summer SUSTAINABILITY course in session!

Monday, April 28, 2014


Building Types we are investigating:

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

    Walmart (Tuscarawas) Canton
    Image courtesy of Nicholas Eckhart via Flickr
    Architecturally, the main difference between the shops in lesson seven and what we're looking at today is scale.  


    The trend in retail seems to be to get bigger and bigger.  Big box stores are set back from big roads with big parking lots to house the vehicles that can haul away mountains of purchases.

    Uninterrupted Interiors

    Super Kmart Center in Cambridge, Ohio
    Image courtesy of Nicholas Eckhart via Flickr
    The most important concern for these stores is to have a large interior space uninterrupted by walls.  This means an enormous yet lightweight roof and a field of smallish columns camouflaged within the shelving.

    Lack of Windows

    Less important is the traditional method of advertising: the shop window.  These stores do not use windows almost at all, whether for advertisement, lighting or views out.  In fact, they use the lure of their signage to get you inside and hope you forget about leaving for a long time!

    Whole Foods Market, Washington D.C.
    Image courtesy of Elvert Barnes via Flickr
    There are a some exceptions, of course.  I particularly notice them in the high-end or organic groceries, which may prefer to elicit associations with markets more than big box stores.

    Unforeseen Consequences

    On the exterior, a lack of windows can create areas where there are no natural sightlines and pedestrian security can be compromised at the perimeter, so don't be wandering around the backside of your neighborhood Walmart.

    Historic Railpark Museum in Bowling Green, KY
    Image courtesy of koningDesign Flickr
    Side Note:
    Most large buildings make an effort to appeal to sidewalk traffic, or at least provide something interesting to look at.  Windows & doors are best, but landscaping works, and there are a variety of architectural details that can enrich the pedestrian experience.

    Homework #009

    Visit a commercial building.  Notice some of the elements mentioned above.  No need to report back on this one, unless you note something remarkable!

    This Week's Q&A #009

    Kathy: "Why do big box buildings have no design?"

    Ally: See the answer above.  :)


    Monday, April 21, 2014


    Texas State Capitol
    Image courtesy of JD Hancock via Flick

    Building Types we are investigating:

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

    Public Buildings Defined

    Public buildings are government buildings (federal, state, county, municipal) that are open to the public to some degree.  For example, your state capitol is a public building, but the Pentagon is not.  

    Public buildings can also be privately owned buildings that are open to the public freely or with a fee, like museums, concert halls, stadiums, etc.

    Regardless of who owns them, public buildings may be for assembly (theaters or churches), they might contain offices (city halls), hold collections (libraries), or perform a service (DMV or post office).  

    What Do Public Buildings Have in Common?

    With all these different building groups, what are the elements that most Public Buildings have in common?  

    Trinity Cathedral, Manhattan
    Image courtesy of rufus.ovcwa via Flickr


    As mentioned above, public buildings must be open to and for the people.  And this should be very obvious architecturally.

    The main doors should be plainly visible, even if portions of a building are private with secure entrances.  Entry areas are typically visible from far away, especially since you need to know which side of a large building to head for.

    Public buildings (unlike secure government buildings) rarely have fencing or walls about them; nor do they have easily defensible enclosures.  They are meant to be welcoming.


    Most public buildings are significantly larger* than the surrounding buildings.  They are meant to leave a memorable impression on those who see them.  They are usually landmarks that help with navigating a town or city.  The might have tall towers or enormous domes.  

    However, in cities with high-rises they might have to stand out in ways other than height.  One of the ways they can do this is being set off by open space or significant setback from the street.
    *Exceptions are usually older buildings around whom larger buildings were built like Trinity Cathedral, pictured on the right.

    Open Space

    Metropolitan Museum of Art (on the left), New York City
    Image courtesy of one2c900d via Flickr
    Notice how the building is set back from the street.
    Open space is just an area that is not filled in with building.  It might be a park or a paved plaza... strictly speaking, it is also a street.   

    Large public buildings would be pretty difficult to view from right next to them.  Picture standing right next to the base of a tree and trying to admire or identify the characteristics of the tree.  You'd need a bit of distance to appreciate its overall presence, and it is the same with buildings.

    Note: some buildings, like those up on a hill, can be viewed from a significant distance, but that's a different thing entirely: that's almost like signage, "come this way to worship at the Temple of Athena--you're almost here!"
    Acropolis at Athens
    Image courtesy of taver via Flickr


    Almost all public buildings will have had an architect design them.  This means that at the very least, their design was not accidental.  In the world there is a a lot of accidental design that is the result of few choices, minimal budgets, zoning regulations & building code, leftover materials, and poor workmanship. For public buildings, of course there are budgets and regulations, but these are carefully managed during the design process.  You can be assured that public buildings look like what they were meant to look like.

    Many government buildings will look solid, like they've been there a long time, and even intimidating in a you-don't-want-to-mess-with-us sort of way.  
    Legislative Assembly in Chandigarh, India by Le Corbusier
    Image courtesy of robespiero via Flickr
    They may even be unwelcoming if they are more interested in security, like the new federal courthouse here in Salt Lake City.  You don't want to have to go in there unless you work there.  Banks will often have a similar impression of security & trustworthiness.

    Some public buildings will assert wealth and ancientness (sometimes trying to look like Greek temples, for example), while others will imply modernity or thrift.  
    The court at St. Peter's basilica, taken from the dome
    Image courtesy of artorusrex via Flickr
    Collonnade and sculptures by Bernini, 1656 - 1667

    Symphony halls and other assembly spaces are often very welcoming, almost as if their forecourts (required to allow all those people to get out in a hurry during emergency) were lined with large open arms to embrace, like at St. Peter's in Rome. 

    Homework #008

    Visit a public building!  Take note:

    • Is the public access highly visible?  Could its forecourt be called "welcoming?"
    • How does its size relate to the other buildings nearby?
    • Is there enough open space to view the building and to set it apart?
    • What is its design trying to communicate?
    Sydney Opera House
    Image courtesy of Rob & Jules via Flickr
    Report back!

    This Week's Q&A #008

    Clarissa: What's the deal with the Sydney opera house? And why can't all houses have that roof?

    Ally: Wikipedia has a really nice article about the opera house here.

    Sydney Opera House from above
    Image courtesy of Rob & Jules via Flickr

    Start with that.

    The Roof

    The curved concrete panels are supported by precast concrete ribs and finished with tile.  The overall effect is fairly crustacean.  

    You may have noticed from the article that it took six years for the team to find an affordable shape.  (As I mentioned above, even public buildings have budgets!)

    Sydney Opera House in the skyline at night
    Image courtesy of Linh_rOm via Flickr
    One of the most important aspects of a hall of this type is acoustics, and it would seem that the roof shape would have a significant impact on them.  As completed (very different from the original design), the acoustics have remain troubled, even being dangerous for the musicians' hearing.

    Success or Failure?

    The project was ten years late and 14x overbudget.  Wow.  Both a source and a result of so much turnover in the team.

    Still, it is THE icon of the Sydney skyline, and will be there for the foreseeable future.  
    Success or Failure, do you think?

    Using this Roof type for Homes

    Tenerife Concert Hall, by Santiago Calatrava
    Image courtesy of extranoise via Flickr

    As you can tell, precast* beams and panels are not an inexpensive way to go. It was state of the art in the 1950s.  Each element must be computer modeled and manufactured, then transferred to the site.  
    *precast merely means that the pieces are manufactured in a factory, not poured onsite.

    While I did not find many examples of curved precast roofs in homes, here are a few:

    And here is a selection of homes with curved roofs, not necessarily of precast concrete.

    One of the more famous curved concrete roofs, a pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp, was poured, not precast.


    Monday, April 14, 2014


    "Polebridge Mercantile" (rural)
    Image courtesy of MATTHOFFMAN via Flickr

    Building Types we are investigating:

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

      Mercantiles and Mom & Pop shops

      One of the most basic urban building types is the shop on the street with living space above.  It's worked for 
      restaurants, hardware stores, neighborhood markets, tailors, milliners, cobblers & dressmakers, jewelry stores, really all sorts of shops.  

      "the mercantile" (urban/Main street)
      Image courtesy of bradleygee via Flickr

      It's a great arrangement that makes for a very short commute, only one mortgage/lease payment, and increases the level of watchfulness over the shop when it is closed.

      When it doesn't work as well (but is still attempted):
      • the shop is too noisy/stinky for residential proximity, like a printing press or a butcher
      • the shop requires too much space for expensive real estate, like a carpentry storefront

      Mercantiles are the general store version of the same thing, just not squished next to other specialty shops on a street.  Rural mercantiles were somewhat isolated, early department stores that tried to carry everything a person might need.  Sears' & Walmart's ancestor, I suppose.  

      The buildings would be quite different (urban vs. rural), but the purpose was the same: sell stuff and live very close. 

      Japanese Restaurant in Koreatown, NYC
      Image courtesy of Jeffrey via Flickr

      "Warren Mews"
      Typical London mews
      Image courtesy of garryknight via Flickr


      First of all, what's a mew?  (No, silly, not a "mew," a "mews," not related to "mewling.")
      Although the word's etymology is pretty insane, the simple answer is that mews are based on the typology of some old London carriage houses (with living above) that front on narrow streets & alleys.

      Since the large carriage doors lend themselves to providing an open-air shop, many mews are a small-scale, urban version of what we're already talking about: shop below, living above.


      Strictly speaking, restaurants are shops, they're just a unique subset. Architecturally, the main difference is the inclusion of a kitchen, food waste removal, and restrooms.
      The Mews, Shanklin, Isle of Wight, with craft shops
      Image courtesy of garryknight via Flickr

      In many ways they are like other types of shops: 
      • they need a location for deliveries
      • their showroom is in the form of tables and seats
      • their merchandise is prepared food
      • they may have sidewalk cafe seating, but many markets and shops also use the sidewalk space for displaying items for sale

      The difference between a "commercial" building & a shop (according to me)

      "Barnes & Noble - Valley View Mall"
      Image courtesy of MikeKalasnik via Flickr

      I'll never forget the first Barnes & Noble bookstore with a cafe I went to in the early 1990's.  
      I had just returned from Italy, and was so enamored with the bookstore/coffee shop marriage that I wanted to go back and open an English language bookstore in Florence.  I loved the idea of a destination where you might spend an entire morning, afternoon or evening, where loitering was welcome.  Like a library where food & conversation were allowed.  Pretty much heaven.

      Of course, Barnes & Noble is very suburban in scale.  It's big and "big box"-y and everything that the "shop around the corner" is not.  It also makes more money, so it wins (sadly, in my book).  

      As a "big box," it fits better in a discussion of larger scale commercial buildings (lesson #009) than in one of shops.

      The Shop Around the Corner from You've Got Mail



      Homework #007: Visit a small shop or restaurant.  During your visit, notice stuff like...

      1.  circulation patterns (where you have to walk to get where you need to go): 
      • is the wayfinding clear?  (is it obvious which way you need to go, or are signs required?)
      • is there enough room to pass, or are you squished? 
      • is there enough room for the owners/employees to do their job without making you move or being in your personal space?
      • alternately, is there too much space so that the shop is unwelcoming (some high-end boutiques can be this way)?
      • can you get to accessory spaces like restrooms, dressing rooms?

      2.  lighting:
      • is the space daylit or artificially lit or both?
      • if "both," which parts of the shop/restaurant are more pleasant to be in?
      • did you know that certain types of lighting successfully encourage a customer to buy?

      3.  merchandise displays:
      • what is prominently displayed?  Is it the big ticket item or is it the clearance item?
      • once they've got you inside, how are they still advertising to you?  Is it more subtle?

      Report back.  You know the drill.

      birds taking advantage of a garbage collectors' strike.
      Image courtesy of moon angel via Flickr

      This Week's Q's & A #007

      I'm asking the questions this week, and as April 15 is Tuesday, I'm thinking taxation:

      1. Why do we have income taxes in America?
      2. Is it a good idea to tax the income of an individual, or are there other/better ways to pay for government services?  
      3. Which government services change the way buildings are built and used?

      Monday, April 7, 2014


      Just to give you a bit of a preview, Building Types we are investigating:

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

      Big Red Barn
      Image courtesy of Bruce Guenter via Flickr

      Agricultural Buildings

      Quick, what's the first thing you thought of?  A red barn, right?  Yeah, me too.  And there's a few reasons why: they're bright red, and they're the most prominent building on a farm.  It's the number one advertisement a farmer has for his prosperity.

      Building Groups, Barns, Silos & Stables

      Houghton Hall - Stable Square
      Image courtesy of ell brown via Flickr
      I've always been more fascinated with building groups than single buildings.

      1.  Maybe you start with a BARN: invite people for miles around to your barn raising so it goes up quickly and you have some shelter for the night.  You can sleep in the loft while you build a one-room or two-room house, and your animals will be safe from predators on the dirt floor.

      2.  Next will likely be a small starter HOME which you can add to later if you need more room.  Be sure to plant some grass to deter wind erosion if necessary.  Surround your buildings with some nice trees that will protect you from the wind out on the countryside.  Check out these haunting farmhouse photos from the midwest.

      Wallonie Farm courtyard, Belgium
      Image courtesy of Simon Blackley via Flickr
      3.  As you become established and have larger harvests, you might need an open shelter or storage shed for your hay (basically a barn with no sides), a silo for your grain, or an additional barn.  Alternately, you might relocate your animals to a more secure stable and retain your barn for equipment and harvest.


      You would likely build all of these in the protected area near or even connected to your original barn and home.
      Viljandi Castle in Medieval times
      A. Tuulse: "Die Burgen in Estland und Lettland"
      Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

      Close proximity means that predators, thieves, sick animals, or fires would wake you up before too much damage was done.  Your buildings would all have equal access to amenities like a water well, and wind protection.  And together they would likely form a secure courtyard where children can play and chickens can peck.

      Take this example to its extreme and you have a castle community within a gate.

      Another option is to plan the courtyard from the beginning like a hacienda.  Notice the tendency to turn water wells into fountains in a hacienda courtyard.

      Farm Houses & Plantations

      Traditionally, farmers have been more interested in
      Oak Alley Plantation, Vacherie, Louisiana
      I grew up a half hour from here; I've never been inside.
      Image courtesy of Prayitno via Flickr
      announcing their success with prominent barns and silos than in having impressive houses, though I'd have to say that some Texas farmhouses are pretty elaborate.

      The exception to this would be plantations, where the colonial owner/overseer lived in a nice home while the actual farming was generally done by a "lower" class of people, often natives or imported slaves.  The crops were grown on a large scale for sale on the commercial market and not generally for local use.

      Do you wanna go to Norway?

      barn at the Norwegian Folk Museum
      Image courtesy of shannonkringen via Flickr

      Norwegian Folk Museum in Oslo.  I wanna go so badly, but I don't think my little ones will prefer it over Disney.  :(  

      Have any of you ever been to Norway?  This museum is an open air collection of vernacular buildings collected (relocated from their original location) into an architectural exhibit.  

      Click thru for the Norwegian Farmstead exhibit.  By the way, did you notice all the cool Norwegian architecture and textiles in Frozen?

      Becher Photography & Agri-Industry

      The first collection of architectural photographs to really intrigue me was in an old German book with the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, a fabulous husband-and-wife photography team who documented industrial structures from 1959 to 2007.

      Agriculture had become industrialized along with everything else during the Industrial Revolution and agricultural buildings were fair game for the Bechers' amazing project as well.

      A group of their water tower pictures can be viewed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

      As an aside, they were very interested in the question of typology (building types), just like us!  They usually grouped the images together by type onto a large poster.


      Homework #006 Visit an agricultural building

      Greenhouse at the National Botanic Garden of Belgium at Meise
      Another beautiful image by Simon Blackley via Flickr
      With each new building type we talk about, your assignment will be to visit an example and report back on your experience.  The building types we will be looking at are listed at the top of the post.  
      Feel free to do them out of order if you happen to be near something cool... and be sure to let me know if there's a building type that I left out that you are super interested in.

      Included in agricultural building types are ranches (not to be confused with "ranch" style houses), vineyard buildings, and garden buildings like greenhouses.

      This Week's Q & A #006

      Gabriel:  "Were the people who built the Lord of the Rings movie set "Bag End" inspired by a certain style of architecture?"

      Ally: While I can't comment on someone else's inspiration, I can definitely point to some traditional examples of homes that may have influenced artwork for the Lord of the Rings books and recent films.

      Contemporary Illustrations

      If you recall, Bag End is described like this:

      In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”  ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

      When I read the book as a child, I pictured a hobbit hole with an entrance like a mole hill and a hidden home beneath.  Most of the artwork surrounding the stories have included a round, vertical entrance door which only references the idea of a hole.  Check out some of the images here.  And Tolkien's own illustration here.

      You can tell that the movie set, while super cool, was heavily indebted to earlier artwork for source material.

      Turf Houses & Green Roofs

      Turf houses -- traditional houses that are built partially into the ground with sod/grass for insulation & roofing -- are not uncommon in IcelandScotland and parts of Scandinavia. (click links for pics)
      Turf Houses, Iceland
      Image courtesy of brian.gratwicke via Flickr

      Being partially UNDERGROUND, they benefit from the ground temperatures (typically 55deg year-round) during extreme temperatures.
      Modern buildings built partially underground are often called earth sheltered homes or earthships (though the second term is a proprietary label).

      The modern version of a turf roof is called a "green roof," and is highly engineered to deter infiltration of dirt and/or moisture through the turf.  Green roofs can be very helpful in urban areas by reducing heat islands effect, cleaning polluted air, and alleviating storm drain loads.
      Shire house repurposed as a sheep house from inhabitat

      When soil is used in addition to plants, there is the added benefit of insulation.  Traditionally, there have been very few materials available for insulation other than the thermal mass* of thick masonry walls, which only really helps slow down the temperature changes rather than reducing them.
      *This is the most helpful in places where it is hot during the day and cool at night, like the desert.

      I've been gathering some images of vernacular buildings on Pinterest; many of them have a relationship aesthetically to Bag End, and they will have predated the Hobbit, which was published in 1937. (The Lord of the Rings trilogy was written later, mostly during World War II.)

      Bag End Tributes

      Many people are inspired by Bag End!

      Check out this small scale model of the movie version of Bag End.

      And of course, Lego has a Bag End set.  My six year old LOVES it (but occasionally has to fight me for it).