Thursday, September 28, 2017

Attack of the California Bungalow

Taking a swipe at suburbia by being positive elsewhere, I wanted give credit in this piece to a residential style that perhaps deserves a little more attention. What a defines a California Bungalow? I realize now I’ve liked the style without a complete understanding of its characteristics. Will this post be improved if I stray into long description of the style? Probably not. Because a more narrow focus might exclude examples of good design we can learn from. Instead, we counter the risk of over-generalization by being as critical as possible toward the topic in an effort to understand its appropriateness in the 21st century. Just to put some reasonable limits on the subject so we don’t end up in the forest, three characteristics of the style as discussed below: Minimal elevation changes within the site, a bright and airy interior, and post-and-beam construction. 

Addressing the most trivial characteristic of the bungalow first: I’m not so strict on it being totally flat simply because a couple of steps up or down can contribute a great deal to making the design better by helping distinguish between functional areas or solving other design problems. Also, using elevation changes within a  site in regards to landscaping can ultimately make the property more inviting, playing to the natural strengths of a site. There is something to be said, however, about a pure bungalow because users with mobility issues deserve good design too, and I feel this is a population that has been underserved. There is also the fact to consider that implementing a bungalow design is not the most efficient use space. And this feature absolutely needs to be balanced in terms of its appropriateness for sustainable design projects. There are strong arguments to be made that if one really cherished Nature, and the idea of Wilderness, that stacking people is a more effective way to keep tracks of ecologically sensitive areas open for future generations. The dim alternative is to only value a tree once it’s cut down, keep building for the love of freedom, and let anyone younger than a millennial learn about grizzly bears on Wikipedia. 

There are several attributes of the California Bungalow where its light and airy nature contributes to the substance of why this style is such good design. I’ve always been attracted to the Canadian versions of this style (which are known by different names), because I’ve found the quality of interior daylight to be superior than another suburban homes. The long overhangs and skylights make the interior bright, but also limit high contrast areas of direct sunlight which aggravate the eyes. The marketplace doesn’t always acknowledge this as an important quality-of-life factor, but once people live with a space that has excellent lighting design, they notice its absence more. Drawing a larger conclusion about how our neighbourhoods are designed, and how characteristics of Califorina bungalow design can contribute to sustainable development, requires us to go all the way to Japan. 

Japan’s suburbia looks very different. The houses are smaller to be sure, but Japanese suburbia shares winding roads in common with North America suburbia. The easiest thing to notice by visitors to Japanese suburbia is that all the houses are oriented toward the Sun no matter how the road is placed. Of course, the designers make an effort to create a workable front entrance, but North American suburbia effectively ignores the Sun. Goodness knows how many millions of tonnes of fuel were wasted because of this choice. Japan is not more progressive for orienting their structures toward the Sun, rather it’s a design element that never left their culture in the place. As pressure builds to reduce our carbon footprint, bungalows in a California style can leverage solar power in several ways if more carefully attention is paid to the path of the Sun throughout the day. 

Another factor to consider of the open spaces in California-style bungalows is their multifunctional nature. As we strive to raise the quality of our sustainable design projects, the importance we place on spaces catering to multiple roles needs to increase. Multi-functionality is a valuable quality. A random suburban home that has a feature popular in the marketplace when built, in many cases limits reuse for a different function in the future. A slightly more granular view argues designing efficient multifunctional spaces is  paramount to cost-effective and high-quality sustainable design. 

Lastly, we come to the post-and-beam construction many California bungalows utilize. Often this feature is faked with just a couple of timber beams accenting parts of the structure, but several of the projects highlighted in this piece ambitiously hunt for a full expression of post-and-beam architecture. Certainly this premium adds meaning to a structure. Gamble House in the arts-and-craft style, erected in 1929 in Pasadena, Califorina, is an early extravagant example which references many of the qualities that would later come to be associated with the Califorina Bungalow, especially its emphasis on the horizontal. One can dig even deeper into architectural history and draw out connections from Japanese timber architecture to California bungalows. Japanese wood joinery in architecture is probably the preeminent example of the expert execution of post-and-beam construction techniques, and it’s hard to fault home owners for not waiting years and paying handsomely for traditional Japanese carpentry. So it's with degree of acceptance we see faux versions of post-and-beam in modern bungalows as aesthetically a good thing.

Flavin Architects
This firm develops new designs and renovates old bungalows. Some of the glass walls featured are very dramatic; if, that is, one is predisposed to living with their draw backs. High performance glass is expensive and some people don’t like wearing clothes at home (who knew?). 

Malcolm Davis Architecture
This is an excellent modern interpretation of the Califorina bungalow featuring materials taken from the site itself. Located in San Francisco, its oriented toward the great views offered from the site and captures well the openness of a California bungalow. The reused timber looks amazing and the interior is so bright and airy it’s at risk of floating away. 

William Berkes and Robert Brownell
Super amazing house with great multifunctional spaces. This example is included to round out the category of bungalows showing they can indeed have elevation changes on site or in the design. This house on the East Coast has recently been renovated and I think was very successful at creating a timeless modern style.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Architecture Inspired by Nature

This topic has a long history in architecture, all the way back to the Greek and Romans if one believes the comments of Vitruvius on the need for the harmony of Nature to be reflected in architecture. This piece reduces that history into a digestible comparison of Nature inspiring each both form and function. 

Nature Inspires Form
With the recent opening of the Chaoyang Park Plaza in Beijing, good design takes another step forward. Though some may quibble at the use of all-glass facades and the implications for the surrounding urban fabric of such large buildings — and those points are fair when perfect architecture is the goal — ultimately we try to celebrate architecture on this blog and therefore recognize the project for its creativity. 

The nearly 400,000 sq. ft. multi-building project mixes residential and office spaces in an area that was on a long downward trend before the project reversed its fortunes. Some of the landscape topography of southern China looks quite alien to Canadians, but was expressive and unique enough to traditional Chinese artists and poets to stir their creativity. MAD Architects state an ink-and-brush technique called Shan Shui was their direct creative source for these buildings. Why use the art of nature instead of nature itself to inspire? The architects themselves are mum on why but it’s reasonable to assume that one of the historic talents of Chinese artists was their ability to synthesize the essential characteristics of these landscapes in to a poetic form. The two tall residential towers are reminiscent of the ancient wind and rain eroded mountains of southern China, and the other tiered business tower is meant to echo the eroded stone outcroppings one would find along a river. Literature for the project stresses this design program is meant to facilitate a harmonious relationship between the project and it’s surrounding community, and formally I think the project’s final form was a great success.

Nature Inspires Function
If broadening our investigation to multiple fields, Nature has continually shaped science’s progress. Cancer drugs inspired from the alkaloids found in garlic; nanotechnology progress drawn from the scales found on butterfly wings; etc. Therefore, it should be of no surprise to readers architecture has also relied on Nature to help solve many pressing design problems. 

One of the most counter-intuitive requirements of a skyscraper’s structure is the need to allow a certain amount of engineered flexibility in the design. This is in stark contrast to our direct intuition about large structures as being static and solid. Taipei 101's structural system borrows exactly from this analogy to defend against earthquakes native to the region and the effects of strong wind during typhoons. Bamboo has a wonderfully playful nature in which it always pops back into place after the exerted force is removed. Here the architects chose to express bamboo in the final form of the building as well, but it’s bamboo’s characteristics of flexibility and strength that make it a perfect model for skyscraper design. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Cost-Effective Characteristics Of Additive Construction Techniques

I've been waiting excitedly all Summer to return to the topic of architectural 3D-printing. Finally the latest news coalesced into something of a coherent point about where this technology is going. I first wrote about the above friendly-looking MIT-created robot earlier this year, and it continues to be a convenient reference point from which to start our story: Construction drones and 3D printing are converging in ways nobody expected.

The design studio is still responsible for the design, but the algorithms used in its construction challenge the traditional architecture or engineering firm with a very particular type of expertise. It's a gap in skills I'm not sure exactly how best to respond to; except perhaps to invite in a 3rd-party. In time, machine learning will no doubt come to have a dominant role in streamlining the significant amount of processing needed to make designs machine-readable by construction drones. Some thought will also need to be put into the large geospatial datasets which have now come to represent the construction site, and the structure's coordination within it, because this process has emerged as an area of expertise. Construction drones et al. have to know where they are in 3-dimensions in order to be effective. These challenges might seem daunting to traditional firms, but in reality represent the strengths of digital technology. MIT's research, once refined and commercialized, will offer significant cost savings and increased accuracy when deployed. The construction site might ultimately come to have less people on it, but one, those are the client's savings, and two, lets not forget this shift is creating jobs too, just elsewhere. Getting back to my main point that additive construction techniques are more cost-effective, I argue that firms who start to learn and develop expertise in these areas will begin to gain a competitive advantage against others in the marketplace by potentially offering a cheaper building on a per square foot basis.

A good analogy for why additive construction techniques are so cost-effective can be seen in the use of 3D-printed sand cores in the metal forging industry. ExOne and Voxeljet are two such companies offering the service. Complex sand cores can be built up of whatever component the client needs greatly shortening the production cycle for the final part. There are also active projects researching methods of printing metal directly from a metal-based ceramic-polymer or powder. FromLabs is probably the best known but the field is competitive and many different companies are growing quickly. The fascinating thing about 3D printed metal is how it's managed to advance the subject of material science itself. With all the innovation that's occurring in the field, materials have started to emerge that blur the lines between what is a metal, ceramic or plastic. Australia's Swinburne University of Technology's recent work refining the cementitious material mixture used in architectural 3D printers shows promising results in this vein. The process uses sand and various polymers to create a 3D printed material that shares many characteristics in common with sandstone, but with the added benefit of allowing customization to better suite the goals of the project. Scaling up, D-shape is a UK-based company trying to achieve structural 3D printed concrete. Again – very exciting technology – but limited by its structural qualities. Cementitious 3D printing has the advantage of not requiring formwork, saving both time and materials, and highlighting the fundamental cost-effectiveness of additive construction techniques.

Another way 3D printing is fermenting radical change in architecture is by opening up the possibility of new architectural forms. Again we turn to MIT to reference developments in a new type of structural system made possible (or at least made greatly easier) with 3D printing. Force-line structures have a healthy background in applied mathematics and engineering, but now find expression on the construction site through MIT's research on Stress Line Additive Manufacturing (SLAM). Precise placement of the extruded 3D printed material is key to these structures' strength. With time, methods can be found to optimize material usage and that, combined with the lack of formwork, potentially makes the technology very cost-effective to deploy.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Old vs. New: Masterclass

Though what follows is my most passionate praise of good design, I wish to be open from the beginning about my process for selecting examples. The point is not to settle the question definitively, but rather celebrate architecture. Contrasting these periods furnishes us with information and techniques that help elucidate good design in our own communities. Hopefully readers can forgive me for leaving so many excellent architectural examples off the page. This is especially true for a lot of the smaller more intimate projects which I would have included but do not have enough quality reference material available online to draw upon for illustrations. At some point the research has to stop, and celebration of architecture begin!

Villa La Rotonda, Italy.
Andrea Palladio 1508 – 1580.

Gently easing us into the subject, we first visit a canonical example from art history. Designed using the ideas of Roman architect Vitruvius, Palladio’s Villa La Rotonda from the late 1560s represents a sharpening and uniting of many architectural ideas before the extravagance of the Baroque and Rococo periods took over in Europe. Ideas of Humanism and the early Enlightenment influenced the structure and are represented in the main central rotunda, around which the whole plan is organized. The plan uses a piano nobile design where the main rooms are located on the first floor above ground level. There are practical reasons for this organization in a historically agricultural societies, but I think the design has benefits in modern times as well, but mostly these benefits draw on Eastern influences (like Feng Shui). Real skill is displayed in achieving the plan’s symmetry. Using symmetry as an organizing principle can contribute to the unity of the whole project. For the most part, however, the method has fallen out of favour in modern times. A result of the broader cultural shift away from Classical and Neoclassical styles because they have come to be associated with what many people would consider retrograde periods of history. Achieving perfect symmetry is a very challenging proposition in any design program however. In my opinion, this difficulty is one of its attractive characteristics. Investigating the site as a whole, how the structure relates to the site also reveals a lot about the how Palladio wanted to shape the building’s relationship with the environment. There’s really no effort made to make the building harmonious with the natural landscape. Instead, it’s full speed ahead to dominate the space with formal gardens which lead the visitor to the Villa. Interestingly, to increase solar efficiency, the building was rotated 45 degrees off the cardinal directions so that each room had quality daylight. Today the building is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is in good condition for visitors.

Himeji Castle, Hyogo, Japan.
Ikeda Terumasa 1565 – 1613, Tokugawa Ieyasu 1543 – 1616.

Of the art history I’m most familiar with, Japanese architecture ranks near the top. Many smaller and intimate Zen temples, whose builders’ names are now lost to history, is where my true heart lies. However, with only only one crack at selecting a building to represent the past, Himeji Castle of Hyogo prefecture, Japan, is a bold choice. The whole site is sublime. Established in the 1560s by Tokugawa Ieyasu, its military heritage is not hard to spot, with slots for archers chillingly placed around the grounds to triangulate on attacking troops. However, essentially once completed, Japan began several centuries of peace, which is why the structure handed down to us today in such good condition and has been deemed a World Heritage Site. There’s an abstraction to the layout that will be familiar to modern users, especially with the use of white to define the major forms. The terracotta tiles of the roof form elegant curves which highlights the care that went into its design. There are only aesthetic reasons to pick such a complex design because the people at the time ascribed such meaning to it. Inside the structures, one will see an also absolute tour de force of timber construction of a type we are not likely to see again in modern times. I’ve actually had the chance to tour inside these buildings and the timber construction is amazing. Some of the core vertical timbers are much wider than one could possibly put their arms around. The lack of nails or metal brackets in its construction is one of the factors that gives it such flexibility in this earthquake prone region, but is also a unique characteristic that is quite hard to execute. The rarity of Japanese joinery expertise and the decreasing availability of high-quality slow growth timber of massive dimensions contributes to its limited use in modern times. Himeji Castle is an example that stands alone in the quality of its construction and is not likely to ever be duplicated.

Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, China.
Wang Shu, 2007.

China Academy of Art’s Xiangshan Campus has to be an inspiring place to work. Phase II by Chinese architect Wang Shu, completed in 2007, has many playful touches, but instead of seeming silly, we see a master at work deepening the meaning of every detail, exactly how good architecture should be executed. The structure measured quickly impresses upon the viewer its sharp form and rectilinear design. However, upon reflection, feature upon feature is revealed (only some of which can be addressed in this short piece). Firstly, it should be noticed that the building is actually conforming subtly to an uneven hill side. If one were to walk the perimeter of the building, one would see its extremely complex relationship with the site’s topography. All is controlled and resolved elegantly in Wang Shu’s design. The sort of randomly placed windows mirror the creative and playful interior, but a lot of coordination is needed match the interior with the stair feature wrapped around the exterior which is defining its circulation patterns. The wooden strands woven through the railing is a nice artisanal touch, but close inspection of the stairs show the real conceptual genius executed perfectly as it links the various levels. Many projects would struggle with such a complicated feature (nor would changes in stair dimensions necessarily be allowed). The difficulty of the stair feature justifies this building’s inclusion in this piece but the whole is so much more. Hopefully, when placed side-by-side with Himeji Castle, some of the abstract qualities that we assume are modern, are revealed rather to be timeless.

Pritzkers Residence, Colorado, USA.
Renzo Piano, 2013.

A modern villa which compares favorability to Palladio’s is Renzo Piano’s house for the Pritzkers (yes those Pritzkers) from 2013. It’s reasonably safe to assume the clients are of good taste, and indeed the completed project is an architectural jewel. Located in Colorado, the house makes great use of timber to add a steady visual rhythm to the interior. A characteristic of Piano’s designs are great space planning and certainly in this building everything relates to everything else perfectly. I find the spaces so well considered. Each space is proportioned to the others other without anyone ever thinking: This space is too small or too large for its function. The multi-functional requirements of each room are well realized. It must be very interesting to live in such a house. The project is leagues more sophisticated than Palladio in terms of its relationship with the site, the structure being both placed harmoniously within the hillside and playfully cantilevered out. Arguments exist that the sort of Zen-like placement of different site structures is more sophisticated to both design and interpret, but I still think perfect symmetry with the same degree of functionality is more difficult. Another contrast modern readers will appreciate between Palladio’s villa and the Pritzkers Residence is that the building services are so much more sophisticated and complex today. There’s a purity to Villa Rotunda because the major skill necessary to design and build it was structural engineering. A good aesthetic sense is probably helpful but modern buildings and the architect’s role have changed drastically as the need to include other building systems in the design have grown. Residences are still great laboratories for design because their smaller scale allows for greater design risks. The increased complexity doesn’t seem to have phased Piano.