building science

AIA CRAN Symposium - A professor, an architect, and the green police

I was in Minneapolis last week, attending the 2015 American Institute of Architects Custom Residential Architects Network (AIA CRAN) Symposium, "Elevating the Art of Residential Design and Practice". I was CRAN last year and have to say that this years talks were well-rounded and very relevant to modern day architectural practice.

I particularly enjoyed the following three lectures that discussed sustainability and green building.  A professor, an architect, and the green police presented:

  1. How the Collaborative Economy is Transforming Housing, by Thomas Fisher
  2. Integrated Green Design: High-Performance Design Strategies for Building Design & Construction, by Peter Pfeiffer
  3. A Review of Green Building Products & Systems: Green Washers Beware!, by Michael Anschel & Carl Seville

I'm told, these lectures will be available on soon.

How the Collaborative Economy is Transforming Housing by Thomas Fisher

The 30,000 ft view: Fisher's talk gave the big picture, the long term projection.

The gist: Architecture, architects, and the future - the status quo is unsustainable.  Sigh!

Tom Fisher identified the four drivers for the paradigm shift in the way we live, work, play, travel, create, learn, bank, and consume - Technology, Values shift, Economic realities, Environmental pressures.

He spoke about:

  • the current trend towards a peer-to-peer/ sharing/ collaborative economy (Kickstarter, Uber, Getaround, Lyft, Airbnb, etc)
  • Driverless cars and how that's going to change our cities
  • Millennials, who are looking to live in downtown and the inner city, because they value experiences more than the idea of buying a single family home with a big yard out in suburbia
  • the third industrial revolution of mass customization
  • our ponzi scheme with the planet

While he made some very salient points, pardon me, I don't share in his prophecy of doomsday and collapse.  I have since listened to several of Fisher's lectures (available online), and I'm afraid they all carry the same Malthusian critique and predict the downfall of our world and planet.

On the contrary, I think we humans are an ingenious bunch.  Most individuals and systems make life and our world better.  If you don't share my optimism, check out

No doubt, driverless cars are going to change our lives.  If people are willing to spend 1 to 2 hours per day driving to work now, I can't help but think that driverless cars, along with home delivery meals, and telecommuting will only exacerbate urban sprawl, not alleviate it.  Better services and infrastructure will incentivize people to live further away from town.  If the industrial revolution gave birth to cities, the third industrial revolution is going to spread population out, along with wealth.  P2P and sharing economy is leading to horizontal distribution of wealth, and generally millennials are wealthier than their parent's generation.  It may be true that millennials value experiential purchases more than material consumerism.  But, once they start having families, do you think they will want to live in crowded expensive inner cities when they have a choice to live elsewhere.  Heck, they will be wealthy enough to own secondary lakeside (or other destination) vacation homes that their driverless cars will take them to (as they relax and watch a movie in transit, no less).

Integrated Green Design: High-Performance Design Strategies for Building Design & Construction by Peter Pfeiffer

The 3000 ft view: Pfeiffer reviewed his thoughts on green building through his lens as a practical architect.

The gist: Design like you give a damn about the environment and green-by-design is more economical than green-by-gizmo.

Full disclosure - I was a Project Architect at Pfeiffer's architecture firm for more than 8 years.  Suffice it to say, I subscribe to the philosophy of green-by-design (passive first, active next), and know a thing or two about high-performance buildings.

Pfeiffer talked about the benefits of high-performance buildings.  As always touted, reduced environmental impact and consumption; but equally important, improved health, enhanced comfort, and low cost of ownership.

He also presented the green design pyramid, which follows the logic of the food pyramid.

Green building pyramid

  1. Design for Climate (the base): Design decisions and choices made early in the project (pre-design or schematic phase) provide maximum impact for minimal cost. For example - site selection, siting and orientation (responsive to climate- breezes, sun/shade, views), programming and zoning (for a/c), house sizing, etc are passive strategies for a more energy efficient design.
  2. Building Science and energy conservation: Building envelope design (roof system, insulation, wall system, glazing, etc.), HVAC specifications, water saving fixtures and appliances, energy efficient light fixtures and appliances, material selections, etc
  3. Energy production (the top):  Also called "green bling", this tier includes photovoltaic arrays, solar hot water, geothermal, and wind turbines that generate power/energy and get you closer to net-zero.  Even with the federal (and city utility) tax rebate, this bling can set you back several grand. They are the cherry on top or lipstick on a pig, depending on the project.

One would think that is an easy sell to a group of architects.  It puts more power into the hands of the architect, the inspired generalists, and positions us as leaders of green building.  And yet more builders and product manufacturers command that space than architects.

A Review of Green Building Products & Systems: Green Washers Beware! by Michael Anschel & Carl Seville

The 300 ft view: Up close look at the green building products available on the market.

The gist: Don't get caught up in the hype; know your building science.

Anschel and Seville (the Green Police duo) talked about green washing and presented the 8 sins of green washers: lack of proof, worshipping false labels, vagueness, false conclusions, hidden trade-offs, fibbing, lesser of 2 evils, irrelevance.

Building green is a matter of juggling the following: site impact, community impact, resource efficiency, water conservation, indoor environmental quality, energy efficiency, durability and maintenance, ease of use, practicality of installation, noticeable improvement, and last but not least, beauty.

If you are lost in the quagmire of green building products out there, a) you are not alone, b) look into using Pharos Lens to make more informed choices, and c) try not to get hung up on the products, unless you have particular health concerns or sensitivities.

There's also this documentary film (Greenwashers), which is now on my watch-list.

Just remember, there are 50 shades of green and you are damned if you do, and damned if you don't.



Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis

Architects in all shapes and sizes - architect avatars

This should come as no surprise, but not all architects are created equal!  I'm not referring to the product of their work, but the process of their thinking, the difference in the "kind of mind".  Broadly speaking, on one end of the spectrum, there are the architects who design using their right brain, and on the other end of the spectrum, the architects who use left-brain processing to solve problems.  No matter where an individual is on the spectrum, he/she brings value to the architecture profession in general and their projects in particular. Most architects fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum and put on different thinking hats while juggling aesthetics, purpose, functionality, opportunity, construct-ability, durability, cost, etc to make design decisions.  However, every architect has either one strong avatar or several avatars that exemplify their core competency.  Based on my own personal experience, having worked with and for different architects, I've made a list of architect avatars. They are not listed in any order of importance and is by no means exhaustive.  Read on to identify your avatar.

The artist architect -  these architects are primarily artists. They are sculptors who view buildings as their medium, using its three-dimensional form to express their ideas. To them, buildings are monumental sculptures in the landscape. They are the visionaries, the dreamers, the trend setters, the trail blazers.  They capture your imagination with their doodles, abstract thinking, and inspiring narratives.  We celebrate these architects whose buildings stand as a testament to their creativity.  Frank Lloyd Wright (and his Falling Water) is an iconic example of this avatar.  Contemporary architect Frank Gehry is known for his sculptural deconstructivist forms and his abstract sketches.

The philosopher architect - they are the explorers, the thinkers. They see architecture as a benchmark in civilization, and take a world view to ponder on the merits and demerits of architecture on society, its cultural statement, and it's long-term effects on humanity.  They question convention, push the boundaries of tradition, and redefine the paradigm. Their ideology dictates their practice and product.

The green architect - a subset of the philosopher architect, they care about the environment and are conscious about how buildings tax the earth's resources.  They make educated decisions to help lower the ecological footprint of the building and users, integrating passive architectural strategies and active energy-efficient systems.

The building scientist architect - they think about buildings as machines.  Buildings are certainly expected to perform like machines with modern amenities like air conditioning, electrical, low voltage, plumbing, and fire suppression systems.  Water management, thermal dynamics, insulation, etc are all topics that they geek out on - understanding the science behind the details allows critical thinking in a variety of applications. They have a strong aptitude for the sciences and math.  They love calculations, and enjoy a technical challenge.

The tech-savvy architect - this is the gadget girl and gizmo guy.  They strive to incorporate the latest in automation and technology.  Their buildings can be secured, monitored, and controlled by smart phones from across the earth; touch screens and low voltage wiring coming out the ears; audio-video systems and home theatre incorporated; motorized shades and solar control everywhere; everything from the fire-pit to the water fountain can be controlled remotely; so much so that a single family residence requires a low-voltage room for all the equipment.  Okay, maybe this is a client avatar.

The designer architect - they have a strong passion for design and their work exemplifies the true meaning of design. They delve deep to identify the crux of the problem and find inspiration in unexpected places.  Their work is innovative and awe-inspiring.  I like to share this TED talk by architect Thomas Heatherwick of London as an example of the quintessential designer architect avatar.

The builder architect - These are the architects who care foremost about how buildings are put together. Their designs are limited by the question, "is it construct-able?"  They take great pleasure in figuring out how something will be built, and detail the crap out of their project, all the nuts and bolts figured out, on paper, before ever breaking ground.  Or he/she is at the job-site ready for some hands-on work!  They most likely grew up with builder parent(s), spending weekends on the job-site!  They are the tinkerers, the practical people, the tether to the ground.

The artisan architect - a truly skilled craftsperson, evident in the artistry of their architectural drawings as well as their designs; they revel in the labor of their hands and minds/ imagination; their products are works of beauty.  Their talent lies in their ability to imagine the artful and translate it into a tangible three-dimensional object. They crave creativity in their day-to-day. Their hobbies might include model-making, carpentry, pottery, glass work, bread-making(!), and other crafts. The work of architect E. Fay Jones comes to mind, although I have no idea how hands-on he himself was in the construction of Thorncrown chapel or any of his other buildings.  Having been to Thorncrown myself, it's hard not to appreciate architecture that allows such fine craftsmanship.

The structural architect - This category includes the architects who like to show off the structural components of the building.  I might also call them turtle architects, as they take what others like to hide and expose it and express it in the most unimaginable and impossible way.  Santiago Calatrava exemplifies this avatar - of course he is an architect and a structural engineer, and his designs are beautiful expressions of ingenuity.

The shallow architect - those who care only about the aesthetics - proportion, composition, cool factor, and sacrifice function for the looks (functionality is overrated anyway, right!).  They let the consultants work out all the other stuff - the systems suffer because the design failed to accommodate it.

The lazy architect - these are the architects who conform. They are so conservative and risk averse that they regurgitate what looked good and worked historically. They repeat what was successful in their last project, or worse, they copy what is trending in the latest publications. They develop a recipe.

The master builder - an architect in the age-old traditional sense of the greek word "arkhitekton" meaning "Chief Builder", being the artisan, builder, designer, engineer, superintendent, manager, estimator, and every other consultant involved in a modern building project.  I think it's safe to say that it's the rare Architect who can pull off this avatar.

Did I miss any?

All architects aspire to be artist and master builder, at once being on different ends of the spectrum. It's what you are conditioned to believe as your destiny after you graduate architecture school. But the truth is that the rigors of everyday practice of architecture put you on a certain path, and lead you in a direction. Not to mention, your personality and aptitudes get in the way.  And despite your best intentions, one of the above (less sought-after) avatars becomes your legacy.

We all need a small dose of external inspiration, and there is no shame in admitting that you are  going to adapt an awesome detail you saw in an open house, or are inspired by an incredible picture in a recent magazine.  Fact is, artist architects have patrons, all other architects have clients, and builder-architects have customers.  Let it not be said that you were led blindly down your path.