Sunday, 27 April 2014

Let them eat cake?

Dan Hill writes well, keeps his eyes open and obviously reads voraciously.  When he has the time to add to his blog ‘City of Sound’, it is usually a long form piece, teased out in loops of delicious in-group citations, but as often as not with a serious question at its heart. 

And so it is in the latest Opinion he contributes to Dezeen, which is really just his latest column on his own blog.  The concrete subject of the piece is the Uber taxi app, but the target is "Can public enterprises adopt the popular dynamics of private enterprises?"  

Actually, Hill answers that question in the affirmative, so the really truly relevant discussion is whether there is something fundamentally destructive going on, impacting communities at city and nation state scale (to which we more usually refer as 'societies'), and to which those ‘popular dynamics’ may be something of an antidote?

Sunday, 20 April 2014

It's rubbish?

My last post, headlined by Lady Gaga, was about upcycling.  It got the biggest readership in the first hour that I have ever had, most of it from France.  I fear that it was popular because Gaga ranks high in the search engines.

So I thought it only fair to try an upcycling post about architecture, in which I mention no celebrities at all.  As usual, my approach is direct:  I googled 'upcycling in architecture'.  And the first hit was wonderful.  Junk House Employs Google Earth in Upcycling Local Scrap  trumpets dornob, a site I have not visited before.

The Villa Welpeloo turns out to be anything but a junk house. The residence for a couple who are not only rich enough to aspire to a villa in a land of apartments and small attached houses, but who can do so to store and show a collection of artworks.  2012Architecten (now known as Superuse Studios) obviously have a history of serious commitment to recycling and repurposing what others would consider junk, but also the research skills to find exceptional sources, and to let those resources guide their design process.

Upcycling? I go gaga but not about the lady.

I have always been interested in what has become known as 'upcycling', but I am not sure quite what started me off on this particular post.  I think it was a particularly provocative image of Lady Gaga on Inhabitat, and the accompanying article about the difficulty of properly defining the concept.

Lady Gaga's indulgent 'look at me' statement of a dress, made of suspiciously white bleached coffee filters, is actually a rather trite example from the fashion world.  But that should not distract from the discussion of very real issues seeking to distinguish the relevant concepts.  In her case, the proper terminology to describe that dress might be 'repurposing', a value neutral term that covers all kinds of uses of ready made products to solve problems for which they may not have been originally intended.  As the Inhabitat article points out, Lady Gaga's dress only really qualifies as 'upcycling'  (raising value, sometimes of waste to craft object) because anything designed by Gareth Pugh and worn by the chanteuse, is automatically of very high value to a very esoteric crowd.

Monday, 14 April 2014

More informative than usual

Regular readers of this blog will know that my main beef is the quality of information about projects to be found on most of the architecture news aggregation sites.  So even when I hesitate to say anything more profound about a project, I feel that it is only right to complement one that does try to inform.  This one happens to be a competition entry, so you could put down the apparent readiness to explain the scheme to self promotion, or even that it was simply cut and pasted from the competition documents.  No matter, the point is that there is something here for the conscientious reader to learn from.

The project is for a 60 storey mixed use tower for Fushun City in China, by Studio 7 of Urban Architecture (UA Studio 7), an indigenous firm that seems to have grown spectacularly over the last 10 or 12 years, establishing long-term cooperative relationships with high-end real estate developers.

Friday, 4 April 2014

BIG deal!

On the whole, I admire what I know of the work of the Bjarke Ingels Group. They do hyper-rational 'schemes' with headline social agendas that seem to translate to realisable buildings. Think municipal powerplants that serve as ski slopes in a flat country, multi-storey carparks that are veneered with housing like a walkable hill-town, New York high rise offices that ignore the stepped slab prototypes but work magic with sun, daylight and view angles. I have remarked before that particularly when he presents, Ingels reminds me of a young John Andrews, in the way he can communicate with a strident diagram and a finely plausible story. I am an unreconstructed late modernist; I like that sort of stuff.

So I am not often disappointed, but like all fans, I get doubly upset when I feel let down. And so it is with the latest BIG scheme superficially but enthusiastically covered by Inhabitat. This one is for a seniors' residential complex in Taiwan.

Hey, it's a bit of an ask to intelligently critique a sensitive building type, across cultural divides, and only having rendered images to go on. That is why the images upset me so

But images matter. They are worth more than a thousand glib words. Even more to the point, as an architect, you are supposed to look at your own images, because they might tell you when a design is going wrong, BIG time.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Seriously Indian

I don't pretend to be seriously knowledgeable about Indian architecture, but anyone who reads this blog would note that I am fond of the place, and I like to use its architecture as a touchstone for more global issues. And so it is with great pleasure, that I came across this particular entry on ArchDaily.

I have never heard of the Delhi based practice Architecture Discipline, but it is clear that its principals and staff are engaged at a very sophisticated level with the discourse of critical regionalism, and that their work embodies a more subtle than usual mastery of some of the pressing issues for incorporating traditional materials and crafts into contemporary building construction in India.

The project is a new boutique hotel very close to the spectacular Jain temples of Ranakpur in the Indian state of Rajasthan.  It isn't very far from places where I have been intimately involved with work that covers some of the same ground.  Last Christmas I revisited the Udaivillas Hotel in Udaipur, several times voted the best hotel in the world, and the masterwork of friends of mine, Nimish Patel and Parul Zaveri of Abhikram.  I have written about their work before: their Singh Havelli in Amber was seminal in local restoration practice, while the Udaivillas is the epitome of a grand project to dignify the architectural traditions of Rajasthan, generating meaningful application of the local building and decorative craft skills.  But as a contribution to a larger discourse, the project is always going to be handicapped by its recognisably traditional formal vocabulary.

In contrast, the Mana Ranakpur is small, and at first glance relentlessly contemporary in its skillion roofed, linearly planned forms, and its material palette disciplined into tight planar compositions.  But reading the architects' description and tracing the unusually generous drawings and photographs, one comes to understand the depth to which the designers have sought resolution by reference to local environmentally sensitive building traditions, overlaid with appropriate contemporary technologies.

I just wish I had known about the project when I drove by within a few hundred metres of it, after my sensual overdose on the white marble wonders of the temples nearby. That said, the post on ArchDaily is so good that my abstracting it would be wasted.  The reader really is better off by reading the full article here.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

When Zero isn't Zero

I usually hesitate to write about something that is almost entirely technical, but this one has been bothering me too long to ignore.

There is apparently declining public interest in the issues of climate change and sustainability.  Despite this, the reality is that we are working with considerable momentum on both technologies and regulations for energy efficiency, renewable energy sources and various other initiatives to reduce the impact of future development.  But the progress towards understanding what we are doing, even amongst professionals, is hampered by misinformation, whether that misinformation is motivated by greenwash, or simply sloppy thinking by people who should know better.  The concept of 'Net Zero Energy Buildings' is a case in point. 
You would think that the definitions of net zero energy buildings would be easy; that a NZEB would be one that produces at least as much energy as it uses.  But it is not that easy, primarily because of the problem of 'system boundaries'.  So we have competing definitions related to whether the energy for running the building has to be offset on site, or allowed to be imported, etc.  It gets ever more complicated as you try to factor in energy generation efficiency, or whether the energy used to produce the building also has to be offset.
This sort of complexity is bad enough to derail useful communication with decision makers, design professionals or the general public.  But what bothers me most is a more fundamental underlying sleigh of hand.  Take the deceptively straight forward attempt to clarify this issue, by Allison Bailes on the Energy Vanguard Blog in her article 4 Ways to Define Net Zero Energy Use in BuildingsTo make my point, I quote her first 'way' in its entirety:
1. Net Zero Site Energy
In the first definition, an NZE building produces as much energy on-site as it uses on-site over the course of a year. If the building uses 10,000 kilowatt-hours, it's got to produce 10,000 kWh or more, ideally on-site within the footprint of the building.
This definition doesn't account for the type of energy used, though. Where this becomes important is if the building uses natural gas, propane, or some other fuel besides electricity.
Let's say your home has a natural gas furnace, and it's 95% efficient. For every 95 kWh of heat that your home needs, your furnace is burning 100 kWh of natural gas. (Pardon the units, but since the energy produced is in kWh, I'm going to stick with that.) That means you've got to provide 100 kWh of site-generated electricity.
If, on the other hand, you had a heat pump, it would need maybe 40 kWh of electricity to move 95 kWh of heat into your home. Rather than having to produce 100 kWh of electricity, then, you'd only need to produce 40.
As you can see from this example, this definition of net zero favors on-site electricity use. It's also the simplest of the four definitions.
I wonder if you can see the problem.  It isn't immediately obvious, because the concluding paragraph seems to be so clearly suggesting the preferred solution: use a heat pump, and you have to generate less electricity, and you don't have to bring non-renewable fuel on site.  Which is where the initiative should aim to get you.

Unfortunately, the preceding paragraph makes clear that the 'Net Zero Site Energy' definition does allow non-renewable, off-site derived fuel to be used, albeit with a more onerous on-site offset.  The author's example glosses over the fact that heat pumps become less efficient exactly when the heating need is greatest.  Unless you commit to a ground source heat pump, the chances are that in heating dominated climates, you will either need to generate as many KWh of electrical energy as you use for electric heating, or favour gas fired space heating.

Of course, I am not the first person to notice these problems.  The concept of 'Zero carbon' is introduced to try and overcome the issue with different forms of energy. By the time the issues are teased apart sufficiently, and some self-interested people translate everything into  dollar costs rather than energy units or tons of CO2, I count at least eleven variations on the Net Zero idea.  Almost all of which misses the real point.  The problem word is the 'net' not the zero.  That accounting will always allow 'offsets' and 'conversion' calculations, and will always beg the question of the system boundaries.

The bottom line is that if you are burning a non-renewable fuel, no gymnastics with the conversion numbers will ever reinstate that loss of a resource.  It will have been used up. The whole 'net zero' construct is an illusionist's trick.

See the full article at