summer SUSTAINABILITY course in session!

Monday, July 14, 2014


I'm going to assume that not everyone is taking this class because they're building a new building.

Is it possible to rate your home as it is?  Not really by the letter* of the system, but the spirit of the system...  Sure!

Let's take those rude questions from lesson #018 and apply them to where you live.  For our exercise, each item that you can achieve is one point.  Report back on Google +!

Rate Your Home

bicycle parking
Image courtesy of baudman  via Flickr
1.  avoid light pollution:  all outdoor lighting should only shine down (not up into trees or sky).

2a.  public transportation: can you walk to a bus/rail stop from your home? (ideally within 1/4 mile to a bus stop or 1/2 mile to a rail stop)
2b.  neighborhood amenities: can you walk to a grocery, a park, an elementary school? (ideally within a 1/4 mile)
2c.  alternative transportation: do you have a place to park bikes at your home?  There should be room for every member of the family.

3a.  indoor air quality -- fresh air: can you open windows on both sides of your home to allow natural ventilation through when the temperature is comfortable outside?  Alternately, do you have a fresh air intake on your heating and cooling system?  (most do not)
aerosol paints are notoriously high in VOCs
Use them outside only.
Image courtesy of felixtsao via Flickr
3b.  indoor air quality -- green housekeeping: do you avoid heavy chemicals for cleaning indoors that come with warnings?  If you absolutely must, vacate afterwards and flush the whole house with fresh air for 24 hours.
3c.  indoor air quality -- paints, adhesives & sealants:  when doing improvements inside, do you avoid paints, glues & caulks that offgas toxins and/or carcinogens?  Choose low- or non-VOC products and follow all instructions.  If you must use such products indoors, vacate afterwards and flush the whole house with fresh air for 96 hours.  If you can still smell it, flush more. By the way, Sherwin Williams has a great premium zero VOC paint.  Love it!
3d.  indoor air quality -- composite woods: do you avoid subfloors and furnishings made of plywood, MDF, OSB or particleboard?  Most of these contain formaldehyde as a binder, which can slowly offgas for up to 30 years.  Once these are in your home, there is little you can do.  Look for composite woods that are formaldehyde-free, denoted with an "E" or "E0."  Buy antiques instead of new; choose solid wood furniture.

Ixnay on the arebay ulbsbay, okay?
CFL in the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo
Image courtesy of Paul Keller via Flickr
4a.  energy performance -- evaluation: most utility companies offer a free (or reimbursed) energy audit.  Get one performed at least every 5-10 years.
4b.  energy performance -- maintenance: get a checkup on your heating/cooling system every 1-3 years.  Replace your filter every 1-3 months.
4d.  energy performance -- lighting: use compact fluorescents throughout your home. Caveats:

  • CFLs can be off-color, so don't put them in plain sight.  Use indirect lighting or light fixture shades to help diffuse the light.  At bathroom vanities, consider halogen bulbs instead, which have a warm light and are almost as efficient as CFLs.  However, they do add heat like incandescents!
  • CFLs have mercury inside, so dispose of them properly. Don't let it worry you too much, though.  It would take 100 bulbs to equal the amount of mercury in one 1980s thermometer.
  • CFLs are notoriously poor at dealing with complex lighting switches like dimmers and sensors.  These are also good places to use halogens.

Image courtesy of bsabarnowl via Flickr
5.  minimize waste:  do you recycle as much as possible?  Do you reuse water bottles and avoid products with excessive packaging?  Do you have a household goal for how much trash you send to the landfill?

6a.  water use -- fixtures:  do you have efficient fixtures?  The standard is 1.6 gallons/flush, 2.0 gallons per minute on a shower.  Sink faucets can have lower water use and still significant pressure with the installation of a $5 aerator.  Some water companies provide free audits.
6b.  water use -- landscaping:  30% of residential potable water use is for the outdoors.  Do you water properly and efficiently? H2ouse.net has great resources for improvements.  Consider using gray water or captured water for irrigation purposes.

Image courtesy of glasseyes view via Flickr
7.  local purchases: do you buy local for at least 50% of your purchases?

8.  natural daylight and views: can you see outside from every habitable room in your house (not including storage spaces)?

Let's see some high scores!!!  This exercise should exhibit a few more aspects of sustainability than most people have been exposed to.  It may even inspire you to improve one or more of these aspects of your home.  :)

A Note on Priorities

I am well aware that most building professionals believe that energy efficiency is our main concern.  After many years of focusing on sustainability, I believe that our priorities should start with:

London Air pollution Level 9 Very High April 3 2014
Image courtesy of David Holt London via Flickr

1.  First, do no harm to the users.  That means Indoor Air Quality.  Don't import bad stuff into your home; and keep it ventilated with fresh outside air.
2.  Do no harm to the immediate surroundings.  Minimize pollution of every kind.  Light pollution, waste water & stormwater management, solid waste recycling, transportation emissions, power plant emissions, to name a few.
3.  Do no harm to the larger environment.  Minimize our energy & water footprints. Be mindful of where our materials come from and how they are acquired.

These things ought to be clear and required and obvious to everyone!

Once we're not doing any harm, then we can BEGIN talking about the more wonderful aspects of building sustainably, like connection to the outdoors, using natural and renewable materials, living off the grid, living small, cooperative communities, etc.


*By the way, this list of questions is only a very basic smattering and simplification of credits available through the LEED program.  If you're interested in seeing the whole checklist, look HERE.

Monday, July 7, 2014


Systems?  SYSTEMS?!  We don't need no stinking systems!!

Green Building Rating Systems... specifically LEED

Sometimes I think the last think we need in architecture is more red tape.  And don't kid yourself: building rating systems are exponentially more complicated than doing your taxes (and that's no walk in the park).  Forms with nice simple line items that you need a doctorate in several topics to understand or calculate.  

In generations past, cities & counties created building codes to protect users from dangerous building conditions.  Later, many municipalities created zoning ordinances to help cities grow in a healthful, beneficial way.  One of the earliest examples is restricting the proximity of industry to residential areas.  We are so used to be being protected in these ways and building to these standards that they are no longer revolutionary, just the way things are done.

The green building rating systems are new, and so much of them is about educating the project team, the client, the users, the manufacturers regarding dozens of issues.  For many people, it's first time they've ever thought about these issues... and they're hard to talk about without sounding self-righteous.  So let's just roll with that!  

Picture an architect, in a droll voice and looking over his reading glasses just a tad condescendingly, asking these questions of a client on their first meeting:
Image courtesy of It'sGreg via Flickr
Image courtesy of Redwin Law via Flickr
Unveiling a LEED platinum (the highest level)
certification plaque at Pearl Harbor
Image courtesy of NAVFAC via Flickr

  1. Do you want your outdoor lighting to destroy the habitat of local birds and other wildlife?  (light pollution)
  2. Do you want to locate your building so far from public transportation options that your employees will have to drive? You'll need an enormous parking lot and be contributing to the oil wars and air pollution.
  3. Does it interest you to be located near enough to community amenities that you might walk or bike there?  No, you're right.  It's better to drive every time.
  4. Would you prefer to have fresh air inside or air mixed with toxins and carcinogens?  Doesn't matter to me; we can do either way.  We can even assure the toxins and carcinogens are present by our indoor material choices.
  5. Are you interested in spending lots of money on energy for lighting, heating, cooling, etc?  We can arrange that.
  6. Do you care whether your building systems work properly? (commissioning)
  7. Would you like your construction waste to go in the landfill or be recycled?
  8. Since water is our most precious resource, are you interested in plumbing fixtures that use as much as possible?  It's the ultimate decadence and displays your wealth.
  9. When it comes to building materials, should we get them from as far away as possible?  That way we can benefit foreign economies and spend half again as much to transport them.  Plus, they will look very exotic and out of place.
  10. Should we eliminate windows in favor of more fluorescent lights?  They don't decrease productivity THAT much over natural light.

And that's just a few of my favorites.

So, every time you walk by a LEED building (do you have any* in your town or neighborhood?), it's not some basic minimal requirement they've complied with to achieve that certification; the effort could almost be called extravagant.  
*The form is a bit antiquated, but put your location information in the box & press enter: it should list all the LEED buildings for that location.  

Side note: I've focused on LEED here, because it's the rating system I'm the most familiar with.  There are several others, like Energy Star (which focuses mainly on energy use), Green Globes, and NAHB Green (for homes). 


"light orange juice beverage" vs. 100% orange juice
Image courtesy of j_lai via Flickr
In fact, when LEED was first introduced, it was largely in reaction to what was called "greenwash." Some product trying to promote itself as "green" when it really wasn't.  For example, "this carpet is made with recycled fiber!!!!!" when in reality it was only about 3% recycled.  

You might see the same thing in a grocery store... "juice drink" usually has less than 10% juice.  And even when it says 100% juice, look closer because it's usually a combination that's heavy on the apple juice (which is cheapest) and quite light on the more expensive fruit you're looking for.  

GreenWash happens everywhere now that environmentally friendly stuff is all the rage.  It's a big part of marketing.  So when a third party (like a certifier of organic foods) steps in and provides some uniformity to the labeling, it's a big help for consumers.  Same thing with buildings.  

Why rating systems are cool:

Energy Resource Monitoring in real time for building users to see
at the Grand Canyon SRM Facility, a LEED platinum building.
Image courtesy of Grand Canyon NPS via Flickr.
  1. Education of project team, including the client
  2. Education of building end-users.  Most LEED buildings pursue an extra credit for "education" to help building users understand the greening aspects of the building.  It can be in the form of signage or interactive exhibits.  This is supercool for visitors as well.
  3. "Leadership." LEED stands for "Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design."  The idea is to forge the path so that others coming behind us can accomplish the goals more easily in established ways.  To that end, all new U.S. government buildings must be LEED certified at a minimum gold level.  Many municipalities have followed suit.
  4. 3rd party verification.  Having the USGBC certify buildings as an impartial party is huge toward delivering a truly verifiable green building.  

Why rating systems are a pain:

Who's driving, anyway?
Image courtesy of draggin via Flickr
  1. Red tape, red tape & more red tape.  The project team has to prove to the U.S. Green Building Council that they have achieved all of the prerequisites and each of the credits that they are pursuing to achieve certification.  The more credits you are awarded, the higher the certification level.
  2. Who's driving the certification?  The pursuit of certification is usually chosen by the client, though in the beginning architectural firms were trying to convince clients it was worth a little bit extra up front.  Often manufacturers are the last to hear about it and have to be coerced into providing the required documentation.  However, it's still a better way to get feedback to manufacturers than if the requests were coming from single individuals.  For comparison: what if all federal employees were required to shampoo their hair with non-sulphate/sulphide shampoo?  Do you think there would be enough demand at that point for most shampoo manufacturers to provide an acceptable alternative?  Probably.  
  3. Sometimes things don't work out how you plan them.
    Image courtesy of Bistrosavage via Flickr.
      .  A design team typically contracts to delivering a certified building, but then is not calling all the shots when it comes to making that happen.  It's still the client's building, after all.  Then, when the building is essentially complete, the documentation is sent in for the certification process.  What if you are not awarded all of the credits you were pursuing?  It's often too late/expensive to change anything at that point.  The client is furious and it's not really anyone's fault.  My impression is that over the last few years (during which I have not been working as a LEED consultant) the USGBC has attempted to make credit requirements clearer so that teams are not disappointed.  But like I said, it's not unlike doing your taxes.  Sometimes the IRS calculations say you got it wrong. 

    Why I can't wait for rating systems to be a relic of the past:

    ahhhh, obsolescence.
    Image courtesy of Brett Jordan via Flickr
    1. Obsolescence.  Even when the first version of LEED was rolled out, there was talk at the USGBC about one day, green building methods would be standard and the rating systems would be obsolete.  And wouldn't that be wonderful!  If we go back to the building code example, though, the red tape remains.  The way we build will have changed and improved, but it's more complicated and more difficult for anyone to DIY.  Also, LEED is fighting obsolescence by creating new prerequisites and more challenging credits with every new version.  
    2. Some folks don't need it.  Rating systems are a great tool (especially for education), but not everyone needs to be educated.  Some people already get it, and would only be held back spending a lot of their time proving it with each and every building.  These are the true green builders, and they are my heroes.

    Cheers and hope you had an appropriately patriotic 4th of July!

    Monday, June 30, 2014


    The goal of this assignment is to start to get a feel for how big places are.

    #017a.  Calculate the MAIN (first floor) area of your home and the total area.

    There are a few ways to do this:

    Image courtesy of Reni via Wikimedia Commons
    1.  Measure!  THIS is a pretty good reference for how to measure your home.... and a LOT of people get it wrong.  If you ever plan on owning a home, this is an important skill!
    Start with a basic floor plan, nothing fancy.  Note that the number you are going for is total "finished" square feet.  Utility closets and garages do not count.
    Interestingly, the thickness of the interior and exterior walls DO count.  SO if you measure individual rooms (exclusive of the walls) and add them together (living room + bedroom + kitchen + hall + bath...), the number will still be less than the "total square footage" of the building.

    2.  Ask Big Brother, otherwise known as the property tax assessor.  Usually (but not always) this is the county.  Typically all you need is to input the address to get some good info.

    3.  Ask someone else who knows.  Zillow used to have info on all houses; now it seems to keep info only for houses that are on the market.

    Now that you know how big your own home is, you can compare it to other places: 1/2 as big, twice as big, about the same, MUCH bigger...

    #017b.  Scope out two or three large homes that you pass by regularly and find out their square footage for comparison.

    Since you won't be able to get in and measure, you can use one of the other methods above to find out.

    Graceland.  Image courtesy of josephleenovak via Flickr.

    Example 1:  Graceland!  I've never been there, but BIG, right?

    Step 1.  Get the actual address (I googled "street address of Graceland"): 3734 Elvis Presley Blvd, Memphis, TN 38116

    Step 2.  Go to zillow.com and input the address..... Wait! Zillow only does homes & Graceland's now a museum.  Let's try Wikipedia:  bingo! 17,552 square feet.  

    Example 2: Celebrity home

    See the article HERE.
    Step 1.  But what if the building's not famous enough to make Wikipedia? Say, like Matt Damon's Miami Beach home that happens to be for sale (don't cheat & check the listing!): 6020 N Bay Rd

    Step 2.  Google to find the property tax assessor site in the county you're searching, in this case Miami-Dade.  Put in the address and bam! there you go: 9500 square feet.  Note of interest: the side yard that includes 1/2 the pool is a separate lot.  He's trying to sell both of them together (go figure).

    #017c. How Small is Too Small?

    Many desires for enormity stem from a lack of privacy.  I know when my children were small, I really needed some acoustic privacy from them so I could get stuff done while they napped.  Distance helps with this, but so does building your walls for acoustic protection!  

    Q:  What other perfectly defensible reasons might people feel like they want a large home?  

    I know the answers are NOT:

    • because I want to build unsustainably
    • because I love a really big mortgage that I can't really afford
    • because I love to clean SO much
    • because I hate my family and want to be as far from them as possible.

    Monday, June 23, 2014


    I've written before about how much I love tiny buildings and how smaller homes would be beneficial across the board.

    First: a primer

    But what exactly is the environmental component to size (since this course is on sustainability)?
    To understand some of the impacts of "biggering," first read The Lorax by Dr. Seuss.

    my Pinterest board for tininess

    Second: the Land

    One of the coolest things that happen when we build smaller is reducing the impact on the land.

    In the city, smaller apartments and flats can be combined together on the same property.  Buildings can even share an exterior "party wall" and eliminate side yards altogether.

    For people who like some open space (all people like open space!), that means that postage-stamp sized yards can then be replaced with community parks and gardens and courtyards.

    In more rural areas where land is not as scarce, small buildings still make better use of the land.
    Community Garden at Baltic Street & 4th Ave, Brooklyn
    Image courtesy of eoringel via Flickr
    Whether we're talking about a collection of buildings on a farm, (where uses are better separated: don't put the piggies in the room next to mine!) or a collection of homes (that can share a smaller yard area that must be groomed for gatherings & kids to play in), smaller is better for taking care of the land.  It leaves more land available for wilderness, open space like parks, agriculture and just staying purposefully undeveloped.   Undeveloped land is a resource we are quickly running out of.

    In suburbia where each plot is typically assigned and almost never communal, small buildings leave more of the lot for outside use.  Have you seen neighborhoods where the houses are WAY too big for the lots?  It's strangely confining and claustrophobic.  And no one ever spends any time outside!

    Third: the Materials

    recycling graphic courtesy
    of GraphsDotNet via Flickr
    One of the earliest pushes of sustainability in buildings was about the materials.  Some of the early questions included:

    • Were they made of recycled product?  (what percentage of recycled content?)
    • Where did the materials come from & how much energy was spent on transporting them?

    When those questions began to be satisfied, they gave birth to additional questions:

    • Were the materials recyclable themselves, or would they end up in a landfill at the end of the building's life?
    • How long before the materials were in a landfill (what was the life of the building)?  20 years?  200 years?  This may be referred to as a life cycle assessment.*
    • Were the materials "local" in the sense that their character reflected the character of the region?
    • What is the embodied energy of the materials?
    And later, perhaps the most pertinent (and difficult) question related to materials: 
    • How much do you really need?

    The question is pertinent because of overall calculations.  Most sustainable building tools want to know a percentage of materials that are recycled or local.  But what about a TOTAL number?  What if each building had a tonnage limit on how much UN-recycled content or NON-local content?  That would really be a game changer.

    The question is difficult to architects & builders for several reasons: 
    1. EFFECTIVE PRICING.  For a building to be cost effective, it often has to be of a minimum size: every subcontractor will give a better price per square foot if he can distribute his overhead across more square feet.  Contractors will not bid jobs they don't think they can deliver a good price on.
    2. PRESTIGE.  Culturally, we are inclined to think bigger is better: people in the building industry are impressed by and proud of their biggest projects
    3. MONEY.  The bigger a building, the more they get paid; and this isn't greed talking.  Architects often break even or lose money on most jobs.  They count on the bigger projects to help them stay afloat.  Contractors will typically not do a job they can't make a profit on, so their business is better protected, but they still need that profit to pay their employees well and grow their company.

    *For further rather believe-it-or-not inspiring reading on the life of a material, check out Cradle to Cradle by Bill McDonough.  He's been at the forefront of this kind of thinking for decades... my copy of the book is not made out of paper, but recycled plastic that is waterproof and also recyclable with soy-based ink.  Smart.
    THIS is what Mr. McDonough is up to right now.... not exactly small.


    Look for the homework next week!

    Monday, June 16, 2014


    #015a Describe Your Favorite Indoor Summer & Winter Spots

    Window Seat in Le Château de Chillon
    Image courtesy of Peter Alfred Hess via Flickr
    For most people, favorite spots are in or near their homes, but not necessarily so.  It might be at a grandparent's home or a friend's home or at your neighborhood library.

    Please describe your favorite summer & spots in relation to these elements:

    • views of the outside
    • temperature
    • ventilation (drafts or breezes)
    • natural lighting
    • noise
    • for this exercise, do NOT describe what the space looks like

    #015b Do some Sun Worshipping on the Solstice, June 21

    Okay, maybe not "worshipping," but take notice of the longest day of the year.

    Traditional Norwegian St. Hansbål (bonfire)
    in Laksevåg, Bergen
    Image courtesy of Nina-no via Wikimedia Commons
    Check out some background info on what exactly the solstice is HERE and some common celebrations HERE.

    By the way, some calendars call solstices and equinoxes "the first day of" a season while others call them the middle of a season.  For example, my calendar on the wall says "first day of summer" on June 21, but it's also referred to as "midsummer."
    You may have heard of a nice little story by an obscure writer called "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

    If you live in the western U.S., consider a trip to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, ArcoSanti north of Phoenix, or Santa Barbara for the solstice parade.

    If you stay home, you could gather a few friends, get out some blankets and spend time outside as long as the sun is up.  Play music, picnic & don't forget the citronella.

    #015c Check out my Pinterest Board

    I've got a zessn Pinterest board: daylight, vistas & magic where I keep lovely images showing spectacular views and daylighting effects or particularly good controls.  Take a look; get inspired by the outdoors and the sunshine.  Imagine how you might get more access to them even when you're inside. :)


    Monday, June 9, 2014

    #014 DAYLIGHT & VIEWS (in honor of the solstice)

    Daylighting & Sustainability

    From the perspective of URGENCY, daylighting doesn’t hit the top of the scale for sustainability in buildings.  Most folks in the building industry will tell you that that honor goes to the two-headed beast energy use/greenhouse gases that affect climate change…. But I don’t want to talk about those today.

    source: Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
    From the perspective of what ORGANIC environmental issues affect building design from the inside out, start to finish, the sibling winners by far are DAYLIGHTING and VIEWS. (Might not be urgent, but it sure is important.)

    Why should we care about daylight or views?

    a building with a true connection to its site:
    Fallingwater (1934) by Frank Lloyd Wright.
    Image courtesy of Carol M. Highsmith via Wikimedia

    The most basic purpose of shelter is to protect from the elements, whether that is temperature, precipitation or rain.  But once we’ve accomplished that, the very next step is to let some of that nature in. (And the more time we spend indoors, the more important this is).

    • Buildings without proper ventilation are damp and stuffy and can contribute to illness.
    • Buildings without sufficient daylight are dim, sad (SAD), and even morbid.
    • Buildings without views to the outside interfere with sense of direction and do not provide a connection to the passage of time (seasons or even times of day).  Ch'i can become pent up, without a visual release.  It can even be difficult to feel secure inside a building that no sentry can see out of.

    Have you seen Joe vs the Volcano (1990) with Tom Hanks?  Sure makes you wanna get a "real" job, eh?
    This is the opening scene, where he trudges in to work down to the deep dark basement of this awful building with no
    natural light to speak of.  Every time someone says they like fluorescent light I think of Joe's arrival to his office.
    By the way, the opening zombie march is based on a similar scene in Fritz Lang's amazing silent sci-fi Metropolis (1927), but that was made before fluorescent lighting, so I don't have any excuse to include it.  See the trailer HERE.

    sunlight in a traditional Japanese building
    Image courtesy of mrhayata via Flickr
    Daylighting defined

    In architecture, daylight is light from the sun that enters the building.  There are two kinds:
    • direct daylight/sunlight (a harsher light; also adds heat)
    • indirect daylight (bounced off of other surfaces; best quality of light)

    Daylight-ING is the practice of purposely manipulating daylight for good.  It's a fairly complex discipline in its own right, but there are some very simple concepts that everyone can do without fancy modeling.

    Fix It.

    So how to we create better daylight and views?
    No, not really.  The answer is (dah duh DUM).....


    Keeping direct sunlight out of your home during the summer
    and letting it in during the winter can unburden your a/c &
    heating systems, save money & reduce your carbon footprint
    (I don't think these folks knew what that was).

    Image courtesy of starmanseries via Flickr
    Rule 1.  At least one window for every room.

    As a minimum, every room that is habitable (i.e. don’t bother with closets) should have at least one window that lets in light and provides some kind of view to the outside.  Was that so hard?

    Rule 2.  Sunlight is hot.

    No, really!  So you don’t want direct sunlight to invade your building during the summer, but you might not have your feelings hurt if it visits during the winter.

    Two illustrations of a building with lots of window and an overhang facing south.
    On the left, the summer sunlight does not get inside; on the right, the winter sun does.
    To do your own drawings, you'll need to know the solar angles.  It's a simple calculation, go HERE.

    As the sun moves east to west, it stays on the South side,
    a high angle in the summer, a low angle in the winter.
    If you're interested in (a lot) more information on the relative movements of the sun/earth, check out this excellent site.

    The good news is that during the hottest part of the year, the hottest parts of the day can be narrowed to midday and afternoon.
    Sunshine filtered by a trellis overhang on the South side
    Mykonos Greece
    Image courtesy of Lee Cannon via Flickr
    1. At midday, the sun is overhead, slightly south of straight-up (in the northern hemisphere).  Awnings, overhangs, or porches on the south side of a building can take care of the majority of the heat.
    2. In the afternoon, the sun is more difficult to control, still slightly south but lower in the sky on the west side.  Because the sun is lower, awnings & overhangs won’t help much, because he'll just peek underneath them and blind you anyway. Vertical shades and fins can help quite a lot on the West side, though!

    The WINTER sun is much lower in the sky during midday, on the South side.
    What about those overhangs, you ask?   As long as they’re not TOO deep, winter sun can peek underneath them and stretch a warm hand in your South windows.  Some people even put thermal mass just inside their south windows to absorb some of that warmth and re-radiate it into the space as the day wears on.

    Rule 3.  All daylight is not equal.

    Though the same sun shines on us all, the quality, intensity and location of sunlight changes with the seasons and the time of day in a single location.  These vary even more with a location change (luckily, buildings usually only have one location to deal with).  It is supercool to be in a space where these changes are evident.  Has anyone been to the Phoenix Public Library (by Will Bruder) on the summer solstice?  Pictures don't do it justice, so I won't even try.  Check it out.

    Controlling daylight on the south side is the easiest thing.  Therefore, this is typically the best place to put most of your window area (i.e. more windows/ bigger windows).

    Easter sunrise service, Jacob's Well, Kansas City, Mo.
    Image courtesy of timsamoff via Flickr
    The clerestory windows are obviously facing East and during
    this sunrise service create significant brilliance & glare.
    If the windows had been lower and behind the pastor, the
    direct sunlight would be visually uncomfortable.
    The character and movement of daylight across an interior space is a response to the color, proximity, texture and shape of a building’s interior surfaces (especially the surfaces just inside windows).  For example:
    • light colors reflect more than dark
    • smooth and/or glossy surfaces reflect light more directly; textured matte ones diffuse the light more gently
    • a flat surface will redirect light in one primary direction; a curved surface can distribute an array of light all over.

    For purposes of visibility and visual comfort, it's best to avoid stark contrasts (dark and light right next to each other).  Indirect light, diffused light, well distributed light: these are the grails of daylighting professionals.

    For some basic guidance on what engineers consider ideal lighting, read pages 3-5 of this "engineering sound bite."

    Rule 4.  Use multiple methods to control daylight.

    Daylight is great; direct beams of light in your eyeballs when you’re cooking supper or sitting at a computer not so great.  Glare kinda sucks, too.  We looked above at determining the basic methods for controlling daylight, largely on the South and West sides of a building. The North side (in the northern hemisphere, at least) doesn’t typically need daylight control, though depending on your specific location, you might also want vertical shades on the East.

    near and middle garden view
    Image courtesy of Ruth and Dave via Flickr
    The primary way to control daylight and heat is through outdoor measures like the ones discussed above (awnings, fins, sails, shutters, shadecloths, louvers, green screens, etc.).  The secondary way is through interior layers like blinds (horizontal on the south, vertical on the east/west), tints, diffusion, curtains, etc.

    Tiny View, Cité de Carcassonne, France
    Image courtesy of Vicburton via Flickr

    Rule 5.  All views are not equal.

    Large picture windows are great for expansive natural views (lakefront or mountain views, for example).  Some views are so tight and precious that the best solution is not an enormous window, but a small beautifully framed one (similar to how a small prized painting might be framed).

    In addition to scale there is also distance to consider.  Some views are far (like a mountain range), some are near (like a garden) and some
    are middling, (like a neighboring grove of trees, a cityscape, or the waterfront pictured on the right).
    Most of us don’t have the wealth to have property with a massive view.  But just about ten feet (sometimes even less) of space can be configured to provide a near view.

    Ocean View Hotel, view of the
    Rocky Harbour waterfront.
    Image courtesy of toddwight1 via Flickr.
    How would this view be different if it were one
    big window with no vertical divisions?
    Finally, not all views are of the OUTward variety.  Some views are from the street IN.  Visual privacy should be a major concern when it comes to windows.

    If you followed the other principles above, you’ll end up with a “sun tempered” home (the very first step towards passive solar design), which means most of your window area and a big fat overhang on the South side.  If you’re also interested in privacy, that makes the South side ideal for facing a BACK yard, but not for a side that faces an immediate neighbor or a public street.

    Barring that option (because lots facing north end up being only about 25% of the market), consider having your south side open upon a private (walled) courtyard or garden.

    That’s it for today.  Try noticing the windows that frame how you see the outside world.  Are they configured for controlled daylight and views?  Is there anything you can do to improve them?

    Next week I’ll post the daylight homework and answer a question (be sure to submit any new questions if you have them!)


    Monday, June 2, 2014


    Architectural Sustainability defined

    Earth Day
    Image courtesy of
    AlicePopkorn via Flickr
    What is sustainability?  And why should I care?

    I can remember the first time I heard the term "sustainability" in relation to architecture in college over 20 years ago (yikes!).
    Big-word-vague-definition, used by people who were talking about stuff that didn't really interest me.  It was many years before I started paying attention.

    Here's a nice definition of sustainability as it relates to building:
    "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

    Sounds good (if still vague).

    Basically, living sustainably is living in such a way that our kids and grandkids can also live the same way!  Let's change our approach to
    • what we do with garbage (so our kids don't live in landfill subdivisions)
    • how we consume nonrenewable resources (so our kids don't run out of oil, granite, old growth trees & lots of other stuff)

    • Old Dominion Landfill, Henrico, Virginia
       courtesy of bsabarnowl via Flickr
        how we allow cities to sprawl and take over agricultural lands and wilderness (so our kids have access to locally grown food and nature)
      • how we look at human encroachment on wildlife habitatsinstead of being annoyed when deer eat our landscaping (so that our kids aren't faced with a world that lacks biodiversity)
      and lots of other stuff.  In fact, it seems that the definition of sustainability has continued to expand to address more and more issues related to keeping our earth habitable for humans.

      Worth caring about. :)

      Summer Session Format

      You might be inclined to
      build a architectural model to
      measure daylight!
      Image courtesy of
      seelensturm via Flickr
      In response to some concerns about the accelerated pace of the spring session, we're going to slow things down a bit.
      Starting next week, every other week will be a lecture with homework.  Please be sure to see the Homework page for some guidance on the variety of ways to approach it.
      I'll use the in-between weeks to address more of the questions that were posed back in March by you folks.  If you have new questions, feel free to post them in comments here or on the google+ community.

      If you are new to the zessn schoolhouse, please join our google+ community to submit your own homework and see/discuss others' homework submissions and architectural thoughts.

      Some of the Topics we'll explore this summer include:

      • daylight
      • scale
      • LEED
      • resources
      • waste
      • why sustainable design is the best thing that's happened to buildings in 100 years

      Homework #013a  

      a gorgeous view in Galicnik, Macedonia
      Image courtesy of MLazarevski via Flickr

      Five questions to think about this week:

      1. How much time do you spend indoors every day?  The American average is 90%.
      2. When you are indoors at home, at work, at school, can you see outside?  
      3. When you sit in your typical/favorite spot... what can you see?  A square of sky, a bird bath, landscaping, a chain-link fence, power lines, nothing in particular?  Can you tell what time of day or what season of the year it is?  Are you more concerned about who can see IN (privacy)?
      4. Is it important to see/hear the outdoors and/or nature when you're inside? Consider: "All other things being equal, patients with bedside windows looking out on leafy trees healed, on average, a day faster, needed significantly less pain medication and had fewer postsurgical complications than patients who instead saw a brick wall."
      5. In what ways do you think people who spend 90% (21.5 hours/day) of their time indoors have a life that is better or worse than those who spend at least 1/2 of their time outdoors?  Is their philosophy/religion affected?  Their physical and mental health?  Their social development? 

      Finally, Feng Shui

      Chinagarten Zürich
      Image courtesy of themonnie via Flickr
      Feng Shui is a wonderful Chinese tool for assessing and adapting the built environment so that it is in harmony with the natural environment and is welcoming to the kind of human activities that take place there.

      It is a very complex and mysterious spiritual discipline that I will NOT attempt to be simplistic about, but I do hope to bring some of its concepts and descriptive language into many of the sustainability discussions.  The main reason for this is that architects have not come up with a language yet for things that Feng Shui experts have been orchestrating and debating for millennia.

      There is also Vaastu, Feng Shui's less-known Indian cousin with a flavour all its own.  

      Homework #013b

      "On the way to Arosa II"
      Image courtesy of Tambako the Jaguar via Flickr

      Please familiarize yourself with three basic concepts below:


      Monday, May 19, 2014

      #012 SPRING BREAK

      The spring session of Zessn Schoolhouse complete; I hope you are looking at buildings a bit differently.
      This is a good opportunity to catch up on any homework you missed and were particularly interested in; the google+ community is still active and I LOVE to see all of your homework and discussion submissions.  

      Thank you for learning with me, y'all were awesome!

      Cornell's Entry Into The 2009 Solar Decathalon
      Washington D.C.
      Image courtesy of paul_houle via Flickr

      Summer Session starts soon

      The summer session will start on Monday, June 2, just two weeks away!

      The main topic on the docket for the 10 week summer session is SUSTAINABILITY as it relates to architecture.  
      Daylight, exposure to chemicals, building material sources, high tech vs. low tech, energy use, regionalism, etc.  

      Fewer field trips, more experiments.  


      p.s.  there are no prerequisites, so if you have a friend who wants to "attend," invite away.

      Monday, May 12, 2014


      Building Types we are investigating:

        1.  #005 Residential
        2.  #006 Agricultural 
        3.  #007 Shops, Mews & Restaurants
        4.  #008 Public Buildings 
        5.  #009 Commercial Buildings 
        6.  #010 Industrial Buildings (last week)
        7.  #011 Sports Buildings, Theaters & Churches (today!)

        Buildings that can hold lots of people in a large, open space are a specialized type with many subtypes. 

        The Main Goals:

        1. Have lots of seating, all with unobstructed views of the stage/altar/podium/field/proscenium.
        2. Have acoustics that allow the audience to hear the spoken word or music.
        3. An additional very important goal is to get all those people out fast in the event of an evacuation.

        Early Theaters

        The earliest gathering places I'm aware of were small, classroom auditoriums in ancient Alexandria. The "stadium" seating was cut into the ground in a rectangular shape with the podium at the lowest rectangle, and there was likely a tent erected overhead for shade.

        Theater in Ostia (ancient port city near Rome)
        Image courtesy of littlemisspurps via Flickr
        Then you had the theaters of ancient Greece and Rome.  These probably started out just mimicking a really great hillside, or maybe even as an alteration of a hillside into stepped seating.  The early ones were usually in a semi-circular shape centered around the stage.  By not having a full circle, they could make use of a natural backdrop as scenery or use props and sets.  Theaters would have gotten most of their use from educational and political lectures as well as theater.

        the Colosseum, Rome. Largest amphitheater in the world
        Image courtesy of Diliff via Wikimedia Commons
        Later came amphitheaters (same prefix as amphibian, meaning "both sides") in the full round. The Colosseum and most of the smaller circuses (for chariot races) were this way.  So are most modern stadiums.

        Same as today, they rarely had any kind of partial roof; and, if they did, it was only for the wealthy gents of status.

        Synagogues & Churches

        The earliest synagogue found was in Egypt, from the third century B.C.E.  Synagogues were in use by the Jewish people even during the temple periods.  Those that have been unearthed have squarish-rectangular plans with a row of columns all around.  They would have been used for scripture reading and communal prayer.

        Image in the Public Domain
        Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
        Solid black areas are stone.
        Most early Christian groups met in the open air or in members' homes.  For a very long time, (and for most religions) buildings for worship were temples and burial places.  These were not for large groups, but individual worshippers.

        After the legalization of Christianity by Constantine (fourth century A.D.), public churches were allowed, but they were usually renovated from earlier homes & civic buildings, markedly the basilica. The basilica was a long rectangular shape with a large central aisle and side aisles.

        Basilica Maxentius (pictured on the right) is a very fine example of a civic basilica that could be used as a Christian church.  One of the first things to be changed, though, was moving the entry.  You can just see the fine lines that
        Typical Christian basilica layout. The entrance is at
        the arrow.  The shaded area is a Christian adaptation
        called a transept. Image courtesy of
        Lusitana via Wikimedia Commons
        indicate stairs at the bottom center of the image. These would have been moved so that a worshipper entering at the main stairs/doors had a very long terminating view of the altar.

        Note that congregants seated in the side aisles would have a very good chance of having their view of the altar ruined by columns in the way. But the building needed those columns to help span the large open area.

        Many post-Reformation churches follow a plan that harks back to the classrooms and amphitheaters of ancient time.
        In a reaction against the implied hierarchy of the basilica (us important people up here on the altar close to God, you plebeians can watch from down there in the congregation), an emphasis on sermon rather than ordinance has changed what churches look like.

        A centralized church plan may simply be a basilica with a very large transept, or a round or square-shaped plan.  This helps there be many more "good" seats and very few "nosebleed" ones.... which brings me to:


        LDS Conference Center, Salt Lake City, built 2000
        Image courtesy of pncsmith via Flickr.
        I know, looks like a UFO landing, but the engineering
        is much more impressive than the aesthetics.
        We still have lots of open air places to congregate for sporting events, but most other gathering spaces are indoors.  This means a big fat roof to span that space, and preferably, no columns to block views.

        The Radio City Music Hall asserts that it is the largest indoor theater in the world at 6,000 seats.  It opened in 1932.

        In Salt Lake, we have one of the largest indoor theater-style auditoriums in the world, seating 21,000 and NO visual obstructions for any of those seats.

        The largest indoor sports arena in the world is in South Korea.  The Gwangmyeong Velodrome, completed in 2006, seats 30,000 for cycling races.
        Tower of Juche Idea & Rungnado May Day Stadium,
        Pyongyang, North Korea
        Image courtesy of yeowatzup via Flickr

        Many of the largest outdoor sporting venues are for football (sometimes known as soccer).  The Rungnado May Day Stadium in North Korea has been dominating the top of that list since 1989 with 150,000 seats.  For comparison, contemporary accounts put the Colosseum's capacity at 87,000 (though modern estimates are 50,000... maybe there was a wing we don't know about).

        Homework #011

        Field trip in your mind:

        Tell us about the best and the worst places you've been to for theater, worship or sports.  Be sure to explain what was so great and what was a big fat failure (and I mean the space, not the performance!).

        This Week's Q&A #011

        solid buttress at the Saviour Chapel, Zejtun, Malta
        It looks to me like it was added later, as an afterthought
        Image courtesy of Maltesedog via Wikimedia Commons
        Emma: What is a buttress?

        Ally: Buttresses are structural elements that do wonderful things for the interior and can make the exterior look like a spider.

        Why so wonderful?

        Situation 1.  Let's say you put a nice heavy roof down on the GROUND.  Its weight is distributed equally at every point where it touches the ground, and all of load is straight down.  Easy peasy, the ground has no problem holding it up!

        Situation 2.  Same roof on two short SIDE
        flying buttress at St. Mary's, Lincoln
        Image courtesy of Richard Croft
        via Wikimedia Commons
        WALLS.  Now all of that weight has to travel to the side walls: the weight that comes all the way from the center of the roof has to travel towards the side walls, too.  This force pushes them out a bit.

        Situation 3.  Same roof on two TALL side walls.  The taller they are, the more wobbly they become and the easier they are to tip over.  So you decide to make them thicker and stronger with a buttress.  No more topply. (see the chapel at Malta, top right)

        Situation 4.  You start running out of stone for these super thick wall supports, so you start putting arches and other openings in the buttress, while still bracing the original wall.  These are called flying buttresses.  (see St. Mary's, middle right)  It's a lot like propping up a friend who's leaning on you.

        Buttresses & flying buttresses do a great job of stabilizing tall walls with a large open space inside.  If those walls also have lots of glass to let in lots of light, they need even more buttressing.

        And now we have arrived at the gothic cathedral that looks like a spider on the outside.

        flying buttress on the East side of
        Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris
        Image courtesy of Daniel Vorndran 
        via Wikimedia Commons
        I included the example at St. Mary's, because it's very rare that the area between the buttressing and the main enclosure walls is a place you'd want to be.  At St. Mary's, it's almost a pleasant/safe area.

        There are lots of nice buttress diagrams here if my clumsy explanation was too thick.