architecture


[I had hoped to get this review posted at one website or another that gets a bit more traffic than my little blog, because I think this is a pretty good book. I'm posting it here, but if you're interested in using this review elsewhere, drop me a line.]

Book Review: Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide – David Bergman

David Bergman’s “Sustainable Design” is a slim but information-packed book on sustainable design that is accessible enough for a general audience and, at the same time, remains engaging for more experienced building professionals. Far too many books on sustainability lean toward the bean counting, number-crunching side of things, and sustainability is simply a scorecard. Bergman, however, sees things in a wider perspective. More than many other books on the subject, this a sustainability book for designers rather than for accountants.

The book is extensively illustrated, with graphics to explain general concepts, diagrams to show how certain systems operate, and renderings and photographs of project concepts and completed buildings that incorporate the principles of what Bergman likes to call ‘ecodesign’ and show what these buildings can look like.

Topics are covered in brief, but with good explanations of the key features that they offer, and noting how they can offer benefits when used in a building. This book strikes a better balance between introducing the concepts and giving the reader an understanding of how they might be implemented than many other books tackling the same subjects. It won’t replace further reading and deeper research into a particular topic for a full understanding of how it might be implemented in a particular project, but it gives a clear explanation of how various systems work and what makes them sustainable.

The chapters are laid out to address the major themes of sustainability and the built environment using categories that will be immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with LEED. (Site Issues, Water Efficiency, Energy Efficiency, Indoor Environmental Quality, and Materials closely match the major point categories in LEED.) However, the book doesn’t handcuff itself too tightly to LEED. Energy Efficiency is divided into two chapters, separating Passive Techniques and Active Techniques. There is also a chapter on Labels and Ratings, which delves into evaluating measurements of sustainable claims for products and for buildings, and a coda on the Future of Sustainable Design.

Throughout the book, Bergman often points out the trade-offs behind different choices. Sustainability is never a black-or-white choice, and the reader is often reminded that there can be drawbacks as well as benefits, and that no solution is right in all circumstances.

“The objective is not necessarily to create completely self-sufficient buildings. Off-the-grid buildings are useful in remote areas, where the environmental and economic costs of bringing in power or fuel may be prohibitively high, but in developed areas, maximum efficiency may be more advantageous than self-sufficiency. Is on-site renewable power environmentally preferable to, say, a remote wind farm or tidal power? This is another example of an ecodesign question that does not lend itself to a single answer.” (p 67)

Good basic design fundamentals and concepts, such as surface-to-volume ratio for a building, are also discussed in this book. While this is not a factor that any green building rating system explicitly considers, it is certainly a concept that plays a vital role in a building’s relative energy efficiency.

The approach Bergman brings to the book is that of a working architect instead of that of a generalist author (or of a committee), making it more direct. Whether the reader’s perspective is that of a designer or a client, it’s less abstract. For example, when talking about something like lighting options, he notes some of the drawbacks to fluorescent lighting such as not being able to be dimmed the way incandescent bulbs can be. Color temperature and acceptability of lighting quality are important as well as the simple lumens-per-watt. Ultimately, sustainability isn’t about buildings, it’s about people who use those buildings.

All too often, books about sustainable design and sustainable architecture are so rooted in the immediate moment that they fail to offer much vision. They can be defensive works, aimed only against the current plight and laying out strategies to overcome the problems they see before them. Bergman’s ‘Sustainable Design’ differs by not only thinking about how to solve what are viewed as the current problems, but looking ahead to how sustainability can become a more fundamental part of all design. He hopes (as do I) that what is currently thought of as the “green building movement” progresses to being a part of “design as usual,” and that sustainability is incorporated into the design of every building as a matter of routine.

144 pages; softcover; color illustrations

Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide (Architecture Briefs) on Amazon

This is a newly revised portfolio of projects, including residential work, libraries, and other commercial projects. Some of the projects were carried out when I was employed at other firms, but all of these are projects where I had a major role in the design and construction of the building. Almost all of the photography is my work, as well.

psproefrock-portfolio2012 (10 MB PDF file)

Some of these projects haven’t been posted here or on my website yet, so this is a chance to for me to share this work some more. Updating the website is on the list next, and these (and other) images will be posted there in a more web-friendly format soon.

These are a few architectural photographs from a couple of recent and current projects. (Larger images if you click on them).

The LS Residence porch renovation was to rebuild the front porch of a Civil War era farmhouse.

The entablature of the porch (everything between the top of the columns and the roof edge) had been wrapped with aluminum cladding and all of the original detailing had been removed. The wood underneath was beginning to fail, and the (once we had it more completely opened up, it turned out to be structurally very different from what we expected).

The two center round columns were still in remarkably good condition and only needed to be scraped and repainted. However, the outside square columns at the corners were both beginning to show signs of damage and rot, and were both replaced.

The new entablature detailing was not necessarily historically accurate, but is probably closer to what it originally had than the blank aluminum that had been there for the past few decades.

It’s not an attempt to be historically accurate, but rather to rhyme with what had been there before (and also to coordinate with the door pediment.

Paint marks (and lack thereof) on the original boards underneath the aluminum and the existing pediment over the door suggested that a dentil band had been the original detail. Dentils in the original door pediment were apparently actual individual wooden pegs. One that detached during the scraping prior to repainting was temporarily replaced with a gold crown.

Carpentry: Kessler Design + Build
Roofing: Weasel Bros.
Painting: AM Painting


The JK Residence is an addition to an existing home which is currently under construction. These are a couple of progress photographs.

A former co-worker of mine (who is now working for another architecture firm than the one we worked at together) recently Tweeted a complaint about having to work until 5pm on the Friday before a holiday weekend. My first thought was not that I felt any sympathy (although I do sympathize), but rather that there are may architects (myself included) who would be glad to have that problem right now. The grass may be greener, and all that, and if it were a different economic climate and I was a full-time employee of a firm, I might very well make a similar complaint in the same circumstance.

Another former co-worker of mine (from the same former firm) got a new job with a large firm earlier this year after a long period of deep underemployment and now commutes an extra 30-40 miles twice a day, and, on top of that, is working far longer hours than he used to. That just seems to be the base expectation in many larger firms. Architecture is one of the fields most badly decimated by the Great Recession, and there are thousands of trained architects looking for work, or who have abandoned the field and gone instead into new lines of work. Why, then, does this seem to be the current state of affairs?

This leads directly to an article I came across a couple weeks ago, written by Andrew Maynard, an Australian architect whose work and whose approach to work I have admired for a while. (Maynard also coined one of the best lines ever on the topic of green building: “Sustainability is like teenage sex. Everybody says they’re doing it, very few people actually are doing it. Those that are doing it are doing it badly.“) His article about work-life balance is a worthwhile read, especially for other architects. He talks about how he took a very different approach to work than his peers when he was working at a large commercial firm, and how that was at odds with the prevailing culture of the firm. Rather than fighting the corporate culture, he started his own firm which he runs in a very different fashion. “At 5.30pm all staff leave the office, including myself.” Only on a few occasions does he return to the office after hours (his commute is merely a flight of stairs).

His approach is unusual for the US, as well as in Australia. In many instances, salaried employees are seen as a pool of free overtime labor, and expectations of working extended hours and of giving up nights and weekends are common. Maynard also has a number of good observations about the foibles and “broken logic principles” followed by too many architectural employees. Australian practice doesn’t sound too dissimilar to that in the US in this regard, as well. He notes, for example, “Architects are often the lowest paid person on the building site and the only ones willing to donate their leisure time for free.”[1] Architecture is notorious for eating its own, for making extreme demands on the time and energy of those (most especially the lower tiers) who work in the field. That’s not the kind of place I would ever want to run, and I wouldn’t want to work in an environment like that if I went back to work for someone else.[2]

Around the same time, the Valve employee handbook was also making the rounds. Like Maynard’s article, it also offers some good insights into a better, more humane and egalitarian way to run a company (architectural or otherwise). The pull-quote in Maynard’s article comes from the Valve manual: “Working overtime for extended periods indicates a fundamental failure in planning or communication.

Valve has a completely flat business hierarchy. There are no bosses and subordinates, everyone is on equal footing, and teams come together and work on the projects they want to work on. While that’s not the model of an architectural practice (projects are externally dictated, rather than internally generated), the idea of a flat organization is appealing.

The firm I worked for, when I was working with the above-mentioned co-workers, had a pretty flat structure. It was a small firm (although it was the largest office, barring one summer internship, that I ever worked for), and everyone had to wear a number of hats, and fill different roles at different times. We had a boss, whose name was on the door and who was the guy in charge of it all, but beneath that, there was a good deal of flexibility. No one had job titles. Everyone had their strengths (I was referred to as the office’s “residential specialist,” and I was certainly the banner carrier for green building although the firm, as a whole, was a groundbreaker in green building) and different levels of experience, but no one worked in a locked-in role. I might help one of my colleagues as a “CAD monkey” on a project they were working on, and a few weeks later, they would be doing the same under my direction.

In the last couple of weeks, I also found myself in a discussion with an old college friend who was asking me for career advice[3] (because I’ve had a career arc where I’ve made some significant changes; he’s now looking at a career change and was curious about how I made the decisions I made when faced with those turning points). Among the things that I mentioned, was a great quote from Expect the Unexpected [Or You Won't Find It] by Roger von Oech: [T]he renowned chair designer Bill Stumpf was asked what criteria he uses to select new furniture projects. He responded, “There are three things I look for in my work: I hope to learn something, I want to make some money, and I’d like to have some fun. If the project doesn’t have the promise of satisfying at least two of these, I don’t sign on.” (p 114)

I think this may be a better rule than Maynard’s strict 40 hour limit, although I don’t think he’d disagree with my perspective here. If I’m having fun, or if I’m learning something new, or if I’m being paid for it, then I’m not going to complain about occasionally working extra hours. But that should be the envelope in which architectural work takes place, rather than the ‘pay you for 40 and expect you to put in another dozen on your own’ that seems to be more commonly found. Putting in extra time should be the exception, not the rule

Too many architectural projects are defined by a sale of hours (the hours worked by the firm’s emplyees). If architecture is merely who will do the work in the fewest hours, then it is not a skill that is valued, it is a commodity, subject to simple market competition. That may be the way to think about pricing when it comes to getting an oil change for your car or buying a steel beam; those are commodities. When I’m offering my services as an architect, I’m not trying to offer a cheaper oil change than the next guy. The value of an architect is in the advice they provide and the decisions they make on behalf of their clients.

When it’s good, architectural work can be fantastic fun, and working with good people on an interesting project doesn’t seem like work at all. (I just recently saw a Facebook post from someone who was writing about how much she loved the Malletts Creek Branch library, a building I worked on (along with the help of those two former co-workers) several years ago. It’s gratifying to see how much people still love that building.) But not every project is like that, and that should not be the expectation of all. To quote Maynard again, “Other professions, such as law, demand extended hours – why not architecture? Law is one of a handful of professions that has a cultural predilection for extended hours. The fundamental difference between law and architecture is that lawyers are typically paid very well.”

Trying to predict the number of hours that a particular project will take seems misguided. Parkinson’s Law dictates that, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” To try to compete on a commodity basis simply transfers the burden onto the backs of the architectural employees.

Architects complain that they are underpaid and undervalued.[4] It ought to start with some recognition within the profession for the value of its own work.


Andrew Maynard: Work/life/work balance | Parlour

[1] He also (uncomfortably) points out the number of architects who think I will one day start my own practice and notes, “The proliferation of small practices and their significant cull rate illustrates a pathology unsupported by economic logic.”

[2] Economic realities force us all to make compromises from time to time. If I take a job where I’m working 60 hours a week, it’s because I value my children more than making a stand on principle.

[3] I am the first to admit the questionability of his choice for advisor.

[4] A real estate agent’s commission for selling a building is often a higher percentage of the value of the building than the architect’s commission was for designing it. We clearly value the ability to sell something far more than we value the ability to actually do a thing.

Here is what turned into an essay about working with an architect that I just posted to a local discussion group. It started with a question about kitchen remodeling, and eventually turned to “…what about working with an architect?”  I felt that it needed to be said that people should consider working with architects. Builders have done a very good job of supplanting architects in the public mind, but that shouldn’t necessarily be the case.  Architects offer a lot that is outside the normal scope of a builder’s work.

Part of my purpose for having this blog has been to try to make the process of working with an architect more accessible. As I say below, most architects are friendly creatures, and there seems to be a lot of (completely unwarranted) perception that architects are only for big, expensive projects. I want people to understand that that is not the case at all.  Architects offer a lot, and more people should understand that working with an architect can help them have a better, more comfortable, more personal home that suits their particular needs.


Working with an architect can be daunting to consider, but that shouldn’t be the case. Nor should you think that architects only want to work on big, expensive projects. Most architects are friendly creatures, and would be glad to talk about how they can help with your particular needs on a project.

While I am an architect, and I want to support the work of architects, I also have to agree that not every remodeling project needs an architect. If you are only changing the cabinets and the interior finishes, you probably don’t need an architect. And you don’t have to work with an architect if you are doing an addition or other remodeling project, but an architect can offer value in terms of helping with the design process, working through the specific needs and goals you have for your home.

An architect does more than just designing the space. An architect thinks in terms of problems and solutions. That problem solving extends far beyond the quetion of “how do make the building stand up?” A good architect should be able to evaluate your needs and develop a program and a design that represents what you want.

Some builders do offer design/build services, but others mostly just want to build, and the majority of design/builders are going to design what they want to build. That may or may not be the best thing for your particular situation and your needs.

Architects will often also take a longer-term view with the project. Instead of only looking at the immediate construction, they will also give consideration to matters such as energy efficiency and maintenance costs. What will your home be like in 10 years or in 20 years? An architect will look at a project with consideration to how things will change and adapt over time. And if a project gets to be too much to undertake all at once, an architect can help in determining what should be done immediately and what can be held off until later.

If you want to emphasize more sustainable building, or using healthy materials that will not offgas toxins inside your home, or being energy efficient, or trying to minimize your environmental impact, those are all things an architect can help with. If you have a particular style you want to match or if you want to try to do something unconventional and unique, an architect can help you.

Architects can assist with selecting materials that are more sustainable, that will offer better energy performance, and that will make for a better and more comfortable indoor environment. They can help you achieve a space that is personal and individual. An architect can help you focus the effort on the parts of your project that are most important to you.

Whether you are going to work with an architect or not, let me recommend at least taking a look at Sarah Susanka’s “Not So Big House” (and the other books she has since written in a series following that). She promotes an approach to creating spaces that are more about quality than about quantity. Better functionality and a more personal space are some of the things an architect can help you achieve.

Ideally, any construction project should be a collaborative effort. When everyone is working together on the same page, the project tends to turn out better. An architect can also help you navigate the building process, and should act as your advocate in working with a builder (which can be especially useful if you aren’t familiar with the construction process). The architect can be a person to talk with the builder on your behalf or may be able to help you in selecting the builder you want to work with.

You shouldn’t hire an architect “just because.” An architect should add value to your project. If you don’t think that an architect is going to offer anything more for your project, then I don’t think I’m going to be able to convince you that working with an architect is a good thing. If you know exactly what it is that you want to do, then working directly with a builder may work for you.

Most people, though, will find that working with an architect will bring a more complete analysis to the project and will result in a space they are happier with and one that more closely fits their particular needs. An architect brings expertise and experience to help you realize what you want for your home.

Architects work as consultants and collaborators to help the owner make the numerous decisions you need to make in undertaking a building project. There are many decisions to be made in the process of doing a building renovation or building a new building. The owner is ultimately the one to make these decisions, and the architect serves that goal by understanding the owner’s desires and helping to narrow the choices in order to meet their needs.

(Click on the images for larger versions.)

This is an old Greek-revival style farmhouse, parts of which date back to before the Civil War. I’m certain the detail isn’t historically accurate. I’ve worked on many projects where classical detailing was used, and while I wouldn’t consider myself an architectural historian, I think I have a pretty good awareness of appropriate historical style.

For this project, though, we weren’t trying to do historic preservation or to restore the porch to what it originally looked like. Instead, we wanted to give it detail more appropriate to what it once may have had. Rather than trying to match what was once there, I suggested that this was trying to rhyme with what it had been. From a purist perspective, I’m sure this is sacrilege. But I think it is an improvement over what had been there before, even if it’s not as accurate as it might’ve been.

The porch was showing some signs of serious distress. The original lintel beam had been stripped of its detail and covered in aluminum sheathing some time in the past. It looked like it was failing structurally, and the project was to stabilize it and return it to functionality, but not to try to make it a historical restoration.

The two center columns (which are round, fluted columns) are still in very good shape, and only needed to be stripped and repainted. The two outboard columns (which were square, built-up board columns) were suffering considerable rot at the base and needed to be replaced.

When the carpenters started prying off the aluminum cladding and the old boards, we discovered that the whole thing was a box beam that had been nested in for some time. There was lots of pine straw and grass, and also loads of walnuts (if I’m recalling correctly) though there hasn’t been a walnut tree in the area for more than a couple decades. Rather than re-facing it, once we opened it up, it became apparent that the whole lintel structure needed to be rebuilt.

When the aluminum was stripped off, it was clear from the paint traces on the old boards that there had been some kind of a band across the middle which had been removed before the aluminum was put on. And the pediment of the front door suggests what the original detail probably was. The dentils on the porch are larger than what is above the door (again, rhyming rather than matching), but they seem more appropriately scaled to the porch.

It certainly looked better after the lintel was rebuilt and the new columns were in place, but that wasn’t the end.  It took a while for the trim millwork to arrive, so it didn’t get installed before it was winter. But, now that the weather is getting better, Mike Kessler, the carpenter for this project, was able to get out there and finish it off. There is still some touch up and painting that needs to be done before it’s ready for final photographs, but it’s mostly done, and good enough to share these images.

It’s not unlikely that the corner columns are not originals, and with some of the details we reinvented there, we were repeating past mistakes. But, as I noted already, the main goal was to restore stability and functionality to the porch, rather than to try to restore it to a historical ideal.

[Originally posted at EcoGeek. It's not entirely new news, since the Army began adopting ASHRAE 189.1 in 2010, but it's further movement in a direction they were already headed in. It's probably a greater blow to LEED, since the DoD was one of its biggest adopters.

AIA Michigan COTE has been working to get more information about the new International Green Construction Code (IGCC) out to our members, and I have to admit that I'm still not completely clear about how the IGCC interacts with current state building code. I do think that there will be an increasing move toward having green building practice embedded in code.

At the same time, I think that LEED can maintain its leadership by further pushing the envelope. LEED has become very mainstream, and that is both good (in terms of overall uptake of the message) and bad (in that it has become less distinctive). LEED has to finesse the balance between being cutting edge and being accessible. I think, as it has become more and more popular, it has become too ordinary, and it needs to regain some of its distinctiveness and its status as marking truly exceptional buildings.]

[Edit to add: Some further clarification came out after I wrote this original article. See the followup posted at EcoGeek, as well, for a fuller picture of what is going on.]

While the headline may sound dire, it’s not an indication that the US Army is giving up on green building. Instead, the Army has announced it will use a new construction code of its own which is based on the ASHRAE 189.1 standard for new buildings and renovations, rather than continue to use LEED or the High Perfromance Sustainable Buildings standards. This new standard will “govern all new construction, major renovations and leased space acquisition.” The Army had already adopted ASHRAE 189.1 late in 2010.

Some of the impetus for this change is political. In 2011, Congress acted to prevent any Department of Defense project from achieving LEED gold or platinum certification as part of that year’s Defense Reauthorization bill.

Moreover, LEED is fundamentally a marketing program that recognizes buildings built to a particular high standard of performance. At its core, the Army is more concerned about having better buildings that it can operate more efficiently. Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Dr. Dorothy Robyn stated that, “With more than 300,000 buildings and 2.2 billion square feet of building space, DoD has a footprint three times that of Wal-Mart and six times that of GSA. Our corresponding energy bill is $4 billion annually.” The Defense Department recognizes the importance of green buildings for its overall operational effectiveness.

The armed forces have been one of the biggest early adopters of LEED, and if all of the services are going to move away from using LEED as their standard for improved performance, that is likely to have a strong effect on USGBC, GBCI, and the LEED program as a whole. “The repercussions of this announcement will be widespread,” notes Green Building Law Update. “For federal contractors, this is a game changer. The LEED AP credential will be less valuable. Past performance highlighting LEED certification will be less valuable, if not totally irrelevant.”

ASHRAE 189.1 is not some lesser standard. It was develeoped by ASHRAE (the professional organization of mechanical engineers), US Green Building Council, and IESNA (the professional organization of lighting engineers), as well as the International Code Council. Moreover, the Army’s action is not unprecedented. The International Code Council has also developed the International Green Construction Code (IGCC) which incorporates the ANSI/ASHRAE/USGBC/IES Standard 189.1 as a “jurisdictional compliance option.” Increasingly, building codes are going to directly incorporate green measures instead of relying on third-party standards that are merely optional.

Ultimately, this may push LEED in new directions. LEED was meant to push the envelope and to transform the marketplace. In that respect, it has accomplished much of that initial goal. As the industry has moved to embrace LEED, perhaps in the coming years, LEED will again push for even greater improvements in building technology and again make LEED an indication of a truly elite building.

via: Green Building Law Update

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