Monday, October 16, 2006

How buildings learn, part 1

Well, I have been reading, if not consistently posting. With all of the other things that fill a life, it is difficult to make a coherent review of everything I've been thinking about, but I'll start to stab at it here. Everything on the reading list has to do in some way with what you might call the reality of the built environment. That is to say, if you could examine the entirety of existing structures standing today, how much of it was even designed by an architect? Well, not that much actually.
What are the most successful designs through history? And in the interest of sustainability, what lasts?
I'm beginning with Stewart Brand's book 'How Buildings Learn' (1994) because it is the most accessible and pertinent look at what I think should be a basis for thinking about making 'green' buildings.

Brand is a proponent of what is called 'the long view'. That is, taking into account what today's choices may mean not just in the short term, but over lengths of time that most people are unused to thinking about.
According to Brand, the illusion of architecture is that buildings seem permanent, but that they are for the most part actually designed, financed, constructed, maintained, and remodeled not to adapt.

His findings, in studying how buildings survive through time, is that they all adapt anyway- or they don't last- which is usually a sad waste. Brand, and later we will see Habraken, question the idea and the traditions- of how and why and for whom, we design and build and encourage designers to take into account the end user in a more intelligent manner.
Brand's goal in this book is to provide a study of what really happens to buildings and ideas about construction, through time.
What building is never adapted by it's eventual inhabitants? What structure is ever actually 'finished' for that matter? In the Middle Ages, scaffolds were left up around the great cathedrals because only God could ever 'finish' a building to perfection...
Anyway, Brand encourages us to embrace this inevitable change when we are building, and to that end seperates what makes a building into a hierarchy of form and function in degrees of permanance:

-First is SITE. This is the most permanant aspect of a building and is, barring catastrophe, nearly permanent. It's parameters are paramount in considering the type of building possible.

-Next is STRUCTURE. This is the frame, the bones. it's where timberframing comes in (not exclusively); its possible to build this element to last hundreds of years.

-SKIN. What bears the elements- with a limited lifetime, it is a shell designed to protect the structure and eventually be replaced.

-SERVICES. Dependent on technology, always upgradable with a finite lifetime- should be designed to be easily maintained/replaced.

-SPACE PLAN. Interior partitioning; adaptable to changing needs.

-And finally, STUFF. What is inside, the least permanant fixtures.

Considering these categories in the process, the design process can avoid waste and put initial energy and investment into systems that can make a building last generations. Consider that today, more money/time/energy is spent on changing existing buildings than creating new ones; if the design process recognises this heirarchy, we cna begin to see a path to sustainable building.

Next time: more thoughts on 'How buildings learn'...

Friday, September 29, 2006


Built in 1636? That's old. And it's in the New World. The Fairbanks house in Dedham, Massachusetts is the oldest timberframe home in America.

Another example: This is called foresight.

Open Building Exposure

I hope to have more to say than periodically reviewing articles in FHB, but the latest issue does contain a detailed article on exactly what this blog is about. 'Reinventing the House' by Bensonwood company steward Andrew Dey is a summary of how that company understands and applies the principles of open building.
I should say first of all, that I was drawn to these concepts in the search for a real definition of 'sustainable development' i.e., how can one improve the industry of building- an industry constantly evolving in every part of the world, from remodeling suburbs to developing countries, from restoration of historic city districts to the most modern skyscrapers- with the realisation that just the scale of construction today is a great part of the unprecedented impact that modern humans have on our environment. I'm not sure exactly when I first thought that even considering responsibility for this impact was important at all, but certainly having a child recently has given me cause to push further ahead with being part of the solution. Who doesn't want their children's children to at least have the chances we have? Living here for four summers didn't hurt my appreciation for the sanctity of pristine ecosystems.
So why be concerned at all about changing the way we build our environment (that is what we are creating, a 'built environment')? What is 'green' or 'environmental' anyway? Yurts?
EMR shielding canopies?
What about just thinking about what our present course may mean for future generations? How much evidence does it take to stop pretending our impact on global ecology and biological systems is negligible or harmless, doesn't exist, that we are helpless to take action in any case, or that technology alone will solve any problems we cause to the planet's vitality?
I'm sure most of this isn't new or news to most of you, but watching the slow, complex, and convoluted workings of environmental policy closely (through my wife's work in the relatively liberal European Union), has forced me to conclude that the real message is still passing many of us by.
'Reinventing the House' is a comprehensive look at open building as practiced by one U.S. timberframing company. As far as focusing on sustainability (basically just trying to leave things at least as good as you found them), the concept of open building (with it's roots in commercial building techniques) is a strategy that reduces waste through efficient use of resources and sytem design; incorporates a long term view through adaptability and seperating the 'use' layers of a building; and takes advantage of off-site fabrication, cutting edge technology, and a respect for tried and true craftsmanship. In the interest of conserving my own resources- here are some better explanations and great resources:
-Dutch architect N.J. Habraken's informed take,
-International Council for Research and Innovation in Building and Construction definition,
-Bensonwood's white paper.
It's not cohesive or foolproof or adapted for every climate, clientele, or society, yet- but it is a significant step in the right direction.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Old Danish stairs

We visited the town of Haderslev, Denmark recently for a friend's wedding. While there, we took a day trip across Jutland to the town of Ribe where we climbed a great number of stairs in the Ribe Cathedral. An amazing old building, I had never before seen timber stairs cut like this.

Oddly enough, I was watching British kid's programming today with my son and I saw another set in an old half-timbered house that the puppets of 'Tweenies' were visiting...

Here is a pair of half-timbered houses leaning towards each other in Haderslev-

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Building Thoughts

About a month and a half ago, I read an article by Ted Benson in Fine Homebuilding called 'A Dismal Standard'. A critical look at common practices in the American residential construction industry, the article prompted me to investigate what I believe will be a revolution in future building processes. Basically, Benson laments the loss of craft in the building industry and points out the sort of planned obselescence that goes into creating a product designed for short term profit by an increasingly ameuter workforce. He maintains that hope for the industry lies in updating methods with the help of new technology and the respect for lost craftsmanship. It struck home with me for several reasons. I had begun reading Fine Homebuilding again for inspiration while remodeling a 100 year old house where we are living for four years in Enschede, the Netherlands. Before this project I had spent a year living in and rebuilding a wooden caravan in Hengelo (NL) and the three years before that working as a carpenter in Charleston, S.C. In that time I learned a good bit about basic building, but an equal amount about the working of construction as an industry- it's oft-fulfilled potential for negative environmental impact, the frustration of coordinating subcontractors, but also the beauty and art of well-designed and executed built environments.

Though the title appears a bit depressing, I was impressed reading about ideas for changing the building process that I found in Benson's work and other sources I found after digging into a little of the literature. It inspired me to do some research into timberframing as sustainable architecture and led me to the concepts of 'open building' that I've discovered in many readings and have just begun to find examples in realised projects here in NL.
This blog will be a place to keep track of my thoughts about building, review what I'm reading, and generally share what I find interesting about 'green' building. I'd also like to have a way to connect people that share ideas and interest in architecture and sustainability and discuss what I am learning as a sort of informal study method. Welcome.