Well, not really, but we have packed up all our stuff and are on the move.
TreeHugger is now part of the Dotdash team, and they are building us a whole new site from the ground up to be an all-round better experience no matter how you read it, light and fast and the way of the future. To make the change we have had to pack everything up and move it over. Right now it is all on the road, and we are all whining from the back seat “Are we there yet?”
The answer from the front seat is “don’t touch anything, we’re almost there.” We will be pitching our new tents around the 16th of the month. Until then, happy camping!
Well, not really, but we have packed up all our stuff and are on the move.
With more people working from home, the little variety store may thrive again.
My late father used to point to a little corner store on Dewson Street in Toronto, near where he grew up, and say “there’s the store that made me the man I am!” (he was a big guy.) In many parts of the city, corner stores were a key part of our lives. Vancouver planner Sandy James notes that they still could be:
Coming out of the pandemic is the need to access goods right in your neighbourhood. The local corner store used to fill this role, with shopkeepers knowing everyone in the neighbourhood, and providing a place where locals can buy milk, cheese, some staples and hear the local goings-on and gossip.
They were once necessary in streetcar suburbs when people didn’t drive to get their groceries in one big load. A hundred years ago many people didn’t have fridges, so you wanted to buy your milk fresh every day close to home. But they also helped define a neigborhood. Kaid Benfield once described the “popsicle test:”
If an 8-year-old kid can safely go somewhere to buy a popsicle, and get back home before it melts, chances are it’s a neighborhood that works. Note that there’s no planning jargon in there: nothing explicitly about mixed uses, or connected streets, or sidewalks, or traffic calming, or enough density to put eyes on the street. But, if you think about it, it’s all there.
My children loved them; the man who ran the one near my son’s school when he was in grade four knew he was good in math, and always had him calculate the change and sometimes even pretended there was sales tax so he would have to do percentages.
That store is gone now, as are so many others. People want the cheaper prices from the big chains and have big cars to carry home the bargains. I think the decline in smoking had something to do with it; I haven’t really been in one since I stopped smoking many years ago. Real estate values are such that they get converted back into houses, and commercial property taxes are brutal.
But as I noted in The Coronavirus and the future of Main Street, it’s comeback time. More and more people are going to be working from home, and they have to get out now and again. Just like they used to run down to the little shop in the lobby for a bag of chips or even a pack of smokes, they will probably now run out to the corner store. our local neighborhood may once again become our support network for those things that we need.
Bring back the neighborhood bar
It’s not just corner stores, it’s also corner bars. Here again, I defer to Kaid Benfield, who wondered “Does a sustainable community need a good drinking establishment?”, referring to neighborhood bars as “third spaces.”
We shouldn’t romanticize third spaces as only being about brightly lit cafes, pedestrianized streets, and the local public library. Bars work in their scruffy way by offering a place to get away from an overcrowded apartment or a squalid loft or a grimy job. They are a place where someone with little to spare can go for a change of pace.
I noted at the time that “complete neighborhood has to serve all kinds of people and offer all kinds of services. It also has to have all kinds of buildings, big and small, new and old, grotty and gorgeous.” Kaid continued”
What does this have to do with sustainability? Well, quite a bit, in my opinion. The more complete our neighborhoods, the less we have to travel to seek out goods, services and amenities. The less we have to travel, the more we can reduce emissions. People enjoy hanging out in bars and, especially if they are within walking distance of homes, we can also reduce the very serious risks that can accompany drinking and driving.
Now that more people are working at home, they may well need the amenities in their neighborhood that they used to have around their office, the variety store where they get their snacks. They may well be the customers that support a new local infrastructure of coffee shops, restaurants, services and shopping that had long disappeared from our main streets. Oh, and maybe even a few good local bars.
With more people working from home, the little variety store may thrive again.
Many want more flexibility; less than half, 44 percent, wanted no days at home. But fully 70 percent wanted to work at the office for the majority of the time, while 30 percent wanted a more flexible arrangement where they could come and go.
Younger workers are much more interested in getting back to the office than older ones. This would seem counterintuitive, given that younger workers are so much more comfortable with being online, but the boomers have the homes with the comfy home offices, while the younger workers have tiny apartments, roommates or kids underfoot.
Younger workers report a far more challenging experience working from home than their older peers. They are less likely to feel as if they’ve made a difference or completed the work they needed to do at the end of a typical workday, according to survey responses. Working from home may be having an alienating effect on younger workers, too, as they may feel a gap between their work and their company’s mission.
The main reason that they want to go back is people. “When asked to rank the most important factors for wanting to come into the office, meetings with colleagues, socializing with people, and impromptu face-to-face interaction were the top three answers.”
Despite the mainstream adoption of virtual collaboration technologies, respondents still listed people-focused reasons as the most important reason for coming into the office. By the same token, 55% of respondents said collaborating with others is harder, and 51% said staying up to date on the work of others is more difficult while working from home.
Workers do want change; they want more space, less sharing of workspaces, and more flexibility if they do want to stay home. “Fifty-five percent of people report that in order to feel comfortable returning to the office, a combination of stricter sick policies and changes around office cleaning and space configurations that accommodate physical distancing must be made first.”
People who did not have personal workspaces note that they would actually like to have them.
Does the coronavirus actually prove that offices are indeed necessary?
Being part of that baby boomer generation and having worked from home for the last fifteen years, this study was surprise to me. But having seen how our new Dotdash team goes through pizza, I can see the attraction. In my post In the future, the office will be like a coffee shop, I tended to agree with designer Dan Boram, who predicted that “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.”
But judging from the Gensler survey, people want more than that out of their office. Of course, it is also possible that the results of the survey are skewed because people are trapped right now, desperate to get out of the house or apartment, and many have entire families in their face when they are trying to work. I wonder if people who want to get back to the office will change their minds after a few months.
The most important thing — which should make the office less an employer’s white elephant than its biggest bargain — is that it gives work its meaning. Most of what passes for work in offices is pretty meaningless, and the best way to kid yourself it matters is to do it alongside other people intent on doing the same. Even in interesting jobs like journalism, meaning comes largely from physical proximity to your colleagues. After six weeks of writing in her own bedroom, one friend reports: “I’m churning out the same old articles as before, only now I no longer give a crap”.
After writing from home for over a decade, I thought her article was silly, that I am churning out new articles every day and talk to my editor and co-workers constantly. But after reading the Gensler survey I am wondering if I am not looking at the situation from my own Zoom and Skype camera, from my own lovely home office. For others, I can see how that pizza looks mighty tasty.
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.