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.

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’.

Light Pollution Is Changing Life On Earth

A third of people on this planet can no longer see the Milky Way. A recent study has concluded that for a third of the inhabitants of earth, ambient and constant light pollution has eclipsed the night sky to the extent that the galaxy we live in can no longer be seen. 

It wouldn’t necessarily have occurred to me that this an important thing for humans but, in fact, it is a big deal. Scientists are calling it an unprecedented cultural loss. 
Bright areas show parts of earth where the night sky is no longer visible. Image from Guardian UK / University of Colorado.

Up to the age of 19 I lived in a small Canadian town where the stars were constantly present. Since that time I’ve lived in major North American metropolises including Chicago, Washington DC, and Toronto where connection to the night sky basically included the moon and not much else. I have to say that the difference is significant and being able to see the night sky changes your perception of you place in the world. Today I live in Ottawa, a smaller city, where still we have quite a bit of light pollution. I really miss that sense of wonder that goes along with staring up at a truly dark night sky with planets, stars, and yes, the Milky Way easily apparent to the naked eye. 
As cities change over it LED for lighting buildings and streets, we have an opportunity to change the way we do things and protect the night sky. For consideration. 

Design is Disruptive

Good design is often about doing things in a completely different way than they’ve been done before. And when you’ve innovated and found a better way you really can’t go on doing things the way they’ve always been done. In this way, design is disruptive to the status quo. CBC and Matt Galloway have created a new series about brilliant Canadian designers and their work, called Disrupting Design, and I’m very pleased that a project I worked on, Bridgepoint Active Healthcare, is featured in episode 3. 

I think you’ll agree that the series is very well done, and makes a compelling case for design innovation. In episode 3, Greg Colucci and Marian Walsh talk about the patient centred design innovations that took place at Bridgepoint and how they have improved patient outcomes.

As is often the case with hospital architecture, the design team for Bridgepoint was extensive including multiple firms; KPMB, Stantec, Diamond Schmitt, and HDR made up the architectural team. The project has recieved many accolades for design excellence including from the American Institute of Architects, the Ontario Association of Architects, and others. 

The video is available here. Bridgepoint segment begins around minute 8.

 Images are stills from the CBC tv series Disrupting Design.  


How To Build A Sustainable City

What is sustainability? How can it be measured? What is a sustainable city? Berlin architect Vanessa Miriam Carlow addressed these questions and more in a well attended talk this evening at the National Galery of Art in Ottawa. 

Visiting Ottawa as a juror for the Governor General’s Award for Architecure, Ms. Carlow is a professor at Technische Universitat Braunschweig, and principle at the firm COBE Berlin. She is an architect that has focussed on urban design and public buildings. Surprisingly, given the unreliability of design competitions as a business model, most of her firm’s work comes from her many successes in winning urban design and architecture projects through entering competitions. 

In the Architecure school’s studio at TU Braunschweig, along with her students, she has chosen take on collaborative projects tackling real life urban problems. 

Ms. Carlow began her talk by highlighting the increasing importance of cities. In 2006, 2.6 billion people lived on earth. It continues to grow, and in 2100, population projections figure a global population of 11.2 billion. Vanessa is convinced that a result of this population increase will be that cities of 2 billion people will emerge. In Guy Lefebre’s book, The Urban Revolution he suggests looking at how people use space rather than looking exclusively at built form, an unfortunate tendency of contemporary urban design that Ms. Carlow stands strongly against. She predicts two types of cities will emerge in coming years. In high population growth countries, in Africa, for example, cities will notfocus on creating new urban areas (rather than slums). 

While European cities are considered by some, given population projections, to be “95% complete”, issues facing European cities are multiple. They include climate change, diversity, and the right to a livable and sustainable city 

Vanessa’s work seeks to address cultural issues in Northern Europe. She showed a library in Copenhagen where immigrant communities gather to enjoy books. 
Interkultur, a book by Mark Terkessidis is influential to COBE’s work, and documents Germany’s struggle to become an inclusive society.

Vanessa’s firm designed a new harbourfront development for Copenhagen. IPCC, Denmark’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has identified a future where sea levels will rise 2 m. The project creates a sustainable, public oriented development. 

By the end of the decade, Copenhagen predicts 50% of all trips will be made by bike.

Vanessa’s quite proud of having reducing the amount of road used for cars in favour of trees, bike lanes, and wider sidewalks.

‘The 5-minute City’ is basis of much of Vanessa’s design work. Individuals 

DGNB – German LEED type standard. Applied in many cities and countries. 

In Senegal, Vanessa worked on a city for 125, 000 houses. The average Senegalese family has 8 people, so in effect the goal was a city of 1 million inhabitants. Similar sustainability principles were applied to this project as were applied in Berlin. Creating a city where most things people need are within 5 minutes’ walk. Creating a ‘blue, green, and healthy city’ was a goal; with access created between water and green space. Agriculture is planned for a ‘green’ band around the city. Streets are designed to channel water into the lake. No storm water pipes are proposed; saving time and money.

A city for 125,000 houses near Dakar, Senegal. Image from COBE.  
While there were many sustainability proposals seem viable, the type of community consultation that Vanessa was involved with in Europe seems to be lacking with this project. Interestingly Vanessa said that her lecture recieved a comment in Toronto that the street trees she showed in the project didn’t provide shade. She says they are changing to deciduous trees for the project. 

An excellent lecture, really enjoyed it. More at

The Answer to Ugly Wind Turbines 

A reader shared a project recently where some Dutch architects have proposed a building that is both habitable and generates electricity from wind. The project provides a compelling answer to the visual blight that single purpose wind turbines can be.

While the building is immediately reminiscent of the blade less fan developed and marketed by Dyson, it works on different principles. Architects Doepel Stijkers designed this 173 m tall building to quietly produce 1 Megawatt of electricity.

Image: Doepel Strijkers


This Welsh House Isn’t Glamorous, Except From Energy POV

Dear readers: please keep the great sustainability and architecture articles coming. This three bedroom house in Wales was shared by a friend and reader of the blog and is being billed as Great Britain’s first Energy Positive house

I have to say that while the houses’ design vernacular leans more toward standard UK housing stock, it’s lack of beauty doesn’t get in the way of huge energy cred. It’s designers tout that for every £100 in electricity used it will generate £175 in electricity exports. Amazing.

For those like myself who crave a little more physical beauty when it comes to architecture, these highly sustainable houses might be more up your alley.

Photo from Guardian UK.


Cross- Laminated Timber Gets Full Marks

In recognition of the enduring interest that cross-laminated timber has generated on this blog, here’s a really top notch project by the Netherland’s Drost + van Veen that pays high homage to that building material. This interpretive centre is beautifully sited and the details and massing are deftly handled. 

Wood construction has the potential to improve the the building industry’s environmental footprint  significantly as it is renewable, can be regrown relatively quickly, and trees consume carbon dioxide as they grow. Interesting, too, that the wood construction industry in North America is feeling new life because of this sustainable building trend.

   Images from Arch Daily.

More information here. And here.

How To Drive Innovation Culture In Sustainable Building

Architectural Record and software maker Sefaira presented a webinar last week about the challenges of leading in this complex and continuously changing field. One of the most salient analogies for leading and innovating compared car maker Tesla and their method for opening up room for innovation to that employed by the building industry. It’s interesting that the approaches are opposite. Tesla, whose batteries we’ve blogged recently, has had the luxury of starting off with a very high end niche product with few or no compromises (their luxury electric car) and then building the brand by creating lower cost vehicles that model their aspirations but for a broader market. 

One presenter, Premnath Sundharam talked about how the building industry, counter to Tesla’s method, has relied on incremental change to innovate in creating high performance buildings. He said that 2030 Challenge is his preferred tool for setting a sustainability agenda in his and his firm’s consulting work, largely because it has clear goals and deadlines. One approach they use is creating ‘net zero ready’ buildings when clients or budgets don’t allow for meeting meaningful high performance goals. In this approach, buildings are designed such that equipment for on site energy generation could be installed at a later date, bringing the building to net zero performance.

Another presenter, Jeffrey Till of Perkins and Will (P & W) had some good insights into his firm’s culture of innovation. They’ve created an internal focus group on high performance buildings and regenerative design; focussing on improving human health and productivity. AREA is a P&W web site that they’ve created to hel communicate their ongoing high performance buildings research to the world.


Van Dusen Gardens visitor centre, a net zero building. Image from P& W.


Anastasia Huggins, of Gensler, and Roger Chang both spoke underlining approaches to building innovation culture within their respective firms. Anastasia outlined a step by step approach to sustainable building problem solving and Roger provided insights into some common pitfalls that impede innovation.

Tesla’s Less Glamorous But Equally World Changing Product

Yes, I’m talking about the fact Tesla recently unveiled batteries for residential use, a product they call Powerwal. I’ll freely admit to being a huge fan of Tesla’s vehicles; they’re inspiring both from an environmental and design point of view. 

Batteries for houses are much less an object of beauty than are the company’s cars, but this new Tesla product has the potential to radically change the viability of solar and wind power for home, just for example, and is intended to bridge the gap between peak solar (mid day) and peak use (morning and evening). Tesla recently announced it will retail these large capacity relatively low cost batteries at around $3500 USD.

Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Tesla says the batteries are a “fundamental transformation [in] how energy is delivered across the earth.” It seems that 

Powerwal image from Tesla

How Powerwal batteries bridge the gap between peak electrical demand and peak solar energy availability. Graph from Tesla.

 US utility companies are gearing up for a real challenge by solar, especially when it comes to home solar. So far, unfortunately their response seems mostly defensive.