Pens and paper are things many architects are deeply interest in. There are plenty of people who are more crazed about fountain pens than I am. But I have 5 of them now, and I definitely enjoy using them. But I’m also a notebook nerd. So the offer of an opportunity to review Grids & Guides (Red): A Notebook for Visual Thinkers (Grids and Guides) wasn’t a chance I was going to pass up.

This is a red cover version of an already published book from Princeton Architectural Press, and they’re promoting it (with the red cover) as a Valentine’s Day gift for that special architect, designer, or other notebook aficianado in your life. (And, crass commercialism disclosure: I’m using an Amazon Affiliate link there for it, and the copy I received for review was a complimentary review copy from the publisher.) Maybe it’s weird to review an empty notebook, but this is more than just blank pages.


I’m definitely a fan of the half-page size (5.5″ x 8.5″ or thereabouts; A5-ish for the non-NorthAmericans), and this falls right in that sweet spot for me. It’s a hardbound book with red cloth cover. The front is embossed with a square grid pattern, which is a nice touch, giving it an unobtrusive but distinctive front, unlike many other blank notebooks, which end up upside down and backwards half the time.

The notebook has 144 pages, with 8 different kinds of grids, including regular squares in 3 different sizes, plus a dot grid, as well as log-log, diamond, and isometric grids, and a circle pattern grid made with overlapping circles.


The variety of grids in the book doesn’t make it that suitable for a working notebook. A consistent grid style (be that lines, or dots, or dashed lines, or whatever) is preferable for a working notebook. But as a book for experimentation and for collecting new ideas, the variety in this notebook is wonderful.  In addition to the variety of grids, there are section breaks with diagrams and notes about knot tying, a world map, the Golden Ratio, and more.

This isn’t going to replace the more regular (and less interesting) grid notes I use for more pragmatic purposes.  But the mix of grids encourages a kind of creative exploration that will make this a wonderful general purpose idea notebook, and this will be the next one I start using for those purposes.

A couple items about shipping containers have showed up recently.

There’s a gallery of shipping container construction from The Daily Green. It doesn’t have a lot that’s terribly new, but it’s a larger gallery (40-some images, I think) so it’s nice to have for reference, although most of them are not what I think are the best examples of the type (the Ross Stevens house (pictured) being a notable exception to that characterization).

There’s also an article that takes some critical jabs at shipping container construction. Although I am a fan of shipping container construction, it’s not such a sacred cow that I think it’s out of line to ask questions like this.

“Why are people recycling perfectly good shipping containers into narrow houses with low ceilings? If new shipping containers are still being produced and steel has a higher embodied energy than traditional home construction methods, then wouldn’t it make more sense to just keep using them as shipping containers? When used as a house, some of the metal will need to be cut out for windows and doors. When used as non-moving parts in low-rise construction, they offer way more structural strength than is needed, making them an inefficient use of steel. They need to be painted often or the metal will corrode, problematic if you were counting on it as the structure. If you add even a modest amount of insulation, then the tight spaces become even tighter. “

To rebut some of these criticisms, although they continue to be produced, there is an abundance of shipping containers, and reusing them is a productive thing to do. Much overseas shipping is one-way, so there is an overstock of them that is available for alternative uses.

Yes, you could use less steel for a low rise construction, but you would have some other material (or more likely materials, plural) in addition to the steel to serve as the cladding. The trade-off is that the shipping container is extremely cheap to produce. Good luck finding another 300+ square foot space with structure and cladding for such a low price. As far the criticism about painting goes, any building material requires some maintenance. Shipping containers are made for transport on container ships, so they start out being painted to withstand a marine environment. I don’t think they need to be painted more often than a wood house needs to be painted.

Shipping containers aren’t a panacea, they’re a design challenge. That’s why I find them intriguing. There is something appealing about taking a fairly unitary material and stretching the possibilities in order to develop something wonderful.

[The following was written in two parts in response to some local discussion about low-VOC options for flooring for a single-family home. The initial question asked about wanting to replace some flooring and having concerns about getting something that “has few or no VOC’s, but doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.”]

I wrote something a while back about VOCs and furniture, and some of the content would be pertinent for your flooring question, as well; you can probably find it in the archives for this group. I also posted a copy of it on my site: Indoor Air Quality of Furniture

There are, indeed, low-VOC carpets. Even more than the carpet itself, the adhesive used to attach it (more common for commercial than residential, but not unknown for residential projects) can have a huge amount of VOCs. The pad should also be considered since materials in it, too, can offgas.

With wood flooring the finish that is used can be a major source of VOCs, particularly if you are using polyurethane sealer. There are a number of water-borne sealers that have far lower VOCs than the older oil-based ones, and still offer very good performance and durability, and I think the best products in this category are now the water-borne ones.

Some laminate floors use particleboard substrates. These are made from wood chips and have a lot of glue which can often offgas a lot of formaldehyde. Solid wood flooring will generally have far less formaldehyde offgassing, but may be more expensive to install.

Because this is something more and more people are concerned about, I think that you will be able to find a number of products to compare from. You probably won’t find them at the absolute cheapest levels, but I think that you will find a wide number of choices available at reasonable prices.

Look at the long-term cost, and not just what it will cost to have it installed today. You may pay a bit more for better quality materials, but if they last longer, the lifetime cost is lower, and you have less disruption in your life if you don’t have to replace something that seemed to be a bargain after only a few years.


As far as carpet goes, natural fiber carpets (typically wool, but also some plant fibers like jute and hemp) shouldn’t have chemical VOCs, unless there are plastic backings applied, but there might be other sensitivity issues that might rule those out if you have allergy concerns. I’m not familiar enough with particular allergies to know more about that.

A good resource to use is the Carpet and Rug Institute’s (CRI) Green Label/Green Label Plus. This is not just a greenwashing tag. The CRI certification is used in the LEED green building program to identify carpets ad related materials that can qualify for low-emitting indoor materials credits. (More about the CRI program) If your carpet and other materials are Green Label/Green Label Plus products, you should be doing very well in VOC avoidance.

I do know that Interface carpet has been really ahead of the curve in adopting sustainable practices in their manufacturing and material sourcing. They do a lot of commercial work, but they have a division that is more for residential and small commercial projects ( Flor also retails through Target (with a limited selection), and also sells online.

Flor is one of a number of companies that make carpet tile (or carpet squares). These allow you to create patterns and have even more variety with floor covering. They are also entirely recyclable in most cases. One advantage with carpet tile is that they also allow for just a small area that has gotten damaged or that has excess wear to be replaced without having to replace the entire carpet. Carpet tile can be thought of as more contemporary in appearance, but I think it can be used in more traditional looking settings, as well; you just have to be more selective and restrained with your choices. Because they don’t need pads or adhesives, there’s less extra material required and less chance for other VOC exposure as well.

For hardwood floor finishes, I think that even the big boxes have low VOC products now available. There’s also a green building products retailer in Ann Arbor (Bgreen Today, located on Packard south of Stadium) that has a lot of “green building” products including a very low VOC floor sealant. They also have waxes and oils that can be a good alternative to a polyurethane finish for a wood floor. (Bgreen Today also carries a couple of lines of carpets, as well.)

The VOC limit used in the LEED green building standard is 250 grams/liter (less water) for sealants. You can use that as a guideline to evaluate different wood floor finish materials. Anything that is below that limit will be fairly low VOC.

Lastly, if you can do it, open the house as much as possible after installation, to allow the VOCs that are present to evacuate from the space quickly. Using fans, as well, to boost the circulation and bring in more fresh air to displace the VOCs can help further hasten the process. Whole building flushing is another good green building practice that can be easily used in almost any case, and we’re at the time of year when it’s least likely to be uncomfortable doing something like that.

Science Fiction Materials for Your Home” is a presentation I’ve given a couple of times now (it’s a little different each time I’ve done it). This past weekend, it was one of two presentations I gave at Penguicon 2012.

The premise for the presentation is that there are a number of construction materials that have very intriguing properties. Even if these aren’t necessarily widely available or affordable, they are products that seem to come from science fiction. And while these aren’t things you’re likely going to put into your home next year, it’s interesting to see what materials are being developed. And perhaps someone will eventually be interested in doing a project that incorporates some of these materials.

Attached below you can find a link to a PDF of my presentation (which is mostly just a set of images that I use to illustrate the discussion), as well as a set of links to original articles (many that are articles I wrote for EcoGeek and JetsonGreen) talking about these materials. The list is long enough to warrant being behind a cut.



[This article was originally posted on Green Building Elements several years ago (April 2007). With the recent discussion about the concept of “open building,” I thought it would be good to copy it here for reference.]

The strategy of “open building” can be traced back to European and Japanese roots. While it has been widely adopted in those parts of the world, it is only relatively recently beginning to see any use in North America. However, an increased interest in pre-fabricated construction is helping to expand awareness of this approach to building.

The principle is to maintain a separation between the different aspects of the building in order to be able to make repairs and do upgrades with a minimum of interference with other elements of the building. Open building stipulates separate zones or chases for different functions and services. This will, for example, make it easier to change plumbing systems without needing to repair other systems that cross or interfere with access to the necessary parts of the plumbing system.

Open building also makes construction easier by minimizing the interference between different systems, so that the installation of different systems can take place at the same time, rather than needing to be staggered one after another. With each trade and system given its own designated area, the builders (and also the future remodelers or repairers) of those systems can do their work with much less concern about damaging other elements of the building.

Open building lays out six “layers” with different lifespans. They are:

  • Site – the location; building site itself. Timeless duration
  • Structure – the framework; the “bones” of the building. 100 to 300 year lifespan
  • Skin – the cladding. 40 to 100 year lifespan
  • Space plan – the interior partition walls. 10 to 30 year life
  • Services – electrical, plumbing, mechanical, and heating/ventillation systems. Updated every 1 to 10 years
  • Stuff – belongings and furnishings. Can change monthly

Open building is often incorporated into pre-fab systems. Concentrating all of the plumbing elements in one area, for example, helps to put all elements of that system in one area for easier repair access. It also serves to reduce the amount of plumbing material needed. If all water uses are concentrated in one area, there is less piping needed which can mean a reduction in the amount of copper or other material used in the construction. The benefits of engineered construction with pre-fabrication, rather than having all of the installation of the services done on-site, can make for better use of materials and better buildings.

Taken to its extreme, however, open building can become restrictive, forcing configurations on the building that do not serve the needs of the inhabitants. If other parts of the plan are forced into awkward configurations in order to accommodate the structure of open building, then the savings in that one area may be lost in other areas. However, there can be benefits to understanding open building even without wholly embracing the open building system as the chief principle for constructing a building. Looking at the building with an eye to the life cycle of the different systems can lead to a better building, and can help reduce later problems.

Buildings need to be built to meet immediate needs. But they also need to be constructed in a way that future needs and changes to the building are also given consideration. Much in the same way that we need to conserve resources for the use of future generations, the buildings we build today will also be used and re-used well into the future, and a longer-term approach to building is another part of building green.

Article: Reinventing the House (Fine Homebuilding reprint – PDF)

Another furniture project is moving forward.

Today, I met with the Workantile maintainers group to discuss the phone booth. They were uniformly in favor of moving forward with it, so we are going to build a demonstration version to try out some of the materials and to get a sense of how the whole things may work. I posted some earlier images (on G+) of the phone booth concept for a glass door version. This updated one (click on images for larger versions) envisions a bi-fold wooden door with glass or polycarbonate infill panels.

A shared workspace like Workantile can sometimes be a hard place to work when you need to have phone conversations. I’ve seen times here when it has been so busy that the phone room (we only have the one right now) and all the other remote places and corners that people typically retreat to in order to talk on the phone were in use. A small phone booth will offer some acoustic separation so that more people can have phone conversations without disrupting the rest of the space. Although it’s being designed for use in a coworking space, there are probably lots of other places where something like this would be useful.

The first phase of this is going to be an internal Kickstarter to build one model and see how it works in practice here at Workantile. The first one is not going to be the all-steel frame version, for now. But we’ll do it with some materials we have available and on-hand, like some wire-glass for the side panels, and that will give us a chance to try it with different materials. Door options may include a cloth curtain, a wood bi-fold door with some kind of vision panes, a salvaged wood door we have with full-lite glass, and the all-glass door (shower door style, with the sexy stainless-steel hinges).

From that, we’re probably going to be running a Kickstarter project to fund development, refine the design, and build a couple further examples. The plan is to eventually make the plans for it open-source, but supporters of the Kickstarter wil lhave a chance to have a say in the features incorporated into the base design. Among the options I would like to make available for premiums at higher levels will be customization consultation (for organizations and people who would like their own version of this, but with some modifications; the industrial aesthetic is ideal for Workantile, but it may not be for everyone) and a full, pre-manufactured version of it, including all the pieces necessary for building one of these packaged up and shipped to someone who wants to buy one and put it together as an off-the-shelf system (much like an Ikea product, but presumably somewhat more robust). Another Kickstarter option might be to request a particular feature be incorporated as part of the set of plans. I don’t think we’ll have a fully pre-assembled version available, but if there’s enough call for it, that could be another possibility, I suppose.

The whole thing will probably be a couple months away, once we’ve had a chance to try it out and see how the basic version works.

Electron Stimulated Luminescence (ESL) lighting is an interesting alternative to compact fluorescent lights. It is a bit less energy efficient that a good CFL (but far better than an incandescent, like a CFL)**, and its expected lifespan is only about 2/3 that of a CFL, but it has a better color-rendering index (CRI), which addresses one of the biggest complaints many people have about CFLs.

About a month ago, I received a sample ESL bulb from Vu1, the company which has brought these bulbs out, and I have been trying it out in my (basement) office space since then. This bulb is meant as a replacement for a 65 watt incandescent R-30 bulb and, like CFLs, it has a standard screw base to allow it to be used to replace other kinds of bulbs.

My first impression of the light, as soon as I first turned it on, was that it was producing incredibly even illumination. Since then, I have found that this is explained by the company as being “a lightbulb that operates as a Lambert Radiator, meaning the light appears brighter than the Lumens would indicate approaching Lambertian perfection.” It’s a subtle quality of the light, but it’s something I noticed immediately, and that some clients of mine noticed, as well, when I took the bulb to show them for a demonstration.

The CRI of the Vu1 bulb is rated at 90+, which makes it better than most CFLs (which tend to have a CRI around 80), but not quite that of an incandescent (which has a CRI of 100).

As a replacement for an overhead CFL, for my purposes, I like the Vu1 bulb very much. The bulb is directional, with the majority of the light directed downward. The unfinished ceiling of the space is not as lit up as it used to be (which was not a very efficient way to light the space, anyhow), and the work surface is as well lit as before. The increased CRI is subtle; the difference in color temperature between the CFL I had and the Vu1 is the more dramatic change in the space.

(I should note that I have mixed lighting in my office space. When I first tried out the Vu1 bulb, I turned off the other lights in order to judge it by itself. But typically I have a strip fluorescent fixture with daylight color balanced tubes, as well as the Vu1 bulb.)

The Vu1 ESL bulb is also mercury-free, which is one of the company’s major selling points with the bulb. While I appreciate not having any mercury in the bulb, I’m not a mercury alarmist, and I have most of the light fixtures throughout my house fitted with CFLs. The bulb I replaced with the Vu1 bulb was a CFL.

The bulb is surprisingly heavy. The bulb is a vaccuum tube, much like an old television or CRT, and it has a similarly robust envelope. It also works in essentially the same manner as a CRT, using electrons to stimulate a phosphor coated front surface, which glows to produce the illumination (which is why the bulb is best as a directional downlight, rather than as a wide-area illuminator).

My impression is that the Vu1 bulb is best suited for directional uses, like ceiling mounted downlights, rather than for wide area illumination such as table lamps. It is also advertised as being dimmable with a standard dimmer, though I haven’t tried that out yet.

Reviewers like Lloyd Alter at Treehugger and Tristan Roberts at Building Green have criticized the bulb on various counts. I think some of the criticisms levelled at the ESL are reminiscent of those against the CFL. Early CFLs were expensive, but production has ramped up enormously, and they are now available at very low prices.

ESL suffers from being the second incandescent replacement technology to come along. A lot of the investment and development that might have gone into ramping up the ESL has already been spent in developing production and markets for CFLs, and I think that CFLs will (or already have) become as entrenched and difficult to overcome as the incandescents that preceded the ESL. And, at the same time, LEDs are improving in quality and decreasing in cost. With other alternatives out there, and the shifting cost/quality/efficacy landscape, the ESL has a tough road if it is going to become the predominant replacement for the incandescent; I think it’s too late into the game and not enough benefit. But I think there are uses where it will fit in, and it could well develop a niche for itself.

Street pricing for the Vu1 is about $15 (for now*). That’s more expensive than a CFL these days, but that’s in the range of what CFLs were a decade ago. I don’t know if ESL bulbs will see a similar trajectory with price as CFLs experienced. If the Vu1 bulb reaches a point where it is not several times as expensive as the alternative, there may be a real market for the better quality light.

For now, I’m keeping the ESL bulb in my office instead of putting back the CFL. I plan on showing it to other clients of mine on upcoming projects as an alternative to CFL downlights.

[Disclaimer: Vu1 provided the sample bulb to me at no charge for my review.]

[* 15 Feb – Edit to add: After posting this yesterday, I got a call from William Smith, the chairman of Vu1. One thing he wanted to emphasize is that the company expects the price for this bulb to be less than $10 within 18 months, as production ramps up and they start making their own electronics for the bulb and so forth. This isn’t going to match the cheap, commodity CFLs in price, but it’s certainly in the range of other dimmable bulbs (as another commenter also pointed out). They are also going to have A19 version (more of a standard bulb) coming out later this year, which I’m looking forward to seeing, as well.]

[**19 Feb – first paragraph edited for clarity to add the words “a bit” and insert the parenthetical comment.]

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