What Is The Future of Architecture?

I did a short talk the other day for a class of architecture students at Carleton. The lecture was part of an elective for fourth year architecture students called ‘Why Practice’ and is intended as a means for students to start thinking about their own future architectural professional options. The format was that I gave a short talk, then sat down with one of the students to be interviewed in front of the group.

The student interviewing me was very well prepared and asked provocative questions. She based her questions on my biography and experiences. Much to my surprise, she had even spent some time on this blog. Questions asked ranged from whether the vision for this blog, that the built environment contribute to a better world, was supported in my work at the NCC; what had led me to teach at Carleton last fall; what architecture, design, and planning employers are doing to encourage diversity; what architecture and planning can do to contribute to the global refugee crisis, and others.

Needless to say, these are difficult questions that don’t all have simple answers. On most of the questions I was able to communicate optimsitic answers, but also I have to say I appreciated the implied challenge that design professions, business owners, and the government can do better, because that is definitely the case.

It’s testament to the quality of the students in architecture today and of instruction at Carleton (the course is taught by Emmanuelle Van Rutten and Kristen Gagnon) that this class exists at all and that tough questions are being asked in such a professional way. I hope that when these students enter the profession they continue to ask thoughtful and difficult questions, and challenge the profession to serve them and the planet better. 

I’ve been asked to return to the same class for a round table discussion, and I’m looking forward to it. The future of architecture looks bright. 

Architect Jean Carroon on Sustainability, Heritage and Buildings

Jean Carroon spoke last Thursday evening at the NCC’s Urbanism Lab and she also did a short presentation to NCC staff during the afternoon the same day. Jean is a principal at Goody Clancy in Boston, an advocate for sustainability and heritage architecture, and the author of Sustainable Preservation: Greening Existing Buildings. She opened her talk by saying there’s a perception that Canada is ahead of the US on the issues related to sustainability.

Jean says the conversation on sustainability and the built environment is changing (sort of). Resilience, well-being, bio mimicry, biophelia, and people habitat are the new buzzwords. The average architecture firm in the US is 10 people and Goody Clancy is about 60 people. Her firm doesn’t happen to do developer driven work, and she feels this is a benefit because of the longer service life demanded by institutional clients.

Jean works primarily on urban buildings that have heritage significance. She shared Bill Reed’s dimensions of regenerative design; a way of thinking about buildings that proposes they could contribute to the environment rather than simply do less “bad”. Jean walked the audience through some of the main contemporary trends in sustainability as she sees them.

Some familiar metrics for sustainability include LEED, BREEAM, Promise, CASBEE, Green Globes, GA TOOL, Energy Star, STARS, 2015 Enterprise Green Communities Criteria. Jean says she used to be a US Green Building Council (USGBC) skeptic, but has been won over as they have taken on the chemical industry.

Passive Haus is on the rise as a prevalent certification in the US, as is Living Building Challenge; a highly aspirational model. The Bullitt Centre in Seattle is one of the first buildings certified under the Living Building Challenge. A problem with this model is that it proposes every building should be net zero. Jean doesn’t understand this requirement; buildings should work together with each other. Not every building needs to generate it’s own power.

Net zero energy certification is another valuable model, but will require a lot of dependence on batteries, and forgets some key issues: how big is a building? How many people are served? How many buildings are meeting this independently and are co-located?

The 2030 Challenge is another model that is going gangbusters in the US. It started with energy as a focus, but is now really expanding the conversation on carbon, and has a lot of US Architecture firms joining the initiative. There’s a conventional wisdom that you must engage the broad marketplace in a basic conversation to move the debate forward in a meaningful way in order to succeed. This is what 2030 Challenge has done.

Material data is a new trend in sustainability. A lot of companies and architectural product manufacturers are now willing and able to do this.

The Well Building Standard is part of a new sustainability trend that takes human health into account. This system is compatible with LEED but focuses on human health. The premise is that humans are more productive in healthy environments.

Windows, for example, are a key component of sustainability in buildings, and for some reason, an emotional issue for building owners and architects. Jean is a big proponent of keeping heritage windows where possible; basically, a replacement window will always be replaced again at some point. Better to retain the existing windows.

Jean asked whether Canada is working on carbon footprint and buildings, and the answer is that yes, Canada is working on this, but is probably not as progressive on this subject as they should be. She talked about how packaging (plastic bottles, for example) should be the responsibility of the manufacturer. We as individuals in our culture have taken this problem on, but it should be the responsibility of Coca Cola, and other companies, rather than the consumer. 

Is carbon an issue that should be addressed at the material level? Should we pay for the environmental impact of the product? If we changed the economic system so we weren’t allowed to ‘trash’ other countries, then the actual cost of building materials, for example, would be very different. Economics drive all building decisions; today replacing windows is often less costly than repairing existing ones, but I think it’s a valid question whether this should really be the case.

For me one of the main points that Jean made is that costs of consumer goods and building products don’t really take their environmental impact into account. If our society and its regulators were to address this issue, we’d see a lot more progress toward appropriate environmental footprints for human activities.

10,000 Views

Thanks to you, readers, this blog has finally achieved the 10,000 views milestone. I really appreciate the interest and especially the fact that it seems a lot  of you return regularly. I started this blog in 2011. With only a few hundred views that first year, readership has been growing consistently since then. As recently as 2015, we’d only had 2,000 views, so readership is increasing on a nice trend. I started the blog as a way of talking about how the built environment impacts global warming and climate change; itseemed at the time to be a poorly understood issue. It quickly became about a vision for buildings and cities that contribute to, rather than harm the environment. Of course there is more to global warming than just the built environment, but it’s been known since 2009 that a large portion, as much  as third of global warming is related to buildings. 

The good news is that understanding of climate change has changed radically since 2011, the accord signed by 195 countries in Paris in 2015 represents real progress on the issue; setting out a plan to limit global warming to well under 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. It does however seem that the US will take a new position on this issue that is most likely going to do significant damage to the progress that’s been made. 

In terms of this blog, though, the most popular topics have been green building materials, especially cross laminated timber. I try to vary the subjects and write about a lot of things that interest me from architecture, urbanism, and sustainability to art and design. A recent post highlighting Morten Schmidt’s lecture here in the Canadian Capital has gotten a lot of a readership, both here and in his native Norway. 

Long story short, Im pretty pleased how much reach this blog is developing and how many readers seem to find and come back to this site. Please keep reading and commenting! 

The Library as Third Place

Morten Schmidt spoke at the Museum of History this week. Schmidt is a partner at the renowned Danish architecture firm, Schmidt Hammer Lassen (SHL), best known for their libraries. For context, they have proposed a new central library for Ottawa, recently, together with Toronto’s KPMB architects.

Full disclosure, my employer, the NCC, put on the event together with Carleton’s Azrieli School for Architecture and Urbanism, for whom I recently taught an urbanism studio.

Schmidt Hammer Lassen’s library in Halifax recently won a Governor General’s award here in Canada,  and they’ve been recognized for their work all over the world. They recently won library commissions in Christchurch, New Zealand, and in Shanghai, China, and have built more than 50 libraries worldwide.
The NCC’s Dr. Kristmanson and Andy Fillmore, MP for Halifax, who is also a planner and urban designer, introduced the speaker. The Hon. Mr. Fillmore talked about his experiences and challenges getting Halifax’s stunning new library built. The entire downtown was rezoned by 2012, to try to spur growth, setting the stage for the new central library.

Schmidt’s focus is what he calls ‘democratic architecture’; one that invites the entire public to enjoy it, and is designed using a thorough consultative process. He shared the firm’s work including several libraries and a few other cultural buildings.

Today, he says, the libraries play the role of a ‘third place’, where people gather; between work and home. In our digital society, human minds are changing; based on using phones all the time to look things up and navigate though cities, we don’t use our memories as much. But despite changes in technology, the need for libraries continues. Our access to information is also today increasingly being controlled by companies like Google and Amazon. The public library should be an answer to this issue.

Copenhagen’s Royal Library, for example, designed by SHL, holds the nation’s archives, but is also designed as a social place, and is completely open to the public. This library is both a civic and cultural centre.

The most important function of the library today is to allow people to reinterpret the world around them. Besides museums, libraries are among very few truly public spaces today. Involvement and empowerment of individuals and communities is key to today’s library.

In Halifax, the public was intimately involved in the design process, over a period of six months. In consultation with the local kids, who were “Harry Potter mad” what the designers heard over and over was that it should be like Hogwarts. The designers decided to watch the movie again, and the moving stairs in the movie became a source of inspiration. Library attendance has been much higher than expected in Halifax, and the library is considered highly successful.

In Aarhus, SHL created a new library on the waterfront, the result of a design competition. The library doubles as a transit hub, with a light rail station and automated parking garage in the building. Kid friendly play structures surround the library. Inside, public performance spaces and contemplative quiet places abound.

In Shanghai, Schmidt is designing a very large new library with massive interior public spaces.

SHL broke ground on a library for Christchurch New Zealand recently. A lot of buildings are missing in that city today, because of the recent devastation by an earthquake. The library will be the first major public building. Maori traditions are being incorporated as a key component of the project.
The Hon. Andy Fillmore and Mr. Schmidt sat down after the lecture to speak more informally about the work, and take audience questions.

As an architect and urban designer myself, I find Schmidt’s work inspiring. Having received a presentation like this I’m struck that North American public buildings have a long way to go to be more ‘democratic’ and welcoming to the public, but also more aesthetically successful. 

Cross Laminated Timber and ‘the Timber Age’

Cross laminated timber, for some reason, has always been the most popular topic on this blog. The most read article on the blog in 2016 (and ditto for every other year I’ve been writing) was about this unique building material that seems to be challenging pre-existing notions about what can be built with wood. 

Some readers are apparently well versed and seem to be seeking out information about this product, but for those who aren’t as familiar, cross laminated timber is a wood product that is engineered to create panels that are much thicker and stronger than typical ply wood. These panels can be insulated and use to build walls and even structural elements in buildings. Wood in general is considered an excellent building material from a sustainability point of view because of its low embodied energy, renewability, and the fact that forests absorb carbon. 

So what’s being built these days, using cross laminated timber? The answer is all kinds of buildings including some of the greenest buildings being built today. Some examples can be found here, in this Dezeen article about the ‘age of timber’.

What Makes A Good Rink?

I find myself at a lot of community sports facilities. I’m a coach for my daughter’s ringette team and I see the insides and outsides of a lot of Ottawa and Gatineau’s rinks, arenas, and sports complexes. We travel to tournaments outside Ottawa too, usually in suburbs of Montreal. I grew up playing hockey recreationally in a small Alberta town where the outdoor rink was a hub of community life in winter

In parts of North America that experience winter, rinks seem to fall into a few main categories: either they’re outdoor rinks that are temporary and get taken down every summer, or they’re extremely basic buildings often built with a lot of concrete block and very few windows and dating to the 60’s, or third, they’re very large and recently built ‘sheds’, usually in suburban locations, with a lot of nice finishes on the inside and built in the last 10 years. 

As an architect I don’t find the latter two types very satisfying. I don’t think that anyone that goes to the 1960’s era rinks actually enjoys them; they’re  mostly very cold and windowless. Outdoor rinks definitely have their place and it’s hard to argue with these, although even in a very wintry place like Ottawa, they don’t seem to have very long operating seasons. 

It’s surprising that a culture like ours that values ice sports so much doesn’t seem to see fit to make sure our rinks reflect the importance we ascribe to the sports that are played within them. Even the newer rinks don’t really have anything ‘civic’ about the way they’re designed and built. They’re nice to be in, but from the outside they’re pretty banal. 

The rink at Toronto’s Greenwood Park. Photo from cityrinks.ca

Given all of this I was really pleased this weekend when we drove past this rink at Toronto’s Greenwood Park. It’s apparently three years old and really is a thing of beauty, and has a nice ‘pavillion’ feel to it. One of the most remarkable things about it is the amount of glass the architects used. The experience of skating at this rink is one of being part of what’s happening in the park, and those who are outside the building can clearly see there’s activity on the inside. I’m told that the ice surface is chilled, and I’m not sure if the rink is operated year-round but it seems like it could be. I wish more communities in Canada and the US would build rinks like this, or at least apply this type of civic minded, community oriented thinking to the design of ice rinks and arenas. Thanks to Greenwood Park and that community for showing us what good architecture for recreation looks like. A real civics lesson.

2016 At www.see-change.net

2016 was a pretty unique year, for me personally, professionally, and for this blog. 

On a personal level, I had some health issues that I’d never had to deal with before, not least of which was a car accident. A Toronto driver t-boned us on Dufferin Street in the spring and I’ve been dealing with the impacts ever since. On the more positive side it was a year filled with fun with my family including a trip to Hawaii that I won’t forget any time soon. We all learned to surf … it doesn’t get better than that. 

On a professional level, I had the opportunity to teach a third year urban design studio at Carleton this fall. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and I was very flattered they asked me to do it. I’m just finishing up grading now, and I have to say it was a highly rewarding experience.

Here at the blog, I managed to keep the posts going, but maybe with a little less frequency because of the other things I was dealing with and had taken on. Readership was down just slightly from 2015, but higher than 2014, with about 2,000 views so I can’t complain too much. We’re very close to having 10,000 views for the blog overall, and it’s a milestone I’m pretty excited to pass. In 2016 the most popular posts were about cross laminated timber and EHDD Architecture’s 25 Year award from the AIA for the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Top referrers were Facebook and Twitter, and most readers came from the US and Canada. 

In 2016 I tried to focus more on urbanism in my posts, rather than strictly architecture and sustainability. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the blog this year, and will continue to check in on it. 

Throwing Light (Not Shade) In Canada’s Capital

Thanks to Francis Pearce and Illumination Magazine for their piece on the NCC’s Capital Illumination Plan in the ‘Sketchbook’ section of their magazine. It was my first time being interviewed for an in-print publication, and Mr. Pearce took the best parts of what was said and basically made me sound much better than what I recall. Read it for yourself here

Is Architecture A Good Profession?

A couple of Architecture students asked me what I thought about their career choice the other day. These are third and fourth year undergraduate students facing a few more years of school minimum, followed by probably three or four years of internship to complete their licensure so they can become bona fide architects. I understand the dilemma. 
I told them I had considered other professions too, during school, like they are. I looked into medicine, law, journalism, and design of various types. I don’t know that any of these professions, except maybe medicine, have it better, on average, than architects do, though. 

On the other hand, Architecture is a very tough profession where at times it seems the odds are stacked against you. The bar to admission to the profession is high, the hours are long, and the pay is unexceptional. Add to this the fact that almost every architect I know has a story about being buffeted by one or multiple recessions where they lost their job and most of their colleagues did too, and you have what looks like a pretty difficult profession. 

I personally can’t complain, though. I have worked at top design firms in both the US and Canada and have managed to land a job as an architect working for the federal government in Canada. The job pays better than average for my level of experience, and the hours and benefits are good too. The best part about my job (and most of the architectural profession) is the many and varied challenges that are always popping up. It really is an exciting and challenging profession and it seems there is always an opportunity to learn something. 

So, yes I think Architecture is a good career choice. You have to know yourself and make sure you find a place to do what you do best, and that’s not the easiest thing. It can be a really rewarding profession, if you can find just the right venue to practice it. 

I’d love to hear your comments on this. 

How Tall is Too Tall?

Building height is something that can be quite controversial when a developer is proposing to build in an existing neighbourhood. I’ve been exploring this issue with my third year urbanism students at Carleton University this fall. 

Ottawa is not known as being a city of tall buildings and part of this is is a result of the NCC’s views protection policy that has been adopted into City of Ottawa zoning. I work with this policy fairly often as part of my role in federal approvals at the NCC.

At Carleton the issue has come up because we’re looking at the existing Civic Hospital site as a mixed use development. The premise is that the hospital’s operations have begun at Tunney’s Pasture ten years from now. 

We had a few community stakeholders in to look at the students’ work recently and I asked them about height. I thought their answers were quite good. The advice we received is basically to think about the context. Building something tall next to low scale residential buildings isn’t great. Draw a 45 degree line from the lowest building and try to fit taller ones under that line. 

I’m curious to hear other reader’s thoughts on this topic.