Way back in the early days of TreeHugger our first writer, Meaghan O’Neill, wrote about the Wee House, with a wee photo and a wee paragraph. Around that time I was in the prefab biz and met Steve Glenn, who was just starting Living Homes; we covered it when the photos were just a bit bigger. He and Geoffrey Warner, founder of Alchemy Achitects and entrepreneur behind the weeHouse, are both true pioneers in modern prefab and tiny living, and are still at it.
Now they are working together, and have introduced a line of wee accessory dwelling units (ACUs) ranging from 310 to 600 square feet, and inspired by the weeHouse. Plant Prefab founder Steve Glenn says in the press release:
Since Alchemy has long been an expert in designing for prefabricated building methods and a pioneer in sustainable design, and we’ve already completed two projects together, it was easy for us to partner together to offer a set of unique, ultra-efficient, standard LivingHomes for the market.
Geoffrey Warner ripostes:
Having worked together to build two prior homes in California, we’re confident that Plant Prefab is the right partner to bring our ADU designs to this market. The lightHouse is intended to be a beacon for sustainable living; Plant Prefab has built up its reputation around sustainable building practice.
The specs sound appealing, with “thoughtful details, such as window nooks that double as seating and guest sleeping areas, laundry, and flexible storage spaces, provide utility where it matters most. Carefully-chosen finish options ensure that the units can blend in with their surroundings and adapt to different climates, a key consideration for building on the West Coast.”
But as is so often the case, it is the planning that makes these things a success or failure, and this is where Geoffrey Warner has been refining his designs for the last fifteen years. Here are 380 square feet of really usable space with a generous bathroom. I am also intrigued by this (2) bench + sleeping concept. It’s shown as the same depth as the kitchen counter, which is camp cot width, but it’s a lot less work than unfolding a sofa bed.
My first thought was, why is the kitchen out in the living space when there looks to be enough room in (7) laundry/mechanical/storage to fit a galley kitchen? On reflection, I conclude that ADUs should be designed for universal accessibility, which that bathroom is big enough for, as is the open kitchen. A galley might be too tight. You can also never have enough storage.
There are lots of options in size and layout: “Thirteen floor plan variations allow customers to achieve their ideal space, siting, and view, regardless of lot limitations. Configurations range from a compact studio to a one-bedroom unit atop a two-car garage, accommodating just about any end use.” Plant Prefab has figured how to do it affordably, with entry-level units starting at $170,000:
Construction of all LivingHomes is made significantly more efficient with use of the Plant Building System (PBS), Plant Prefab’s patented, hybrid system for building prefabricated homes. PBS uses a combination of Plant Modules and Plant Panels, a new panelized construction system developed by Plant Prefab, which include plumbing, electrical, and finish materials. By integrating both modules and panels, PBS provides architects with greater design flexibility and reduces the complexity and cost of transportation and installation.
15 years ago when I was working in prefab, Steve Glenn, Geoffrey Warner, and I were all trying to make “great architecture more accessible, affordable, and sustainable.” I didn’t have the talent or the discipline, but Steve and Geoffrey stuck it out, survived the Great Recession (a lot of others didn’t), and are launching lightHouse LivingHomes at a very difficult and precarious time. On the other hand, the timing might be excellent; there may be a big demand for retirement downsizing, home offices, or rental units.
As for me, it is such a pleasure to see two people that I have known and admired for 15 years working together. They will do great things.
weeHouse architect and Plant Prefab launch new line of wee accessory dwelling units
There is a lot of history here, and a great future.
Does shipping container architecture make sense? Sometimes
There is no vaccine that prevents COVID19; nobody knows when or if there will be one. But if there is one thing we have learned from the pandemic, it’s that we should plan ahead. And that’s what one of our favorite firms, Waugh Thistleton Architects, is doing with their plan for an Offsite Mobile Vaccination Solution, addressing the question: “How does the UK immunise 66m people as quickly as possible?
The mass vaccination of all UK citizens is an anticipated event that the government and the NHS should be planning for now. We cannot use our schools and sports centres as vaccination centres as these will soon be needed to regain some semblance of normal life; and the logistics of disinfecting these spaces and preventing the spread of disease during the process would be complicated and potentially detract from the critical task at hand.
I was really surprised to see that their proposal involved fitting out shipping containers. I know Waugh Thistleton for their expertise in wood construction; why wouldn’t they do what Tye Farrow did, and build on what they know best, which is mass timber? What do they know about shipping containers? Don’t they know that they are designed for freight, not people? Then I read:
With this in mind we started to sketch out a mobile vaccine centre. One that could be both installed and transported in a very short space of time. During this process, we sought advice from experts: a Consultant Immunologist, an ex-director of Portakabin, and some contacts from our Shoreditch Boxpark project.
Bonnie is my sister, and we grew up around shipping containers as our father Gabriel was a pioneer in the industry; he is standing in front of containers and handling equipment his company made, sometime in the early seventies. I normally am pretty critical of what architects try to do with containers, and tend to write these posts demonstrating my self-described superior knowledge- I learned something from dad. Except Waugh Thistleton knows shipping containers too, having built one of the earliest and most important projects using them. So they will know as well as I do the pluses and minuses of shipping container architecture. So let’s look at this project:
Shipping containers are designed to move.
This is their greatest virtue, and there is a huge infrastructure of trucks, trains and cranes to make this quick and cheap. So that rendering at the start of the post with all those NHS boxes going down the road is not so crazy. It’s also not unrealistic to drop them on a parking lot for 12 weeks and then take them away.
Shipping containers are designed for freight.
Waugh Thistleton Architects/ rendering by ImagePip/CC BY 2.0
This is their greatest flaw. They are eight feet wide outside, about 7′-4″ inside once they are insulated a bit and lined with an interior finish. This is particularly bad when you are trying to keep six feet apart, and why they show that traffic flow going from one end, with registration, through vaccination and then recovery, then out a new door added at the front end of the container. I am assuming that the staff are inoculated and immune or dressed in PPE, so they can walk back and forth and can be within six feet of the patient.
Another non-optimal aspect is the lack of windows, nothing to look at while you are recuperating. This is in fact another demonstration of how Waugh Thistleton understands shipping containers. The walls are corrugated steel, a monocoque construction where the wall holds up the roof with no other structure. Cutting holes for windows is expensive and compromises the strength of the box; if you are planning to move it a lot or reuse it after for other purposes, this can be a problem. There is nothing structural about the roof though, so cutting a few skylights into it is not a big problem.
If one was designing a building for this function, it would not necessarily be this shape or size. But as Waugh Thistleton note,
Shipping containers are the perfect structure for this use. We have a stockpile of them in this country. They are incredibly efficient, robust structures and designed for transportation. Their linear form suits the through-put nature of the process.
And it’s fast and flexible, the greatest advantage of shipping containers; As we said, they are designed to move.
Over twelve weeks, these shipping containers could be mobilised throughout the country in car parks and other public areas, staffed by NHS staff working in shifts to vaccinate the entire population of the UK. This solution does not rely on public mobility; the vaccination units can be delivered into the heart of villages and remote communities, or in clusters spread through towns and cities, vaccinating the local population before moving on.
There are still some questions and issues to be resolved; there is no explanation of how the water, waste, and power is dealt with. I have asked and will update the post when I get the answer, but there are many options from the RV industry or the refrigerated container world that can be applied.
Waugh Thistleton Architects/ rendering by ImagePip/CC BY 2.0
My final question is, does it pass Kate Wagner’s PR-chitecture test, where “architecture and design content that has been dreamed up from scratch to look good on Instagram feeds or, more simply, for clicks.” Here, I believe the answer is unequivocally yes. There is nothing fancy or Instagram worthy here, just plain old shipping containers on the outside, kind of ordinary off-the-shelf stuff on the inside. They are using their expertise to come up with a straightforward design. They are giving it away. Last word to Waugh Thistleton:
Our team at Waugh Thistleton have come up with this idea, but it is not a proprietary solution. Our goal is to work with industry to get these manufactured and ready for deployment for when the vaccine arrives and to share our expertise and experience with other countries to provide a global solution.
Good for them. And in this case, shipping containers make sense.
The need for offices grew as the equipment for mental work was developed starting in the late 19th century. That need appears to have peaked about 1980. It was a rare person who could afford the computers, printers, fax machines, and mailing/shipping equipment of that time. Now a single person with $500 can duplicate most of those functions with a single laptop computer. So the remaining function of the office is to be that place that clients know to find you… and that kids and the other distractions of home can’t.
I noted that for people whose job is to push buttons on keyboards, “In fact, the major purpose of an office now is to interact, to get around a table and talk, to schmooze. Just what you do in a coffee shop.” That’s why so many modern offices have these wonderful big tables and an endless supply of food and drink. Now that TreeHugger is part of the Dotdash team, the current head office looks very much like that, with generous sitting areas and places to sit and shmooze, or stand and eat pizza.
However, pretty soon, all these places to meet might have a bigger role to play. Writing in the Globe and Mail, Andrea Yu talks to Dan Boram of Aura, a design firm in Vancouver. He describes many of the design features that we have mentioned before, like touchless switches and more space between workers, but also that even after the virus is gone, things will not go back to the way they were before.
But Mr. Boram believes the lasting impacts of COVID-19 on office design aren’t just in health and safety measures, because of the success of teleworking. “People will continue to work from home as much as four days a week and the office will become a destination for the things that can’t be done from home, like socializing, innovating, problem-solving, training and building culture,” Mr. Boram explains.
This is the key point. Tom Peters used to call it “management by walking around,” where you wanted people all together what they were doing. Now they are finding that they can do management by zooming around, and are reconsidering the cost of all that real estate. Yu continues:
With desks taking up as much as 70 percent of traditional office spaces, independent work such as checking e-mails or writing reports could be done from home, which means businesses can reduce costs by downsizing their square footage.
CEOs of companies are all rethinking their office needs: “We no longer see a future where everyone is confined to an office desk unless there are clear reasons or preferences to do so.”
Adi Gaskell writes in Forbes about how attitudes have changed so radically and so quickly because of the Coronavirus. He quotes a survey of real estate professionals finding that “around 2/3 of respondents had a better impression of remote working than was previously the case, which perhaps highlights some of the outdated thinking that was prevalent in the sector.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic is transforming working practices, with huge ramifications for the property market,” Andrew Roughan, managing director at Plexal, says. “Remote working has become a necessity for the majority of workers, and it’s shown businesses – some of which might have been skeptical about allowing staff to work from home – that it is possible to maintain productivity and communication.”
If we were starting this whole office thing today, it’s inconceivable we’d pay the rent/time/commuting cost to get what we get. I think in ten years the TV show ‘the Office’ will be seen as a quaint antique.
When you need to have a meeting, have a meeting. When you need to collaborate, collaborate. The rest of the time, do the work, wherever you like.
It is funny that it took almost exactly ten years for his prediction to come true. The traditional office is now a quaint antique.
Another way the coronavirus may change office design.
Tye Farrow mixes up his wood and hospital design skills and adds a zipper.
Kate Wagner writes a cruel but hilarious post on her McMansion Hell website titled Coronagrifting: A Design Phenomenon where she complained about “cheap mockups of COVID-related design “solutions” filling the endlessly scrollable feeds of PR-beholden design websites.” She also coins a great neologism that will outlive this virus: PR-chitecture, or “architecture and design content that has been dreamed up from scratch to look good on instagram feeds or, more simply, for clicks.”
Another example of designers using their expertise appropriately is a proposal from Tye Farrow of Farrow Partners. Tye has been working in health care for years, doing huge hospital projects, most notably the Credit Valley Hospital, (shown above) with its incredible lobby made of wooden “trees.” Tye knows this kind of design.
Farrow Partners have also been working with Grip Metal, a sort of metal Velcro developed by Nucap Technologies, which was developed for the auto industry to hold brake pads together, but works well for any material that is softer than the base metal used, first seen on TreeHugger in the Steam Canoe winter station from OCAD university.
Newcap and Farrow have been working together on a system where they press scraps of wood (like from shipping pallets) into blocks about the size of concrete masonry units, and then squeeze them together with Grip Metal as the velcro-like glue.
They call it “the Grip Timber Cross Laminated Block (GTCLB).” it is built up with internal cavities for integrating electrical and mechanical systems. Farrow explains in a Daniels School press release:
“Right now, if you build a building, approximately 80 percent of the cost of the building is labour,” Farrow says. “With these wooden bricks, the skilled labour cost is brought down significantly. I could stack the walls myself. You can build something rapidly that’s as strong as it would be if you were using concrete blocks, and it has the feel of a permanent building.”
Since they go up so quickly and easily, Farrow came up with a design for a quick-assembly hospital for COVID-19 care, called the “Solace Rapid Assembly High Performance Covid-19 Inpatient Bed Solution.” Farrow explains:
The Solace team observed that the rapid assembly Covid-19 hospital building solutions constructed to date globally – the UK ‘Nightingale hospitals’ constructed out of exhibition hall centre partition wall cubicles; the New York tented enclosed battle frontline field hospitals in Central Park; or Italian shipping contain adapted inpatient room solutions – while good initial reactions to the problem at hand, naturally left room for reflection, lessons learned and improvements towards the goal of achieving solutions which are “faster, cheaper, smarter, safer, more adaptable and importantly healthier – which cause health”- versus working against those that were doing the caring and healing.
Farrow has always been a promoter of biophilia and how buildings can help heal, an interior that “causes health.” no shipping containers or trailers here:
“Sitting in a black box is really bad for your health,” Farrow says. “There are studies that show if you take a patient that has had heart surgery, and you put them in an inpatient room that has a view of the sky, they heal faster, they use less medicine, they have better outcomes, and they have shorter stays in the hospital.”
Patient rooms are 12 by 14 feet, which is enough that medical workers can move freely around a bed. Patients face into the middle so that they can see the staff and vice versa, so there is a carefully designed clerestory window that lets them catch a view of the sky.
In the larger complexes, there is a ” logistics corridor that houses all mechanical, electrical and medical gases, the equivalent to a ‘vertical interstitial space’, allowing building plant staff to access and modify systems in the space without any interaction with the patient areas within the unit.” Since the light is coming in from the clerestory skylights, the building can pack rooms in at pretty high density without a lot of exterior wall. ” Fresh air is fed from the public corridor side through HEPA filtration and exhausted in the logistics interstitial corridor, creating the negative pressure requirements to contain the airborne spread of the virus.”
There are a lot of advantages to this kind of system. Wood is a relatively good insulator and sound absorber, so it should be a comfortable space. When the crisis is over and the building is not needed for this purpose, the Grip Metal bricks can be pried apart like Lego and reassembled into another building of any kind. And they can be made into anything. according to Farrow in the Grip Metal press release,
“Interestingly the uptake isn’t only for the ICUs,” he says, “but in also helping solve some of the long-term-care home challenges.” The building block technology could also help provide affordable housing both in the city and in northern communities. “Northern First Nations communities that have a sawmill can now produce their own block, by simply buying the grip strips and having a press, and their communities can build their own homes.” He cites other ways that the block can help in rapidly deployable architecture: for instance, laneway houses that could be accessory dwelling units for elderly parents or children moving back home.
So this raises the question: is every proposal that comes out in a pile of press releases, with no specific site or client, just Kate Wagner’s PR-chitecture? Or is this an example of how every crisis is an opportunity, to demonstrate new ways of doing things better? Perhaps it depends who is doing the proposing. Tye knows his health care, having “initiated a global “Cause Health” movement aimed at raising expectations for design as the basis for total health, which extends beyond environmental sustainability and physical health to encompass our mind health.”
Besides running Farrow Partners, in his spare time Tye is in the process of obtaining a Master of Neuroscience applied to Architecture and Design degree from the University IUAV of Venice (Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia), one of fifteen people from around the globe accepted into the program. He anticipates obtaining the degree in September 2020.
Tye Farrow knows hospitals and he knows wood. This is the real thing.
Tye Farrow mixes up his wood and hospital design skills and adds a zipper.
We never show big single-family houses on TreeHugger anymore, they are not good examples of what we should be building in a low-carbon world, we don’t need another 6800 square foot suburban monster. Yet there was something about this house in California’s Santa Monica Valley that caught my eye; perhaps it is a dream of where I would like to be locked down during a pandemic.
Perhaps that is the attraction, coming as much from the location and the garden as the house, nobody is trapped inside here. The border between inside and outside barely exists when those monster sliding glass walls are retracted.
Key design features include windows that frame the magnificent trees, extended canopy-like, cantilevered eaves, and fully pocketing glass exterior walls that open to a central courtyard to offer the perfect balance of indoor-outdoor living. Every view in the house was designed to captivate with either nature or art.
Perhaps I recognized the architectural lineage; California residential architecture was defined by either the modernist Case Study Houses or the over-the-top work of John Lautner, who studied with Frank Lloyd Wright, and whose successor was Duncan Nicholson, who started this house but died too young, and which was taken over by Kristopher Conner and James Perry of Conner + Perry Architects, who worked for Nicholson.
Perhaps it’s the choice of materials, the use of Eucalyptus wood found on the property, and some of my favorites:
Exterior materials for the new home were selected for their organic nature, ability to age in place, and compatibility with the climate, such as charred wood siding (Shou Sugi Ban), copper, exposed steel, and concrete. Interior materials were chosen to reflect the nature outside, including a mix of massangis grey limestone and french oak for the flooring, weathered brass, blackened steel elements, and a variety of marbles and tiles.
I am not even going to complain about the open kitchen, which feels almost outside with those doors open, though I do have to complain about the giant gas range. At least it is not on the kitchen continent (too big to be called an island) and it has a decently sized exhaust hood.
It’s mostly for show anyway, you can see from the plan that there is a “messy kitchen” (11) behind it that’s bigger than most peoples’ working kitchen. There’s also a home office (4) at the front door so that you can work from home in comfort. The big surprise is how small the living room (7) is, given the size of the house.
I suppose I should be outraged about the bathroom which is bigger than many studio apartments, but there are things to admire here; I go on about killer bathtubs with no ledge where you can sit, to swing your legs over (the safe way to get in), and this one has a huge deck. The shower has a place where you can actually sit.
In the Great Depression, people flocked to escapist movies, to watch Fred Astaire putting on his top hat, dancers singing “We’re in the money.” According to Movies as History: Scenes of America, “The depression was depressing. Movies offered an escape from the dreary reality.”
Perhaps in these depressing times, this is on TreeHugger as an escape from dreary reality. But there are also some interesting lessons and beautiful things to look at. Now it’s back to our regular programming.
Plastics on TreeHugger? Yes, if they are a good alternative to using endangered trees and virgin forests.
Usually, at this time of year, the design world is hanging out in New York City for Design Week and the International Contemporary Furniture Fair. I used to go every year and cover it, and would always admire the big booth in the center showing the winners in the Wilsonart Student Design Challenge:
Wilsonart, a world leading creator of beautiful engineered surfaces, developed the year-long program, which is both a sponsored class and a competition. Students learn how to design and build a one-of-a- kind chair, as well as how to prepare for a major trade show. Wilsonart introduced the program more than a decade ago, making it the longest-running sponsored student design class in the U.S.
I may have admired the student work, but I never wrote about it; at the time, I wasn’t convinced that plastic laminate was exactly TreeHugger correct, and would tend to promote designs made with natural woods instead.
Then I met Grace Jeffers, who taught me a lot about wood, and how trees may be a renewable resource, but forests are not: “Yes, we cut down trees, replant them, they grow, and in this way wood is a renewable resource. But by cutting down trees, we are destroying forests and their unique, unquantifiable ecosystems; therefore, a forest cannot be renewable.” Of course, we still love wood and promote wood construction, but that wood comes from sustainably managed forests that are more like plantations, a very different material from what you often see in furniture.
Jeffers tells architects and designers that they must ask three questions every time they specify wood:
What is this wood’s conservation status?
From where did this wood originate?
What is the state of the forest from which the wood was harvested?
My attitude toward plastic laminate changed as I learned about how much of our wood used in furniture comes from badly managed forests and endangered species of trees, and that perhaps plastic laminate was actually a good thing, letting designers get creative and build useful and beautiful things without solid rare or endangered woods and fancy veneers. (Plastic laminates are also made up of thin layers of certified paper and resin, which is why it is still my favorite kitchen counter.) I also note that in these pandemic times, having furniture that you can wipe down and clean like you might a kitchen counter makes a lot of sense.
Grace Jeffers manages the Wilsonart Student Design Challenge, and a few years ago invited me on to the Jury. I also teach Sustainable Design at Ryerson University of Interior Design, so I encouraged them to go international with the competition and come to Toronto. So all of my conflicts of interest are declared here: I was a juror and many of these students took my course. Part of the challenge also was to learn “how to prepare for a major trade show” which is no small matter for designers, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they didn’t get to hang out at the Javits. Being on TreeHugger isn’t quite the same thing, but here it is.
Amy Yan is a 3rd year interior design student whose passions lie at the intersection of design and storytelling. “The purpose of design is to elicit an emotional response,” Yan noted. “Design conveys a narrative, and then in turn, that narrative is able to shape the way we see the world.” Yan shares that a family separation occurred during the design process of her chair, and that her final design also holds layers of that personal narrative.
I really liked the story she told here. “The curved seat back appears to be under tension, as though being stretched apart by the splitting volume that make up the two seats of the chair.”
One day, sitting in a laundromat/café in Reykjavik, Iceland, Brittany Boudreau had an epiphany; she decided to quit her job as a hospital worker and pursue a degree in design. While most people don’t typically desire to sit in a laundromat, Boudreau realized that the design of that particular space was so pleasant she actually wanted to be there. The idea of designing spaces that make people feel good set her life on a different trajectory. She is now exploring the fun, colorful and playful side of design.
Anyone who has an epiphany in a laundromat deserves a prize, even for “a contemporary twist on the toad stool; it explores the contrasting relationship between life and death….Similarly, laminate is mostly made of paper; hence, a tree dies and is reborn as laminate.”
Meredith Davis wanted to make a stationary chair that appears dynamic and the playful yet profoundly elegant STANCE is her solution. STANCE succeeds in bringing life to a flat material without bending the plane. The form of the chair is inspired by a four-legged animal and is designed to create a natural sense of movement. The chair is composed of only three pieces, creating a visual balance of solids and voids by playing with curves and straight edges.
I had a bit of trouble with this at first, thinking it looked like a sculpture I had seen somewhere. But then I always quote Picasso’s “good artists borrow, great artists steal,” which he stole from T.S. Eliot and which Le Corbusier stole from Picasso. And Meredith says she “she sees design as playful means to bring a spark of fun to our everyday lives,” an attitude I have always appreciated.
Monica Beckett calls herself a “renovation orphan” because she grew up in an 1870’s house that was in a perpetual state of deconstruction and reconstruction. In 2017, she received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Ottawa but after art school she was still left with an unresolved feeling. A degree in Interior Design, with its practical application to the real world, is giving her the skills to navigate the problems and constraints of real world. In essence, she is learning to finish the renovation her parents were unable to complete.
TreeHugger readers will remember that we love Transformer Furniture, which serves more than one function. Monica’s chair actually changes from standard chair height to bar stool height simply by turning it over. the shape of it was also inspired by a cocktail jigger. It’s also really clever, how the four curved pieces fasten together.
Growing up in the smaller cities of Guelph and Barrie in southern Ontario, Alice Sills had an opportunity to explore both the busy cosmopolitan center of Toronto and the quiet solitude of the forests and lakes of the province. She loves exploring the dichotomy of these two worlds and subsequently became very interested in understanding design style.
TreeHugger’s Katherine Martinko, who grew up in the forest by a lake, will laugh at that description of Guelph and Barrie. But I really found this chair surprisingly comfortable and attractive.”Viewed from the front, the forms create the large seat and armrest of the chair, while the side profile affords a clean-lined, geometric composition, with an angled profile that offers a sightline through the chair itself.”
While pursuing an acting career, Ryan Anning had the opportunity to work on the interior design of a small house for a friend. Through this experience, he began to develop an understanding for how the design of interior spaces impacts the way people feel and decided that this was what he wanted to do.
I had a bit of trouble with this one at first; one of the rules is that it has to actually has to work as a chair. But I did like the story:
FRENCH KISS is a playful commentary on the history of art and design. The French curve is the artistic tool which made the Baroque, Rococo and Art Nouveau styles possible. In an homage to the great pop artist Claes Oldenburg, the tool itself becomes the subject matter in monumental scale.
The technical people were also really impressed with the quality of the work; it’s really hard to make laminate do all these curves in tight spaces. And hey, he was a star in my Sustainable Design class last year.
Students in chair competition/ Photo by Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0
The number of runners-up depends is based on how many chairs can be set up in a 20 x 20 booth at ICFF in the Javits, but this year’s entries were all really interesting, it was a really tough choice to narrow it down. After a few years of this, my attitude toward plastic laminate has really changed; These designers are doing amazing things with just plywood and a thin layer of plastic laminate, reinventing the stuff. Congratulations to these students at Ryerson University School of Interior Design (and I think a few from other courses) and of course, to Grace Jeffers and Wilsonart.
Wilsonart Student Design Competition winners will change the way you look at laminate
Plastics on TreeHugger? Yes, if they are a good alternative to using endangered trees and virgin forests.
There is much in Reyner Banham’s 1969 classic that resonates today.
There are two subjects that I have written a lot about over the last dozen years at TreeHugger: the future of the office, and the healthy home. These days, they are conflated because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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.
After writing that post I kept going and re-read the book in its entirety; here are some of the other lessons I was reminded of.
Banham starts with a description of environmental management before we had modern systems. Most architecture was massive. Thick and weighty structures had thermal advantages; the mass of masonry stores the heat of the fire during the day and keeps one warmer at night. “Alternatively, the thick walls of a hot climate will hold solar heat during the day, slowing down the rate to which the interior becomes hot, and then, after sunset, the radiation of that hit into the house will help temper the sudden chill of the evening.”
Thomas Edison house/ Fort Myers/Public Domain
But not everywhere. In tropical and humid climates (like the south-eastern United States) houses had elevated living floors to offer maximum exposure to prevailing breezes, huge parasol roofs, continuous porches and balconies to protect walls from slanting sun, large floor to ceiling windows and doors for maximum cross ventilation, tall ceilings, central halls, and vented attics.
All forgotten since the development of air conditioning; now we just move the same air around and around again inside the house. It’s why you get the same house or building anywhere in the country: you can throw energy and air conditioning at it instead of designing it for the climate. Banham writes about modern HVAC, “a neat box with control knobs and a mains [electrical] connection”:
By providing almost total control of the atmospheric variables of temperature, humidity and purity, it has demolished almost all of the environmental constraints on design that have survived that other great breakthrough, electric lighting. For anyone who is prepared to foot the consequent bill for power consumed, it is now possible to live in almost any type or form of house one likes to name in any region of the world that takes the fancy. Given this convenient climactic package one may live under low ceilings in the humid tropics, behind thin walls in the arctic and under uninsulated roofs in the desert.
For sale: single garage with single bathroom house/CC BY 2.0
In the United States, air conditioning has made the established lightweight tract-developers’ house habitable throughout the nation, and since this is the house that the US building industry is geared to produce above all others, it is now endemic from Maine to California, Seattle to Miami, from the Rockies to the Bayous.
And he wrote this fifty years ago!
Passive house or Grandma’s house?/Public Domain
Being a fan of Banham is one of the reasons I became such a fan of Passive House or Passivhaus; here was a concept where you really couldn’t separate the design of the building from its environmental constraints. Energy consumption and air movement actually define it. Whereas I used to think we should build like we did before Banham’s regenerative systems, (See Steve Mouzon’s Original Green) I came to realize that people are not going to be willing to live without air conditioning in hot climates or in apartments without cross-ventilation, fanning themselves on the veranda while sipping iced tea. That’s when I went from Grandma’s house to Passive House.
Banham has a lot to say about office buildings and skyscrapers too, which is applicable to the situation today. He suggests that too little credit is given to the environmental factors in their design.
Skyscraper office blocks in particular introduced novel discomforts and difficulties which required urgent solution. Such matters normally receive scant treatment in the historical literature, which commonly assumes that the steel frame and the elevator were all that were needed to make tall office blocks possible. In fact, a gaggle of other devices, such as electric lighting and the telephone, were equally necessary for business to proceed at all, and without the ability for business to proceed, skyscrapers would never have happened.
New Equitable Life Building /Public Domain
It’s no surprise that the first skyscrapers in New York City were built for insurance companies; the whole point was to bring together massive numbers of clerical workers to copy and file and type and phone customers, all tied together by subways and telephone lines and electrical wires. The file cabinet and the phone, and then the typing pool are what made the office necessary. The wiring and the plumbing. Banham quotes a writer from 1902:
Professor Elihu Thompson once very shrewdly observed to the writer that if electric light had been in use for centuries and the candle had just been invented, it would have been hailed as one of the great blessings of the century, on the ground that it is perfectly self-contained, always ready for use and perfectly mobile.
Phones, electric lights, electric typewriters and photocopiers, and then desktop computers were until recently, fixed by wires, whether electric, telephone, or CAT-5. Filing cabinets are big and heavy. Now, like that candle, all our tools are always ready for use and perfectly mobile. When “All that is solid melts into MacBook Air” (a play on the title of a classic book about social and economic modernization), does the office building serve a useful function? Banham wrote “without the ability for business to proceed, skyscrapers would never have happened.” When they are no longer needed for business to proceed, will they disappear?
I suspect that this lockdown has been a real education for a lot of companies, that they are spending a whole lot of money and time supporting a way of working that no longer makes much sense.
Finally, Banham had much to say about the architectural profession, which he says was “happy to hand over all forms of environmental management to other specialists, and have taught young architects to continue in this dereliction of manifest duty.”
It is obviously too late in the day to begin blaming architects for the fact that this situation exists, especially since the blame lies also with society at large for not having demanded of them that they be any more than the creators of inefficient environmental sculptures, however handsome.
We can, and should demand more. Here, I must circle back to a session I attended recently during a Global Passive House Happy Hour, where engineer and consultant Sally Godber of WARM described how she worked with Mikhail Riches on the design of a Passive House social housing project that was so smart and so gorgeous that it won the Stirling Prize, the most prestigious in the UK. (starting at 10:30 on the video)
Complexity audit/Video screen capture
It becomes so clear that if you don’t come in after the fact and say “make this work” but think of it as an integrated process right from the beginning, the architecture evolves to be both a handsome environmental structure, but and also an efficient, affordable project. Then you can have a healthy building with good air quality and you don’t just throw smart tech and a big heat pump at it.
Banham has added considerable new material on the use of energy, particularly solar energy, in human environments. Included in the new material are discussions of Indian pueblos and solar architecture, the Centre Pompidou and other high-tech buildings, and the environmental wisdom of many current architectural vernaculars.
That edition might be even more relevant to today’s conditions; I have been reading the 1969 edition and the message seemed as fresh as ever: we can’t just throw technology and energy at a building anymore. The design for energy performance and comfort are inseparable from the architecture.
There is much in Reyner Banham’s 1969 classic that resonates today.
One scientist says, “The world should face the reality.”
As an architect teaching sustainable design at Ryerson School of Interior Design in Toronto, I have been preoccupied for some years with healthy buildings and the intersection of disease and design, and more recently, how COVID-19 will affect the design of our homes, our workplaces, and our cities.
We recently looked at the question of air conditioning, mechanical ventilation and the spread of the coronavirus, quoting chapter and verse from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the organization that recommends standards for the industry. That information was a month old, but engineer Shelly Miller points us to a new paper that was just released:
Miller points to an additional paper “authored by Dr. Morawska, who also led our fearless group of scientists in the writing of this current paper.” It has quite the title: Airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2: The world should face the reality. Dr. Moraska notes that handwashing and social distancing are not enough; they do not prevent infection by inhalation of the virus.
Science explains the mechanisms of such transport and there is evidence that this is a significant route of infection in indoor environments. Despite this, no countries or authorities consider airborne spread of COVID-19 in their regulations to prevent infections transmission indoors. It is therefore extremely important that the national authorities acknowledge the reality that the virus spreads through air, and recommend that adequate control measures be implemented to prevent further spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, in particular removal of the virus-laden droplets from indoor air by ventilation.
Dr. Moraska looks at past events, including SARS-CoV-1, which hit Hong Kong and Toronto hard, and which spread in the air, as well as a number of other virus outbreaks, and sees no reason why this one should be different.
“Therefore, all possible precautions against airborne transmission in indoor scenarios should be taken. Precautions include increased ventilation rate, using natural ventilation, avoiding air recirculation, avoiding staying in another person’s direct air flow, and minimizing the number of people sharing the same environment.”
So why isn’t this being done? Why is it not raised as an issue of significant importance? It’s complicated. Dr. Moraska suspects that it might be due to the fact that it is hard to figure out accurately. But the fact that there are no simple methods for detecting the virus in the air does not mean that the viruses do not travel in the air. She concludes:
To summarize, based on the trend in the increase of infections, and understanding the basic science of viral infection spread, we strongly believe that the virus is likely to be spreading through the air…Therefore, we plead that the international and national authorities acknowledge the reality that the virus spreads through air, and recommend that adequate control measures, as discussed above be implemented to prevent further spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
How can airborne transmission of COVID-19 indoors be minimized?
Lidia Morawska was the lead author (along with Shelly Miller and 33 others from around the world) of the recent study which looked at this question, noting that “inhaling small airborne droplets is probable as a third route of infection, in addition to more widely recognized transmission via larger respiratory droplets and direct contact with infected people or contaminated surfaces.”
Their first and probably most important point is that ventilation should be recognized as an important consideration in dealing with the virus. This isn’t just in hospital buildings, which have been designed to have good ventilation, but also:
…in public buildings and other shared spaces, such as shops, offices, schools, kindergartens, libraries, restaurants, cruise ships, elevators, conference rooms or public transport, where ventilation systems can range from purpose-designed mechanical systems to simply relying on open doors and windows. In most of these environments, ventilation rates are significantly lower than in hospitals for various reasons, including limiting airflows for energy and cost savings.
It is important to deal with this now, as “stay-at-home lockdown measures are gradually relaxed, much of the population may return to spending increasing amounts of time in inadequately ventilated workplaces, offices, schools and other public buildings, where they may be exposed to a risk of acquiring viral infections by inhalation.”
Measures that should be taken immediately:
Ventilation rates should be increased by system modifications. However, they acknowledge that “this is not via a simple ‘flick of a switch'” as these systems are designed for each building and are complex systems.
Avoid air recirculation. This was recommended also by the European and American engineering associations. As I noted earlier, this is not going to be easy in really hot climates. As for split systems (like the one in that restaurant in China) and like the ones found all over North America, which have no fresh air intakes at all, these should just be turned off or supplemented by lots of fresh air through opening windows. Again, this will be very hard in summer in the hotter parts of the country.
Air cleaning and disinfection devices may be beneficial. This includes Ultraviolet Light (UVC) systems as discussed earlier. Also, portable air filters and cleaners could help.
Minimize the number of people within the same indoor environment in an epidemic. This is a tough one; nobody really knows what the number of people in a given space is safe and what isn’t. But their empirical guideline makes sense: “In a school or a supermarket, for example, if the number of infected students or shoppers is low, and the ventilation rate is high, the risk of airborne transmission can be low.” Crowding a bunch of people into a subway or bus is another story.
If implemented correctly, these recommended building-related measures will lower the overall environmental concentrations of airborne pathogens and thus will reduce the spread of infection by the airborne route. Together with other guidance on minimising the risk of contact and droplet transmission (through hand-washing, cleaning of hand-touch sites, and the appropriate use of PPE), these ventilation-related interventions will reduce the airborne infection rates not just for SARS-CoV-2 in the current COVID-19 pandemic, but also for other airborne infectious agents.
There are lots of lessons for architects and engineers here; perhaps it is time to look again at traditional ways of keeping cool again, shading buildings with vegetation and having lots of cross-ventilation, increasing insulation to minimize the need for recirculated air.
But perhaps the most important lesson from all of this is that we have to change the design process; architects can’t just design a building and then toss the plans over to an engineer. The mechanical systems and the building design are inseparable – how the air moves, how much is needed. Instead of designing for aesthetics or value or comfort, we have to design for health.
Taken before we had to social distance/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0
But there are lessons for everyone else as well: avoid crowds, dine al fresco, wear a mask, support your smaller neighborhood store where you are more likely to be one of a few people in it, or those nice little restaurants with the big garage doors.
Cities around the world are having a look at it, but it will be a challenge.
Not long ago, everyone was excited to see Vilnius, Lithuania, take back the streets and give them to restaurants; now this is being looked at as a strategy for saving restaurants all over the world. In most cities, if the restaurants are open at all, there are limitations on capacity and distance between tables, regulations that make it difficult to earn a living. Outdoor patios have always provided a boost for restaurants, but now they are a lifeline.
Eateries in Baltimore’s Little Italy are clamoring for street closures so they can reclaim the streets for red-sauce dining. And in restaurant-dense Manhattan, the demand to eat outside has been long and loud: Many believe that the sidewalk tables — and the street closures that would make room for them — represent the best hope of survival for New York’s imperiled restaurant scene.
“My people and I are hurting. My city is hurting. Our leaders are not creating the safety and certainty that our lives and our jobs require.”
“When the weather changes, after 100 days of solitude, we are all going to be desperate to be together, but to be safe. All we know now is that safety requires space. There is available public space in front of every door. Restaurant people are planners and doers. We do not sit alone in silence well. Give restaurants access to open streets and they will bring us all hope and sustenance.”
Another city where the Mayor is usually dragged kicking and screaming to do anything progressive is Toronto, where the Mayor actually sounds positive about it on Global News.
“I think that it could be a lifeline for some of the restaurants, especially in light of the fact that they will probably be required to have tables further apart inside and outside,” said Toronto Mayor John Tory. He said he’s asked Transportation Services to find possible locations where expanding patio spaces would be possible and is expecting a report “fairly soon… I think we can sweep away some of the red tape and get this done as a way of making the city friendly for everybody but also our friends in the restaurant business,” Tory said.
Alas, the words “fairly soon” have a special meaning in Toronto, and patios are regulated really tightly; they take years to get approved, thanks to NIMBY opposition to people having fun after nine o’clock. Then there are the approvals to serve alcohol which come from another level of government. The patio season is starting now, and “fairly soon” probably means November.
There are other issues of climate besides November chills; there is also July heat. Kriston Capps writes:
Is al-fresco-everything the answer? It has its downsides. Especially in the Southern states that are rushing headlong to reopen, summer brings miserable heat and humidity. Diners who are forced to choose between increased air-conditioned virus exposure indoors or sweating outside may stay home or stick to takeout. Pandemic skeptics don’t recognize any such tradeoff, of course. Customers in Georgia who see coronavirus exposure as a matter of personal choice are likely going to go with AC every time.
The fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has turned into a culture war is going to be a serious issue in many places.
I suspect another big issue will be washroom access. These are usually at the rear of restaurants, or in older, smaller restaurants, in the basement. Customers should also be washing their hands before they eat. Having them all traipsing through the inside of the restaurant may be problematic.
But ultimately, I suspect that the biggest issue is that we have run out of time. So many rules have to be waived, NIMBYs ignored, decisions made. In one Canadian city, the Mayor said he wouldn’t close a lane unless every store owner on the street was consulted. A good parallel to this might be Vision Zero; everybody loves the idea, but implementation is another story.
They are all going to just run out the clock. It’s a shame, because it could have been glorious.
Cities around the world are having a look at it, but it will be a challenge.
What happens when it gets really hot and the AC is blasting on full?
In much of the United States, the malls and restaurants are reopening to the public. Some of those states get really hot in the summertime. Sarah Goodyear a writer and host on The War On Cars, posted an interesting tweet:
Question for epidemiologists and other smart people: In Sun Belt states like Arizona and Texas, where summer is an indoor, air-conditioned season because of very hot weather, will the spread of the virus be facilitated? 1/x
It is a really interesting question. We noted in an earlier post that the Federation of European Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning Associations (REHVA) in Europe had warned that the coronavirus could stay airborne for some time, and travel long distances. Architect Justin Bere noted that “It recommends avoiding central recirculation during SARS CoV-2 episodes and closing the recirculation dampers, even if there are return air filters. As the REHVA guidance says, these don’t normally filter out viruses.” Bere explained:
Recent research indicates that large droplets from sneezing can travel much further than 2 meters, even if there are no air movements. Small particles (<5 microns), generated by coughing and sneezing, may stay airborne for hours according to the REHVA guidance and can travel long distances. A Coronavirus particle is only 0.8 to 0.16 microns diameter so there could be many virus particles in a 5-micron droplet floating around in the air.
They have been studying the problem in Canada too. Professor Brian Fleck told the National Post that “this has been on people’s radar for quite a while,” he said. “Somebody on a different floor sneezes …The particle can stay airborne long enough to go all the way through the system and then pop out in somebody else’s office.
There are various ways that the risk can be lessened, including use of filters that catch a greater number of those particles, and drawing more fresh air into a system….But each of those changes carries a cost. Adding more fresh air can require additional heat or air conditioning. Heavier filters means more energy is needed to push the air through them.
But it doesn’t get as hot in Canada as it does in Arizona. Engineer and Professor Ted Kesik told TreeHugger that “we shall be greatly challenged retrofitting our existing buildings to eliminate dilution ventilation systems.” This is especially a challenge in the heat of a southern summer, where the difference between inside and outside air can be 40°F in Arizona or Texas. In the Southeast, there is also a lot of humidity with the heat. That’s why the air is recirculated; the amount of energy needed condition a mall’s worth of outside air would be ridiculously high.
ASHRAE, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, had a look at the issue of the coronavirus and issued a statement in late April:
Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through the air is sufficiently likely that airborne exposure to the virus should be controlled. Changes to building operations, including the operation of heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems, can reduce airborne exposures.
Infectious aerosols can be disseminated through buildings by pathways that include air distribution systems and interzone airflows. Various strategies have been found to be effective at controlling transmission, including optimized airflow patterns, directional airflow, zone pressurization, dilution ventilation, in-room air-cleaning systems, general exhaust ventilation, personalized ventilation, local exhaust ventilation at the source, central system filtration, UVGI, and controlling indoor temperature and relative humidity. Design engineers can make an essential contribution to reducing infectious aerosol transmission through the application of these strategies.
That’s fine, the engineers know what to do with new buildings. But what about existing ones? Here, they make some recommendations, and I try to add an explanation in italics.
Non-healthcare buildings should have a plan for an emergency response. The following modifications to building HVAC system operation should be considered: • Increase outdoor air ventilation (disable demand-controlled ventilation and open outdoor air dampers to 100% as indoor and outdoor conditions permit). Essentially, stop recirculation and bring in 100 percent outside air. When it gets very hot, outdoor conditions will probably not permit. • Improve central air and other HVAC filtration to MERV-13 (ASHRAE 2017b) or the highest level achievable. MERV-13 is not quite HEPA filter but it is pretty good. The reason they add “highest level achievable” is because better filters add more air resistance, and the system may not actually have the power to push air through the MERV-13 filter. • Keep systems running longer hours (24/7 if possible). More energy consumed. • Add portable room air cleaners with HEPA or high-MERV filters with due consideration to the clean air delivery rate (AHAM 2015). • Add duct- or air-handling-unit-mounted, upper room, and/or portable UVGI devices in connection to in-room fans in high-density spaces such as waiting rooms, prisons, and shelters. We have discussed UV filters before. UV-A and UV-B devices don’t do all that much in open spaces, and UV-C is dangerous to humans so it can only be installed in ducts or in a place up high where it doesn’t shine on people. • Maintain temperature and humidity as applicable to the infectious aerosol of concern. We have noted before that “the higher the relative humidity, the more quickly the virus falls to the floor.” You want to keep humidity between 40 and 60 percent. • Bypass energy recovery ventilation systems that leak potentially contaminated exhaust air back into the outdoor air supply. This is because apparently heat and energy recovery wheels leak a lot.
All of these modifications are expensive, either in equipment or operating costs. All of these building owners and tenants have been bleeding money in the last few months. All of the companies making this equipment are going through the crisis too. In short, It is probably safe to say, it’s not gonna happen, at least in the short term.
I have tried to get comments from engineers and experts, but the only one I have received so far is “yikes I think that is a problem.” I will add more comments as I receive them.
But I do believe that Sarah Goodyear has raised an interesting point. In my limited experience in Arizona in summer (two weeks in Scottsdale in July) I rarely saw anyone outside. And it’s not even summer yet, but as one shopper in Arizona told NBC News after the mall opened, “we hit all the museums and this place because it’s hot.”