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.

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’.

Reimagining Urban Waterfronts 

Jelle Therry of West 8 presented their internationally acclaimed work recently week at the National Gallery and for the NCC staff. This dutch landscape design firm has been involved with some of the most interesting urban design and landscape architecture in North America recently. These are some notes I took when Mr. Terry spoke at the NCC’s Urbanism Lab to a group of architects, landscape architects and planners. He presented a series of the firm’s recent projects, providing insights about how the work was developed and the importance of the public realm. 

Toronto Central Waterfront

The inner harbour had some real environmental problems in 2006 when the project began. Pike (the fish) were absent from the water and Toronto street trees weren’t well planted or cared for and typically survived only 5 years. West 8 created a master plan for Toronto’s central waterfront. One of the key problems historically were the ‘pinch points’ where pedestrian movement was constricted by very narrow sidewalk widths along the docks. The now famous curving wood ‘wave decks’ provided an elegant and compelling answer to this problem. 

Wavedecks were the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the fact that if the wavedecks cost $5, then $4 of that amount was spent on improvements to the ecosystems in the harbor; a part of the project that you don’t really see when you visit but is very important to the ecology of the waterfront. Within 5 years the pike was back living along these harbour front locations. 

The promenade was expanded and is now 18 m wide. Below the walking surface, eventually, will be a system for cleaning storm water before it enters the lake. 

Pedestrian bridges have been designed that will be implemented some day. 

The traffic flow along the waterfront has been improved. Cars have been moved to the north  side of the streetcar track. Along 1.7 km of lakefront, the public realm has been completely rehabilitated. 

Property values have improved along queens quay. What was a $200 k condo is now a $350 k condo. Mr. Terry attributes this partly to the infrastructure and public realm improvements along the Quay 

Mr. Terry closed by saying that in Toronto, strong leadership has been the genesis of these ideas. Chris Glasiek and others have really provided a vision for improving Toronto’s public realm.

Madrid Rio

The mayor was looking for re-election and identified the river and getting the public access to it as a campaign winning idea.

The ring road was buried, making way for public space. Trees and paths were added.  Today it’s a zone for playgrounds and for recreation. The royal palace has been reconnected to the river. 

Maxima Park: Utrecht, NL

West 8 did a master plan for this major urban park on the periphery of Utrecht. The park was built in phases, beginning with a bike path around the periphery. The overall build out will take 20 years. 

Jelle says that one key to the success of West 8 is that they are always collaborating with other designers. 

A natural lake has been brought back to the heart of the park. Today people swim and boat on it. 

A concrete pergola creates opportunities for creativity in the park; it acts as something to plant against, and something to create space with. It’s used to make gates. 

Governor’s Island, NY

When West 8 won a competition to  redesign this place, they were very excited to propose a new green space between Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. 

Today the island has a lot of paved area and is in poor condition. 1800 trees are proposed. The landscape is raised to create planting places for these trees, above salt water, both today and in the future. Topography and hills provide views of Manhattan and frame views of the Statue of Liberty.

Some of the most compelling elements of the project are the whimsical ones; a grove of trees supports hammocks, curving and very steep slides provide fun for kids of all ages. 

It’s All About Water

The way Chicago and Quebec City are connected is all about the 2000 mile Great Lakes watershed. 80% of North America’s surface water is here. Yet we still don’t look at this as a resource, but mostly a way to move waste away from Cities.
Phil Enquist, an architect and partner at SOM, presented a keynote last Friday at the Canadian Institute of Planners conference in Quebec City. He showed us some of the work he and his firm have done on the Great Lakes basin. He titled the project “Great Cities, Great Lakes, Great Basin.” I’ve captured some of his talk here.

The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River Initiative is an organization of mayors along this watershed. 

At the Chicago Architectural Foundation, an exhibit raises awareness of what the Great Lakes Watershed is, and what can be and is being done to protect their s resource. Questions asked include “What can basin cities learn from each other?”
Drought is a major issue for the US. Great lake levels will probably be reduced in coming years due to increased evaporation as the earth warms. 

Phil Enquist’s project on exhibit at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Photo from SOM.
Other challenges for the region include shrinking cities and the prevalence of non-renewable energy use (coal) that is adding Mercury to the lakes. 
The project has been renamed “The Great Basin Century” in recognition that it’s about more than just the lakes. 

Can we see this region as composed of “innovation belts” both past and future? A great example is south Chicago’s Theaster Gates. 

Can we look at connecting this region with high speed rail? The potential exists to connect the entire east coast and Great Lakes Basin in this way. 

Copenhagen puts 4% of its waste in a landfill. Chicago today puts 90%. We can do better. 

Growing food better is key to cleaning up our water. Recent algae blooms have been the result of not so careful agricultural practices. Here too we can do better.

The Brookings Institution has studied the economic benefit of environmental clean up of the Great Lakes. Essentially the pay off would be double the investment cost.

The Calumet watershed is a case study undertaken as part of the Great Basin project. Roughly the size of the San Francisco Bay Area, this is a lakefront area with really no vision. The first step is to regain the lake front. Next, protect green space. Thirdly create innovation hubs. 

The second case study Phil has undertaken is Detroit. Together with a French Landscape architect, they’re studying turning Detroit’s public lands into wetlands that help clean the city’s water before it goes into the river.

Phil asked the planners in the room to be brave with their proposals. Think in a utopian way, even when clear financing strategies aren’t yet known. He says we need the US and Canada to work together in new ways. 

Density Can Be Done Well

Issues in North American cities today include housing affordability, unpredictable energy costs, climate change, aging population, public health, placelessness, and identity. There are answers and they are part of city building. This is the main message of Brent Toderian’s presentation today at the Canadian Institute of Planners. 

Doctors and health practitioners are starting to speak loudly about the importance of walkable and dense neighbourhoods to public health. Sprawl has real economic cost too. Even conservative analysts now admit that sprawl costs more in terms of delivering services like sanitation to municipalities.
Cities and suburbs are changing, not because of ideology but because of better math. 
Simple innovations will save our cities, like wheeled suitcases and wheeled shopping bags. This much more so than driverless cars.
Demographics are pointing toward more urban living for families and for millennials. The narrative that families don’t want to live in urban situations is simply not true, if the appropriate services are provided. 

Vision, will, and skill are the basics that cities need in order to innovate around providing increased density. Vancouver is proving in scores of ways, that density makes good cities. Calgary, though, too is making a lot of the right decisions. 

Medellin and Bogota have good transit and increased attention on urban mobility, public space, and social equity. But the key urban problem in all these cities is sprawl. The key problem with sprawl is automobile dependence. If you can’t get anywhere except by car, you live in sprawl. 

Brent is working with aging malls to retrofit dense urban living on these properties. 
“Adding highway lanes to deal with traffic is like loosening your belt to cure obesity.” – Lewis Mumford, 1955

Vancouver and all the other ‘cool’ cities are tearing down freeways to restore neighbourhoods. Toronto had the opportunity but failed recently [with the Gardiner Expressway].

Vancouver has changed the prioritization of modes; it designs for pedestrians first, bicycles second, transit third, moving goods fourth, and cars last. If you design a city for cars it works for no one. If you design a street for people, it works for everyone, including cars. 

Density done well includes consistently high quality of design both in terms of landscape and architecture. Vertical sprawl is car reliant neighbourhoods with taller buildings. This is not urbanism. Great design creates value (see photo). 

Brent Toderian talking about how great design creates value in cities.

Density done well requires a diversity of amenities. These should be requirements for good development. Density done well requires innovative green development. Vancouver’s South False Creek with its district energy plant is a great example. 

Neighbourhoods change. This is a reality. We need housing types that fill in the gap between single family and mid-rise development. 
We need to get from NIMBY to QUIMBY – QUality In My BackYard.
Brent closed by saying that making it real takes vision, will, skill, and follow though!

In The Q & A, one of best questions was about adding requirements for three bedroom units in developments. The person asking indicated they didn’t have a legal basis to make this a requirement, yet it’s broadly known that families would be more likely to move into the city if there were larger units available. Brent responded by talking about how when proponents request zoning changes, Cities can absolutely set requirements that are backed up by facts.

Toderian UrbanWorks 

brent@toderianurbanworks.com

@BrentToderian

Toronto Is Getting Transit Right

The assumption in Toronto today is that a 45 minute commute is ok. We shouldn’t accept long commutes. It takes hours out of our day, and has serious negative health and community impacts.
Jennifer Keesmat, Chief planner of the City of Toronto spoke yesterday at the Canadian Institute of Planners Accent on Urbanism 2016 conference in Quebec City. 


Image: Toronto street cars. James Bow, photographer.

Her talk was called “Transforming your City by Getting Transit Planning Right.”, and she mainly discussed her own experiences with transit issues in Toronto. This was my first planning conference; ( I’m attending because I presented earlier today) and I have to say I found this particular topic fascinating. Toronto is growing very rapidly and this inside view of how Jennifer’s group is tackling the challenges that come with that reality was instructive. I’ve captured some of the more the salient points of her talk here.

20 years ago in Toronto, being near a transit station was seen as a negative. Today it’s exactly the opposite. Today’s thinking is directed towards actually pre-zoning areas for development before transit gets built. 82% of Canadians live in car oriented suburbs, according to Professor David Gordon.
Toronto is working to actively engage youth and the disenfranchised in community consultation. Toronto’s ‘Feeling Congested’ campaign was directed at drivers, specifically. They’re not an easy group to engage, compared to cyclists, for example. Discussion guides were created to help leaders engage with their community. They built tool kits for discussions with community leaders. Handed out packages of tissues to citizens in order to drive web traffic. Kleenex provided sponsorship. Media picked up the story en masse. The brand has taken on a life of its own. City councillors regularly refer to ‘what we learned from feeling congested’.

The greatest risk to the city is that we continue to make decisions as we have in the past. 
Jennifer asked; “what are meaningful responses to feedback and consultation?” First of all, informed opinions are valuable and need to be sorted out from the other opinions that are so often received. You need data and evidence to bring to the conversation, in order to inform the public, in order to receive informed responses. 

Eight evaluation criteria are used to de-politicize decisions around transit development. 
A transportation network is about access. Providing a one trip transfer for all is the current goal. All transit modes are part of the evaluation. Today the City of Toronto evaluates the entire system when making decisions. 60% of transit trips in Toronto begin on the bus, so it’s impossible to ignore this mode (as is often done). Today’s realization is that we need to all be like Paris; with constant and consistent transit development. This is not radical thinking, except in Canada.  

This conference session was well attended and there were some great questions. I’ve captured a couple, along with Jennifer’s responses here:

Q: Is pre zoning working? A: Yes, but there’s a lot of backlash around rezoning and construction disruption that can really derail projects.
Q: How to deal with the challenges that the speculative environment provides? A: In Toronto, we need stronger policy tools to deal with those who are not ‘city builders’ and want to make a quick dollar. The capitalists amongst us who only want to make money provide a real challenge to those who care about neighbourhoods and the quality of the urban environment.

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. 

How Your Mindset Changes Everything 

I’ve been reading about the difference between fixed and growth mindset. It turns out this is a powerful determinant of outcomes in people’s lives and the more I read about it the more it makes a lot of sense. Basically people enter into any situation with one of two perspectives: either you already know everything you’re ever going to know and you have to apply what you’ve been given, or conversely, you’re about to learn something from this experience. 

I was talking to a friend about this yesterday evening; someone I grew up with. She said, you know I think we were trained from an early age that we were trying to make the most of a hand we’d been dealt. She and I agreed that only later in life did we start to look at situations as more plastic and as opportunities for learning.

Personally, I can think of a lot of situations where looking for an opportunity to learn would be of benefit to me. I can see how looking at life through a growth lense is beneficial; setbacks are opportunities to learn rather than failings, and challenges are a lot more fun.

The Future of Energy

The future of energy involves a lot more renewables and diverse energy sources. I had the pleasure to attend an event this week put on by Canada 2020 called Global Energy Outlook 2016. The event was really a conversation between Dan Yergin, Vice Chairman of an energy consultancy called IHS, and The Honourable Jim Carr, PC, MP, the Canadian Minister of Natural Resources. Ailish Cambell, Deputy ADM, Finance skillfully moderated some questions.

Dan Yergin at this week’s event. Photo from Canada 2020.

Mr Yergin talked a little about how OPEC countries are diversifying their economies, and trying to make their economies more resilient. His prediction is that markets will continue to become more competitive and that electric  cars and alternative fuels will continue to compete more. He also maintains that fossil fuel use will continue to grow until 2030.
Dan pointed out Canada’s enviable position in that it has 80% renewable electricity, partly due to hydroelectric power.  

And he talked about Germany where they have shut down nuclear power plants but have increased their carbon footprint, initially, on their way to a low carbon future. 

I thought The Hon. Mr. Carr asked an excellent question: “Canada has trouble innovating in renewables. We’re lagging. What’s your advice?”

I was hoping for a bit more substantive answer to this question, but Dan’s advice is that we should look at past innovations. How the oil stands started, for example. 

When the minister asked about COP 21, and Bill Gates’ work organizing the private sector to reduce carbon emissions and whether there’s any convergence with Canada’s big picture role, Yergin responded; “It’s a big role in the traditional energy sector. Canada needs to get competing buyers for our oil, be a clean energy leader. Renewables, clean energy, and efficiency are key.”

When Dan expressed curiosity about what Canada’s relationship to the Pacific will be in the future, 
the minister said the country is moving to federal carbon policy. Today 80% of Canadians are under some type of carbon regime. Maybe the most important statement of the evening was by the Hon. Jim Carr, who said;  “We must meaningfully consult our aboriginals when we consider energy projects.” The audience broke into applause at this remark. 
The minister also mentioned that the “… Prime Minister announced green infrastructure last week to the Canadian Federation of Municipalities. The government has an obligation to lead by example with buildings and vehicles.”