Monday, December 23, 2013

A WAKE UP CALL FROM CHINA Part Four of Four Parts

There’s one good thing about a nation developing late and developing fast: it can pretty much pick and choose from among all the best ways of doing things. This is exactly what China, with its vast cash reserves and virtually unlimited labor, is now doing.  As a result, it’s no longer just playing catch-up with the United States. In many ways, it’s playing leapfrog.

Technology in China’s developed areas--where most of its people live--has already long been on par with our own. Internet cafes flourish, and the most sophisticated computers and display systems are ubiquitous in banks, stores, and transportation facilities. These things shouldn’t surprise Americans, since most of our own high-tech goods come from China in the first place. What may surprise people is that some parts of China’s infrastructure have already begun to surpass ours.

For example, modern China’s communications network, developed just as our old hardwired telephone infrastructure was becoming obsolete, is almost entirely cellular. Here, everyone from the high-roller in his Benz to the farmer in his rice paddie carries a cell phone. Never has a nation so vast and populous been so well connected.

The bulk of China’s electrical distribution system was also built fairly late in the twentieth century. For starters, this gives it a definite aesthetic edge--the Chinese use tidy and permanent concrete stanchions to carry power lines instead of the dilapidated wooden poles and tangles of wire that make up much of our own power grid. 

But even this modern system is advancing. A number of Chinese cities now have plans afoot for complete undergrounding of all existing power distribution systems--a sweeping improvement which, owing to its cost and complexity, has long eluded municipal governments in the U.S. And since the Chinese are loathe to risk a loss of face by announcing plans they can’t fulfill, we can fully expect these undergrounding projects to be realized, and sooner rather than later.

Chinese traffic controls, mostly developed in the thirty years since the Opening, have already led American systems for years. For example, the digital countdown signals only now being adopted by some American cities were already commonplace during my first visit to China in 1994. 

Moreover, the newest traffic controls have entirely superseded the redundant clutter of red, yellow and green lamps found in the U.S. Instead, Suzhou’s signals use a compact and attractive stanchion with a single, bold LED arrow that changes color to indicate both traffic direction and status. If you can’t quite picture this, don’t worry--your town will probably be installing these systems in five or ten years, and no doubt they’ll be made in China.

These advances may seem trivial, but they’re emblematic of China’s spectacular rate of progress over the past thirty years. Now, having largely caught up with the West, the Chinese have both the desire for bigger plans, and the resources to fulfill them. 
Is all this bad news for America? It depends on your point of view. If we’re content to be slowly but surely surpassed by the nation we patronizingly call our “workshop”, then we can relax. If not, we’d better wake up and smell the tea.

Monday, December 16, 2013


When it comes to environmentalism, the Chinese are bad, bad people, right? Not exactly. Thanks to their government’s knack for disseminating ideas, the Chinese are acutely aware of their environmental troubles. Given their many other priorities, the surprise is that they’ve already started grappling with the problem.

The Chinese have had basic energy conservation practices in place for years. On my first visit to Shanghai in 1994, for example, I was surprised to see solar water heaters crowding the rooftops of practically every apartment block--something we don’t see in the United States even today. And things have only improved since then. Energy-saving fluorescent lamps are now the rule rather than the exception in China, not only in commercial and industrial buildings, but in residences as well. Even more efficient LED lighting is widely used in traffic signals, street lighting, and many other applications. 

While China’s streets are regrettably teeming with more cars than ever, they’re also increasingly well populated with innovative and affordable electric bicycles, scooters, and utility vehicles. Granted, since these are recharged by being plugged into the nation’s largely coal-generated electrical grid, their environmental friendliness remains arguable-- yet they’re nevertheless a more visible sign of innovation than we find on our own SUV-clogged streets. And while American automakers are only now fielding viable green transportation--thanks mainly to the incredible shortsightedness, stupidity and greed of upper management--their scrappy Chinese counterparts are almost certainly hard at work on the design of zero-emission vehicles that will someday ease China’s pollution troubles, and perhaps our own as well.

None of this is to excuse China’s deficiency in other areas of environmental policy. Its tolerance for industrial polluters, in particular, is a disgrace. Yet this is a calculated economic decision aimed--with spectacular success--at attracting foreign investment. Lax restrictions on polluters are in fact one major reason so many American corporations have moved factories to China. Yet this current lassitude will also come to an end when the Chinese government’s environmental priorities inevitably supersede those of economic growth. 

When will this happen? In the United States, gross industrial pollution continued utterly unhampered for a century. At China’s current rate of progress, and despite its posturing to the contrary, industrial polluters may well be brought up to Western standards within the next decade. 

What’s more, when the Chinese decide they’re ready to tackle their environmental problems full force, they’ll move quickly. Unlike us fiercely independent-minded Americans, the Chinese are far more amenable to sweeping change being imposed from the top down--a deep-seated cultural trait that stems, not from China’s trifling time under Communism, but rather from its nearly three and a half millennia under dynastic rule.

The result is that official pronouncements--whether they concern spitting on the sidewalk, smoking in restaurants, or wasting electricity--are acted upon with a sense of earnestness and devotion that’s quite impossible to imagine here in the United States. So when an exemplary environmental policy finally reaches the top of the agenda, those bad, bad Chinese may yet become Mother Earth’s best friend.

Next time: A wake up call for Americans.

Monday, December 9, 2013


Americans are no doubt getting tired of hearing how well things are going for China. Having painted just such a rosy picture in my last report from Suzhou--my Chinese home away from home--I thought I’d dwell on a few of China’s biggest shortcomings, at least for this installment. 

At the moment, the People’s Republic is in the news for one of its characteristically blundering foreign policy moves--this time, the sudden expansion of its air defense zone over the entire East China Sea, which has set a whole slew of Pacific Rim nations on edge. But this sort of calculated high-level posturing, driven by the PRC leadership’s deep political insecurities, is a topic I’ll leave to political pundits. Instead, I’ll examine things of more immediate concern to Chinese citizens. 

Anyone arriving in a Chinese city will recognize a problem it shares with the United States--too many cars. But while the U.S. has hopefully reached a saturation point at around 1.2 cars for every licensed driver, car ownership in China is still in its infancy, with less than one in twenty-five Chinese owning a vehicle. Should the Chinese aspire to American levels of automotive lunacy--and there’s no reason to think they won’t--Mother Earth could potentially be hosting another billion or so pollution-spewing cars. Hopefully, before this cataclysm approaches, China will manage to leapfrog current internal-combustion technology (as it has leapfrogged America’s old hard-wired telephone infrastructure) by developing practical zero-emission vehicles.

This brings us to a Chinese problem that’s literally inescapable--its abysmal air quality. On a typical day in any developed part of the country, the sky is a monochrome grayish-white, with a peripheral haze that can often limit visibility to less than a mile. Because the sun is seldom evident as more than a diffuse patch of glare in the sky, daylight is virtually shadowless, making even China’s enchanting, emerald-green landscapes look flat and dreary. 

The Chinese are acutely aware of this problem, though they ascribe it, not to the rising tide of cars on their streets, nor even to their none-too-tidy heavy industries, but rather to their heavy dependence on dirty, coal-fired power plants. For the time being, however, they seem resigned to sacrificing their once-clear skies to rapid development--much as the United States was for the first half of the twentieth century.

Last, and perhaps most dispiriting, modern China remains a nation with an astonishing indifference to quality--a problem that’s hardly improved since I first came here in 1994.. In general, manufactured items, whether cheap or expensive, remain exasperatingly third-rate. And yes, this assessment includes many familiar American brands “manufactured in China to So-and-So’s strict quality standards”--a claim that’s basically balderdash. 

This disinterest in quality and durability extends clear up to the scale of China’s heroic new buildings. More often than not, the workmanship beneath those gleaming exteriors of marble and granite is breathtakingly shoddy. The effects of an acid-laden atmosphere don’t help matters any, leaving many buildings literally falling to pieces after a few short years. 
Since thirty-five years have now passed since China’s economic Opening, these shortcomings can no longer be explained away by the country’s years under strict Communism, by government corruption, or by its haste to catch up with the West. 
Rather, the problem persists because, with ready markets for slipshod products at hand, there’s simply no incentive to improve them. 

Yet as China is eventually forced to compete with other developing countries that can undercut its heavy market advantage, its current indifference to quality--insulting as it is to the nation’s brilliant past--will no doubt tarnish its brilliant future as well. 

Next time: Sorry, more good news about the People's Republic.

Monday, December 2, 2013


America’s recession has proved to many world citizens that capitalism isn’t the unassailable force it’s often claimed to be. The Chinese, in particular, now perceive little of substance separating their status from that of the United States--oh, except maybe that little matter of differing political systems. And since the Chinese government--now Communist in name only--has led its people to almost unimagineable prosperity in a single generation, the vast majority of Chinese are well pleased with it. Ergo, they’re not so much angered as perplexed by outside criticism of a system that, for most of them, has worked wonders.

My Chinese home away from home, Suzhou, is an ancient canal town two hours outside of Shanghai. Like other Chinese cities along the populous eastern seaboard, it lacks absolutely nothing in the way of material wealth. Suzhou’s boulevards are well stocked with new Audis, Cadillacs and BMWs, and its shopping centers feature a seemingly limitless array of fancy boutiques in addition to the requisite Starbucks, McDonalds and KFCs. China’s abundance of consumer goods shouldn’t surprise Americans, since it’s the wellspring of so much of our own materialist excess. What’s notable is that ever greater numbers of Chinese can afford these luxuries, right up to big-ticket items such as fancy cars and second homes. 

Suzhou, where I summer more-or-less yearly, changes with the jaw-dropping rapidity one can only experience in China. The stodgy phalanxes of six-story apartment blocks that used to comprise the bulk of my neighborhood are now ringed by a dozen or so glittering ten-story apartment towers. Meanwhile, that longtime Asian commercial standard--rows of dark, cavern-like shops resembling one-car garages, with rusty rolling grilles for storefronts--are slowly but surely giving way to sparkling glass facades and crisply finished interiors. 

China’s planning mirrors its system of government--sweeping and draconian at the highest levels, yet basically laissez-faire at the grass roots. Fortunately, the Chinese haven’t yet succumbed to the kind of obsessively ordered zoning found in America. While Suzhou is now regrettably surrrounded by a profusion of vast and dreary American-style boulevards seemingly leading nowhere--a consequence of trying to keep one step ahead of frenetic growth--the typical residential area, old or new, remains a dense commingling of apartments blocks, businesses, and light industry. In the modest village near my home, for example, the streets fronting the apartment blocks are lined with a cornucopia of businesses--restaurants and clothiers, a farmers’s market, banks, florists, tobacconers, barbers, hardware stores, an array of fabricators building windows, cabinets, or ironwork, and even a few motorcycle mechanics whose service bay is the broad sidewalk outside their shops. 

Ironically, the seeming chaos of combining these disparate usages, so offensive to density-shunning, zoning-obsessed American planners, is exactly what makes these urban areas lively, useful, safe and inviting at all hours. The only thing missing from them, in fact, is the countless acres of parking that utterly preoccupy our planners in the U.S.. Why? None of the village’s cavalcade of amenities is more than five minutes walk from any apartment. 
No matter how we choose to compare their goverment and ours, or their planning and ours, how many American cities can make that claim?

Next time: A bit of the bad news.

Monday, November 25, 2013


Back in the not-so-Jolly Old England of the Middle Ages, where many of America’s  building traditions originated, no one had ever heard of structural engineering. Instead, carpenters used common knowledge gleaned from trial and error and handed down over the centuries. With no way to analyze the strength of their buildings, they just built them as stoutly as they could, using massive timbers hewn from lots and lots of trees. 

For example, records show that one six-room, two story house built in Cambridgeshire around 1600 required seventy-two small oak trees to be cut down for the framing lumber alone. Seven more mature oak trees (which yielded wider planks) were sawn into floorboards. The total wood used was equivalent to about 68 acres of oak forest. A larger house could easily consume over 300 trees--more than 280 acres of woodland as it then existed.

Given the rate at which these houses gobbled timber, the English were already managing their forests for harvesting by 1200. Even so, over the next few centuries, the island famed for Sherwood Forest became the sparsely wooded place it is today.

Fast forward to America during the postwar Baby Boom era. Our houses are constructed with a light framework of slender wooden studs, doing away with the need for heavy timber. It’s a relatively efficient system--an average house of 1950 uses about 9000  board feet of framing lumber, or about 9 board feet per square foot (a board foot is a hypothetical quantity of lumber twelve inches by twelve inches by one inch thick). At a crude average of perhaps 200 board feet per tree, this means we cut down something on the order of 45 trees--mostly softwoods--to build a house. No matter how we, er, slice it, it’s quite a bit less lumber than your average English house of the Middle Ages required. 

But fast forward once again to the present, and you find a strange irony: Today, even though we manage to use even less lumber per square foot than in 1950--only about 8 board feet--the amount of wood we use has nearly doubled, to about 17,000 board feet per house. That’s back up to about 85 trees--even more than were used during the Middle Ages. 

What gives?

For one thing, modern building codes require wood-framed structures to withstand much higher wind and earthquake forces than before, and that takes more lumber and plywood. For another, houses also have more rooms, and hence more interior walls. 

But the main reason we’re back to gobbling wood is simply this: Today’s average house is much bigger--over double the size of a typical house of 1950. In short, we’ve wiped out all the gains we’ve made in using wood more efficiently, simply by using a whole lot more of it. 

Now, one bright spot in cutting down so many of England’s oaks is that some wonderful houses of the Middle Ages are still with us. How many McMansions will still be standing in 2500 A.D.?

Monday, November 18, 2013


What if we paved over the whole state of Wisconsin? 

Actually, we already have. According to recent Federal Highway Administration figures, the U.S. has close to 240 million motor vehicles--almost forty million more cars than there are licensed drivers--and just under four million miles of paved roads for them to run on. All told, some 61,000 square miles of the United States--an area just a little smaller than the Beaver State--is solidly paved over, either with roads or parking. And of course, there’s plenty more on the way.  

We weren’t always an asphalt nation. What happened?  

There’s plenty of blame to go around, from pressure by vested interests such as oil and automobile companies, to political pork barreling, to plain old infatuation with our four-wheeled friends. But the most disgraceful helping of blame for our autocentric landscape goes to people who should know better: our own city planners. For the past six decades, they’ve swallowed the premise of the asphalt nation whole.

It’s city planners who’ve long uncritically accepted the notion that cars should be the focus of our urban design, turning the built environment into one big playground for motor vehicles. It’s city planners who’ve allowed draconian parking requirements, rather than intelligent land use, to determine what gets built--a policy that literally puts humans second to their cars. But don’t take my word for it. In his book, “The High Cost of Free Parking”, UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup flatly states: 

“Parking requirements create great harm: they subsidize cars, distort transportation choices, warp urban form, increase housing costs, burden low income households, debase urban design, damage the economy, and degrade the environment.”

We make these sacrifices to accommodate a machine that, despite having been civilized a bit by electronics, essentially remains an early 20th century-style, oil-burning, exhaust-spewing contraption. The legacy of this long reign is an utterly car-centered environment of huge, signal-clogged boulevards and buildings adrift in vast oceans of parking. 

But this kind of autocentric design isn’t just ugly and wasteful--it also creates a vicious planning cycle. In order to kowtow to all those cars, we have to build everything on a superhuman scale, which in turn uses more land, which in turn lowers density and creates sprawl. And once density gets down to the level of the average suburb, you simply can’t walk anywhere anymore. Your kids can’t walk to school, and you can’t walk to work or to the shopping center, because everything is spread so far apart. The result is that we’re ever more beholden to our cars to get anywhere. 

If all this seems perfectly normal, it’s only because most of us don’t have any alternative. On the other hand, in most European cities, not to speak of Asian ones, close-knit, easily walkable neighborhoods packed with urban amenities are the rule. It’s not that their planners are any smarter than ours. Rather, it’s just the natural result of humanly-scaled urban design that predates cars by many centuries, and which will doubtless outlast them by many centuries as well. Whether our own cities will outlive cars isn’t all that clear yet.

Monday, November 11, 2013


For some years now, my favorite place to find a big old homemade slab of pie has been an unassuming mom-and-pop restaurant called Walker’s Pie Shop, not far from where I live. It’s the sort of place that hasn’t changed in decades. Its decor, such as it is, evokes the home-improvement hit parade of another era: asphalt tile, Formica-topped tables, Masonite paneling, and glossy oil paint. 

Oddly enough, this very lack of pretense is what makes Walker’s stands apart. It’s quite clear that no corporate consultants came up with its cheerfully jarring vanilla-orange-vanilla color scheme. There are no fake old books on high shelves, no copper muffin pans or reprints of old French bicycle posters hanging on the walls. In short, there’s none of the strained quirkiness that comes from decor specified down to the last jot by some corporate guidebook. Instead--now here’s a concept--there’s plain old good eating: a whole roster of big, old-fashioned pies baked up each morning right in the back of the shop.

Sad to say, unassuming mom-and-pop establishments such as Walker’s are increasingly rare these days. Some are, of course, being squeezed out by corporate chains with more sophisticated business models. While it’s pointless to denigrate this kind of success, its economic downside is well known: profits that used to stay in the community instead go flitting to some distant headquarters, to be divvied up among faceless investors instead of by the family down the street.

But there’s another, more tangible problem with the steady corporate takeover of Main Street business. Beholden as they are to shareholders, the chains are all but obligated to repeat ad nauseum the formula that’s brought them success. This robotic repetition of a profitable concept, regardless of regional setting, is among the main culprits behind the increasing sameness of America’s built environment, whether urban or suburban. 

Retail chains of one sort or another are nothing new, of course. Among the first businesses widely built to a corporate template were gasoline filling stations, whose highly specialized architecture and signage were already being standardized well before World War II. But the real juggernaut of corporate standardization was the McDonald’s hamburger empire, founded by Ray Kroc in 1955, and now operating over 31,000 restaurants in 119 countries. 

The phenomenal success of McDonald’s has since been the model for countless food, retail, and service chains--good news for shareholders, so-so news for consumers, but generally bad news for the American landscape. Today, pretty much every shopping center across the nation contains some musical-chairs variant of the same familiar chain outlets, whether they sell food, clothing, or coffee. Ironically, some genuinely local establishments now feel pressure to adopt the same slick corporate atmosphere just to remain competitive. 

As for Walker’s Pie Shop, alas, it too is closing its doors--a victim, perhaps, of economic times, or simply of its more calibrated competition. A new restaurant calling itself a “bistro”has replaced it. Let’s hope it doesn’t serve up another trendy helping of “Anywhere U.S.A.”

Monday, November 4, 2013


Nowadays, when you’re feeling chilly, you just nudge your thermostat up a few degrees. Not too long ago, you’d have been in for a lot more effort: Until the 1880s, most American houses were still heated by an open fire. 

In those days, any room you wanted to keep tolerably warm had to have its own fireplace and chimney. This is one reason houses had such boxy, compact floor plans--the idea was to have as few of those expensive fireplaces as possible. Often, they were placed back to back so they could share a chimney. All this finally changed in the late nineteenth century, when the innovation of central heating made it possible to warm every room in the house with a single source of heat.

Of course, Americans were hardly the first to have central heating. As early as 100AD, the Romans used the hypocaust system, which conducted warm air from a fire into hollow spaces beneath a tiled floor. Ancient Korea may have used a similar system, called ondal, even earlier. By the 12th century, Muslim engineers had improved the hypocaust by using pipes--our modern heating ducts--which did away with the need for hollow floors.

The English had an early version of central steam heating as early as the 1830s, though it was of course limited to the fabulously wealthy. It took another fifty years for a proper central heating system to make it across the ocean and into ordinary Yankee homes.
Some central heating used steam or hot water piped to radiators, but most heated the air directly. Early systems burned wood or coal, which meant you were still liable to freeze unless you kept the furnace stoked. Later on oil and natural gas prevailed as fuel, since they could be fed automatically. 

All of these early “gravity” heating systems relied on the fact that hot air tends to rise (or more accurately, that gravity makes the denser cold air sink). Of course, since warm air just wafted its way into each room through big ducts, the furnace had to be located below the living space--one reason older houses had basements even on the West Coast.

Once individual rooms no longer needed a bulky and expensive fireplace for heat, houses could be laid out much more freely. The characteristic rambling floor plans of late Victorian houses such as Queen Annes--among the first adopters of central heating--were a direct outgrowth of their liberation from the fireplace.

After World War II, central heating systems began using a fan to actively push warm air through the ductwork. These so-called forced air units could use smaller ducts than the old gravity furnaces, and could be located anywhere in the house, even in the attic.

Thanks to our increasingly urgent quest for energy efficiency, today’s central heating systems make even those postwar units look antiquated. Gone forever is that consummate energy-waster, the standing pilot light, and many forced air units now boast efficiencies in the high nineties--about double that of old gravity furnaces. Electronic burner controls and programmable thermostats make it easy to forget that your furnace is even working. But don’t: next time you turn up the heat, think about how far we’ve come in just a hundred and twenty years. 

Monday, October 28, 2013


“Why is an architect writing about cars, anyway?”

I always get indignant e-mails asking me this whenever I criticize some aspect of our autocentric society--whether it’s our parking-obsessed city planning, our mania for fruitless road widening and freeway building, or our laughably primitive traffic control systems. 

The answer is simple. We inhabit an era--a very fleeting one, in historical terms--that’s all but predicated on the automobile. Hence, architecture and cars are as inextricably linked for modern builders as architecture and defense were for the castle builders of the Middle Ages. You simply can’t design on an urban scale without cars being an integral and often overriding element of what you’re planning. 

To see how inseparable the automobile is from contemporary design, stroll down most any suburban street, where the most prominent design feature will be garage doors in all shapes and sizes. Or take a look at your typical shopping mall--a huddle of buildings adrift in a vast sea of parking spaces.  Talk about the tail wagging the dog.

By now, municipal zoning codes have institutionalized the fact that cars rule the land, since parking requirements quite often dictate all other aspects of a project. There are exceptions, of course. A few audaciously forward-looking cities have actually made their downtowns less car friendly in order to encourage other kinds of locomotion, including--gasp!--people using their own two feet. Yet for the most part, city planners have meekly and uncritically knuckled under to the assumed primacy of the automobile.

That’s a pity, because cars in their present form are no more a permanent fixture of our built environment than were the oxcart, the chariot, or the horse and buggy. We happen to live in the historical apogee of the internal-combustion automobile, but even the smallest degree of historical perspective makes plain that it’s merely a visitor--an increasingly troublesome one--on planet Earth.

Now, for those staunch car defenders getting ready to fire off e-mails calling me a deluded idealist, a car hater, or a clueless academic--don’t bother. The fact is I’ve been an incurable gearhead since childhood. I can still happily spend a long evening jabbering about cam grinds and axle ratios with my car-crazy buddies, and I still own a number of Detroit’s most venerable gas guzzlers in honor of a grand old era that’s now passed into history. If anything, though, this personal obsession makes it all the more obvious that our autocentric society, and the vast traffic and petroleum supply infrastructure that goes along with it, will one day be no more than a curiosity to future historians.

What does that mean for us today? For one thing, it suggests we shouldn’t regard our cars--not to speak of the oil they run on--as the be-all and end-all of American society. We should also recognize that history has a funny way of demolishing institutions that seem impregnable, and the internal combustion automobile is surely one of these. Something better, simpler, and kinder to the earth is no doubt on the way, assuming that we’re smart enough to welcome it. 

Monday, October 21, 2013


For centuries, the drudgery of having to climb long flights of stairs ensured that buildings were seldom more than six or seven stories high. The least desired apartments in ancient Rome were those on the top floor--just the opposite of our modern preferences. This held true until the late nineteenth century, when elevators began to be incorporated in tall buildings. 

Elisha was here.
Yet the elevator isn’t  quite as modern an invention as you might think. The Roman architect Vitruvius reported that Archimedes built his first elevator around 236 B.C.  In 1743, Louis XV commissioned a personal lift to link his apartment in Versailles with that of his mistress.  Eighty years later, the painter Thomas Horner and the architect Decimus Burton collaborated on an “ascending room” that hoisted visitors to a 37-meter high platform from which they could view the London skyline.

Still, the general public remained understandably wary of such devices, since a single broken rope could send the hapless passeners plunging to their doom. This attitude began to change in 1853, when Elisha Graves Otis demonstrated his “safety elevator” featuring the first failsafe means of arresting the elevator’s fall should a support rope fail. Otis’s elevator went a long way toward easing public anxiety about riding on such contraptions, and in 1857 Otis installed the first public elevator in a five-story department store in New York, and in 1861 he patented an elevator powered by steam. Hydraulic and electric elevators eventually followed, finally obviating the need to climb endless flights of stairs in tall buildings.

Yet Otis’s product (which, in fairness, was greatly refined by a number of lesser-known inventors) would have remained a curiosity were it not for some concurrent trends that made taller buildings both more economicallydesirable and cheaper to build. By the last decades of the nineteenth century, the price of downtown land in rapidly expanding cities such as New York and Chicago began to skyrocket. This put pressure on developers to pack more building volume into the same amount of real estate, which meant only one thing: Build taller buildings. 

Yet the push to pile up more and more stories presented a problem of another sort. Large buildings of the late nineteenth century were still built of masonry and required thicker and thicker walls the taller they became. As an example, one of the last tall masonry buildings of the era, Chicago’s Monadnock Building, carried its seventeen stories on ground floor walls six feet thick. This kind of ponderous and expensive structure simply wouldn’t do if tall buildings were to become practical. Fortunately, a new building material--steel--solved this problem just in time. Steel was enormously strong in relation to its mass, meaning that even the tallest building could now be supported by a relatively wispy “skeleton frame” of girders rather than by hundreds of tons of stone or brick. 

By the late 1890s, the historic confluence of high real estate prices, the safety elevator, and the introduction of the steel skeleton frame set off a national boom in erecting tall buildings. The age of skyscraper building had begun.

Monday, October 14, 2013


Passive solar design is nothing new--vernacular builders have known its principles for millenia. From the Middle East to China, both rich and poor alike have traditionally used the sun’s free energy for comfort. 

Western architects, on the other hand, often seem to have considered themselves above designing with the sun in mind. American colonial houses, with their foursquare symmetrical facades, already hint at the New World’s general unconcern for solar orientation. Perhaps this is because many of our forebears from England, Holland, and other sun-challenged Northern European countries seldom found sunlight worth bothering about. 

Ironically, though, it was modernist architects, who claimed to put rational design above all else, who set a low point in concern for solar orientation. Aside from Frank Lloyd Wright and a handful of others who were uncommonly attuned to nature, modernist architects seemed barely to acknowledge that the sun existed except as a means of casting dramatic shadows. In their determination to discard all vestiges of the architectural past, it seems, the modernists also discarded traditional building wisdom gleaned over millenia. 

Hence, modernist icons such as Mies van der Rohe’s famed Farnsworth House featured exterior walls entirely of glass, pointedly flouting millenia of common sense for the sake of aesthetic purity. In such houses, the unfortunate owners roasted in summer, and in winter sent countless BTUs fruitlessly to their doom. This same sense of aloofness from nature produced modernist apartment buildings with whole facades of balconies facing north, all predictably dark and uninhabited except by stored bicycles.

As thousands of years of vernacular building are once again confirming to our newly-green generation of architects, nothing is more necessary to a home’s livability than careful solar orientation. For buildings designed from scratch, this demands an awareness of exactly where and when sun will enter during the course of the day, taking into account not only theoretical sun positions but also man-made barriers such as neighboring buildings. 

Some rooms, such as breakfast rooms (and for the hard-to-rouse, bedrooms) should receive sun during the morning hours, and therefore require an easterly exposure. Rooms that are used throughout the day, such as living rooms and kitchens, are best given southerly exposures. Rooms with afternoon usage, such as dining rooms, should ideally face west. Rooms that are only briefly occupied, such as bathrooms, laundry rooms, and garages should bring up the rear, receiving the least desirable northern exposures.

Beyond these basics, it’s important to acknowledge the seasonal changes in the sun’s altitude as well as the significant variations in where it rises and sets. Overlook these fine points, and you may find that a breakfast room that’s awash with light on a June morning will be sunless in the depths of December, just when you need old Sol the most.

This isn’t to say that every house should be ablaze with sunshine, though--in some climates, more sun is the last thing you want. Good solar orientation also demands an awareness of when and where you don’t want direct sun. Always bear in mind, though, that a house that gets too much sun can be easily fixed, while a house that gets too little often can't. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

CODE COLLISION Part Two of Two Parts

Last time we looked at a number of modern building code requirements that make it either economically impractical or else flat out illegal for green builders to use recycled building materials, even though the cities enforcing these codes may officially encourage such reuse. Some of the issues we covered last time, such as the requirement for safety glazing in doors and windows, stem from modern ideas about safety that didn’t exist when many salvaged materials were created.

Yet safety concerns are not the main reason current codes make the legitimate reuse of salvaged materials difficult. Ironically, modern energy conservation mandates are an even bigger roadblock to reuse. In the case of windows, plumbing fixtures, and lighting fixtures, energy efficiency standards all but mandate the use of brand new materials, since few salvaged materials can comply. 

The majority of salvaged windows, for example, are single-glazed and don’t meet modern requirements for thermal efficiency or air infiltration--shortcomings that usually can’t be remedied without spending more than an old window is worth. 

Salvaged plumbing fixtures often run afoul of energy efficiency standards as well. Most of the toilets available at salvage yards, for example, don’t meet the code-mandated maximum of 1.6 gallons of water per flush--in fact, some coveted antique models use as many as eight gallons. Likewise, the old faucets fitted to vintage sinks don’t have the flow restrictors mandated by modern energy codes. Achieving compliance usually means replacing the old faucets with modern ones, once again defeating the purpose of using salvaged items in the first place.

How can building departments reconcile the laudable practice of recycling building materials while maintaining modern safety and energy-efficiency standards? It would be neither practical nor prudent to forbid the reuse of salvaged doors, windows, plumbing fixtures, and lighting--many of a quality superior to new ones--simply because they don’t comply with modern building codes. These are, after all, the very same materials that are still in daily use in millions of American homes.

One way to acknowledge the reuse old materials as an alternate and equally valid way of saving energy would be for city building departments to grant “green credits” to people using salvaged building materials. These could be used to offset certain code compliance shortcomings, especially those having to do with energy efficiency.  

An even simpler approach would be to “grandfather in” various kinds of salvaged items, just as the noncompliant windows, plumbing fixtures and lighting found in the vast majority of houses across the nation are deemed acceptable because they were legal when they were installed. While such an exemption might horrify code enforcement officials, it would remove one of the major impediments to using salvaged materials in lieu of new ones.

It’s troubling that in the face of widespread interest in green building, today’s inflexible building codes remain on a collision course with the environmentally friendly reuse of salvaged materials such as windows, doors, plumbing fixtures, and lighting. One thing is for sure: City governments can’t continue to have it both ways, promoting aspects of green building on the one hand while outlawing them on the other. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

CODE COLLISION Part One of Two Parts

“Green buildings use durable materials that are salvaged, have recycled content, or came from rapidly renewable resources. These materials significantly reduce the environmental destruction associated with the extraction, processing, and transportation of virgin materials.”

So reads a prominent display in the building department of one of America’s most environmentally progressive cities. It’s meant to exhort architects, builders, and homeowners to reuse building materials that already exist--a worthy goal, to be sure.
The trouble is, the building codes enforced by the very same department often make it difficult or impossible to follow this policy. 

Nor is this just one city’s problem. Current building codes simply aren’t formulated with the reuse of salvaged materials in mind, leaving well-intentioned green builders caught in a classic Catch-22: As a matter of public policy, many progressive cities encourage the recycling of building materials, yet in actual practice, the codes enforced by these same cities often render the use of recycled material either economically unfeasible or just plain illegal. 

A common example: Modern codes require safety glazing in all glass doors as well as in many windows. Yet the overwhelming majority of glass doors gleaned from architectural salvage--not to speak of most windows--have plain glass which does not comply with these requirements. What’s more, the cost of reglazing, say, a pair of old French doors with code-compliant glass would typically far outstrip their value. Faced with this reality, most homeowners will either install such noncompliant items on the sly or else forego the whole idea of using recycled materials and buy new windows instead. 

As you might guess by now, the legal reuse of salvaged electrical items is equally problematic. Many local jurisdictitons, for instance, require all newly installed lighting fixtures to carry an Underwriters Laboratories label, a standard that many old fixtures-- even those rewired with modern components for safety--cannot meet. What’s more, many state energy conservation codes no longer permit fixtures that use traditional incandescent bulbs--which constitute the vast majority of the salvage stock--in rooms such as kitchens, baths, laundries and garages, further restricting the opportunity for recycling such items.

On top of everything else, local restrictions dealing with lead paint and asbestos (the sale of both was outlawed only in 1978) can cause other problems for those wishing to use recycled architectural materials. Lead paint is practically a given on older salvaged items, whether doors, windows or cabinets. Asbestos shows up in old ironing board cabinets, clinging to the backs of old heating registers, and in vintage appliances such as toasters and heaters. In general, building officials tolerate the presence of these products in existing structures, but as regulations inevitably become more restrictive, these regulations, too, may stand in the way of widespread recycling.

As if these troubles weren’t enough to discourage would-be green builders from using recycled materials (many of which are of far superior quality to newly-manufactured ones), the list of difficulties is far from complete. Next time, we’ll look at some more examples of building codes and green building efforts colliding head-on.

Monday, September 23, 2013


In nineteenth century America, the only way an architect could view historic architecture was to go see it firsthand (usually on another continent), or else find engravings of it in books. Since architects of the era were much less likely to travel than their modern counterparts, engravings ended up being their usual reference. Mind you, the engraver unavoidably put his or her own spin on the thing they were illustrating, and this subjectivity, along with a frequent ignorance of historic context, made it hard for architects to get a real grasp of historic styles--one reason for the almost cartoonish nature of so much Victorian architecture.

Often-fanciful engraved illustrations, such as this scene of a procession
making its way to the great Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, were once
the only way architects could view historic architecture from afar.
All this changed in the 1890s with the introduction of the halftone process, which used thousands of tiny, variously sized dots to reproduce the full tonal range of actual photographs. For the first time, photos could be faithfully reproduced in mass publications such as magazines and newspapers, without the subjective distortions of the engraver. 

The National Geographic was among the first magazines to replace line engravings with halftone photographs, but architectural journals were also fairly quick to make use of the new process, As early as 1898, The American Architect and Building News published a popular series on Colonial architecture. After World War I, when many mainstream architects and builders became smitten with Europe’s vernacular architecture, photo features of historic architecture began going further afield. 

By the 1920s, architects were routinely referring to trade journals packed with photographs of European vernacular buildings, whether English, Spanish, or French. In 1926, Architecture magazine began a regular series of portfolios featuring authentic renditions of traditional European vernacular details such as iron railing, garden pools, and window grilles. Spurred by such information, architects explored increasingly exotic styles, whether Moorish, Indian, or North African.

The Depression and the advent of World War II put an end to America’s fascination with European and exotic architecture, and for the next half a century, trade journals instead published equally influential photo spreads on what they presumed to be the future of architecture: Modernism.

Ironically, while traditional detailing is once again all the rage, modern renditions of historic styles--or for that matter, copies of 1920s revival styles which were themselves copies--seem both less erudite and less charming than the originals. Decorative features such as columns, arches, and moldings are misused, overused, or carelessly thrown together in ways old-time prectitioners would have found laughable. This problem is merely troubling in modest tract houses, but epidemic in expensive custom homes, whose larded-on detailing is at once overblown, graceless and and clumsily proportioned--much closer to Victorian-era pastiche than to the refined revival styles of the 1920s and 30s.

Despite the blizzard of informaton to be had on the Internet, we architects seem to have a much lazier grasp of traditional design than did our predecessors. Today’s brand of pastiche strains to evoke the easy charm of tradition, but more often the result is plain old bedlam. It’s a far cry from our colleagues of the 1920s, who composed their “informal” designs with utmost care, and who always kept an eye on their faithful photographs.

Monday, September 16, 2013


Can’t tell a double hung from a double hernia? Then here in a nutshell are the most common window types, along with the architectural styles they’re usually associated with:

CASEMENT windows are hinged at the side and open like a door, usually toward the outside. In addition to being the oldest type of operable (openable) window, they’re also probably the simplest, most practical, and most adaptable. Casements are available in wood, clad wood, plastic, aluminum, and more rarely, in steel or bronze. They can be paired with one or both sash (the part that moves) operable, with or without a center mullion (the divider between individual window units). Casements can also be ganged together into long bands, as in Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie houses. With appropriate muntins (what the window manufacturers refer to as “divided lites”), they’re suited to just about any architectural style, whether traditional or modern.

DOUBLE HUNG windows are another old-time standby. They have a pair of sash that slide vertically past each other, counterbalanced by cast iron weights in older examples and by springs in modern ones. Double hungs are widely available in wood, clad wood, and plastic. Shortcomings include balky operation when they get older and the inability to open more than half the window at a time. Many modern double hungs have a tilt sash feature that makes cleaning much easier than formerly. In some examples, known as single hungs, only the lower half opens. 

Double hungs are mainly associated with American home styles such as Colonials, Victorians, bungalows, and early ranchers. They’re generally not suited to modernist designs or to European-derived revival styles such as Spanish, English, or Normandy.

HORIZONTAL SLIDERS have a pair of sash that slide horizontally past each other. They’re available in wood, clad wood, plastic, and aluminum. Sliders became very popular after World War II, when architectural styles such as the California rancher favored long, low horizontal proportions. Unlike double hungs, sliders don’t have to fight gravity, so they don’t require counterweights, but they have the same limitation of never being more than half openable.

AWNINGS have a sash hinged at the top that opens out, while HOPPERS have a sash hinged at the bottom that opens in. They’re often combined or “mulled” with a larger fixed window. They’re available in wood, clad wood, plastic, and aluminum. Both are mainly found in modernist designs, and will look out of place in most traditional architecture. 

FIXED windows don’t open at all, and therefore can be had in just about any shape and any of the usual materials. 

In general, clad wood windows are the most expensive, followed by wood, aluminum, and vinyl. And lastly, some caveats: Avoid using casements or awnings along exterior walkways or in other locations where people outside (especially frolicking kids) may run into them when they’re open. Remember that bedrooms have to have at least one emergency egress window with a sill is no higher than 44” from the floor, and which will allow a 21” diameter sphere to pass through it when open. Use special window shapes such as round tops, circles, or octagons in moderation, and don’t forget that it can be tough to find window coverings that will match their shape.

Monday, September 9, 2013


Homeowners these days are amazingly facile with architectural jargon, thanks no doubt to the gaggle of home-improvement shows on TV these days, not to speak of the wealth of information on the Internet. But while lots of folks now know their antae from their astragals, as it were, a few stubborn terms are still routinely confused--sometimes even among architects. Here are the usual suspects:

Cement/concrete: Cement only refers to the powder that hardens when you add water. If you add sand and aggregate to the mixture, though, you get concrete. So strictly speaking, a cement mixer should be called a concrete mixer. 
Sash/window: The part of a window that moves is called the sash. The whole shebang--sash, jambs, sill and everything else--is called a window.

Mullion/muntin: A mullions is a heavy vertical or horizontal member between adjoining window units. Muntins are the narrow strips of wood that divide the individual panes of glass in traditional sash. In the case of so-called “simulated divided lites”, grilles resembling muntins are either sandwiched between double glass panes or else installed over the outer surface of the glass to give a divided look.

Trim/casing: On the outside of a house, the decorative frame around a door or window is called trim, while on the inside, the same thing is called casing. Go figure.

Sliding door/pocket door/bypassing door: The term sliding door refers only to the sliding glass variety that usually leads outside. Those interior doors that disappear into a slot in the wall, on the other hand, are properly called pocket doors.  To make things more confusing, the type of paired closet doors that slide past each other aren’t called sliding doors either--they’re called bypassing doors.

Girder/header/beam. In wood frame construction, a heavy horizontal member is called a girder if it’s below floor level, a header if it’s over a door or window, and a beam if it’s pretty much anywhere else.

Wall/partition: Structurally speaking, a wall is always bearing, while a partition is always nonbearing. In most houses, the exterior walls and at least one wall running down the middle of the house are bearing, while all the other walls--er, partitions--are nonbearing. Since these two varieties aren’t always easy to tell apart, it’s prudent to call in an architect or engineer before you go tearing out either one.

Shingle/shake: Wood shingles are sawn by machine and are relatively thin. Wood shakes are larger and thicker than shingles, and are split from a solid block of wood rather than sawn.

Flue/vent: Both of these things stick out of your roof, but a flue exhausts combustion gas from a fireplace, water heater or furnace--anything with a flame--while a vent leads those nasty gases in your plumbing system to the atmosphere. 

Banister/Baluster. Banister refers to the entire railing on a staircase. Balusters are the individual uprights in any railing, whether on a stair, a balcony, or whatever. So it’s fine to slide down the banister, but you probably wouldn’t want to slide down the balusters.