summer SUSTAINABILITY course in session!

Monday, March 31, 2014


"Santa Clara County, California. Built 1840's or 1850's"
Image courtesy of roarofthefour via Flickr

What makes a House a Home?

We know that a home must shelter us from weather and keep us safe from whomever we need to feel safe.  As I think about what is really necessary in a home, I come up with this list:

  • basic shelter & security
  • plumbing amenities kitchen and bath
  • rooms for eating, sleeping, solitude and gathering
  • a place to keep stuff we like
  • land/access to gardens and sunshine and a place for children to be outside
  • "Colombia - Ciudad Perdida"
    Image courtesy of mckaysavage via Flickr
  • preferred proximity to work, school, community, neighbors
In fact, the plumbing elements in the above list are often seen as luxuries in many parts of the world.  But since running hot water is pretty much my favorite thing, it stays.  :p

Just the Essentials

"Lulu's tiny house, in unincorporated Sonoma County"
Image courtesy of nicolas.boullosa via Flickr
Proponents of tiny houses in America (or what are called "normal" in other parts of the world) insist that there are other parts of this list that are excessive.  For example, the idea that you need a different room for sleeping and eating and gathering.  In Japan, you fold up your bed and put it in the closet every morning so that you can set out your table (no chairs).  At that table you entertain, do homework, and eat dinner.  

"Luxury" Homes

"McMansion: Symbol of Real Estate Boom"
Image courtesy of FunnyBiz via Flickr
Homes that are called "luxury" by developers aren't really all that fancy, but they do have more of the stuff listed above.

  • more bedrooms and bathrooms
  • bigger kitchens with more appliances
  • more stuff, more storage
  • more places for a variety of entertainments
  • bigger and more everything

Ardis Huges. For the U.S. War Bonds Committee. 1944.
Image courtesy of michal_hadassah via Flickr.

Dream Homes

What do you dream about in a home?   My dream home has --in addition to the basics--

  • a library (a quiet room), 
  • a music room (an acoustically protected loud room), 
  • a playroom that the kids can't destroy, and 
  • a sunroom/conservatory to spend most of the winter in.   
  • I sure wouldn't mind a hot tub or o-furo soaking tub to de-stress in.   

Incorporating these things seamlessly into a home design does take a lot of forethought. Throwing them together would just end up as a jumble of rooms (not a home). 

To my mind, the unspoken elements of a dream home also include: 
  • good craftsmanship, 
  • beautiful materials, 
  • pleasant and practical views out the windows,
  • and not too much space that I have to clean!


Homework #005A: 

Draw a plan of your house (or a dream house, or both) and your yard, including fences and sidewalks (context) at 1/8" scale.

Step 1.  Make a rough sketch of the property and home.
Step 2.  Write down the dimensions (you'll need a good tape measure) on your sketch.  Focus on the sizes of rooms and hallways/stairs.
Step 3.  Using 8x8 gridded paper or by laying down tracing paper over a sheet of gridded paper, draw out your home.  Each 1/8" square is one foot; each 1" square is eight feet.  Assume three feet wide for doors and a minimum of four foot wide for hallways.

You'll likely need to try this a few times before you get it right.  Sometimes it's hard to choose where to draw until you know exactly how big your drawing will be.  At 1/8" scale, you only have about 70 feet wide on your 8.5" wide paper.  Some houses wouldn't fit on that, others fit just fine.  

Homework #005B: 

Find a cool home for sale and go during a scheduled tour or ask for your own.

There are many sites where you can search for open houses or look in the classified ads.
At zillow.com, after entering a zipcode, just click on the blue & red house menu and check "Open Houses only."

After seeing the home, report back: what did you like and what would you change or do without?

This Week's Q&A #005

1. What did people used to make their houses out of? 
2.  And, why have people stopped building their own homes? 


Ally: The simple answer to what people "used to" make their houses out of is "whatever they could find."  
"Black Country Living Museum - Builder's Yard"
Image courtesy of ell brown via Flickr.

Most places require walls and a roof. 

If they lived near a wooded area, walls might be made of wood.  If they lived near a mountain it was stone.  If they lived on a beach it was woven plant materials.  If they had clay in the soil, they could air dry or kiln bake bricks or fill in between wood for waddle & daub walls.
Bricks would have required specialized equipment; most villages might only have one brickmaker.  Bricklaying, however, was a skill that most men would have in places where brick building was common.

"Roof Structure/屋根組(やねぐみ)
Japan Open-Air Folk House Museum,
Kawasaki-shi(city) Kanagawa-ken(Prefecture)"
Image courtesy of TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋) via Flickr
Roofing must be much more waterproof than walls.  I cannot think of one type of traditional roofing that does not use slope and overlapping elements to shed water.  The "shingles" might be wood shakes, banana leaves, stiff straw, slate, or clay tiles fired much like bricks but given a protective sheen so that they are not porous.

Roof structures were almost always made of branches, then timber, then dimensional lumber.  This was the part that you really needed your neighbors to help with.  

Some places require a raised floor to escape flooding, but some might just have a dirt floor which is treated with blood or oils and compressed to approximate flatness.  Flooring is often wood in the West, but might be straw or bamboo in the East.  Some of the oldest flooring we know of is tiny pieces of stone in mosaic patterns.

"mausoleum of galla placidia, ravenna"
Image courtesy of mararie via Flickr
Windows for a very long time were just openings with shutters.  Before glass, thinly shaved translucent stone was used to let in a small amount of light through window openings while keeping the weather out.  Early glass was even more delicate than what we have now, and needed to be in tiny panes or pieces; this is partially why stained glass designs with pictures were introduced.

Doors have been made of wood for as long as there have been doors.  They might also be made of metal for security purposes, but this would have come much later.

The above answers are valid right up until the 20th century, when improved transportation and manufacturing made many more materials and products available.  Homeowners were delighted by the "exotic" and "newfangled" options and now you can visit a house in Miami and a house in Montana and almost not be able to tell the difference.*
*To be fair, due in large part to the efforts of environmentalist architects & builders, materials from one's own region are now back in vogue.  It saves on shipping energy & costs.  It also makes more sense. 


Which brings me to your second question, Emma, and the answer is developers.  Developers are why people don't build their own homes very often anymore.  

The first developer probably did it accidentally.  Had some land he couldn't sell empty so he took a risk and built something on it before returning it to market.

These days, it's difficult for a homeowner to find land that is legally "buildable" that hasn't been scooped up by a developer.  In fact, if you try to buy land today, (give it a try!) you will find that the people selling land to potential homeowners are developers.  

So you buy a plot from a developer and he's already gone through the lengthy and labyrinthian process of getting it approved for a building.  He gives you a choice of 3 or 4 floor plans and a preferred contractor or two.  The construction is part of the land deal.

Say you reeeeeeally want to build your own home.  What's a person to do?  If you google it, you'll get advice on how to be your own general contractor (hiring subcontractors to do the work) or how to hire an architect or contractor.  

Also, there all sorts of permitting and licensing and zoning and building code requirements that are meant to keep us safe from shoddy workmanship and houses that fall on our heads, but they also really complicate things for your basic limited-budget-but-handy-with-tools gal or guy.

There are a few DIY options, but that's a whole 'nuther discussion.



Monday, March 24, 2014


You Can Just Tell

If a building has no signage*, can you still tell whether it is a home or a bank, a school or an office, a warehouse or a shop, a church or a cafe?  Probably.  And it's not just because you can see in the windows.
*(or perhaps just signage in a language you cannot read)

Well, Most of the Time

There are exceptions, of course.
loft conversion of warehouse with shops below, Wichita
Image courtesy of ercwttmn via Flickr

Conversions:  Sometimes a house has been converted into a beauty salon (there are dozens of those down the street from me) or a warehouse has been converted into lofts.

Errors: Some buildings are just ambiguous. One might kinda look like an ice cream shop but actually be an underwear shop.  A house might be so enormous and poorly scaled/proportioned to actually be a house... what is it then?  Oops.
guess what type of building this is in Copenhagen
Image courtesy of EuroMagic via Flickr.

Deliberately Atypical:  I discovered a complex of buildings today in suburban Salt Lake that mimicked lodges from the Swiss alps.  Except it was the headquarters (office) for a company called Black Diamond.  Black diamond is what you call a difficult ski slope, so you see where the choice of building type came from.

Defiance:  Some fabulous buildings and some 100% boring buildings are no type at all.  Good luck with that.

Back to Type & Typology

What does TYPE really mean?  Type is partially about what buildings or fishes or musics have in common, but it's also about an ideal or symbol: what would the perfect house-salmon-punkrocksong be like?

There's a pretty good paper on architectural type here, but it's a bit academic, so I'd skip it.

Typology is a pretty simple: it's when you bother to categorize things into types. (plus, it's a bigger word, so you can sound smarter)

Just so we're clear, I'm not generally a fan of categorization when it comes to artistic stuff or human beings.  If a building doesn't fit neatly in a box, that DOES NOT mean that
    (a) the building is irrelevant; nor that
    (b) having boxes to help us understand the "language" of architecture is silly.

Some Building Types

note: OF COURSE I'm simplifying and generalizing... that's the whole point.

Single Family House Type

"a backyard setting"
Image courtesy of DannonL via Flickr
This is exactly what it sounds like (a house for one* family).  And you all know what it looks like: a gable on front with a few steps, maybe a four-square window or two, a very visible front door and a prominent chimney.
How many people actually have a house like that?  Few today, I'd imagine.  And yet, that's what we think of when we say "house."
*duplexes, condos and apartments are called by architecture folk "multifamily housing"

Bank Type

Merchants' National Bank, Grinell Iowa by Louis Sullivan
Image courtesy of kiszka king via Flickr
You know what building type I hate?  Modern, drive-thru banks.  Hate 'em.  No effort to even TRY to look interesting or nice.

And the reason that bothers me so much is that banks used to be SOLID like Gringotts (though not as massive). They used to show--through the architecture--that you could trust them to take good care of your money.  The building needed to look strong (to ward off robbers) and upscale (to prove that they had their own money to spend).  A bit of intimidation didn't hurt, either.

Frank Lloyd Wright (most famous American architect ever) had a teacher.  Wright was so impressed by his work that he called him "Leiber Meister" (My Master).  His name was Louis Sullivan, and boy, could he do banks!  Many of his banks were small town (with not as much money to spend as they would like), making the job even more difficult.  The shape he preferred for these banks was almost cube-like.  What's more solid than that?
"Solomon dedicates the Temple at Jerusalem"
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Temple Type

I spent several years on a paper exploring the idea of type and typology as it relates to the idea of a Temple.  In Judeo-Christian tradition, before the Temples were built there was the precedence of an altar on top of a mountain and a tabernacle carried around the wilderness.

How should a temple be different from a church (architecturally speaking)?  Churches are all about gathering, fellowshipping, singing.  A temple is a completely different animal, all mystery, sacrifice, and power.

Shop Type

The two major thing shops need are glass shop windows (to show off their stuff) and visibility, which ends up being the same thing as advertisement.  They figure by the time they have you inside, their work is done!  You will be entranced by their magical goods and buy some.  :)
shop window with masks
Image courtesy of anniejay via Flickr

Office Type

Offices are typically quite protected from view.  They might have a visible entrance, but then you have the bouncer *cough* *cough* receptionist that keeps the riff raff from getting in to see the boss or anyone else.

The windows are ideally not transparent, because no one wants to be caught not working by some passerby who might actually be the boss.  Besides, businesses have such TOP SECRET business they're always doing and ideas that they don't want anyone else to steal.  So, locked up tight with windows that you can see out of, but not into.

School Type

Greenfield Village school, Michigan
Image courtesy of roger4336 via Flickr
Ah, schools!  We've gone from

  1. the one-room red schoolhouse with the bell (which is still iconic) to 
  2. large buildings with multiple classrooms with an unending array of windows to concrete block schools with very few windows ("can't have anyone daydreaming or seeing the sunshine: it stunts learning!") and 
  3. back again to schools that are so heavily daylit ("daylighting magnifies learning and improves test scores!" and we're obviously all about test scores) that there's a ton of glare on the technology screens causing headaches.  
  4. Back to the drawing board.

One More Type: Public Buildings

Libraries, capitols, courthouses --castles even-- most buildings built by governments are called civic architecture.  And each of these have their own typology.

I'm sure you're getting the picture, so I'm going to stop there.  As you go about your business this week, see if you can tell what TYPE of buildings you're looking at without checking the signs.



1.    If you're already behind on homework, make it up when you can.  As indicated in the schoolhouse rules, the discussion is best if we're all doing it at the same time.  However, better late than never!

2.   These homework assignments might take anywhere from 10 minutes to 3 days* to complete: it just depends on how much time/effort you have to put into it.
*A wonderful exercise we did in a drawing class was to sit in front of a building and spend 90 minutes drawing it.  After a short break (because sitting on the sidewalk is hard), we turned the page and started over, spending only 45 minutes on the same view.  Then 20 minutes, then 10, then 5, then 2.  
The clincher: some of the best drawings were the two minute drawings.  If you've only got a few minutes to do the homework, do it quickly with urgency!  Some would say the two minute drawings could only be good because of the time put in on the previous drawings.  I'm not sure of that.

3.    I am well aware that some of this homework takes a few days before you can start (pick the film, find the film, watch the film, report on the film).  Again, get to it when you can and don't worry about being late.
"pigeon with a question mark above his head"
Image courtesy of Orin Zebest via Flickr

4.    MOST OF THE LEARNING from this/any course will happen in the HOMEWORK as you find answers for yourselves.  No one ever became educated by being spoon-fed!  The MOST that lectures and textbooks can do for you is point you in a direction of inquiry.

5.    If you are confused about a lecture or an assignment, please leave a comment on the lesson page, so I can post a clarification.  I'm just an architect, and this is my first time teaching a class, so help me out here! (Oh, and there are absolutely no stupid questions.)  You can also leave a comment just to tell me how I'm doing.  :)

5.    Finally, if you are posting homework late, please start a new post (rather than responding to an old one) with the homework number so that we can all see it!

Homework #004A: trace a part of the Nolli map

One of the coolest city maps of all time, Giambattista Nolli's map of Rome, was finished in 1743.

He did it in black and white.  The buildings are black and the streets and plazas ("piazzas" in Italian) are white with one exception: when there was a civic building (including churches, because this is Rome after all), he drew the floor plan of the building in black, leaving large open areas (like the interior of the church) white.  Agricultural areas are lightly hatched in rather than solidly black or white.
A closeup of the area near the Campo di Fiore (the "Field of
Flowers," where the flower/farmer market occurs every morning).
The building in the bottom left corner is the Palazzo Farnese,
the city palace of the Farnese family (with its piazza in front).
The Teatro di Pompeo (Theater of Pompey) entrance was
located at that very unassuming triangularish shape near the
eight of "638."  That's where Brutus knifed Caesar.

You used to have to go to Rome to see it, but you guys can check it out online here.

  1. Click on the square that says "Launch Map Engine."
  2. Zoom in until you've got only 4 or 5 blocks on your screen.  If you like, zoom in on something you've heard of or visited like the Campodoglio, the Colosseum, Piazza Navona, San Pietro (Saint Peter's Cathedral) or the Parthenon.
  3. Print it out and lay a layer of transparent tracing paper over it and tape it down at the corners to secure it.
  4. Trace over the shapes (ignore the numbers) that indicate buildings and open areas.

Homework #004B Followup Questions:

  1. What was Nolli trying to communicate about the city of Rome by drawing a map in this striking way?  Another way to ask the same question: every map is trying to say something... what is this one saying?
  2. If you made a "Nolli" map of your neighborhood, what would it look like?  Overlay tracing paper over your neighborhood map (from last week) and focusing just on both sides of your street, fill in the areas that would be black vs. the areas that would be white.  If you live in the suburbs, this should take all of 30 seconds.

This Week's Q&A #004

Clarissa:  Why did the Egyptians build Pyramids instead of cubes or any other shape?

pyramids at Giza
Image courtesy of jay8085 via Flickr
Ally: The current wisdom (via Vincent Scully, Architecture: The Natural and the Manmade) asserts that it was the concept of the sacred mountain: that people worshipped mountains thousands of years ago and they couldn't think of any shape more permanent for the pharoh's eternal resting place than the mountain.
Then they took that shape, idealized it and started building.
Not everyone agrees with that rather poetic thesis.

Remember that they were built around 3200BC.  They were more than 3000 years old when Cleopatra succumbed to her pet asp 2000 years ago.  Think about that!
Because of their antiquity, I'm not thinking we're going to get much clarity beyond theory; but as we seem to delight in the mystery, who cares!

Parthenon, Athens, Greece
Image courtesy of simon_music via Flickr
Just for fun.....if YOU, Ms. Prehistoric Egyptian, were wanting to build an enormous Platonic solid, let's look at the options:

  • cube.  The biggest problem here is the roof.  How are you going to get beams that can support a huge roof?  The Greeks solved this 2700 years later with a ton of columns in the middle so that the beams could be made of stone and not have to span too far.
Montréal Biosphère by Buckminster Fuller, 1967
Image courtesy of cphoffman42 via Flickr
  • sphere/dodecahedron. Again, how do you build it?  People who build out of stone don't typically do much cantilevering (without support from below).  Spheres weren't really figured out until Bucky Fuller advanced the geodesic dome (think Epcot Center) in the 1940s.... and he didn't build them out of stone.
  • subsidiary pyramid at Giza
    Image courtesy of HannahPethen via Flickr
  • pyramid.  It's a pile, like a pile of sand.  A pile has got to be the simplest structure in the world to build out of stone simply because you're never worried about its structural integrity.  That thing isn't going anywhere.  

Remember, this is at a time when nothing enormous had been built and the only knowledge of building materials and their strengths was for small homes.

FURTHERMORE, we don't know how many different shapes they tried and failed before choosing the pyramid shape.

Most of what we know about the limitations of building materials comes from structural failures!


Monday, March 17, 2014



Architects are white men who are ego-centric, overpaid, workaholics who wear bow ties (or black turtlenecks) and fabulous eyeglasses.  Well, that description didn't happen on its own.
Dude's probably an architect (just guessing)
Image courtesy of r_neches via Flickr

There are about 130,000 architects in America (83% male & 90% white), with a mean income of about $70,000/year (much higher than the American median of $28,500, but considerably less than the median for all those with a professional degree @$100,000). No numbers on the bow ties, but I understand sometimes doctors and lawyers wear them, too.

Architects can be know-it-alls... because they're rather expected to know it all.  This is excessively off-putting in a social situation!  The good news is that they are typically lifelong learners, and they don't hit their professional stride until their 50s, 60s, or even 70s, when many other brilliant professionals are put out to pasture.

Architects can be idealists and pragmatists at the same time.  In fact, that's rather the perfect combination.  If we go back to the definition in lesson #001, we're talking art and science.

But what do they DO?

A lot of what architects do all day is talk on the phone.  Talk to clients about changing goals & budgets, talk to contractors about substitutions & delays, talk to the team about issues that arise as the details of the project become clearer, talk to the draftsmen about errors in the drawings, talk to the municipality about zoning and building code variances, talk talk talk talk talk.
NOT why most architects wanted to be architects, I can assure you!

The work most architects are excited about is the design itself: create all the wonderful things!!!!

Once the design is done and the building starts, there's also supervising the construction (contractors don't generally like to be told they're doing something wrong... this is where it's handy to be VERY confident/overbearing or very good at collaborating).  This part is actually a lot of fun, though, because you get to see your ideas come to life.

Homework #002 Homework review

Is that a bow tie?
Frank Lloyd Wright, 1926
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Nothing much to review yet, "show me the money"!
Well done on the map of Birdlandia, Josh.  

Homework #003A Watch a film:

Homework #003B Answer these Questions:

What movie did you watch?
How did the movie portray the architect? What did it look like he did at work?
Did the movie imply that our built surroundings were important?
Do you agree?

This Week's Q&A #003

definitely a bow tie
Le Corbusier, 1933
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Sandy: What is the difference between a structural engineer and an architect?

Ally: [Understanding that my answer comes from the point of view of the architect and that a structural engineer would likely give you a different answer…]

A client will typically hire an architect to assemble and lead a design team.  Depending on the complexities of a building, the architect may or may not gather several members of a team, including (but not limited to):

  • Structural engineer
  • Mechanical engineer (for heating, a/c & plumbing)
  • Electrical engineer
  • Landscape designer
  • Interior designer
  • Acoustic engineer
  • Daylighting consultant
  • Environmental consultant (for sustainable/green performance)
  • Building sciences engineer (for high performance buildings)

This usually works one of two ways:

  1. either the architect designs with the input of the team OR 
  2. the architect proceeds to design the building and the team is left to sort out the issues that arise with no adjustments to the building form or design.

Philip Johnson in 2002 at age 92
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

1. In the first scenario, everyone collaborates.  The architect says, "I really want to have a huge area of the floor cantilever over this creek."  The structural engineer counters, "Great!  You do realize that if you choose to do that in concrete, you're talking about 36" deep beams, right?"  Architect, "No, man, are you serious?  What are my other options?"

2. In the second scenario, the architect draws some drawings and everyone has to go away and make it work without changing the basic appearance of the sketch.

An architect is licensed/allowed/qualified to do his own structural calculations, but for anything out of the ordinary most architects hire a structural engineer whose sole focus is physics: keeping the building from falling down.  In fact, architects are rarely required to have any consultants on their team at all.  They can do it all like Frank Lloyd Wright (he would often do the preliminary structural engineering AND design the china pattern when he designed a house... though he would use his structural engineer son-in-law to assist).

Structures; or why things don't fall down
Speaking of engineering, the book on the right is a surprisingly entertaining text book on introductory physics for structures.  It was used in my freshman-level structures class taught by an Indiana-Jones-like professor-architect, in a bow tie.


Monday, March 10, 2014


Context Matters.  

Illustrated Proverb: The Blind Men & an Elephant
Image courtesy of Pawyi Lee Wikimedia Commons.
It matters in conversation, in fashion, in law, in academics, in nature, and even in architecture.
Architects often like to think that their building is a work of art irrespective of its surroundings.  The truth is that a building is a part of its location, a product of its setting, a transformer of its circumstances.

Look Outside

Look outside your window wherever you are.  
What do you see?   A neighborhood, an urban street, a country road that winds around a hill?  

Picture your absolute favorite skyscraper on that country road; or your favorite idyllic cottage in Times Square.  Wrong wrong wrong, right?

These examples are fairly obvious, but some distinctions are harder to see.  Makes me think of the sweet house from the movie UP which fit its context fine when built, but then the city continued to grow around it and the context changed.

"A beautiful side street in Haarlem, the Netherlands"
Image courtesy of dfarrell07 via Flickr.
The sidewalk is the street here, with houses up to the edge.
Look outside again.  What accommodations are there for cars, bikes, pedestrians? Are the sidewalks & streets separated, together, or not provided at all?  If you are looking at a street, are there trees lining the street on one or both sides?  Do the trees separate the road from a sidewalk?  How far back are the buildings from the street?  All of these town planning decisions affect the character of the place.
"Bourbon street [New Orleans] early on a Sunday
morning after the street was washed."
Image courtesy of jkbyram via Flickr.
Narrow street with covered sidewalks and balconies.
Shops and restaurants below, apartments above.

Our street is mostly houses set back about 30ft from the sidewalk, which is protected by a too-narrow park strip with flowering pear trees. At the intersection, though, are restaurants, a small grocery, a preschool and several other storefronts.   I love that there are places to walk to, but not everyone would like that.

"Tree-lined street at Loule - The Algarve, Portugal"
Image courtesy of Glen Bowman via Flickr.
The trees line two sides of a boulevard where the
sidewalk is in the middle and the cars travel on the sides.

Look outside a third time.  What is consistent and what is distinct about your location?  Do you live on a street with all houses?  Are there also restaurants, shops, churches, or other non-residential buildings there?  Are you in an apartment above a shop (mixed use) or live on a downtown street with offices, condos, shops, a theater, restaurants, and a library like I used to?  

Final time, one more peek.  Protection.  Is your location exposed to high winds or fast traffic (like my otherwise lovely street), loud noises or 1000 pigeons and their accumulated waste?
Are you safe from whatever it is you need to be safe?

Cultural & Climatic Context

There are other aspects of context to consider.   Traditional building practices in your region and even your immediate location should be considered.  Maybe your town is known for its rock buildings or has a Baroque Spanish Mission influence.  Enormous red barns or an extensive waterfront warehouse history count as well.  You’re looking for materials and shapes and details too many to list.  You’re looking for patterns.

And culture can never be discounted.  A tradition of shipbuilding means wood planks and bent wood and fine craftsmanship.  A former county seat might have a stronger link to its past than to its present if the recent economy has not been kind.  Tightly knit religious settlements often have lingering influence for hundreds of years and have brought their culture from afar.  Historic locations are very meticulous about micromanaging these influences (think Williamsburg), but they are everywhere if you look.  

Regional Climate is a tremendous influence on building.  The tropics require generous shade from their roof, raised floors to avoid damage from floods, and breezeways to keep the air moving.  Cold climates need fireplaces, thick walls, basements, and fewer windows to keep the warmth inside.  Every climate has a building response: and most climates have several.

Microclimate-- the area around the immediate building site-- is important, too.  Streams, hills, trees, tall buildings, shade, prevailing winds.... all of these elements influence a building's site and should be considered.

Be aware of the context of your built environment wherever you go.  Try to guess why things are organized the way they are.  Would you do it differently?  


Homework Review #001 The "Right" Answers

Some really great submissions of cool buildings, dumb buildings and crazy buildings.  What stands out about your responses is that it's completely subjective what makes a building cool or dumb.  It can be aesthetics or practicality, unusual details, scale, appropriateness, efficiency/wastefulness, structural integrity/failure.... the list is quite long.

"Lou Ruvo, Center for Brain Health, Las Vegas"
Image courtesy of colros via Flickr.
If you haven't done your field trip yet, be sure to do it when you have a chance.  Buildings experienced only through photographs are not "experienced" at all.  It's valuable to connect the "being there" to how it looks in images.  

Susan, excellent photos of the Center for Brain Health by Frank Gehry.  Did you notice that you listed it as the craziest for the first part of the homework, then said it was "pretty" after the tour? I had the same adjustment when I visited Gehry's Disney concert hall in Los Angeles.

Mr. Gehry is the one of the more well-known "starchitects" of our time, and his buildings are typically easy to spot by their materials and form.  Did you see his guest star spot on The Simpsons?  
Before he used computer modeling to help him design his shapes, he was known for using affordable, unconventional materials like chain link fencing in his designs.  He has always loved metals!

Homework #002

Homework #002A: draw a map of your neighborhood, focusing detail on the ¼ mile immediately around your house.  Describe your surroundings, indicating what you think is IMPORTANT.  Try to indicate these same things on your drawing.  Post your drawings to the discussion board.  [street names may be left off or changed, but please do give an idea of the region/culture/climate]

Homework #002B: visit your favorite two streets in your city/town/neighborhood. Focus on the character of the street, not individual buildings. Describe what makes them appealing.

This Week's Q&A #002

Josh: "Why do most buildings just have corners why not curves?"

Ally: It's all about the materials.  Some materials are easy to build into a curve, others are more difficult.


Bricks and small stones can easily make curved walls, while wood framed walls are best for linear arrangements.  Those same masonry units can be plastered/stuccoed for a smooth finish, while today's framed walls are usually finished with rigid sheet materials like sheetrock and siding.

Roof Structures

Supposing you've got some lovely curved walls, how will you now get a roof on them?  Curved, sculptural roofs are uncommon and often difficult to frame with sticks of lumber unless they are very small.

Examples of Buildings with Curves

The oldest example of a curved building with its roof still intact (that I can think of) is the Pantheon in Rome.  Although it has a massive front porch attached, the building form is basically round.  Its walls were built of brick.  Here's the fun part: the roof is made of unreinforced concrete*, and has an oculus (opening) in the middle.  It was the largest dome in the world for more than 1300 years.

Pantheon, Rome
Image courtesy of Greg Sass via Flickr.

Pantheon's Oculus
Image courtesy of majorjameshannah via Flickr.

*Unreinforced concrete is strong like stone: it is difficult to crush.  However, it is NOT strong in bending, it just breaks in half.  That is why today we insert rods of steel reinforcing when we build with concrete: so that it will be strong in compression and tension.  It is unknown how this roof/ceiling structure was constructed or why it has remained strong for so long.

Check out this Pinterest board for tons of examples of round buildings, ancient & modern.

And of course, check out Frank Gehry for buildings whose shape defy classification!

Sunday, March 2, 2014


Before we start, I want to thank you for your thoughtful questions posted at the homework community.  If you haven’t done this yet, please do!  I will plan to answer one question at the end of each lesson.  It really helps me understand where you all are in your current appreciation of architecture.

First.  What is architecture, anyway?  And how is it different from regular buildings?  

Ack.  You might as well ask “what is art”?  It is a philosophical question, and you’d likely get a different answer from as many people as you ask.  Let’s look at Samuel Johnson's 1755 definition. :)

He says architecture is “the art or science of building.”  (yes, that lovely "f" is an "s.")

I think most architects today would amend that to be the art AND science of building, together.  It is not just art and it is not just science/engineering.  It melds the two.  Regular buildings are typically utilitarian, meaning they meet a set of requirements, but are not considered to be works of art.  There is often (quite silly) disagreement as to exactly which buildings meet the requirements of being true architecture.
Johnson’s definition should suffice for now, but if you want more, look here.

Low-brow moment: since I can't mention Samuel Johnson, the first English-
language dictionary writer, without thinking of this clip, I'll include it.
Yup, that's Hugh Laurie (Dr. House) as the idiotic Prince Regent, 
Rowan Atkinson (the often monosyllabic Mr. Bean) as Edmund Blackadder, 
butler to the prince, and Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid) 
as Dr. Samuel Johnson (Black Adder the Third, 1987).  
You're welcome.
And yes, I'm perfectly aware that the dictionary was published in 1755, 
before the Prince Regent was even born.  Still funny.  

Is there a LEGAL definition of architecture vs. not architecture?  Not that I'm aware of.  However, the definition of ART has been a legal subject since 1877(scroll down to the bottom of the post where it says "P.S. Time Spent = Value")

Second.  Why should we care what other people call architecture?

We shouldn’t, really, unless we publish architecture magazines or care about having "correct" opinions.
We’ll use our own eyes (and other various senses) to decide what makes the grade as architecture.

House in Acadian Village in Lafayette, Louisiana
Image courtesy of ciamabue via Flickr.
Porches to sit on when it's too hot inside, generous attics
to vent out the captured hot air, raised off the ground to
accommodate regular heavy rains, made of local cypress
wood, which weathers better than non-local woods.
Well done, vernacular architecture!

Third.  Don’t discount ordinary buildings by ordinary people

It is my personal opinion that some of the best architecture in the world is not created by architects.  Vernacular Architecture is a relatively new field of study in architecture schools, because it's only recently that schools have deemed them worth studying.

I certainly never appreciated the vernacular architecture where I grew up!  I adore it now.  Nothing like it anywhere else.  And its genius is not from the brain of one stodgy old fellow.  Its genius descends with the generations to fit its climate and the needs of its people.  SUPER COOL.

Homework #001

Homework #001A: SHOW OFF YOUR TASTE:

  • List the 2 COOLEST/2 DUMBEST buildings near your home; and, 
  • the 2 COOLEST/2 DUMBEST buildings anywhere in the world.  
  • Finally, in honor of Mardi Gras on Tuesday, 1 CRAZIEST building.

(That's nine buildings, in case your math is rusty.)
Give a one-sentence explanation as to why you chose each one. Just one sentence, so edit every word carefully to communicate concisely.

Homework #001B: FIELD TRIP:
VISIT at least one of these buildings and get a tour if possible (tour tips here).  Report back some thoughts on your experience including at least three photos.
Note: Feel free to reminisce this part of the assignment if you've been moved by a "field trip" in the past (still want the pictures, though!)

Reminder: please post all homework on our Google+ discussion board (membership by invitation only).

This Week's Q&A #001:

“Shelter Primitive, Landon Bay, Gananoque”

Image courtesy of awaqas1 via Flickr.

Clarissa: "What about roofs angle, flat, glass.....no roof! Do we really need them?"

Ally: One of the earliest functions of buildings/shelters is to keep the rain/snow off our heads.  A semi-permanent umbrella, if you will.  So YES, needed.

“Windsor Castle courtyard at Pipe Springs” Arizona,
North of the Grand Canyon.
Image courtesy of GSEC via Flickr
However, if you live in a desert with very little precipitation, a roof is less important than walls which would protect you from wind-driven sand storms.  You may notice that open-roofed courtyards are very popular in dry, warm climates. Courtyards are also better than backyards in terms of protection from scary people or animals.

Sloped roofs are particularly efficient at shedding water and snow.

Roofs keep off the water, but if that water puddles instead of shedding, there is a greater possibility for leakage.  If snow does not shed, it may thaw and refreeze, getting under shingles and forming ice dams (read: leaking).
This is why most traditional roofs are pitched/sloped roofs and not flat.

Flat roofs are not exactly flat.  They have a slope, just a gentle one.  Flat roofs can be easier to build over short distances.
“Roof Garden on Fifth Ave:
Spiderman rescued his girlfriend here.”
Image courtesy of WalkingGeek via Flickr.

Modern flat roofs have complex internal and external draining systems to shed water and keep them from leaking.
Flat roofs are especially handy when building very large buildings.  Can you imagine a Walmart with a pitched roof?

My favorite part?  Flat roofs can also be inhabitable (party on the roooof!) and expand the living area, especially in cities where ground-level decks/yards/gardens are not possible.  Plus, they have a view.

“Glass roof, The Arcade, Dewsbury”
Image courtesy of Tim Green aka atoach
via Flickr.
Glass roofs are still rather in the prototype stage (even after 150 years). What I mean by that is that they often leak and require additional maintenance to remain leak-free.... thereby failing in the number one point of a roof.
However, they're super cool!  They bring in loads of daylight and can connect to the outside in ways opaque roofs can only dream of.
Just be warned: ignore the maintenance and you'll be setting out buckets to catch the leaks.