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.