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.

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. 

Minimalist Art and Architectural Space

Ottawa’s National Gallery of Art is honestly one of the things I appreciate most about living in this City. It had been a couple of months since I’d been there when I visited last weekend, which meant there was plenty of new things to take in. 

The Chris Cran show is surprising and witty. Some of the governor general’s award winners were on display. 

Overall, though, one of the things that made the experience most rewarding was a realization I had about modern art and space. I’ve always been on the fence about the value of minimalist art, but standing in the room with pieces by Rothko and others, I realized that the value of paintings and sculpture like that, for me, is the way they contribute to space.

I recall the discussion around the most recent addition to MoMA being the way the building was planned around specific art pieces, and the success of the addition being its interaction with the art.

I assume when Moshe Safdie associates designed the room that showcases ‘Voice of Fire’,for example, the space was purpose built for the painting, but I don’t know for sure. If readers know the story I’d love to hear it.

Minimalist art on display in one of the National Gallery’s most successful spaces.

Health Care And Design Excellence Can Coexist 

When I started working in architecture I remember a mentor telling me not to get involved with healthcare. The logic was that hospitals are generally large bland buildings where design is driven by too many factors that have nothing to do with making good buildings. This is part of the reason I’m so pleased about last week’s announcement that Bridgepoint Active Healtcare, a project I had the privilege of working on, has recieved a Governor General’s Award for Architcture. 

With this recognition and a recent AIA Award, Bridgepoint has joined an elite group of recent North American hospitals and health care facilities that are being recognized for their superior architecture. In the case of Bridgepoint, this means recognition that not only is the building beautiful but it’s design is in the service of patients. 

Thanks to the initial vision of Bridgepoint’s CEO, Marian Walsh, ideas about patient-centered design were carried throughout the project. Light, air, views, healthy interior spaces, and myriad other features all contribute to making a place where patients can really feel better. I’m very pleased the GG Awards’ distinguished jury saw this, and confirmed that Bridgepoint broke the blandness mold that so many healthcare buildings are cast from. 

Images below are from the GG Awards website.

Zaha Hadid 1950-2016: She Changed The Face of Architecture

Zaha Hadid. Image from Dezeen.

When I met Zaha Hadid in 1995 or 1996, at a lecture at the University of Michigan, I had no idea the contribution she would make to architecture. At the time she had completed the fire station for Vitra in Weil am Rhein but very few other buildings. I remember her slide show was mostly comprised of photos of her paintings and drawings. She had ideas for building that broke with convention and charted new territory, and was only then just getting started.

Fire Station, Weil Am Rhein. Image from Encyclopedia Britannica.

She died this week and has left a legacy of buildings all over the world, both beautiful and difficult, that challenge ideas about what architecture should be. This week she has been eulogized by the other luminaries of the profession and the press alike. Perhaps most noteworthy is that a Muslim woman, born in Baghdad, has changed the face of a male dominated profession. 

 Heydar Aliyev Center, Baku, Azerbaijan. By Zaha Hadid Architects. Image from Dezeen.

Grand Designs: Hiding in Plain Sight

Have you ever had one of those moments when you’re introduced to something that seems like it was hiding in plain sight? A friend recently introduced me to the British tv series Grand Designs and I can’t believe I didn’t know about it until now. It’s been around since 1999, and for an architect and design junkie like me this is amazing stuff. 

    We watched host Kevin McCloud chronicle the efforts of a young couple as they buy a property in Northern Ireland on a stunning sight overlooking the sea. With astonishing  hard work, architect Michael Howe and his wife Michelle Long create an addition and transform the 100 year old black smith shop into a stunning home for themselves and their two children.

    This home makes the most of its north coast Ireland setting. Image from Belfast Telegraph.

    For me the best part of the way the show is made is that they follow the couple as they plan and build the project. The show details the myriad challenges of the project and the setbacks, with what seems to be a sympathetic but realistic eye. The project comes alive before your eyes, and unique and innovative ideas are explained in a way that both professionals and everyone else can understand. As the project develops difficulties are encountered that seen insurmountable, but the couple finds a way through. All in all it makes for a great show.

    While they’ve made something like 160 episodes, the one I really want to see next is about the creation of this improbable and unique house by Patrick Bradley Architects made of shipping containers.

    The Grillagh Water house is made of stacked shipping containers. Image from Dezeen 

    Giving Young Canadian Architects A Leg Up

    I’ve long thought that Canada was a good candidate country to build a strong ‘brand identity’ around its young architects and urban designers. We have that northern cachet like Scandinavian countries do and we have a relatively high achieving design culture already. We just don’t market ourselves as well as say, the Dutch. 

    A friend shared an article that highlights how this is all changing thanks to an organization called Twenty and Change, and an exhibit staged recently in Toronto, and continuing until February 6. 

    Apparently this has been going on for four years and is responsible for raising awareness about up and coming Canadian design practices like Winnipeg’s 5468796 Architecture.

    Many other countries actively support their design and architecture cultures, but Canada does not. I’ve had several conversations recently with people about why this is and how to build a better design culture in Canada. We don’t have a national design or building museum, for example, as do many other countries. We do have the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, but somehow the national conversation on design and building seems lacking today. Would love to hear reader’s thoughts on this.

    Some of the work on exhibit at 20 + C. Photos from the Globe and Mail.   
    Work by Architecture Microclimat.

    A project by Woodford Sheppard.

    Bad Guys Need Good Architecture

    I caught Ex Machina on Netflix last night. I’d wanted to watch it for a while because ever since reading Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep as a teenager I’ve been fascinated by artificial intelligence and the idea of a future where droids are almost indifferentiable from humans. The movie version of that book, Bladerunner, is my favourite among a few movies that feature very interesting buildings.

    Ex Machina is a decent movie and the acting is quite good, but one component that especially grabbed my attention as someone that loves a good movie set is the Juvet Landscape Hotel in north west Norway which serves as the bad guy’s lair in the movie. 

    Designed by Jensen & Skodvin Architects the hotel is wood clad and spectacularly nestled among trees overlooking a river. 

    In an article in Dezeen, the production designer for the movie, Mark Digby, says some interesting things about his choice of locations and how hard edged, shiny buildings are typically “for the bad guys.” He wanted to address that but says the choice of set was about being more interesting than that too. He stresses the importance of the choice of set given that the whole of the movie occurs in one house.

    Personally I find the set and especially the architecture of the hotel they used stunning and I’m amused that they chose to represent the badness of the villain in ths way. The combination of wood cladding and very crisp glazed walls achieves a really elegant effect, and is definitely not the typical Dr. Evil lair. 

    Have you seen the movie? Would love to hear readers’ thoughts.

    Images from Dezeen and Juvet.


    Leading with ‘Why’

    A reader shared a Ted talk with me recently that gave me pause. The speaker is Simon Sinek and the title of the talk is “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” He begins the talk by asking how great leaders are able to defy expectations. He asks how Apple as a company can be so innovative, year after year.  He asks why it was Dr. Martin Luther King that led the civil rights movement and not some other equally qualified individual. 

    Sinek talks too about some examples of companies that have had great ideas but never really saw them realized fully. He points out that these companies focussed on ‘what’ they were offering consumers rather than ‘why’ they needed it. 

    Apple on the other hand has always focussed on the ‘why’, articulating a vision of challenging the status quo and broadcasting that they ‘think different’.

    The key difference between organizations and individuals that innovate and others is that they have leaders that have specific vision for what they do and the way they articulate it to others.

    An architect that I see using this leadership style very effectively is Bill McDonough who is considered one of today’s leading environmentalists. He articulates a vision of a healthy, just, and safe world with clean air and water for all. 

    All of this has made me realize that with this blog I had been talking a lot about ‘what’ the blog was about and not so much about ‘why’ I’m doing it. I’ve re-tooled the ‘about’ page focussing more on the vision that drives; the idea that cities and buildings should contribute to a better world rather than costing the planet so heavily. 
    I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    Photo: John Tajima 500px  

    We’ve Gone Beyond The Point of ‘Buildings Should Do Less Harm’

    Buildings should contribute positively to the environment, not just be efficient. We’ve gone beyond the point of ‘buildings should do less harm’. This important environmental message was a point of consensus among a panel of Governor General’s award winning architects at Friday’s Ottawa Architecture Week event at the NCC’s Urbanism Lab.

    Panelists included Colin Neufeld, Monique Asselin, Alar Kongats, and Diarmuid Nash. Maria Cook of the RAIC moderated.

    The subject of the event was Design Excellence and equally interesting debate occurred around this subject. Colin Neufeld has wowed the award juries with his studio’s low cost buildings, and he asserted that “… design excellence is an approach, and not a matter of project cost.” Alar Kongats was perhaps more cautious, saying that “… we do have to commit a certain amount [of money] to making excellent things.” He advocated avoiding being too clever about project budgets and that we avoid spending public money on things that don’t last.