Back To Blogging After a Six Month Hiatus at

Wow is it December already? This year has been really busy and hasn’t left much time for the blog. A quick look at the stats shows that people are still visiting though, so I’m glad you’re still finding the content worth showing up for!

Since it’s been six months since my last post, here are some things that have been going on:

  • The Capital Illumination Plan is done. Find a link to the completed oeuvre here.
  • Artsfile did an article about the Plan.
  • My employer, the NCC, published a blog post about it here.
  • I bought a house in a Campeau development from the ’60’s this summer and I’m really happy with it.

Houses Built For Human Health

Technology in buildings should be a supplement, not a life support.

Paula Baker-Laporte and Bobby Ilg presented on Friday at the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s conference in Ottawa, detailing a very fresh (for North America) approach to residential architecture.  

Their architecture is one of thermal mass, natural building materials, and radiant heat. This is an approach that comes from a d people understanding of social cl buildings and what they can do to humans. Paula wrote a book about healthy buildings that details her approach. 

In the US, full health data only exists for about 7% of chemicals are used in a typical new building. Paula is an advocate that we should be building more naturally, and relying less on chemicals. 

An example is foam insulation which is marketed as a ‘green’ building material but it requires a full safety suit and respirator to install. Seems fundamentally questionable. Wool batt insulation, by contrast, requires no equipment to install. 

Contemporary building construction is using a lot of unknown materials but isn’t generating better results in terms of building performance or human health. The Building Biology movement looks at the building as an organism, and works to ensure its health, improving the health of the humans that use it at the same time. 

Principals of healthy buildings include:

  • Heavy walls that retain heat
  • Radiant heat 
  • Few or no chemicals; natural materials 
  • little waste
  • No pollution
  • Hyic buffering (can safely store water)

Bobby saw Paula speak at a conference a few years ago, and has embarked on his own healthy building journey, building his own healthy house on a 50’x100′ lot in Ottawa. 

The frame is heavy timber with Japanese style joinery. Insulation is clay coated straw. A couple of natural builders in Ottawa have now built a shop where they’ll build and dry straw panels for buildings. 

Bobby worked with RDH building envelope consultants from Waterloo to show the city how the building would perform, in order to get a permit. He had to demonstrate how the building met Ontario Building Code durability requirements, under part 5 of the code. 

Carbon emissions comparisons were done for typical high performing (as in LEED Platimum for example) and high performance natural buildings. The natural buildings have negative carbon footprint for many years. Quite an impressive feat. 

More information at:

Wood As Mainstream Building Material

In the world of residential construction wood has long been a primary building material. Innovators in Canada and the US are now making this true in North America for commercial and institutional buildings. 

Angelique Pilon and Pénélope Martyn, from UBC, are two of these innovators, and they made a well attended presentation this week at the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Conference here in Ottawa. 

I’ve been very interested  in this trend and have blogged it extensively here, and one of the key innovations that has made this possible is mass timber, a family of built up wood products that are becoming increasingly available on the market. 

Advancements in product types have gone hand in hand with advancements in fabrication and computerization of the design process, making mass timber buildings more and more viable. 

One reason that UBC is able to be an innovator in this field is that they can commission, own and operate their own buildings. They also view wood construction as character making for their campus, they require LEED Gold for campus buildings, and they have targeted creation of a net positive campus by 2025. Their definition of what is a ‘net positive’ campus is quite interesting and worth checking out.

Angelique and Penelope showed some of UBC’s recent mass timber buildings as case studies. A couple of the campus’s indegenous centres are stunning examples of this construction type.

One of the key issues around this building type is forestry management, of course. The speakers indicated that while Canada is a leader in this field, there is work yet to do. 

Innovations in Canadian Urbanism at RAIC

Canada is a hotbed of urbanism and urban design thinking. This was a topic of a panel presentation at the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada (RAIC) conference here in Ottawa. Presenters included David Gordon, Alexandru Taranu, Dan Leeming, Éric Turcotte, Rick Merrill, Ute Maya, and Antonio Gomez-Palacio. 
My notes from the presentation and panel are below. 

According to David Gordon, the bar for Canadian urbanism is constantly being raised by public agencies. Canadian cities are completely distinctive from US cities. We have: 

• higher transit usage

• two hours driving from wilderness

• the most multicultural cities in the world (Toronto in particular)
Canada is an increasingly urban society (about 80% today). Or is it? Vancouver is actually 78% suburban, by population. Montreal is 85% suburban. In Canada only 12% of the population live in urban cores. We are a suburban nation. Most building in Canada takes place in suburban contexts. ‎Any perspective on what is Canadian urbanism should take these factors into account. 
Dan Leeming talked about impacts of climate change as outlined in a recent study by The Lancet Commission. They have outlined a 5-year action plan to deal with the impacts. 
Progress is being made to address climate change. ‎Dan outlined some of the measures that Canada has taken on the last 10 years. 
Arcadis has identified a Sustainable Cities Index (2016). Number one is Zurich. Two is Singapore. Vancouver, the highest Canadian city, is number 23. New York is the highest US city at 26. ‎This index is skewed toward cities that have jobs, of course. London is fairly high on the list, but set to slide, based on Brexit. 
Dan concluded by indicating that global gaps between GHG reduction targets and actual results are widening. The US is going backwards on this. We need a new non- confrontational approach to reach common interests. The World needs to rally around climate change as we did around HIV / Aids and polio. 
Eric’s presentation centred around transit as a structuring element of cities. Toronto’s the third largest metropolis in North America, and growing. The average Torontonian spends ‎79 minutes driving every day. 
New transit lines are coming but not quickly enough. These new transit lines are being delivered via P3 processes. Something that’s unique in this process is Metro Link’s principles of design excellence for train stations; seeking to balance functionality, simplicity, and ‘place making’. ‎ They are seeking to ensure that train stations don’t have to be relocated as density is built up around stations. 
Suburban stations are currently mostly car-oriented. Proposals will make ‘places’ around these and ensure pedestrians can move around them. Pearson airport remains poorly connected, however, in spite of the new train that connects it to downtown. ‎Plans now exist to radically improve this condition. 

Designing For A Changing Climate

Dr. Jeremy Gregory is the Executive Director of the Concrete Sustainability Hub at MIT. His presentation at the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada (RAIC) Festival of Architecture this week in Ottawa addressed some of the issues around designing more sustainability given what we now understand about risks to buildings in this changing climate.
The good news is that better tools are now being used to understand life cycle costs of buildings and to help designers make better decisions earlier in the process of making a building. Clients are asking for green buildings today, in a way they never did in the past. Better tools now exist do make green buildings that can withstand the types of events we’re now seeing more frequently.  The less good news of course is that our changing climate is bringing about a lot of new risks to buildings. I recommend checking out MIT’s Concrete Sustainability Hub and their online presence for more info on this, whether you’re a building owner, designer, or engineer. 

Slow Spring

I haven’t blogged too much this spring, partly because I’ve been trying to buy a house and it’s taken up a lot of time. The house buying process is definitely testing my values, and mostly seems to be an exercise in trying to figure out which compromise we’re willing to make. I’d love to buy something near the core where I could walk to work, but the reality of having young kids in school is of course making that difficult. 

The good news is that Ottawa is well served by transit, mostly buses, and biking seems to always be an option. I hope to be writing a post about my new house soon. Stay tuned …

Why Practice? 

It was an honour to be invited to participate on panel at Carleton University Azreili School of Architecture and Urbanism this week that was intended to address the question “Why Practice?”. The course is offered as part of a fourth year elective with the same name; “Why Practice.” The course’s goal is to inteoduce students to various forms of professional practice in the broad field of architecture. 

With me on the panel were Andrew Waldron, Heritage Conservation Manager at Brookfield; Toon Drewsen, architect and president of Driessen Cardinal Architects, Mohammed al Riffai, an Associate at Moriyama Teshima Architects; and the panel was moderated by Emmanuelle Van Rutten who taught the course and is Director of the Ottawa office of Moriyama Teshima Architects. 

Toon gave a short talk about his experiences in private practice, rounding out a series of lectures that had taken place in the course. I had presented the public architect point of view in an earlier class, and others had given talks on their own professional experiences. The panel then discussed various aspects of what it means to be an architect today and what students should expect from their careers. Students were given an opportunity to ask the panel questions, and one of them really struck a chord with me. 

A student framed a question by saying that ecological architecture often involves aesthetic trade offs, and asking “… what do we do with that?” To me this question goes to the core of what we as architects do. Yes, every architect is faced with aesthetic trade offs, and yes ‘green architecture’ also has its own unique trade offs. One of the key value propositions of architecture is in fact the ability to take complex problems and deliver uniquely aesthetic solutions.

Abstract: A Window Into Designers’ Thinking 

The future is being shaped by designers working with intention to change the way we look at the world. This is one of the central ideas behind a new series of documentaries about design that was released this February on Netflix. Produced by Scott Dadich, editor in chief at Wired, the series is called Abstract: The Art of Design.

I’ve been watching the series with my daughter, age twelve, and it’s really fun to see design thinking presented in this way, and to look at it through the eyes of someone so new to the subject.  

So far we’ve watched three episodes that feature designers Tinker Hatfield of Nike fame, Ralph Gilles who is global design lead for Fiat Chrysler, and Ilse Crawford interior designer. My daughter is an athlete and a big fan of running shoes in general so she loves seeing how Tinker works on a design for a new shoe. 

Personally I think I got the most out of seeing how Ilse Crawford creates spaces for all the senses. Her uniquely humanistic approach to creating interior spaces really resonates with me. 

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.