would not be able to keep up with what is going on in architecture.  And to be fair, they can only maintain the flood of architectural news through the medium of text and image, mainly supplied to them by self promoting practitioners.  It would be nice to think that the material could be appropriately editorialised, and supplemented by much more contextual and performance information.   But in the real world such editorial resources cost real money and require sometimes deep and elusive expertise, neither of which are easily available in the new world of advertisement supported online magazine publishing.
That said by way of excuse for the image peddling media, the architectural profession itself has much more to answer for.  If Hatherley is right in his characterisation of architectural culture, and by implication its practitioners as actual and aspiring narcissistic prima donnas, it augurs badly for the future of the profession.  I wish I knew the answer to how that perception might be tempered. I wish I knew how to fix the corruption of architectural knowledge which is the other inevitable by-product of this relentless image making

Friday, 7 December 2012

Slow architecture

Not so much purposefully, but neither aimlessly surfing for solar and shading software, I came across Gnarly Architecture, a blog by Brian Lockyear of Slate Shingle Studio in Oregon, USA.  Brian describes himself as "a digital voyager with an artistic temperament and an eye for both the sublime and the quirky", and I'm happy to agree with his self-assessment.  For anyone who wants to turn a general fascination with the sometimes dangerous world of parametric architecture into something useful, Brian's blog is compulsory reading.

But the entry that stopped me in my tracks, made me smile inanely, and which I have immediately linked to my First Year coursework site for architecture students at UNSW, is Passive Aggressive Solar Design.  Brian describes it as:

Passive Aggressive Solar is about creating magical spaces by actively considering solar movement in the design. It’s about a window seat and a book at sunrise. It’s about a shady spot at noon. It’s about framing the perfect sunset. At its best, Passive Aggressive Solar is about moments no longer than the time it takes a rainbow to appear and disappear.

He argues convincingly for a healthy synergy between computational analysis now possible to predict exactly the complex geometries of sun movements, and the traditional craft sensibilities of a masterful architect.

Finally, he proposes "a “slow light” approach to solar design, in which we take the time to think about each opening in a space and how it contributes to the magic. Why not use the sun to incorporate movement into the design but on an architectural scale – somewhere between the speed of a waterfall and the stealth of a glacier."

How can you argue with that?  Read the full posting here, and savour the last paragraph.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Challenging imagery

The hero shot.  Memorable to the point of misrepresenting the building, misinforming even the discerning viewer, sabotaging the creation of knowledge?

Probably true in the case of most buildings written about in traditional architectural media, and still true today when most of our information is gathered from the web. But the proposition is seldom subject to critical scrutiny, least of all in the web-based architectural media themselves.

So it is doubly refreshing to come across the article We don't need another hero, in the most recent posting of ARCHITECTURE AU.  More than doubly welcome in fact, because not only is it a rare reflection by the media on their own role, but it is actually an article written as a collaborative essay by a group of Monash University Masters of Architecture students.  That the students' piece itself critiqued magazine reviews of two heavily promoted local projects completes an unusual circularity.

OK, the writing is more earnest than profound.  The issues raised are limited to the lost opportunities for communicating more about the buildings than the hero shot allows.  Tellingly, the students take at face value all other rhetoric about the two buildings represented, and therefore they are arguably complicit in the very process of controlled representation they seek to highlight.

But we should be grateful for any and all attempts by our media to reflect on their role, and especially when they deliberately help us deconstruct rhetoric.  So, congratulations Architecture AU.

Read the original article here.  And open up the excellent Discourse section of this on-line magazine for a generous collection of other content here.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Aussie High School Wins Global ‘Green’ Award

As reported by pro bono news and other design oriented websites, an Australian project has taken out one more global award for sustainability.  I find this one perhaps more significant than most, because almost by definition the greatest impact is likely to be made by an educational institution.

A primary school, especially one that is built through a process of rich community interaction, has more than usual chance of influencing the aspirations and lifestyles of people, far beyond the physical green credentials of the building itself.

Bentleigh Secondary College in Melbourne can claim not just education for sustainability, but sustainable education.  Or vice versa.  How many organisations, how many schools can actually claim to have a Head of Sustainable Practices?

As usual, the lightly editorialised press releases give far too little useful or testable information to the reader hoping to learn from the example.  This is a chronic problem of the architectural media, especially of the specialised trade news aggregators, and even with specialised sources such as econews.

I had been hopeful that in this case, it might be easier to drill down to substantive information, because of the school's systematic approach to integration of sustainability initiatives into its curriculum and public profile.  Indeed, googling the name of school does lead to some better quality information, such as on their water management in an article on the Victorian government sponsored Sustainability Hub.  But surprisingly, the school's own website links to a single newsy page, with hardly any more detail about its admirable programs and achievements in the area of sustainability.  For instance, I found it frustrating that given a clue to the live monitoring of energy use and water budgeting, the Web delivered data turned out to be accessible only behind the school's firewall.  Equally, it is truly hard work to extract even scant detail of the various technologies employed, much the less insight into their true performance.  The architects' website is worse, it contains literally no mention of anything to do with sustainability in relation to the project.

Once again, we are left with the impression that the mission of various awards in sustainability is primarily about giving an upbeat impression of progress, but that all participants, even probably worthy recipients of awards, are extremely guarded about delivered outcomes.  This need not be so.  It is very likely that Bentleigh Secondary College has nothing to hide and a lot to be proud of.  I wonder why it doesn't appear to have occurred to them that they could extend their educational mission to the architectural community at large? 

I live in hope.  In the meantime, congratulations to the school, and  to Suters Architects, who have contributed their services pro bono to this worthy project. 

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

How sustainable is something really expensive?

The new high-tech sustainable Perth arena opens

That is the headline in the current issue of the online Architecture and Design news sheet.  Part of the way into the article, without comment, we find the following little snippet:

"Construction took four years more than originally thought and cost under $550 million which is three times over budget."

Sustainable?  No sarcasm intended when I say I'd like to know what framework is being used to evaluate the sustainability. 

Back during the Sydney Olympics, it was found that construction price was a surprisingly useful proxy for embodied impact of construction assemblies.  If it is even approximately useful, it seems to me the chances of recovering the embodied impacts in this project through savings in recurring energy use, waste minimization etc, are hopelessly unlikely before the building reaches the end of its useful life.

If there is no good answer to my question, an article like this is just greenwash, of the worst kind.

Friday, 27 July 2012

2012 Houses Awards: Sustainability

It might be to our national shame that Australians build the largest new homes in the world.  And the public's perception might be that architect designed houses are no better, just more expensive.  But an objective overview would also suggest that one of the things that Australian architects are best at are thoughtful and innovative houses – after all, our only Pritzker prizewinner Glenn Murcutt has built little else.

So it is always interesting to look at the annual Houses Awards.  This year, I am particularly taken with the winner in the sustainability category, because of its headline claims.  In my mind adaptive reuse, long life and loose fit, encouraging adaptive behaviour by occupants, etc. have always been the foundations of true sustainability in architecture.  And those are the principles on which this year's winner makes its case.

House Reduction, designed by Shelley Freeman and Melissa Bright of Make Architecture Studio is a fine example of what my friend Tone Wheeler has energetically promoted as 'Alterations and Subtractions' to counterpoint the more usual approach of making old homes much bigger by additions.  The benefits of this alternative approach are quite well discussed in the review of the project in Houses 85, 

On a less positive note, it is always a shame that claims of improved sustainable performance are rarely backed up by access to performance data, even in award-winning houses. So here again, we have to take it on faith that those large new glass areas don't come with significantly increased heating bills, notwithstanding the reduction in the floor plan.  I am not suggesting that they probably do, merely that architects and the architectural press are actually very poor at capturing that sort of information as part of a rigorous knowledge base. We are very good at the rhetoric, not so good at making room for the evidence.

Friday, 20 July 2012

World Architecture Festival awards shortlist

I am not usually a fan of these commercially sponsored awards.  In the beginning, their worth was very dubious, both because it was hard to gauge the breadth of self-nominations, and even harder to put trust in their selection processes.  With the passing of time however, it has become clear that some very respectable firms are nominating very worthwhile projects, and those projects are rising to prominence in these awards as naturally as does cream to the top of milk.

Therefore it is with considerable gratification that I note the over-representation of Australian firms and their buildings, in the short list of almost all the categories of the awards.  If there is any bias at all, then it might be of interest that Australian architecture is more heavily represented in the built works than it is in the unbuilt future projects.

One of the more accessible comprehensive listings of the shortlisted entries is to be found at

Friday, 8 June 2012

India again: developing regionally appropriate comfort standards

Torrent Research R&D Centre, Ahmedabad, India
In my last post, I was unkind about a new building in India that claimed world leadership in sustainability, as measured by the LEED rating system. My beef with LEED is not only that it is unreliable, but that it is virtually meaningless when applied to buildings in a place like India.

The same thoughts are highlighted in an opinion piece by UTS academic Leena Thomas. She is part of a collaborative effort to develop appropriate comfort standards for India, hopefully for incorporation in a regionally sensitive rating scheme. Read the full post here.

My comment on her article highlights that it's a race between two unequally matched phenomena. There is the staggering speed with which buildings are going up, emulating what their developers and occupants think are normal in 'advanced economies'. Slick, air conditioned buildings are therefore highly desirable, not just for their actual utility, but for their symbolic value confirming India's rise as an economic power.

And then, there is the deep seated feeling that not everything is right with this trend, that there may be a better, more 'Indian' way of doing things, tapping into pride in the longevity, ingenuity and resilience of the culture.

You would think that the latter would provide fertile ground for the sort of localised climate sensitive standards and building practices that Thomas' article describes. But in fact, the exemplar projects mentioned are far too few, done by far too few committed professionals, for far too few enlightened clients, over far too many years. The original Torrent Research Centre outside Ahmedabad demonstrated fifteen years ago that passive design could not only overcome the climate extremes of that location, but that you could do so for the stringent requirements of a pharmaceutical laboratory. Yet Torrent's own extensions since then are fully air conditioned buildings.

India will end up in serious trouble if it doesn’t curb the momentum of its energy hungry development. The only way it can do that is by decisive and appropriate government regulations. But government can only act on good advice, and in India, the people will only comply with regulations that make sense. The importance and urgency of the project described in Thomas' article can’t be overstated.

Indian Building Receives Highest LEED Score Ever

This building in India, for Bayer the multinational pharmaceuticals and chemical company, is claiming the highest ever LEED sustainability rating.  According to Tafline Laylin writing for Inhabitat the building only misses out on five of the LEED points available.  That suggests almost perfect performance in energy savings, water savings, and just about every aspect of sustainable building performance as defined by that rating framework.

Forgive my cynicism.  Even a casual reading of the claimed performance reveals interesting contradictions.  Being a remarkably conventional, albeit heavily insulated construction, only a 40% reduction in primary energy is recorded after a year's operation.  A 70% saving in electricity usage, compared to conventional buildings of the region.  On the other hand, the roof is indeed covered with photovoltaics, and apparently that is enough to supply the building's energy needs.  I balk at the polyurethane insulated panels, perhaps because of the toxicity of the smoke they give off should there ever be a building fire. Or because I just can't bring myself to believe that they are regionally appropriate sustainable building material.

But I shouldn't be so prejudiced.  I suspect it merely demonstrates that the current LEED point system is woefully inadequate to capture any reasonable and rigourous representation of building sustainability.  Apparently the US Green Building Council is issuing a new version this year.  I hope the next building that is claimed to be the world's highest rated inspires more confidence.

SA's Integrated Design Commission to be axed

I was literally just checking out the website of the IDC, when the latest Architecture & Design Newsletter arrived in my inbox with this news, in an article exhorting readers to campaign to save it.

South Australia established it's Integrated Design Commission along with the position of Government Architect a bare two years ago, in an apparent enlightened attempt to leverage the added value of design across both government and private enterprise in that state.  With already a reputation for historical best practice initiatives in urban design, sustainability, and a vibrant design culture, the State had nothing to lose and everything to gain by repositioning itself as it loses the last of its conventional manufacturing base.

That said, I am not an uncritical fan.  Looking at the IDC website, one sees a lot of promise, but a fairly limited outcome.  Conspicuously missing are the promised handbooks and other professional resources that were supposed to be the outcomes of the research partnerships the commission is meant to facilitate.  The elaborate, and on first sight thoughtful, framework of design review panels is supported by the IDCSA DESIGN REVIEW PANELIST HANDBOOK, which I read fairly carefully.  Unfortunately I concluded that rather than being a useful guide to inform the professional conduct of panel members, it is more a well written, bureaucratic feelgood instrument.

Perhaps two years is not quite enough.   But apparently, you can't trust politicians to have a long-term vision.  Read the whole article here.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Germany Sets New Solar Record By Meeting Nearly Half of Country’s Weekend Power Demand

That is the title of a posting in tonight's Inhabitat online newsletter.  Read the original article here.

Frankly, I don't know quite what to add to this sort of amazing news.  The Inhabitat article mentions that in response to public pressure after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, Germany significantly accelerated its installation of photovoltaics while at the same time shutting down its nuclear generators.  But what it doesn't mention is the variety of interesting schemes that make it possible for Germany to have installed such huge renewables capacity, so quickly.  Chief amongst them is the mechanism whereby the power generating utility effectively leases a private roof, for the right to install building integrated photovoltaics.  For the householder, this represents not only an effective income, but an actual saving in building materials that would otherwise have to be the roof of the dwelling.

This kind of spectacular growth in baseline generation capacity by renewables, shows how ridiculous is all the negative sentiment and opposition, that we experience here in Australia.  It makes very clear that even now the photovoltaic technology is sufficiently mature, and with the appropriate incentive schemes, economically viable.  Quite clearly it would be able to make much, much more than a marginal impact on how we supply our electricity demand.  If only we would bite the bullet, and get on with it.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The End of Architecture

Is all this regulation for sustainability about to spell the end of Architecture? Sometimes, the protestations of architects sound like that is what they truly believe, in spite of the evidence that we are seeing ever more bizarre forms in the architectural blogosphere and the burgeoning design literature.

But there is a kernel of truth in the sentiment, especially as it applies to houses and other residential construction. In some jurisdictions, these building types are ever more constrained by prescriptive standards that dictate glazing ratios, wall and roof insulation standards, heat exchangers for mechanically assisted ventilation, and so on. Sometimes a voluntary standard like the European 'Passivhaus' movement, is even more restrictive than the government promoted regulations.

I was reminded of this when I saw photographs of a truly challenging suburban dwelling by Sou Fujimoto Architects, their House NA in Tokyo. Inspired by the feeling of sitting around in the branches of a tree, the assembly looks like scaffolding supporting a series of open and glazed boxes at different levels, with a program that clearly is not dictated by conventional room designations. For better or worse, it engages passionately in a theoretical and practical discourse on contemporary 'dwelling', but could not possibly obtain planning permission in my home town, Sydney.

As I looked further into Fujimoto's work, I saw other, similarly evocative speculations on living between inside and outside, such as the N House in Oita. Argued from a stance that questions the interpenetration of the space of the street and that of the innermost private sanctum, it is most plausibly an extended empirical exploration of the traditional Japanese understanding of 'ma', the 'space in between'. But as the photographs in its context make clear, it is also a selfishly self-referential exercise, where claims of its transparency simply do not disguise the degree to which it disrupts the public spatial order.

This house - even more than House NA - reminded me that by definition, 'Architecture with a capital A' depends on relegating the normal to being the background for the assertively non-conforming object. In that sense, our new enforced 'zero net energy vernacular' does indeed threaten every architect's right to produce something stridently different. Given just how many more architects we have nowadays, than we used to have, maybe that is a good thing.  But I would indeed be saddened if it proved to be the end of remarkable buildings.

Energy positive buildings countdown

Until quite recently, suggestions that buildings might contribute positively to the environment deserved to be treated with at least caution, if not actually contempt.  But, it turns out that technology does develop remarkably fast, and buildings with a potential to 'heal' rather than further wound natural systems may not be too far away.

The most remarkable progress is in developments in photovoltaics suitable for integration into building construction.  From the one issue of INHABITAT - the New York based forum for all things green - comes news of two radically different, but hopeful developments.

The first is that scientists at the University of Southern California have developed a new type of solar cell made from nanocrystals that are so small that they can be made into an ink and painted or printed onto clear surfaces. They appear to have solved the problem of increasing the conductivity between the nanocrystals, such that efficiency of the new cells is now looking useful.  The bad news is that the new surface coating is made of the semiconductor cadmium selenide, which can’t be used commercially because of its toxicity. “While the commercialization of this technology is still years away, we see a clear path forward toward integrating this into the next generation of solar cell technologies,” USC chemistry professor Richard L. Brutchey said in a press release.  So what is the big attraction?  Apparently, the method would also allow solar cells to be printed on plastic instead of glass in a low temperature process, without encountering the problem of merger – which would give a flexible solar panel mouldable and adaptable at will anywhere. 
Read more: USC Researchers Develop Liquid Nanocrystal Solar Cells that Can Be Printed Onto Plastic | Inhabitat

 The second snippet to catch my eye is a tongue-in-cheek application of Biophotovoltaics  in the form of a 'moss table'.  Apparently electricity is generated by mosses and algae as a byproduct of photosynthesis, and is already successfully harnessed to power small appliances such as clock radios.
Read more: Moss Table by Biophotovoltaics Generates Electricity Through Photosynthesis | Inhabitat

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Is the world sinking?

Yes, the level of the world's oceans is rising. But that is not the topic of this post.

I periodically check in to see what is the latest outrageous, environmentally irresponsible project proposed for Dubai. This week, I found a proposal by Polish firm Deep Ocean Technology — the Water Discus Hotel, with suites twenty storeys under water, and lots more besides.

But more interestingly, the various links led me back to news from last year, when a British firm put evidence to a special property tribunal that the artificial islands of the infamous development known as The World "are gradually falling back into the sea”. According to QC Richard Wilmot-Smith, speaking on behalf of Penguin Marine, the World Islands show signs of “erosion and deterioration”. So far 70% of the world’s 300 islands have been sold, but all of the 'countries' are uninhabited save for the 'Show Island', apparently Greenland, which is owned by the ruler of Dubai.
I am no expert on marine hydrology, or any of the other exotic disciplines needed to make sense of such projects. Therefore I can't confirm the truth of either the accusations, or the inevitable denials by the project developer Naheel. But I have always had a gut feeling that such grandiose terra-forming motivated by so little real need, is an invitation to ecological and financial failure.

Friday, 4 May 2012

US launches social media building comparison site

That is the heading of a Design and Architecture snippet about a really interesting new site called I signed up a little while ago, because it fits so well with my teaching and PD work, and really should have blogged about it then.  But all kudos to A&D for bringing it to wider attention here in Australia. Read the full article here.

Imagine if you are a prospective tenant, and you want to find out more about how a building performs? Or if you are an architect with a building to design, looking for precedent and trying to unravel the truth from all the marketing, about the ever higher star rated new buildings, with their latest green techno-bling. The site has the potential to get you so much closer to that elusive information.

Currently, the site and its entries look very US-centric. But their search engine actually works quite well for other countries, and I can confirm from personal correspondence that their commitment is to expand their data internationally.

The idea appeals to me immensely. I can foresee problems with keeping the social media style data reliable, but I do wish them all possible success. That success will depend on how many people engage with the site, and how rich the feedback on the real performance of buildings becomes. Check it out, and join the revolution.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

What does form actually follow?

The Hoki Museum was awarded last year's Grand Prize of the Japan Institute of Architects.  It is a remarkable building by any criteria, not least because it so easily confounds interpretation of its singular architectural form. I just came across an article on this issue in the latest installment of Architecture Week, by Japan resident author C.B. Liddell.

"When we are astonished by a building, it is often because we don't fully understand it. In such a case, we strive to close the gap between what we see and what we already know of architecture.  As we do this, we may arrive at the truth of the design — or we may simply fill the gap with plausible-sounding explanations that turn out to be wrong."

Long ago, in his delightfully slim book The Nature and Art of Workmanship, David Pye convincingly demolished the very notion expressed in 'Form follows Function'.  He argued that we are unlikely to simply 'see' a direct formal relationship to the purpose of a particular building. Liddell writes about his personal experience of this same problem in relation to the Hoki Museum, and offers us invaluable extra insight gleaned from an interview with Tomohiko Yamanashi, lead architect of the design team.

Normally, I'd be suspicious of the rationalizations of the architect, and prefer the experience of the building.  But as he flags in the quote above, Liddell makes the case that it's easy to bring the wrong preconceptions to the critic's experience, from which can flow both a misinterpretation of design intent, and an inaccurate assessment of likely visitor experience.


A remarkable building, a thoughtful architect operating at the bleeding edge of architectural theory, a client with a strong, hands-on purpose (he is the sole curator of the exhibitions the building houses), and a critic gently but compellingly challenging architectural criticism itself.  Well worth reading. Read the whole article here.