summer SUSTAINABILITY course in session!

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: