Monday, December 28, 2009

Passage from 2004 Shelter & Beyond Exhibit

The 12th Annual Cascieri Lectureship in the Humanities addresses the broad topic of Shelter. The need for shelter can seem devastatingly impossible to meet. Yet the organizations and professionals working on the problem as represented in this exhibit equally understand human ingenuity is limitless. Instead of being overwhelmed these organizations challenge the barrier of conditioned notions of shelter and architectural practice.

Within the study of architecture, R Buckminster Fuller envisioned the possibility of design informed by innovation. Bucky Fuller was a frequent guest of Dean Cascieri, and in 1966, at the BAC's new facility here on Newbury Street, he spoke of "the encouragement of human beings in the world of design give to others." The projects included in this exhibit overflow with enthusiasm. Space is fused to the people who exercise their problem solving skills, competence, sensitivity, and resourcefulness in relevant artifact making. 

The innovations on display separate into developments in Design, Process, and Service. As much as there is a need for increased units of affordable housing there is a need for a variety of solutions for improving or increasing stable housing. The organizations and work presented in this exhibit are an initial guide to an enormous base of imaginative and viable solutions for housing.

Human beings have a long history of sucess doing more with less. The direction Buckminster Fuller gave throughout his lifetime was "to exercise our option to make it." He believed we were overly constrained by tradition, even though human lives were being transformed by the technological age. Feeling that architects were best equipped to address the undeniable global need for shelter, Bucky simply asked "Are you spontaneously enthusiastic about everyone having everything you can have?"

A portion of the exhibit is now hanging at 468 Brock Avenue, New Bedford, MA (see

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Affordable Energy Retrofits

Most of my alternative architecture is about learning. This energy retrofit began as a recycling effort for the econewbedford project. At the Theosophical Society in Boston leaks in the roof developed in the winter due to ice dams, and an effective way to deal with them is to create a "hot roof" (actually stays cold in the winter!) At the TS it was more practical and economical to insulate the attic rafter bays with a hybrid foam/rigid insulation. The house has neither ridge nor roof vents, and at least one half of the rigid insulation was donated.

Here the recycled pieces of rigid insulation were packed into the rafter cavities and sprayed over with handi-foam. On the end wall a similar technique, but joints filled in with Great Stuff (cheaper and worked just as great, but more time consuming)

In part of the attic where the rafter bays are not accessible, the ceiling was treated with reflective mylar bubble wrap. After you get used to the shiny surface, you notice you feel warm. The futuristic effect reminds me of the SOWA loft closet using Panelite (see middle of slideshow).

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Architecture for the New Economy

For almost a year now I have been managing the construction and finances of the Smart Growth Mixed-Use in New Bedford, MA. Originally conceived as a land use and economic development demonstration project, now, thanks to timing, it has become a lesson on Architecture in the New Economy. 

Prior to the economic downturn we learned that our practice of craft relied on finding solutions that could reduce to an install. For instance building cabinets in our own workshop was not a sustainable use of our resources, but we have been successful working with manufacturers across the country. See examples.

Our decision to construct the townhouses in New Bedford with Structural Insulated Panels surely grew out of our experience working with manufacturers. Once we looked at SIPS it was clear how well sustainable construction was blending with our land use, affordable housing, and economic development  values.  Once we choose to construct with SIPs all remaining decisions for systems and materials had to align with the performance of the building envelope.

Once the economy tanked, sustainable construction has filled the resulting void - it now motivates everything we do with everyone we work with. By taking on new technologies and disciplined attention to detail, we can focus on the awakening future instead of the dismal present.  Thankfully the project is relatively small so we could manage to keep going in these tough times. The investment in the building at Brock Avenue has now taken on long term proportions, and is guided by pride in place and in gaining new experience. Patience and humility are essential components, and making architecture compares to working in a vineyard. 

As a demonstration project, the Smart Growth Mixed-Use on Brock Ave is an example of value oriented Architecture for the New Economy. Many people in their heart are romantic builders, and in the past decades those ambitions grew to large proportions. Huge development projects and elaborate homes were commonplace. That scale of building has dropped off, but Architecture for the New Economy offers the romantic builder a financially less intensive development with significant rewards. Whereas the romantic builder may have once built a finely crafted vacation manor or speculated on the conversion of a waterfront mill building, that energy can now be channeled into a radical retrofit on an income producing property of modest proportions. I call these jewel boxes. 

The Smart Growth Mixed-Use project has become a jewel box, which I have been privileged to work on. The project has made important impacts. The improved image has raised the economic prospects for the local retail business. The skill level of everyone, especially a former commercial sheet rocker, have been lifted. Materials are highly respected, pushed be fully used (eliminate waste) and selected to meet budget. Environmentally suitable systems are tested and deliver efficiency savings. These are really fun problems to solve and implement. If you like sports cars or extreme sports, possessing a high performance jewel-box building is equally thrilling, and a statement of common sense achievement for organizations and individuals. See