It's Car Free Day again!

Well, bless me readers, for it has been two months since my last post. Is there is penance to be done in the blogosphere for such a prolonged silence? Extra postings? I promise to amend my ways…

But today we celebrate! It’s Car Free Day again, so I’m sending my wishes for a wonderful holiday. What? It’s not a holiday? That would explain the traffic.

I’m celebrating, as I always do and as I do every day of the year, by simply trying to avoid cars. Being truly car-free doesn’t just mean not driving or passenging—new word alert—but not engaging in any involuntary car contact. As Greater Greater Washington regularly chronicles, that is easier said than done. Sometimes I wonder if drivers think those red and green lights are perennial Christmas decorations that they are free to ignore like other faith-based displays in public.

Of course, the carful—new word alert #2—are not reading this or the links posted herein, because they’re supposed to have their eyes on the road and their hands upon the whee-yul. Right? You’re paying attention aren’t you? Hey stop reading! Only the carless can read while they commute!

And that, reading, is one of the secret pleasures of being car free, along with many others. For example, yesterday I walked about a mile to my first meeting, hopped on a bus down Mass. Ave to Dupont Circle metro, and took Red Line to my next. Then I picked up a SmartBike (I haven’t activated my Capital Bikeshare account yet, although I got the cool black t-shirt, so I’m still SmartBiking) and rode across town to Foggy Bottom and took the Blue Line to meet my class, returning on the same Metro-Bike combo. Topped it all off with my typical Metro + walk home.

What did I get for all that in addition to around? I got exercise, fresh air, the chance to gaze at the city around me through the bus window, a civic experience, and I read the entire Washington Post, not just that little Express thing.

My city, Washington, makes this possible for me. Not everyone is as fortunate…yet. Car Free Day isn’t about trashing drivers, as entertaining as it is for some of us in a cheap-shot, over-the-top sort of way. It’s about pointing out that we really all ought to have a choice about how to get around. We ought to be smart enough to figure that out.


reflecting on coal cars

I was standing on the platform at King Street Metro Station, in that state of mental detachment and disattenuation familiar to transit users, when a freight train rumbled by on the neighboring tracks. Boxcars gave way to open top coal cars, one after another after another after another after another, headed south. It was one of those recently Hades-hot days in Washington, when the grid is groaning under the strain of the air conditioners. I started to wonder about the relationship between a single coal car and the average American house. How many coal cars, or what percentage of one, is necessary to power the average house? For a day? A year?

I have absolutely no idea what the answer is. I could, I suppose, find the data, do a bit of number crunching on my own and come up with an estimate. I could then spout that little factoid every chance I got, even yelling it through the open doors of over-cooled shoe stores. But what made it powerful as an act of my imagination was that I pictured it: I pictured a coal car in every driveway, maybe two in the long curving McDriveways of McMansions, and wondered if the aesthetic consequences might be a motivator for change. Neighborhoods regularly ban boats, RV’s and trucks from driveways as being aesthetically unacceptable. What would the taste police at the Homes at Rocky Rill Overlook Brookside Crest Riding Ridge have to say about a coal car in every driveway? How many might there be in front of multi-family housing? More or less per occupant? What if you added an oil tanker truck to account for the car(s)? What would our cities and towns look like if we could see, really see?

My next project at the National Building Museum is just getting started. Sort of Green Community meets Tools of the Imagination, it will be about seeing information, using visual metaphors and metonymies like the coal car to show connections, correlations, and causations. Aristotle described metaphor as that rhetorical figure that places things before our eyes, makes the invisible visible. He would have had a field day with geospatial technologies and infographics. While we have unprecedented tools to show, rather than tell, these technologies are answering ancient desires: to know the relationship of what to where, of when to whom, or how many. This will be our research for the next year +, so Gang Green will get a bit of a tune up and re-positioning to serve that project. So, stay tuned...and if you know the answer to the coal car question, don’t tell me. Show me.


Close the Door...one more time

Similes lie in a melted heap at my feet: It’s as hot as...what? I don’t know what? Hell? Too hackneyed, and besides, who’s been there to confirm? Washington’s sweaty professionals drip down the sidewalks carrying their suit jackets on one finger, like St Bartholomew carrying his flayed skin, as the sign of their martyrdom. We discover new sweat glands we didn’t know we had and turn our stinging eyes to the thermostat.

We all know that we’re loading the grid past the breaking point. (If this is news to you, check out the masterful Joel Achenbach’s grid-egesis in National Geographic this month) Pepco tries to warn us to run energy-intensive appliances at night when demand for AC is lower. I wonder if anyone is listening.

A little less than years ago I launched this blog with an opening post called “Close the Door” in which I revealed not only my shoe buying preferences but my seething irritation with a certain store’s profligate habit of propping its doors open even while the AC was running. Later, I like to think because of me and other like-minded consumers, this store and its innumerable branches in weirdly close proximity, put a sticker on their doors proudly announcing the policy to keep the doors shut when the AC was on. I was so happy I bought a pair of shoes.

Those stickers are long gone now, and they, Carbon One Shoes, are back to their old ways. I could launch into another rant—it’s tempting—and threaten to keep my credit card holstered—which I will—but clearly something just isn’t getting through. As I and others have repeatedly said before, technology is not really the difficult part of the sustainability problematic. People are. We are the problem.

What causes this behavior? What makes someone, either management or staff, decide that it’s a good idea to prop open a door and let cool air billow into the street to dissipate into nothingness? It’s a kind of blindness, I think, the willful not-seeing of the privileged end user, who enjoys the final breath that began with the removal of a mountain top in West Virginia, its detritus shoved unceremoniously into a stream valley to cloud the waters kill the fish, so the coal can give up its dirty energy, spitting out greenhouse gases and poison, send the power through miles of shorn landscape so someone can press a button on the wall and say, gosh, it’s a little warm in here, let’s crank the AC and open the door. Yeah, that’s a great idea.


5 Points for a Sustainable Urban Architecture

Continuing on my Cobusier riff, the post here is a summary of my presentation at DCWeek

There’s a long tradition of manifestos in modern architecture, of calls to arms to rally round some ideology of one sort or another. (There’s a great anthology of them, Programs and Manifestos on 20th Century Architecture by Ulrich Conrads.) Le Corbusier’s 5 Points made a particularly pithy manifesto. Easy to memorize, each followed from and was dependent on the others, and together and separately they constituted an overturning, a reversal, of traditional architecture/construction with the goal of ushering in the irrefutably Modern Era. In the end, though it seems to have ended up all about style and suburbia...which was so not the point.

I think it’s time for a new manifesto, but this time a pragmatic, rather than ideological, overturning of both recent architectural obsessions and rote tradition. We need 5 new points that bring the issues of building into the landscape and city: No building is alone. The future is transdisciplinary. So with apologies to Le Corbusier and all the ranting and raving modernists who came before me, here we go:

5 New Points for Sustainable Urban Architecture:

1 Complete Streets. Just got back from Portland, and this is a shot of one of their wonderful complete streets…H Street will one day look like this. The street is the key to the city.

2 Productive density. It’s that perfect mix of 7-up units per acre, mixed use, and physical design that make such liveliness not just possible, but probable.

3 Green Roofs, which are quite like Corbusier’s original roof gardens. Their benefits are too numerous t
o count...improved water quality, habitat, heat island mitigation, insulation, and let’s not forget pure biophilian beauty. But why stop at the roof? The new frontier is green walls, which actually leads us to:

4 Responsive Facades. The cladding of a building should telegraph its orientation. in this case of this building, passive and active systems combine such that the element doing the passive shading is happily collecting all that solar energy. Architectural elegance: high performance with a frugality of material.

5 Alternative Energies…plural, energies. Energy, like all sustainable practices, is highly situational and context dependent…an architectural truth we’ve done a great job of forgetting in the last century and a half.

Under my new 5 points, every design needs to begin with the fundamental question: what can this building do with energy and the environment because of what it is and where it is.

So why is all this so important? Le Corbusier claimed that building was at the root of all social unrest in the 1st quarter of the 20th century. And he was correct then as now. Building is the key to the entire sustainability problematic: where we build, what we build, how we build...and for whom. We’ve heard this before; we can’t say we weren’t warned...

“Society is filled
with a violent desire for something which it may obtain or may not. Everything lies in that: everything depends on the effort made and the attention paid to these alarming symptoms. Architecture or Revolution. Revolution can be avoided.”

Le Corbusier, Towards an Architecture, 1927


Architecture or Revolution

“Architecture has nothing to do with the various ‘styles’...Architecture has graver ends.”

I’m quoting from my tattered paperback copy of Towards a New Architecture, the formerly standard English translation of Corbusier’s modernist manifesto from the 1920’s. In doing so, of course, I’m not really keeping up with current scholarship, as there is a significant new translation by John Goodman (no, not that John Goodman) called Toward an Architecture (Text and Documents). The new title makes much more sense. Even with my lousy French I could tell there was no “Nouveau” in the original title of Vers Une Architecture.

I've been working on my 10 minutes of DCWeek fame (10 minutes!) and realized that I have way too much to say. So, if you're coming tomorrow afternoon, read up. There may be a quiz.

There’s an unsettling déjà vu quality to so much of the prose; I’m sitting here thumbing through the book, tempted to just include it verbatim. I’m reading his words on tools and technology, as I write effortlessly on this PC, toggling to the internet to check some fact or other. Soon I’ll post it—a verb which in Corbusier’s time meant to sent a message via the mail—and you, the unknown and unnamed, will read it. This is what I’m reading:

In every field of industry, new problems have presented themselves and new tools have been created capable of resolving them. If this new fact be set against the past, then you have revolution.

In building and construction, mass-production had already been begun; in the face of economic needs, mass production- units have been created...If this fact be set against the past, then you have revolution...

The machinery of Society, profoundly out of gear, oscillates between an amelioration, of historical importance, and a catastrophe...The various classes of workers in society to-day no longer have dwelling adapted to their needs; neither the artisan nor the intellectual.

It is a question of building which is at the root of the social unrest of today; architecture or revolution.”

One of the reasons to read and re-read the early modernist polemicists is make that mental journey to the past, to try to see the world as they saw it and understand how it all must have seemed so logical. It’s too easy to blame previous generations for our current problems, as if somehow they were knowingly venal or unknowingly incompetent. At one time, amidst the cratered and bloody ground of Western Europe crawling out of a World War, urban renewal, separation of functions, individual property ownership, and mobility must have seemed like enlightened policy. Le Corbusier wrote prolifically, and in full-throated exhortations, proposing futures alternately chilling and edenic. If only we had known which was which.

Corbusier idolized l’espace verde and le soleil, green space and the sun, as sources of health and well-being. At that time, there was no cognitive dissonance in worshiping the speeding motor car, as the Futurists did, and espousing proto-green principles. The early Modernists could no more foresee the unintended consequences of their brave new architecture than, well, we can foresee ours.They did, however, see quite clearly what the situation was and felt no hesitation at speaking up. He and his peers thought that architecture and planning could change the world. The good news is: they were right. Unfortunately, that’s also the bad news. We’re still oscillating between amelioration and catastrophe. The road to Pruitt-Igoe, as we know now, was paved with good intentions.

If we’re going to choose architecture—and by that I include all the design and planning professions—and avoid revolution we have to look back as well as forward in equal measure and learn from both the substance and the structure of the past. There will be unintended consequences, but the perfect is the mortal enemy of the real. Revolution can be avoided, but only through active intervention, by design and planning. This time, though, let’s leave the hubris behind.


Digital Capital Week

After my experience at SIGGRAPH last summer, I have gotten more accustomed to techie conferences. Later this week, Friday in fact, I'll be part of a panel at Digital Capital Week talking about--what else?--the green urban future. The moderator told us we each get 10 minutes. 10 minutes? It takes longer than that to say my name! So, with not enough time really to develop a thesis, I think I'm just going to write a manifesto.

We need a real, meaningful, actionable, non-ideological, transdisciplinary, new Five Points for a New Green Architecture/City. Modernism, in the minds of the general public, is all about style; and in the minds of the design professions it's all about style and sprawl. Corbusier flipped convention to get his Five Points. We can't really follow the same model, or will just get back to traditional construction. We have to be smarter--yes, we the people, not our phones, our light switches, or our coffee makers, have to be smart--than both the radical mods and the old world they rejected. We have to engage in a reflective rejection and acceptation, picking and choosing.

So, that's where I'm going. I'll post it as it develops...


A Camel designed by committee is a camel

I'm thrilled this week to have a guest post from none other than Rob "EcoMan" Fleming. When he's not being a green superhero, Rob is an associate professor and LEED® architect and director of Philadelphia University’s M.S. in Sustainable Design, a unique interdisciplinary program that fosters collaboration and cross disciplinary work as the cornerstone of effective sustainable design. Rob has been thinking about camels...

Over the years I have found architects generally resistant to change. Starting with the huge fight against computer aided design to the bemoaning of ADA requirements, to the outright negativity towards sustainability, to the bashing of LEED and lastly, to the criticism of the integrated design process. Sometimes referred to as a design charrette, the integrated design process features groups of stakeholders working collaboratively to literally design a building (at least site location and parti). This process almost always includes the end users, community members, engineers, designers and of course architects. Over the last ten years I have had the pleasure of participating in several of these events – some moving forward like clockwork leading to a wonderful design scheme as built through the consensus process and others were more like train wrecks with battling egos and side squabbles that ultimately derailed projects. So, while the process is by no means perfect, the promise of a collaborative multi-disciplinary process is evident. In one case 40 people gathered to design a YMCA building on an underused, but much loved farm near Philadelphia. After one week of constant discussion, drawing, arguing and shouting and storming out of rooms, the client decided not to build the project. That sounds like failure, but how many times have architects spent 6 months to design a wonderful building only to find out that the project must be shelved for either financial or political or financial reasons? The charrette process worked. In another Charrette held in Center City Philadelphia, the team decided that a geo-exchange system was necessary to achieve a net zero operation. However, there was no open space for drilling. Answer: call in a geo-exchange expert during the charrette and attack the problem. The result was 6 standing water columns 1,500 feet deep right through the sidewalk on 15th street.

Over these same years I have repeatedly heard from architects, who once again are losing territory to other professions, that “a horse, designed by committee is a camel.” And then laugh and walk away. Now, let’s put that comment in perspective. It is true that the potential for compromised aesthetics and unconventional functionality can emerge from a design by committee, but isn’t that exactly what our society needs right now? We need buildings that are designed for performance as much as they are designed for aesthetics. A camel is a remarkable animal capable of traveling over a hundred miles through desert heat on one fill up of water. A horse in the desert under those conditions is dead. 20th century aesthetically driven design is basically a dead horse. We need the design of architectural camels, buildings capable of functioning on little to zero energy, buildings capable of harvesting and utilizing rain water, buildings that defy convention, buildings that may, at times look odd, but nevertheless provide some sorely needed societal benefit. This of course assumes a context for design and construction that is in effect a desert. Given the harsh realities of peak oil, global climate change, scarcity of materials and challenging economic times, can we afford to continue to build beautiful race horses designed for the sprint? Or, is it incumbent upon us to design camels to venture into the societal desert upon us and last for the long marathon? Therefore, we must embrace the integrated design process, learn about its nuances and complexities so that we can begin to find new ways to innovate and create buildings that will be both aesthetically pleasing that also bare functional fruit for years to come. “But green buildings are ugly,” is a comment I heard on Friday from a very intelligent colleague. I wonder if she really meant that green buildings are different – like a camel looks different.

And finally I wonder if camels are considered beautiful in desert cultures that rely on them for transportation. I bet if we looked really close and examined the camel with an open mind – its beauty will be apparent.