reference/quick links

[I was reminded of this old article of mine after seeing John Robb’s recent post about cold frames. I’m sure there are better DIY instructions out there, but some people found this helpful and maybe a repost will be useful to some more.  (EDIT: Added comments at the bottom about angles and sourcing materials that I also posted on Robb’s G+ article about this.)

This was an article I wrote several years ago for Green Options, and was probably one of my most popular pieces. (GO eventually turned into a number of different blogs, including Green Building Elements, where I wrote for a couple years, and you can find the original there.)  It’s a longish piece, as well, since it’s DIY instructions, so I’m tucking it behind a cut. The links didn’t copy over (and are probably out of date, for the most part), but I’m tracking down a couple of the images and adding them back in. I had a nice hand-drawn diagram illustrating the construction, and I need to see if I still have a copy of that somewhere that I can add in here to help make this more useful.]

Weekly DIY: Cold Frame

This weekend we got the first tantalizing taste of spring as the weather was clear and bright and temperatures rose well above freezing for the first time in months. Snow melted (though not entirely yet), and started the thoughts of summer gardens in mind. But nighttime temperatures are still falling below freezing, and it’s far too early to put plants in the ground, unless you provide a little assistance.

If your garden has a spot with good access to the sun throughout the day, you can use a cold frame to start your plants earlier in the year than you would otherwise. A cold frame is a very simple item. It is really just a small greenhouse. Daytime sun will warm the air and the ground inside, making it easier for plants to start growing. Nighttime temperatures inside the cold frame may fall back close to outdoor ambient temperature, but the extra heat gained during the day and the wind protection the enclosure provides will help keep the plants alive even if there is an overnight frost.

Building a cold frame should be a simple project. An elaborate structure is not required. It should cost little or nothing to build and nothing to operate. Plants can be started close together while they are small, and then, as they get bigger and the weather gets nicer, they can be moved out of the frame and put into the garden. (more…)

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.

I would have to say that I am the EcoGeek that I am because of Ernest Callenbach.

Ernest Callenbach died a couple of weeks ago. His name isn’t necessarily all that recognizable, although I understand that more than a million copies of his book, ‘Ecotopia‘ have been published, and in more than a dozen languages. This is not so much an obituary as it is a remembrance of what Ernest Callenbach meant to me.

It may not all have started with him, I’m sure there are other influences, maybe some of them have been stronger than his. But, his book – ‘Ecotopia’ – sparked my imagination powerfully at the time that I read it, and it was certainly an important early influence on me and my development, and it helped steer me toward being the environmentally-oriented person I am today.

I’m still intrigued by the idea of the shipping container as an element for some kinds of basic construction.

There are cases where it becomes nothing more than an image element, and the containers themselves are so worked over and re-engineered that any benefit that may have come from using them as a simple prefabricated system is lost. I still find those interesting visually, sometimes. But I don’t particularly like the abandonment of the essentials of the material. If you are going to use something, you ought to use it honestly.

I’d like to work on a small house concept that uses a couple of containers as the structural base. I have a couple different elements I have been thinking about, but I’m not sure they are compatible with one another.

One idea is that the container itself is able to support a good deal of load, and that one of the biggest drawbacks in using them is that the containers themselves are narrow. But it should be possible to set two containers down with some separation between them, and then use some other structure to span the gap and create a larger space.

Another idea I’ve had is to create a bracket that could be attached to the container itself which would serve to create an overhang and roof. The projection from the face would help to provide shade for solar control. I’ve also thought that vegetated roofs for shipping container construction just make so much sense. Containers are strong enough to support the load easily, and this bracket idea should be robust enough that it could carry the roof system out to the edge.

Putting the two ideas together means that the spanning structure needs to become heavier if it is going to carry the load of a vegetated roof. So the two ideas aren’t incompatible. But I don’t know how well they go together necessarily.

One further idea is the concept of using shipping containers stacked on top of an existing building as a fast and interesting method for adding inexpensive space to a building. The image at the top is an incomplete model for the Longshore project (what I previously called the Theoretical Project, where 56′ long containers would be used to span the existing one-story building (assuming the masonry walls were, in fact, adequate to support the added load).
This photo from an earlier post about that project shows the existing building from a similar perspective.

The projecting roof on top of the containers that is, in fact, the bracket/overhang green roof. The stack of 3 containers (meant to be a stair tower to the new second floor) is perhaps committing the very sin I was just complaining about in using the container look, but requiring a lot of extra structure to actually make it work. This was never anything but a concept, so I never got further into how it might actually work.

I expect I will keep on exploring these ideas in the coming year. Stay tuned for more.

Other articles on the topic of shipping containers:
The Pros and Cons of Cargo Container Architecture from Arch Daily

Exhibition about shipping container architecture in Dusseldorf earlier this year. (Click the headline image for the slide show)

A list of common mistakes occurring in LEED-H projects. Good for reference.

Top 10 LEED snafus – an article to share with LEED classes.

Green or Greenwash The Quiz This one, from Building Green, isn’t easy, even if you’re deeply involved in sustainability and green building. I got what I’d consider a borderline pass on this myself (9 out of 12), though I would argue the subjective nature of one of the questions that I answered differently than their correct answer.

One of the architects I regularly follow on Twitter, Andrew Maynard, recently wrote: “Just received a new commission to work on a small warehouse in fitzroy that I had always dreamed of playing with. #Fate?”

I’d like to share his fate, with a similar circumstance; there’s a building that is now for sale in Ann Arbor at Beakes and Fifth, just north of Kerrytown [here’s the real estate listing for it].

I’ve long had an idealized view of this building as an architects’ studio/family loft. I’ve seen several Chicago loft conversions of old industrial buildings like this that have been turned into residential/office spaces like that, and the building typology and the location would be pretty wonderful. I just don’t happen to have a spare 7 figures to spend on this.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t work on it as a project.

Eventually, someone is going to buy the building and want to do something with it. Unless it’s another architect who buys it (someone with my kind of ideas, plus a less anemic wallet), they’re likely to need an architect for it, and I’d be thrilled to be involved in working on this.

Apparently, this building has been being used as an indoor parking garage for quite a few years. It deserves something far better than that. It’s only a single story, so there could be an opportunity to build upwards. The site is at the edge between the Kerrytown district and a residential neighborhood. It’s not right for a huge expansion, and I suspect the irregular size and tight site would make it prohibitively difficult to do anything that really blew out the existing building.

So, let me know if you’re interested in doing something with this building, or if you know someone who would like to do something with it.

Part of my transition from employee to sole-practitioner running my own small firm has been the issue of dealing with the business side of things. Not only are architects often not comfortable talking with clients about money and business matters, but they are also not very forthcoming with each other.

One aspect of my career as an employee was that I constantly wanted to have more knowledge and insight about the business practices of running a project and running a firm. The moves I made when I changed firms were, at least to some extent, driven by a (perceived) opportunity to have more exposure to that level of the business (though I’d say in retrospect, it never really worked out like that). So it’s good to find an article discussing the business side of practice.

I’m not sure now who flagged it to bring it to my attention (someone on Twitter, I think), but this is a very good article about When ethics of professional school and business clash that discusses some of the dichotomy between education and what the operation of a business requires.

I’m always interested in finding more information about the business of running a small architectural practice. When I was at the state AIA meeting a few weeks ago, I learned that there is a statewide Small Firm Roundtable. At present, it’s a pretty dormant group, but there’s supposed to be new information coming from the national organization to give the different state and regional groups a new impetus, so I’ll look forward to that.

I should also be more on the lookout for other small firm practitioners who are blogging and writing about the day-to-day aspects of practice. It’s lonely out there, and professional colleagues are a good thing to have.

The ‘Boneyard House’ is a project I came across in a recent Jetson Green article (though I didn’t the article). I really like the approach behind this, as well as the aesthetic of the house. I’ve seen other projects like this, like the ‘Big Dig House’ (which I did write about), where the materials were the starting point, and the plan develops from the available palette.

The exercise of working with constraints and possibilities from a limited set of materials is compelling. I think many architects would relish the possibility of doing a project like this; having to find solutions with a limited number of options is always more compelling than having an open, blank canvas. It’s also wonderful to find uses for perfectly good materials that would otherwise go to waste.

I also like the aesthetic of combining materials and juxtaposing different materials. I went through a period before I went back to school for architecture where I was doing 2D collages. Architects generally try to limit the number of materials they use on a project, both to simplify the construction process as well as to make a cohesive appearance. Playing with such a range of materials can be difficult, but these projects both seem to have succeeded.

Of the two, I think the interiors for the Big Dig house are more successful, and I expect I would have come up with other solutions to the interiors of the Boneyard House if that had been my project. But I think both are worth noting for both the use of otherwise scrap materials as well as for the manner in which those materials were used.

Quick links related to the practice of architecture, and perhaps more specifically about connecting people who may need architects and the architects who could help them.

At Architizer, they are planning a Free Design Clinic, a group activity that is somewhat reminiscent of the ‘Architecture 5 Cents’ booth in Seattle a while back. It’s only in Los Angeles, as far as I can tell, but it’s an interesting way to help make people aware of what architects can do for them.

More interestingly (though less relevant for me at present), Andrew Maynard Architects posted an article about Overexposure, wondering “Can media exposure scare away potential clients rather than attracting them?” Maynard has been in architecture for about as long as I have, but he’s gotten some acclaim and international recognition, which I have not. (I follow him on Twitter; he doesn’t follow me.)

The question about remaining accessible while engaging in publicity is an interesting one. How does one develop an unusual practice while still remaining accessible for the people you want to serve? Maynard seems to have landed at a point with a comfortable balance between the two.

Lastly, Residential Architect had a recent article about sole practitioners which doesn’t say a lot beyond recognizing that there are a lot of new sole practitioner practices out there.

[Edit to add: Lloyd Alter has noted his thoughts about Maynard and about publicity on Treehugger.]

I disagree with the analogy in Michelle Kaufmann’s statement, “building a house on site is like having your car built in your driveway. It’s not efficient!” Makes a pithy slogan, but I think it’s misguided.

This is in advance of a forthcoming debate between Kaufmann and Chad Ludeman to be held on Treehugger tomorrow (3:30 ET May 26; rescheduled from a week earlier).

Efficiency may or may not be served by prefabrication, but site specificity and orientation doesn’t matter for a car and is all too easily forgotten when you are doing prefabricated buildings. A car doesn’t have a north side or a south side; a car is mobile, and is a fundamentally mass-produced object. Architects, designers and homebuilders have all been trying to figure out the “house as car” model since the early 1900s. There have been lots of attempts at this, from mobile homes to Fuller’s Dymaxion house, but I don’t think anyone has ever solved it.

Of course, on the other hand, it’s not very practical to imagine that all housing is going to be crafted with site specificity. Fundamentally, I think that, as with many debates, neither perspective is completely right or wrong. There’s a lot that prefabrication has to offer. But I disagree with the absolutism of the premise, “Be It resolved that Prefabrication is a greener way to build.” Some degree of mass-production could be useful, but prefabrication could be as badly done as any other process.

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