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After the coronavirus, we have to throw out The American Way of Building.

Read Time:6 Minute, 29 Second

Why now, more than ever, all new building should be Passive House.

A recent post, European engineers’ recommendation: Stop recirculating air in buildings got a lot of pushback from American readers. Most American homes and office buildings use moving air to transfer heat, with a bit of fresh air added to keep the CO2 levels manageable. In Passive House or Passivhaus, the heating and cooling is kept separate from the “hygiene ventilation” system that exhausts stale air and delivers fresh air. As Engineer Ted Kesik noted in response to the post, you need a well-insulated building and a heat recovery system to do this efficiently.

As for the claim this would increase energy consumed in buildings 4X, the example that was given in one of the reader responses dealt with the business-as-usual, code minimum, energy pig types of buildings that are prevalent in North America. If we build buildings that rely more on passive rather than active systems and design them to high levels of energy efficiency, the conditioning of ventilation air is not such a big deal.

Essentially, Ted Kesik and the Passivhaus people are saying that you can’t separate a mechanical system from the building design. In fact, the building design is almost a result of the mechanical considerations. As Frank Sinatra sang of love and marriage, they go together like a horse and carriage.

Architecture of the well-tempered environmentArchitecture of the well-tempered environment/ Lloyd Alter’s copy/CC BY 2.0

Reyner Banham said this too, in his 1969 book The architecture of the well-tempered environment, noting that historically, Americans have taken a different approach to building, and to heating or cooling. In Europe, many buildings were built out of heavy materials with thermal mass, and the structure was a prime controller of environment. In North America, buildings were newer and had “regenerative” mechanical systems that ran on fuel to keep warm, and soon after, electricity to keep cool. Banham wrote about how American houses and buildings developed differently:

… the abundant timber of which lightweight American houses were built provided abundant fuel for the high-performance Franklin stoves and Rumford fireplaces that heated them..and the skimpy thermal performance of these timber buildings made the invention of high-performance, quick-heating stoves environmentally necessary. The history of environmental management by the consumption of power in regenerative installations, rather than by simple reliance on conservative and selective structures, is thus a predominantly American history.

twitter discussion of passivhausTwitter discussion of passivhaus/Screen capture

I went back to my Banham in an attempt to understand the Twitter discussion that followed my post which was pretty much a Passivhaus bashing or at best, disparaging session. These are all people in the HVAC business, including people like Nate Adams, AKA Nate the House Whisperer, who we have mentioned before in our Electrify Everything discussions.

This what Banham described as the alternative American tradition, “a reflection of the unusual problems and advantages of US conditions. The problems were those lightweight structures in extreme climates wherever Americans built in wood, and the advantages were those of the relatively lightweight culture that many Americans took westward with them into a zone of abundant power.”

Twitter conversation about passive houseTwitter/Screen capture

This attitude still prevails: Passive House is too expensive, (and compared to light and fast code-compliant level of American construction, it is more expensive. Compared to the “pretty good house” approach, it is not that far off), so the answer is, throw a heat pump at it, a high-tech solution, and barely mention the building fabric or envelope. And you can’t blame them for thinking this way; as one reviewer of Banham noted,

Banham traces the events that led to the architectural profession’s abdication of responsibility for the indoor environment. Specialized fields emerged to take over this responsibility, and today’s mechanical engineers who design and build and operate HVAC systems in buildings large and small are isolated from the construct of the building as an integrated system require a comprehensive view of the building’s functions, structure, operation and use.

In the discussion of the previous post, Nate Adams recommended that I watch his very entertaining video, Bad Ass HVAC, to learn how he designs a system that “can deliver the 6 Functions of HVAC: load matching, filtration, dehumidification, fresh air, mixing, and humidification.” It is impressive but does raise many questions. Nate promotes Mixing: “If your home has a central duct system, you can mix the air in your house by turning on the fan for your HVAC. We’ve found mixing to be helpful with comfort and air quality problems.” Benefits of mixing:

  • Even out surface temperatures and reduce hot/cold spots
  • Even out temperature differences between rooms
  • Reduce air quality differences namely CO2
  • Provide filtration
  • Provide fresh air if you have a system installed

But as noted in the previous post on air quality, we don’t want mixing. We don’t want to move the virus all over our homes, we don’t want to depend on filtration, and we do want fresh air. And as for surface temperatures and hot or cold spots, that’s the job of the building fabric. Nate mentions that mixing air will raise the Mean Radiant Temperature (MRT) of the walls (responsible for about half of our feeling of comfort) but I am not convinced; Robert Bean and Alison Bailes have taught me that MRT is a function of the building fabric, and is not an issue in a Passive House design.



Nate shows this ASHRAE chart which recommends keeping humidity between 40% and 60% but writes “Our recommendation is to stay in the 30-50% relative humidity range. Aim for between 30-40% in winter (less if in climate zone 6 or above), and between 40-50% in summer.” That’s because he is worried about condensation and mold, moisture leaking through cracks. He says “If you need more humidity than a water saver model can deliver, you might need to consider air sealing your home.”

But here again, all of these are problems that come from having a crappy building envelope. That’s why you should take a “fabric first” approach; air seal your home first. Get window inserts. He is acknowledging that even his wonderful Bad Ass HVAC cannot solve every problem.

Fabric before furnace

a big bad ass furnaceA big bad ass furnace/ Nate the House Whisperer/Video screen capture

I want to be clear here that I am not being critical of Nate Adams, who is primarily working with those existing houses that as he notes, “are literally 98-99% of the problem.” His clients are getting a Bad Ass HVAC system.

The problem is the American Way of Building, as Banham described it: fast and light, and if you have a problem, throw smart tech and cheap fuel at it. And of course, the failure of architects and designers, who have abdicated their responsibility for indoor comfort, designing without consideration of the consequences for the indoor environment, and just handing the whole thing over to the engineers and contractors to solve it for them.

This is why I like Passive House and believe it is the future of healthy, efficient building; it puts the building fabric first.

  • The engineering for energy performance and comfort are inseparable from the architecture.
  • The H and AC are separate from the V, so that there is no recirculation. Instead, as Bronwyn Barry described it, “Direct exhaust from wet rooms & fresh supply to living spaces is going to become an essential feature of EVERY building.”
  • The walls and windows are good enough so that you don’t have MRT or condensation issues.

Then you have more than a bad ass HVAC system, you have a bad ass home.

After the coronavirus, we have to throw out The American Way of Building.

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Teaching in a time of COVID-19

Read Time:5 Minute, 34 Second

This pandemic may be an extinction event for the traditional university lecture.

It’s Tuesday, when I usually teach Sustainable Design to students in the Faculty of Arts and Communication at Ryerson University, mostly students from the Ryerson School of Interior Design. Except this year I am not getting on my e-bike and riding down to the campus; we are all teaching remotely thanks to the pandemic. This is actually something that really intrigued and excited me because I teach a one-term option where I have been doing a relatively traditional old-guy-stands-at-front-and-lectures kind of course, and then would have students do presentations to the class.

This year, we have been preoccupied with the 1.5 degree lifestyle; students were required to pick a topic from a long list and explain where the CO2 emissions came from and what we can do about it; I hope to collect them all and publish them. They also do book reviews that I publish online; you can see the last ten years of them here. Through all of this, I have been learning how to do a better remote lecture, and share those lessons here.

Radical Simplicity

A few weeks before we were all sent home I had a feeling that we wouldn’t be here for much longer and started filming my class with my new iPhone 11 Pro. I basically gave it to one of my students, who did a pretty good job. Sound quality wasn’t great, but she had a steady hand. The subject was radical simplicity, and it started off with a rant about Bjarke Ingels and unnecessary complexity that went on for far too long. I did a post based on the lecture that makes the same mistake.

Lesson: Figure out your priorities and budget your time. Nobody has to sit around an online presentation like they do in class.

Minimalism and the coronavirus

In this lecture, I used the same tech, talking about my favorite subject, the roots of modernism and minimalism as a response to the Spanish Flu and tuberculosis. Sound quality isn’t terrible but it’s not a very professional way to do a lecture. You can read about it all in TreeHugger in How modern, minimalist design (and washing your hands) can fight disease and more recently, lessons applied from this in Home design lessons from the Coronavirus.

How we get around determines what we build

Years ago Alex Steffen wrote that “what we build determines how we get around” in a post about why people in the suburbs all drive cars. I thought he had it backward; it is the available technology, how we get around, that determines what we build. So I go through the history of the streetcar suburb where I live, and how that evolved into the car-based suburb after the Second World War. Even though most of my students are studying interior design, I felt it critical to explain how this all evolved and how important it is if we are going to reduce our carbon footprints.

The student holding the camera for this lecture was all over the place, and I decided I had to do something to solve the video and sound problems.

I purchased this neat little COMICA wireless Lavalier microphone designed for the iPhone that came complete with a tripod, thinking it would pay for itself over the course of the year. It was much, much better in the next lecture, although it drops out here and there, I think because I didn’t clip the mic onto my sweater properly. But it is so much better.

Plastic waste: How we got it and what we have to do about it

How we got buried in plastic, how the linear economy started, how we got trapped in it, how recycling is a fraud, how we have to change the way we live. I summarized it in a post recently: How plastics add to the climate crisis.

The history of the bathroom, and why we wash our hands, Part 1

I only got to use that lovely remote mic once, because then we all got sent home. I will save it for next year. So now I am simply talking over my slides, which I often do with public speaking, so it should be easy. It’s also a subject I know really well, having been talking about plumbing and sewers for years on TreeHugger and thinking it particularly appropriate in this time of the coronavirus, even if it is off the theme of our carbon footprint. Wanting to keep it shorter, I broke it into two parts. You can read part of it here in A brief history of handwashing.

But when I do a public lecture, I rehearse it many times, often writing presenter notes under the slide. Here I just talked it through and was not happy with the results, quite a few stumbles and could have been better organized.

The history of the bathroom, Part 2

In this section, I look at how the bathroom itself actually evolved, really for the convenience of plumbers and developers rather than the health and safety of the users. It is much better; I wrote a script, put presenter notes under every slide, talked more quickly and kept it shorter. It is much better.

It will be interesting to see what happens when we come out on the other side of this. For most studio type courses, working from home is obviously going to be problematic, you live and breathe the studio. I always felt it important that my students do presentations, live in front of the class because that is what they, as designers, will have to do in the working world; their life is a crit session. However, many in the half of the class that didn’t get to present in person have come up with some very clever workarounds.

Ten years ago, everyone was talking about the MOOC or Massive Open Online Course as the future of education. It didn’t quite turn out that way. I wrote five years ago how “every January I stand up in front of a new crop of students and face a wall of white glowing apples and think that there has to be a better way to deliver a message and figure out if they learned any of it.” I suspect that when we come out of this, our universities will be very different, not quite MOOCs, but when it comes to traditional lectures, this is an extinction event.

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Cepezed’s new offices are a demonstration of circular design

Read Time:3 Minute, 19 Second

Design for deconstruction out of low-carbon materials is the way of the future.

We love wood construction because it stores carbon for the life of the building. But people often ask, “What about when the life of the building is over?” The answer is what has been called design for deconstruction, and now Cepezed architects call circular design. This is evidently a thing in the Netherlands:

The Netherlands has set itself the goal of rendering all construction activities fully circular by 2050, while cepezed has a long reputation for modular and demountable design and construction. Moreover, director Menno Rubbens of developer cepezed projects is part of the national program committee to achieve the national circularity goals. Partly for those reasons, Building D(emountable) also had to become an example project on cepezed’s own grounds. Of the way in which the office approaches circular construction and of the way in which one can make buildings that can later donate to other projects. Or even be reused elsewhere in their entirety.

Interior of d mountable building© lucas van der wee | cepezed via V2com Newswire

The building is very much like what I have called new old buildings – basically, an open wooden warehouse like everyone built a hundred years ago. But it has a slender steel supporting structure and Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL) prefabricated beams, all left exposed. I do not understand Dutch fire regulations, but somehow “the entire building functions as one large fire compartment. As a result, little material was required for fire-resistant measures; only the stairwell has a fire-resistant partition.”

glazing of exterior face© lucas van der wee | cepezed via V2com Newswire

The architects talk about how the entire building is demountable, but I wonder about the windows. First of all, there are a lot of them; secondly, there are no traditional window frames; the glazing is mounted directly onto the steel. This is not easy, and depends on precision; “the steel builder had to comply with the very limited tolerances of the façade builder, which was no small task.”

glazing-detail© Glazing detail/ Cepezed Architects

You can see here in the detail that there is a bracket fastened to the steel. When I was an architect many years ago I tried this, and it did not end well. I also wonder how demountable it is, compared to a conventional window frame. But it is elegant and minimal; there is almost nothing to it. The entire design seems to be predicated on using as little of everything as possible.

structure demountable© Cepezed via V2com Newsire

When I was a kid I had a Meccano set of metal parts that I could use to build anything and take it apart, and keep going until I lost all the little nuts and bolts. This building reminds me of it, and of my Kenner Girder and Panel Building Set – lightweight framing that screws together, prefab panels that drop in, wrap a skin ’round the whole thing and you have a building. It’s so simple and logical, no wonder it could be built in three weeks.

“This was possible, among other things, because of an integrated process with thoughtful preparation and close, integrated cooperation between the various cepezed disciplines.” Cepezed is the owner, developer, architect, interior designer and implementation coordinator.

detail of glazing demountable building© lucas van der wee | cepezed via V2com Newswire

One might have quibbles with us showing yet another all-glass building, but there is a lot going on here to admire. Thinking upfront about circular design ensures that the carbon stored in the wood stays stored, the repetitive steel frame can be unscrewed and unbolted and reused. It is a simple, uncomplicated but very sophisticated building. And when they get tired of all that glass, they can probably change that pretty easily.

exterior in the daytime demountable building© lucas van der wee | cepezed via V2com Newswire

We have also admired the bus and bike facilities designed by Cepezed, seen below in related links.

Design for deconstruction out of low-carbon materials is the way of the future.

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Urban density is not the enemy, it is your friend

Read Time:5 Minute, 59 Second

The parts of New York City with the lowest density have the highest rate of COVID-19 infection.

All the urbanists are crazed by the New York Times headline Density Is New York City’s Big ‘Enemy’ in the Coronavirus Fight. Brian M. Rosenthal speaks to the experts:

“Density is really an enemy in a situation like this,” said Dr. Steven Goodman, an epidemiologist at Stanford University. “With large population centers, where people are interacting with more people all the time, that’s where it’s going to spread the fastest.”

Now I hate that phrase everyone throws around,”Correlation does not imply causation,” but it applies here. Asian cities like Hong Kong, Seoul and Taipei are far denser than New York City and they have far fewer cases per capita. There are other examples even closer to home.

Rosenthal also notes that “New York is far more crowded than any other major city in the United States. It has 28,000 residents per square mile, while San Francisco, the next most jammed city, has 17,000.”

But New York is a collection of separate places separated by bodies of water. Queens has the highest number of cases with a population density pretty close to San Francisco at 21,460 people per square mile, and one case per 592 residents. Brooklyn’s population density is almost twice as high at 37,137 per square mile, and it has a rate slightly less than half of Queens, at one case per 1,292 residents. Meanwhile, Staten Island, separated by a ferry and a long bridge, with a population density of a distant suburb at only 8,112 people per square mile, has the highest rate of infection of any borough at one case per every 542 residents.

As I noted in an earlier post, City, suburb or country? Where’s the best place to ride out this crisis?, density isn’t necessarily the issue. According to Creighton Connolly, a senior lecturer at the University of Lincoln in England quoted in Reuters,

…very dense cities like Hong Kong and Singapore have contained the virus better than largely rural areas like Lombardy and Veneto in Italy. Ultimately, governance dimensions are more important than planning or design approaches.

Or as one tweeter noted, “Seoul, Tokyo, Singapore are all much denser than New York City. Two differences: 1. Much quicker, more effective respose to virus, including testing. 2. People likely to wear masks in public when sick, long before current outbreak.”

This looks pretty dense to meHong Kong looked pretty dense to me/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Emily Badger notes this as well, in her response to Rosenthal’s article:

One hopeful note is that Singapore, Hong Kong and parts of Taiwan, places as dense or denser than New York, were able to pursue early testing and extensive tracing of coronavirus cases rather than widespread isolation.

No matter; the D-word, density, is now being thrown to justify the end of cities as we know it. Joel Kotkin writes in the Washington Post:

Just as progressives and environmentalists hoped the era of automotive dominance and suburban sprawl was coming to end, a globalized world that spreads pandemics quickly will push workers back into their cars and out to the hinterlands.

That may just be Kotkin being Kotkin, but he is not alone, and he is not correct. Because this is not an issue of density as much as it is an issue of design.

Density done well.

This is not to say that density doesn’t make a difference in our health and well-being. What we have to start thinking about is Brent Toderian’s term, “Density done well.Toderian writes.

It’s an understatement to say that the “D-Word” is a controversial subject in cities across North America, and whatever city you live in is likely no exception. One big reason is that often density is done rather poorly in many cities, so it’s no surprise it can be unpopular with both the public and politicians. It needn’t be so though, and shouldn’t be, as when it’s done well, density is immensely important to the success of cities and regions.

Meanwhile, in Montreal…

Montreal housingHousing in Plateau district, Montreal/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Rosenthal of the Times and Kotkin should hop back into their cars and drive 375 miles straight north to Montreal, and visit the Plateau district. Its mostly three-storey buildings on relatively narrow streets have a population density of 32,598 people per square mile, higher than the New York City average. The traditional designs are incredibly efficient with no corridors or shared spaces. There are 472 cases of Coronavirus in the entire Montreal area.

Glass towers in VancouverGlass towers in Vancouver/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

On the other hand, putting density into high-rise towers can be problematic too. Condominiums and apartment buildings have corridors and elevators and common spaces. Wendy Stueck of the Globe and Mail talks to a woman with an auto-immune disease who worries about her Vancouver apartment.

She worries about the level of cleaning in common spaces, particularly elevators, and the potential risks of using shared laundry facilities. She is also concerned about social isolation, adding that her building does not have the balconies that allowed residents in Italian cities to sing to one another in recent days. “If you’re up on the 34th floor, you’re not talking to anybody but the wind,” she said.

This is why we need Toderian’s “density done well.” I have called it the Goldilocks Density:

Dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can’t take the stairs in a pinch. Dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages. Dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity.

People are aiming low when it comes to density, thinking as Alex Bozicovic put it:“The effects of the coronavirus could be with us for years and decades to come. The marks of the virus would be more highways and more houses, fenced off from each other and scattered apart, a landscape that’s alive but not entirely healthy.” But really, anyone who thinks that driving to the suburbs and having a little more space is going to make them safer should have a look at Staten Island.

One thing that is a function of population density is the level of service. Remember where the doctors are. Remember where you don’t just rely on your car to get around but can use your bike or your feet. Where you have choices of where you shop or what you can get delivered. Where you can have friends and family close by. That’s more likely to happen in the city. That’s why it is so dangerous and counterproductive to say that density is the enemy. In most cases, density is your friend.

The parts of New York City with the lowest density have the highest rate of COVID-19 infection.

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Alley Cat laneway house looks a lot bigger than it is

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Laneway housing is a terrific option to deal with aging boomers and their children.

After years, no, decades of opposition, laneway housing is finally legal in many cities, thanks to the cost of housing and the aging of the baby boomer generation, who are often owners of lovely houses with generous backyards. These new, small laneway houses can become a place for them to downsize, or to provide living space for their kids.

alleycat plan© Shed Architecture and Design

The owners of the lot where the Alley Cat is located wanted a place for themselves while renting out their craftsman style house in front. In Seattle, it is called a DADU, or Detached Auxilary Dwelling Unit; Shed Architecture and design write that “the client requested a unique structure that was low-maintenance and PV-ready, easily accessed from the alley and with a strong relationship to their existing garden. In addition, the client was hoping for an interior space open to the sun, and with primary rooms on one level for aging-in-place.”

Exterior of Alley cat photo© Shed Architecture and Design

The exterior is clad in basic, maintenance-free standing seam metal and not a lot of windows, to maintain privacy for both the people living here and those in the main house.

big sliding door from inside© Shed Architecture and Design

The only big open at grade is a giant sliding door opening on to the garden at the side; having a big lot like this certainly helps.

Alleycat interior looking toward kitchen© Shed Architecture and Design

The interior is mostly lined in plywood, which “captures warmth and durability while white walls high above reflect light throughout the spaces.” The architects describe it as “hard on the outside, warm on the inside.”

Alleycat interior looking down from loft photo© Shed Architecture and Design

I am naturally drawn to this interior, given that I share the love for midcentury modern furniture, have some of the same chairs and even the George Nelson bubble lamp over my dining room table.

Alley Cat bathroom photo© Shed Architecture and Design

The design for aging in place is also done really well, very subtle, with wide doors and a big bath and open shower that doesn’t scream “aging in place”; it’s a good example of universal design. I actually think it is the smartest way to design a tub and shower, and did it a few times as an architect, as well as in my own home. I do think they put the bathroom taps in the wrong place, it is a long way to reach across the tub. I combined them so you don’t have to reach.

Alley cat hall and bath© Shed Architecture and Design

This lovely 800 square foot house won’t be cheap; laneway houses never are. As we noted when discussing Lanefab’s houses in Vancouver, “You have all the same stuff as in a bigger house, more difficult access, often complicated designs and expensive servicing of water and drains.” But if you have the land, and live in a hot city like Seattle, you still come out way ahead.

Alley cat entry© Shed Architecture and Design

Over the next decade, there is going to be an explosion in the number of baby boomers who want to downsize. Over the next week, there’s going to be an explosion in the number of grown kids moving home. Laneway housing can’t solve either problem, but it can make a dent in it. Shed’s Alley Cat is a great demonstration of how to do it right– how to be deferential to neighbors, how to design a simple, elegant space that can be used by anyone, and how to make 800 square feet feel like so much more.

Laneway housing is a terrific option to deal with aging boomers and their children.

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What does a gender-neutral city look like?

Read Time:5 Minute, 7 Second

Throughout history, urban planning has been designed for and by able-bodied men. What does that mean for everyone else?

You know that hackneyed saying, “You can’t be what you can’t see” — or something to that effect? To me, it means that equal representation at the table isn’t just about checking a diversity box or hitting a certain quota. A truly equal system or city or urban plan needs input or data from everyone in order to create a safe, accessible, user-friendly experience for everyone — from seniors to the disabled to millennials to commuters to caregivers.

But when cities were planned, most of us were left out of the meeting room. By “us,” I mean anyone who wasn’t a privileged man with access to education and power. In a profile for dezeen, British writer Caroline Criado Perez describes how cities have never been designed for 50 percent of the population: “Things like zoning are really very biased against women.”

So biased, in fact, that she wrote an entire book about it, called “Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men.” This kind of gendered data gap has led to city planning and public spaces that just don’t function for everyone equally.

“The vast majority of information that we have collected globally, and continue to collect — everything from economic data to urban planning data to medical data — has been collected on men, male bodies, and typical male lifestyle patterns,” Perez states.

It is an imbalance we still struggle with today. Writing for MobyCon, a private consultant group that worked with the Dutch government to develop a modern, groundbreaking approach to mobility for all, Melissa Bruntlett says:

Our personal lived experiences influence how we see the world, and how, as planners and designer, we find solutions to mobility challenges. The fact is that despite gains in many countries to balance gender roles in daily life, men and women experience the world differently. Our differences in height, body types and even values have an impact. By aiming to have more gender parity of voices in the room, you have a much greater chance of hearing more balanced approaches and ideas.

So how do we rectify our wrongs? We can’t go back in time to America’s first urban planning conference, held in New York in 1898, but there’s some simple solutions we can implement now. Here’s how.

Every trip counts

If we only consider the 9-to-5 office or factory commute, that leaves out a lot of people who are also working, much of it as unpaid labor. Think about the parent who not only drives to work, but stops at multiple schools or daycares, picks up groceries at the end of the day, and then runs errands for their elderly relatives. These short, frequent trips are just as important as the paid job people head to every day, and they should also be documented when creating or measuring the transportation network as a whole. Giving equal importance and measurement to every kind of trip should help cities better plan where walking, cycling, or public transit routes should go.

Consider the young and old and everyone in-between

The city should work for everyone. Well-lit, wide lanes and easy-to-navigate, traffic calming streets encourage everyone to try alternative transportation, instead of the car. Bruntlett also adds that we shouldn’t discount the power of the teenage girl: “One of the great successes of Dutch cycling is that teens make up the largest mode share of all people on bikes in the country, and teen girls make up almost half of those numbers. When teens are seen as a welcome part of the transportation network, the city is all the better for it.” I, for one, would love to see packs of teenagers biking my urban streets — in fact, I might even join them!

Public potties in public spaces

One of my biggest fears while working as an au pair in Paris was being in the middle of the city or a park with no (free) public toilet. That was 12+ years ago, pre-smartphone for me, and I believe Parisien toilettes have come a long way since then. But safe, visible, clean public toilets are essential in making a public space thrive for more than just 50 percent of a community. In the wise words of Lloyd Alter, “Public washrooms really are just as important as public roads because, in both cases, people gotta go.”

Let there be light

Given the option between a dark, quiet street or a busier, well-lit street, I always opt for the lighted street. While I certainly don’t like being around buzzing cars while walking or biking, dark streets can make anyone feel a little uneasy. Perez believes most designs today don’t take into account violence against women (or the constant fear of it in the back of our minds): “Women are the primary users of buses in the daytime,” she said. “At night, they’re not using the buses. Why? Because the buses don’t feel safe.” Adding lights at bus stops, keeping bike lanes clear and well-maintained, and consistent enforcement of road rules will bring more women to the bike yard.

Adds Bruntlett, “Incorporating infrastructure in the busier public realm provides a safe, comfortable option on a well-lit, and often more direct and convenient route. Ensuring your designs — and budgets — include ample lighting to create a warm, inviting public space is an essential way to design a more gender equal city.”

Of course, city officials and planners thrive on data, which is where sex-disaggregated data (separate data for women and men) comes in. We can’t implement anything if we’re not getting the right data to back it up. I’ll let Perez have the last word on that:

“Equality doesn’t mean treating women like men, and this is a bias that we all fall into so much. Sex-disaggregated data is really incredibly simple. Everyone needs to do it more disaggregation, not less.”

Throughout history, urban planning has been designed for and by able-bodied men. What does that mean for everyone else?

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JUPE health is an ‘immediate response to hospital overcrowding’

Read Time:3 Minute, 27 Second

These flat-packed rest-and-recovery units could take the load off hospitals in a hurry.

Whenever a disaster strikes, architects and others rush to the rescue with solutions that often involve shipping containers. But they are not always the best or most appropriate solution; you are shipping a lot of air and a lot of steel that you don’t need. They also may not be the most efficient approach for many of the space needs in a hospital. That’s where JUPE Health comes in.

Here comes 204 Jupe units© Here comes 204 Jupe units

As U.S. hospitals brace for the future of the coronavirus, reaching capacity is one of the most critical issues healthcare workers face. ​JUPE Health aims to be an immediate response for a workforce that needs to stay near the hospital and for the anticipated flood of sick and recovering patients. JUPE Health units are equipped with mobile bedding, technology, and amenities to support long-term containment efforts.

JUPES on a container platform© JUPE units on a container platform

It’s a flat-packed solution, a mobile platform with walls that fold out, so that 24 units can fit in the space of a single 40′ shipping container, and configured for different purposes:

3 types of configurations© JUPE

JUPE REST: A rest area and sleeping unit for medical professionals
JUPE CARE: An off-grid deployable recovery unit for non-critical COVID-19 patients
JUPE PLUS: A stand-alone ‘light intensive care unit’ for patients in critical care

JUPE bathroom unit© JUPE bathroom unit

The potential for space shortages could put all of our medical professionals at great risk. The JUPE REST unit allows healthcare workers whose health remains compromised due to exposure to the coronavirus a safe space away from their families while treating patients to prevent further outbreak. The JUPE CARE unit allows non-critical patients the opportunity to recover in a space equipped with a clean toilet, sink, and showers. The JUPE​ ​PLUS unit provides a remote ICU station with a full hospital bed and additional ventilation equipment for those patients in critical care.

This makes a lot of sense. So many of the photos we see of hospitals have patients in the halls, and we hear so many stories of doctors who are afraid to go home. This is like an instant expansion of hospitals to cover slightly less critical functions.

It’s designed by a team led by a doctor, Esther Choo, a modular housing expert, Jeff Wilson of Kasita, who certainly knows his modular and prefab housing, and TreeHugger regular Cameron Sinclair, who we must note has never been fond of shipping container solutions.

JUPE double unit© JUPE double unit

“Having worked for decades in crisis situations, it is vital to put your health facilities where the epidemic is spreading. Having highly deployable recovery units gives us the best chance of fighting COVID-19 and to support our frontline medical professionals,” said Cameron Sinclair, Chief Humanitarian Advisor, JUPE Health, and TED prize winner for developing mobile health clinics and community-led disaster response.

Dr. Choo explains that it is not one size fits all. “The health system has many overlapping needs right now, and cannot function well without all the pieces in place. We’re working to plug one of the more complex gaps.”

Half a million JUPE units on a boat© Half a million JUPE units on a boat

The Jupe unit wasn’t designed for this disaster; it has been in the works for a while, designed “to provide quick and cost-effective solutions to those 100M+ persons displaced by crisis including natural disasters, refugee crises, and those experiencing homelessness.” It’s a flexible platform that can be adapted to many different uses, depending on what the folding wall panels are made of and what is built into the unit.

The beauty of it is that it is so flexible and adaptable, a drop-in solution that can take the load off the existing Intensive Care Units that are overloaded with the sickest patients, can drop the population density in a hospital, and give some degree of separation. It’s a really clever alternative to the magic metal box.

These flat-packed rest-and-recovery units could take the load off hospitals in a hurry.

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The top US states for homesteading, tiny homes, and off-grid living

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When things are feeling grim, the idea of self-sufficient living seems even more appealing. Here’s where it’s all happening, according to Instagram..

The climate crisis, wealth disparity, and other various components of modern life have inspired more people than ever to rethink their place in mainstream society. Add in a pandemic and the idea of self-sufficient living may be even more appealing. Not that many people would necessarily love quarantining in a tiny home in the city, for example – but a tiny home parked in a giant meadow next to hills and a stream might not be so bad. Likewise, homesteading and being off the grid certainly feel alluring when supply chains are burdened and entering places of commerce is limited and must be done with caution.

While the white-picket-fence ideals of the “American Dream” may long be a part of our national character, we also have independence hardwired into our cultural DNA. And because of this, as the going gets tough, we are seeing tiny house living, homesteading, and off-grid living inching into more mainstream conversations. One look at the popularity of television shows like Tiny House Nation and Tiny House, Big Living prove the point.

But here’s a question: Where is all of this happening? As home-improvement matchmaker company HomeAdviser observes, “If they’re doing it properly, nobody really knows.” But nonetheless, the company “went hunting for signs of life on Instagram.” They gathered data on posts tagged #homesteading, #tinyliving, and #offgridliving, and then mapped the results. Now of course this isn’t an exact science, but here’s what they uncovered about the three movements, according to Instagram.

The 10 most popular states for homesteading

Homesteading is all about producing more and consuming less. Think backyard chickens, composting, vegetable gardens, making one’s own clothes, and more. Here are the states from which there is a lot of Instagram activity around the topic.

1. California
2. Texas
3. Washington
4. North Carolina
5. Tennessee
6. New York
7. Pennsylvania
8. Georgia
9. Virginia
10. Colorado

The 10 most popular states for off-grid living

Well this one is a little tricky. The data was gathered from Instagram, and not every off-gridder is going to be using the internet, let alone social media. So let’s qualify this one as the most popular states for visible off-the-grid living.

1. California
2. Colorado
3. Arizona
4. Oregon
5. Hawaii
6. Florida
7. Alaska
8. Utah
9. New Mexico
10. New York

The 10 most popular states for tiny living

In general, a tiny house is one that does not exceed 400 square feet – whether on wheels or a traditional foundation. Because of their size and potential mobility, we see them popping up all over the country. HomeAdvisor notes that as far as Instagram goes, they appear to be a popular urban solution. “Our Instagram data suggests that tiny living figures big in cities known for arts and creativity: Portland, Oregon (695 photos) is America’s Tiny Capital, while Austin, Texas, L.A., New York City and Seattle all feature in the top 10. Today’s design-led tiny living movement is more cultured and modern than the ‘back to the earth’ subcultures of homesteading and off-gridding.” Here is how it looks by state.

1. California
2. Colorado
3. Florida
4. Texas
5. Oregon
6. Washington
7. Arizona
8. North Carolina
9. New York
10. Utah

To learn more about these maps and the methodology used to create them, visit HomeAdvisor. For more on the movements, see our related stories below.

When things are feeling grim, the idea of self-sufficient living seems even more appealing. Here’s where it’s all happening, according to Instagram.

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CURA is a hospital in a box

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But does building it out of refurbished shipping containers make any sense?

We recently wrote about the Jupe flatpack units designed for instant hospital expansions during disasters, mentioning that shipping containers “are not always the best or most appropriate solution.” But shipping containers do have advantages if you are shipping more than just an empty box.

section of container unit© Carlo Ratti Associati

Italian architect Carlo Ratti Associati has teamed up with the MIT Senseable City Lab to design Intensive Care Units (ICUs) that fill repurposed shipping containers with a lot of stuff – all the accessories needed to have an ICU including beds, respirators, monitors, everything you need. The architect describes it:

CURA is a compact Intensive-Care pod for patients with respiratory infections, hosted in a 20-foot intermodal container with biocontainment (thanks to negative pressure). Each unit works autonomously and can be shipped anywhere. Individual pods are connected by an inflatable structure to create multiple modular configurations (from 4 beds to over 40), which can be deployed in just a few hours. Some pods can be placed in proximity to a hospital (e.g. in parking lots) to expand the ICU capacity, while others could be used to create self-standing field hospitals of varying sizes.

It’s a clever solution that they say is as fast to set up as a tent, but “as safe as a hospital’s isolation ward to work in, thanks to biocontainment (an extractor creates indoor negative pressure, complying with the standards of Airborne Infection Isolation Rooms AIIRs).” The units are all separated from each other, connected by the pressurized corridor.

The genius of building in shipping container modules is that they are designed to move. “Shipping containers can easily be moved through different modes of transport – from ship to rail to truck – and re-used in different parts of the world, adapting to the needs and capacity of the local healthcare infrastructure.”

The problem with shipping containers is that they are designed for shipping, not for ICUs. So when you look at the plan, you see that there is 2258 mm or 88 inches inside. A standard ICU bed is 40 inches wide, leaving 44 inches.

When you look at this rendering of the inside of the unit, there is someone standing on each side of the bed, but it is clearly not reality; everybody has lots of room in this picture. Is there enough room? What happens if something goes wrong and the patient needs resuscitation? Ariana Eunjung Cha of the Washington Post describes what happens then.

When a code blue alarm is activated, it signals that a patient has gone into cardiopulmonary arrest and typically all available personnel — usually somewhere around eight but sometimes as many as 30 people — rush into the room to begin live-saving procedures without which the person would almost certainly perish.

It takes a lot of equipment and a bit of room. It’s described as being like a storm:

A team of nurses and doctors, trading off every two minutes, begin the chest compressions that are part of cardiopulmonary resuscitation or CPR. Someone punctures the neck and arms to access blood vessels to put in new intravenous lines. Someone else grabs a “crash cart” stocked with a variety of lifesaving medications and equipment ranging from epinephrine injectors to a defibrillator to restart the heart.

I am sorry, but it is going to be really hard to do this in a shipping container.

Now there are a lot of people smarter than me involved in this project, architects like Carlo Ratti and “Humanitas Research Hospital (Medical Engineering), Policlinico di Milano (Medical Consultancy), Jacobs (Alberto Riva – Master Planning, design, construction and logistics support services), studio FM milano (Visual identity & graphic design), Squint/opera (Digital media), Alex Neame of Team Rubicon UK (Logistics), Ivan Pavanello of Projema (MEP Engineering), Dr. Maurizio Lanfranco of Ospedale Cottolengo (Medical Consultancy), with the support of the World Economic Forum: COVID-19 Action Platform, and Cities, Infrastructure and Urban Services Platform CURA is an open-source project.”

But I wonder how many of them have spent time inside a shipping container. 7′-4″ is narrow. Perhaps when they test the prototype that’s being built in Milan they will realize that they can’t work in such conditions. I will predict that if this thing actually gets built, they will be sticking two together with one wall removed. Not nearly so elegant a solution, but at least there is room enough to work.

I suspect also that they will find that putting all of this expensive equipment in an old steel box makes no sense, especially when the ceiling height in a regular container is under 8′. This rendering shows quite a bit of space over the doctor’s head. This cannot just be called artistic license: It doesn’t work. You can’t walk under the respirator to get to the other bed. (On the plan, they show the respirators swinging around to the end of the bed, which doesn’t seem practical to me when you have hoses connected to patients.) You can barely get under the ductwork or the horizontal racks that hold the equipment.

Yes, there are high-top boxes, but how many in the refurb market? They could build a new box to shipping container dimensions with higher ceilings, thinner, insulated walls, getting bigger, higher-quality space that they don’t have to cut to pieces to get the windows and ducts in. Really, the box itself is a small part of the cost of this whole thing.

It is hard for me to admit that it is exactly fifty years since I won a prize at the University of Toronto School of Architecture for designing a summer camp that folded out of a shipping container; my dad was a pioneer in the industry and I grew up around them. I have been fascinated ever since by how excited architects get about them and what they try to squeeze into them. I am sometimes rueful that I didn’t try to build a career out of them, but I concluded about 49 years ago that a box sized for freight simply doesn’t work very well for people. It certainly doesn’t work well for an ICU.

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Interior design lessons from the coronavirus

Read Time:8 Minute, 27 Second

We should think differently about our material and finish choices.

I wish I lived in Tottenville. It’s a town imagined by Waldemar Kaempffert of the New York Times in 1950 and published in Popular Mechanics, imagining what life will be like in 2000. “Tottenville is as clean as a whistle and quiet. It is a crime to burn raw coal and pollute air with smoke and soot. In the homes electricity is used to warm walls and to cook.”

When Jane Dobson cleans house she simply turns the hose on everything. Why not? Furniture (upholstery included), rugs, draperies, unscratchable floors – all are made of synthetic fabric or waterproof plastic. After the water has run down a drain in the middle of the floor (later concealed by a rug of synthetic fiber) Jane turns on a blast of hot air and dries everything. A detergent in the water dissolves any resistant dirt. Tablecloths and napkins are made of woven paper yarn so fine that the untutored eye mistakes it for linen. Jane Dobson throws soiled “linen” into the incinerator. Bed sheets are of more substantial stuff, but Jane Dobson has only to hang them up and wash them down with a hose when she puts the bedroom in order.

This might well be the perfect home for dealing with viruses – make everything out of plastic and everything in it disposable. It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea if we didn’t also have a climate crisis, and had to stop making plastics and burning stuff.

But we do have to think about making our homes easier to clean and disinfect. We have talked previously about the design of homes and also the benefits of minimalist furnishings, but what can we actually make our homes from that makes them safer and healthier in the face of something like the coronavirus?

Materials matter.

A very recent study by the National Institutes of Health, CDC, UCLA and Princeton University scientists have looked at how long this coronavirus, officially known as SARS-CoV-2, stays active on various materials. First of all, they found that the virus remained viable in aerosols for the length of the experiments or three hours. This contradicts our earlier reporting where I suggested that a HEPA filter was probably unnecessary; it might be a nice thing to have after all.

The virus seems to survive longest on smooth surfaces like plastics (72 hours) and stainless steel (48 hours) and a shorter time on paper, cardboard or clothing (24 hours.) The biggest surprise was the performance of copper; the virus was gone in four hours.

Bring back the Brass and Copper

Our front doorOur front door where I stupidly just put a stainless knob on a brass plate/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The antimicrobial properties of copper have long been known. Mark Wilson of Fast Company writes:

When influenzas, bacteria like E. coli, superbugs like MRSA, or even coronaviruses land on most hard surfaces, they can live for up to four to five days. But when they land on copper, and copper alloys like brass, they die within minutes. “We’ve seen viruses just blow apart,” says Bill Keevil, professor of environmental healthcare at the University of Southampton. “They land on copper and it just degrades them.”

Buildings used to have brass door hardware, and even brass push-plates on doors. In my own house I have been so mixed up that I put a stainless lockset on a brass plate, which was dumb, because copper and brass have been tested:

In 2015, researchers working on a Department of Defense grant compared infection rates at three hospitals, and found that when copper alloys were used in three hospitals, it reduced infection rates by 58%. A similar study was done in 2016 inside a pediatric intensive care unit, which charted a similarly impressive reduction in infection rate.


I have never been fond of carpeted floors and even fought over putting a rug in our living room. Floors should be easily washable and not give bugs places to hide. But even with solid floors, there are options. Vinyl flooring, now rebranded as LVT for Luxury Vinyl Tile, is making a comeback; even that greenest of flooring companies, Interface, is making it.

However, we have always made the case for linoleum, which is made from completely natural materials. And unlike vinyl, it actually has natural bacteria-killing properties. That’s one reason it has been used in hospitals for years (beside the fact that it is easy to keep clean). Forbo, maker of Marmoleum, the most popular brand of linoleum, commissioned a study and found that it inhibited the growth of MRSA and other pathogens. Another study found that it killed the Norovirus, although there is no research regarding Sars and other coronaviruses.

The tests have proven that Marmoleum not only inhibits the growth of MRSA, but excepting the most extreme laboratory testing conditions, MRSA actually loses viability in its presence, i.e. MRSA is killed. The antibacterial activity of Marmoleum flooring means that Staphylococcus aureus (including MRSA strains commonly associated with hospital acquired infections) is less likely to survive, thereby reducing the risk of spread.


Our other favorite TreeHugger material is cork, also completely natural and also antibacterial. Again, what works with bacteria doesn’t necessarily mean that it works with coronaviruses, but still, a recent study showed:

Cork displayed high antibacterial activity against Staphylococcus aureus, with a bacterial reduction of almost 100% (96.93%) after 90 minutes of incubation, similar to the one obtained with ACA. A more reduced but time-constant antibacterial action was observed against Escherichia coli (36% reduction of the initial number of bacterial colonies).

Concrete and Tile

These are easy to keep clean; in my own home, on the lower level, I have a concrete floor with epoxy paint on it, and it is a breeze to keep clean, even more so than the ceramic tile that I have in the bathroom, which has all that grout.


Terrazzo detailsTerrazzo details/ Architectural Graphic Standards/CC BY 2.0

This is much like concrete, where pretty stones are put in cement and then ground smooth. It used to be almost the standard flooring in hospitals, lasting forever, easy to clean, and you could run it up the walls in curved or splayed bases so that it was easy to mop clean. But like my 50-year-old architectural graphic standards book, you don’t see this much anymore.

Wood Flooring

maple flooring30 year old maple flooring in my house/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I have covered the Pros and cons of 6 different kinds of wood floors. Most wood floors today are really a thin layer of polyurethane on top of the wood, not sealing the entire floor as it used to when it was done on-site. So you cannot really wash it down with a bucket, as the water gets between the boards. In an engineered wood floor it will cause it to quickly deteriorate. There are many benefits to wood floors, especially when they are real wood, that is certified to be sustainably harvested, preferably close to home. But in terms of this discussion, it is probably not the best choice when dealing with the coronavirus.


I may not be crazy about wood for floors, but I love it for walls, for the same reasons they did in Florida a hundred years ago when they built the walls out of cypress wood: after a flood or a hurricane it just dries out. Nothing grows on it. Meanwhile, after Katrina, every New Orleans house that was made of drywall had to be stripped out; the hundred-year-old cypress ones were just fine. As we also know from the studies, the coronavirus doesn’t last as long on rougher surfaces like this, which might be closer to cardboard when it comes to survival time.

view from den© Craig A. Williams

Even today, you don’t have to use drywall; in my own home where I did an addition, I left the exposed brick back wall of the original house, and finished the ceiling in wood. There is some drywall on the new rear wall, but I try to minimize it.

Get rid of the paper-faced drywall.

Georgia Pacific fiberglass faced drywallGeorgia Pacific fiberglass faced drywall/Promo image

Drywall is ridiculous stuff. The paper facing is just food for mold and disintegrates at the sight of water. For just a bit more money you can get it with a fiberglass facing. It is more durable, moisture and mold resistant. It can take the abuse if you have to wash it down to disinfect it.


stair landing© Stone’s Throw Design/ Riley Scott

Architect Terrell Wong of Stone’s Throw design likes wood but also clay-based plaster “to improve sound quality, improve durability and avoid toxins, mold vulnerability and embodied energy of drywall.” It has a beautiful smooth finish that is easy to clean.


ceramics© Ceragres via V2com

I am really liking these giant porcelain tiles that come in sizes of up to 5’x10′. There are no grout lines to clean, and while we know that the coronavirus lasts a long time on smooth surfaces, but this would definitely pass the Mrs. Dobson test, she could fire her hose at this wall all day long. According to Ceragres,

Porcelain stoneware slabs are made using the most modern sintering technologies. This compact material is resistant to stress, wear and tear and trampling and is resistant to chemical products, mould, frost and fire. The 6-mm thickness offers flexibility and ease of cutting, drilling and transport.

In conclusion: Everything should be washable.

60s armstrong ad60s Armstrong flooring ad/Promo image

I may have spent the last 10 years complaining about vinyl and plastics, but there is a reason that they were so popular– they were comfy underfoot and incredibly easy to keep clean. But they are not the only choice. The key question should be: Can you clean it easily? Does it stand up to water? Does it pass the Dobson test? This is how we have to think about these things now.

We should think differently about our material and finish choices.