April 28, 2008

Presentation Boards

So ... its been a while since I did anything online. I've been a bit overwhelmed with things to do in the analogue world. But just so its clear I haven't been twiddling my thumbs here are the jpg images of my final presentation boards. My presentation was Thursday the 24th at 9:00 AM and it went really well with interested questions and some genuine discussion with my critics. And ... I've been nominated for a thesis award. So that's a lovely pat on the back. In any case ... here it all is.

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February 25, 2008

Elevated Housing

Continuing quest to figure out how to do it right in Biloxi ... Last week I gathered these images of elevated housing in other parts of the world. A picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words but hopefully these will also be as rich in ideas.

Traditional Thai Elevated Housing
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Vernacular Elevated Housing (mostly south east asia)

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Typical Elevated Beach / Resort Housing

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Biloxi Elevated Single Family Housing (since the storm)

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February 7, 2008

Did you get your FEMA Check?

Last week I tossed together a visual run down of the FEMA flood insurance program requirements for elevated housing on the gulf coast. Its a fun read - nothing like government documents for a little lighthearted entertainment. Just thought I'd share with the class.

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February 5, 2008

Eileen Gray - still cool.

Knocking together some little elevation studies for my site I was interested and a bit appalled to note how Corbusian the elevated floor plate looks next to the existing vernacular of Biloxi. Deep breath. I need to remind myself that I don't hate modernism. So ... here's a little visual tribute to Eileen Gray again. I love her stuff. I can deal with this design condition without doing sterile white boxes or cutsie cottages on stilts.


Gray was a furniture designer before she was an architect and she kept designing all types of household items her whole life. Not only did she draw these pieces up but many of them she manufactured herself in her Paris workshop.


Mindfull of the lessons of de Stijl, she often drew folded out elevations of each room to really get a sense of the interior space rather than just focusing on facades and floor plans to create form. Like Loos, she was interested in the experience of being inside a space and really focused on materiality to produce her desired effects.


December 20, 2007

Fun with the Victorians

Here's some cool snippets from Candace M. Volz, in her article, "the Modern Look of the Early Twentieth-Century House" (in American Home Life: 1880-1930 which I am returning to the library today). This should find its way into the housing history section.

Due to the prevalence of communication by train, mail, telephone and telegraph during the _________, not to mention the pervasive influence of plan books, house styles began to be universal across the country and less subject to regional variations. Even the Georgian influence had been most notable on the East Coast and common in other parts of the country only in homes of the upper class. Victorian styles, on the other hand, were relatively uniform throughout the US.

The second half of the nineteenth century had seen upper and middle class households engaging in, “a complex lifestyle that involved rooms for special uses, large flatware and china services with many specialized pieces, and numerous furnishings designed for special needs.? Although this had been de rigueur among the wealthy, in the early Victorian period a combination of affordable goods, produced with Industrial Revolution technology, and immigrant labor as domestic help made the formal lifestyle available to most of society from the lower middle class up.

It was not uncommon for a middle class home to boast any or all of the following specialty rooms: “music rooms, reception rooms, conservatories, sitting rooms and butler’s pantries?, as well as one or two small bedrooms for live in servants.

Oh, don't worry ... it continues. On, to find out more about the death of porch living and "earth closets" keep on keepin' on!

Continue reading "Fun with the Victorians" »

December 14, 2007

Committee Review

Panic! I've got to present my current work to my thesis committee today. Why did I volunteer to do this? Well, the answer to that is easy - I thought it was required and only found out after inviting them to a meeting that it was only a recommendation. AUGH! However, a lovely 24 work session, only 36 hours after my final review, has produced this - a nice little summary of where I am / would like to be. Now all I have to do is muster enough coherence to present it to them using complete sentences and listen actively to their feedback. Then ... I get a nap!

Here's the fun: Download file

November 7, 2007

By the way ...

... this is the part of the semester where more time gets spent on studio than on thesis. Sad but true. And after all the people I've counciled otherwise in the last two years, too. Ah well. Here's a nice winter thought to tide you over:


Not slowly wrought, nor treasured for their form,
In heaven, but by the blind self of the storm --
Spun off, each driven individual,
Perfected in the moment of its fall...

-- Howard Nemerov

October 25, 2007

Fairbanks House

Fairbanks House in Dedham, Massachusetts is one of the oldest extant houses in America. Built only 17 years after the landing at Plymouth, it is also typical, “the modern average middle class home of its time.? The building has been added onto at several times in the past but the original structure was a common double height two room English cottage. It had a hall and parlor on the ground floor, on either side of an axis which contained main entrance, large double fireplace chimney, and access to the upper floor. The hall would be kitchen, work room and family gathering place, while the adjacent parlor served the more outwardly societal functions of receiving room, as well as principal bedroom at night. Upstairs, the two other chambers might both have been bedrooms or possibly bedroom and storage chamber as there was a fireplace in only one of them. As a home for a family of eight, its comforts seem limited from a contemporary point of view, in its own time, however it was equipped with all of the modern necessities. The house used the standard half timbering construction method common in England at the time and was further protected from the more harsh New England elements by a second skin of unpainted clapboard. It was arranged around a central fireplace, which had only become common in vernacular housing during the second half of the 16th century. It would have had at, or shortly after, construction glass windows rather than the oiled paper or the empty openings with wooden shutters which had sufficed in England. Additionally it boasted a cellar/workroom and a nearby privy (sited away from the house for sanitary reasons).

October 22, 2007

My Manifesto Collection

I've been gathering the writing of previous architects on housing and how it can/should be changing the world. Here's my little collection so far:

N. John Habraken
Supports: An Alternative to Mass Housing

“If in housing we wish to restore human relationships, but mean to exclude today’s technical possibilities, we are following a road to the past, a road we cannot follow. If we wish only to develop the technological potential without touching human relationships, we end up with something like mass housing. … The impoverishment of human society in mass housing towns is becoming generally recognized. Like a caterpillar in a cocoon, we have surrounded ourselves with a technical potential which, as yet, has not found its proper purpose. The time has come to free ourselves and regain the initiative. …
“If new forms of human housing offer new opportunities, we must be able to say why they are preferable to old ones. To do that a clear insight is needed into what dwelling really means. Once we agree that it is necessary to introduce the inhabitant or active force into the housing process, we can face the future with confidence. Building has always been a matter of confidence and to make this a reality we must be clear and unequivocal about the nature of man’s housing needs.?a

Sim Van der Ryn and Sterling Bunnell
Integral Design

“The task, then, of integral design at the household level is to begin to recreate the opportunities for people to derive meaning and satisfaction from their experience of natural cycles as these occur in the household. This assumes that the occupant becomes and active and intelligent participant in managing, maintaining and adapting the dwelling. The ‘hot rod’ is one example of an aesthetic that grows out of the young American male’s attempt to find meaning in every day industrial culture. Maybe the day is not too far off when millions of Americans will be ‘hot rodding’ their new denatured houses into finely tuned, multi-channeled, closed-looped, organic instruments for processing natures flow.?b

Christopher Day
Places of the Soul

“Architecture has such profound effects on the human being, on place, on human consciousnesses, and ultimately on the world, that it is far too important to bother with stylistic means of appealing to fashion. … Anything with such powerful effects has responsibilities – power, if not checked by responsibility, is dangerous thing! Architecture has responsibilities to minimize adverse biological effects on occupants, responsibilities to be sensitive to and act harmoniously in the surroundings, responsibilities to the human individualities who will come into contact with the building, responsibilities not only in the visual aesthetic sphere and through the outer senses but also to the intangible but perceptible ‘spirit of place.’?c

Peter Calthorpe
The Next American Metropolis

“Its time to redefine the American Dream. We must make it more accessible to our diverse population: singles, the working poor, the elderly, and the pressed middle class families who can no longer afford the ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ version of the good life. Certain traditional values – diversity, community, frugality, and human scale – should be the foundation of a new direction for both the American Dream and the American Metropolis. These values are not a retreat to nostalgia or imitation, but a recognition that certain qualities of culture and community are timeless. And that these timeless imperatives must be married to the modern condition in new ways.?d

Sim van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan
Ecological Design

“First Principle: Solutions Grow from Place
Ecological design begins with the intimate knowledge of a particular place. Therefore, it is small-scale and direct, responsive to both local conditions and local people. If we are sensitive to the nuances of place, we can inhabit without destroying …?e

Frank Lloyd Wright
Organic Architecture

“To thus make of a human dwelling-place a complete work of art, in itself expressive and beautiful, intimately related to modern life and fit to live in, lending itself more freely and suitably to the individual needs of the dwellers as itself an harmonious entity, fitting in colour, pattern and nature the utilities and be really an expression of them in character, - this is the tall modern American opportunity in Architecture. True basis of a true Culture. An exalted view to take of the ‘property instinct’ of our times??f

Continue reading "My Manifesto Collection" »

October 14, 2007

The Latest

Here's the latest draft. Its got all kinds of shiny new features: an updated hypothesis and thesis statement, a research statement, a thesis map, a new case study of usonian houses, a beginning typological ancestry of early American house forms, a snappy bio of Eileen Gray and (hopefully by tonight) a program. Bask in the glory, folks.

Download file

All that... and sat next to somebody in class on Tuesday too. I'm a busy girl!

October 9, 2007

Usonia - It's Great!

The Usonian House for Wright was a “building system, adaptable to each client with whatever modifications he might need regarding space and site conditions.? They were built on a standardized 2x4 foot or 4x4 foot grid to allow for simpler dimensions (and also to aid the illusive sense of unity). Wright created a “standard detail sheet? to deal with common elements such as the window details, the board-and-batten walls and masonry elements.

Those original Usonian houses seem lavish in their details to contemporary eyes but they were rendered affordable by the low cost of skilled labor during the depression and war years. The critical cost was in the materials which Wright limited in both scale and initial value. With the onset of WWII, and its attendant economic boom, the rising wages of construction workers make the labor intensive Usonian scheme impractical. Wright tried to offset this problem with his so-called “Usonian Automatic.? This iteration was structured out of custom made concrete blocks in single or double layers which was mean to significantly simplify construction. The owner would then theoretically be able to participate in the construction of their own home.

Typical Usonian features were in-floor heat, built in furniture. Garages were replaced with car ports because, unlike the horses which preceded them, automobiles did not really need protection from the elements. The exterior form was simplified with flat roves and pre-manufactured window elements. Wright limited his palette to wood, brick, cement, paper and glass. He wanted to do away with most traditional interior finishes. He specified no plastering – it was not in the palette – and wanted his wooden walls left unpainted. “Wood best preserves itself.? Trim was therefore extraneous. He also deplored most conventional decorative elements, believing that the house itself could be its own ornament. “Furniture, pictures and bric-a-brac [are] unnecessary because walls can be made to include them or be them.?

The plans were simple L-shapes with one arm for public spaces and the other for bedrooms. The bathroom and “workspace?, in other words the plumbing core, would be at the junction between the two and provide visual separation in his otherwise open plans. Wright designed from the inside, arranging rooms to suit themselves and then working out the facades to coordinate with them afterwards. This allowed him to use a much more fluid arrangement of space than was dictated by previous design strategies.

In Wright’s earlier Prairie School designs the kitchen was largely disregarded (by both architect and client). It would be used primarily by the domestic help and not the family so that a distinct separation was desirable. When he turned his hand to affordable houses for middle class families the kitchen was occupied by one of his primary clients. He re-conceived the kitchen as the “workspace? of the home, a sort of modern domestic laboratory for the housewife, and brought it into the arena of the public space. It was connected to living spaces and rendered in the same materials so that it felt a part of familial activities. He did still take care in most plans to position it out of view of the dining area so that formal pretensions could be preserved during a dinner party if that was desirable.

Continue reading "Usonia - It's Great!" »

October 6, 2007

Modernist Enthusiasms

"Advancing technology provided the builder with new materials and more efficient methods which were often in glaring contrast to our traditional conception of architecture. ... I felt that it must be possible to harmonized the old and the new in our civilization.?
Mies van der Rohe, A Personal Statement by the Architect, 1964

The middle of the twentieth century was notable for its architectural idealism. Modernists of all vocations sought to embrace the new technology which was so rapidly emerging and use it to formulate a new and better way of living. This is nowhere more clear than in modernist housing designs.

In contrast to their predecessors, modern homes were open and flowing spaces which allowed even the most minimal of post-war cottages to seem spacious when compared with the old hallway linked plans. These new open plans were made possible by advances in structural engineering which allowed for increased spans and the removal of interior bearing walls.(26) Living and dining rooms merged. Kitchens could be screened by partial walls or built in furniture but still allow the cook to feel like a part of the family group. Exterior walls opened up into large expanses of glass, interrupted by sliding glass doors, which broke down barriers between inside and out. Modernist furniture became lighter, more mobile and more adaptable, assuming “a new role as space dividers that could be taken apart, added to, and moved from room to room.?(24)

Many architects of the time used housing developments as vehicles for their agendas of social change. Frank Lloyd Wright - Broadacre City and Usonian Homes
Wijsenhof and Mies etc etc
John Entenza of Arts + Architecture Magazine organized the Case Study House Program [find source] to use off the shelf components and synthetic materials to create an affordable version of the new Modern style that hey hoped to market to greater masses.

October 5, 2007

Excessive Force

Robert made the point yesterday at the end of our thesis meeting that architecture students often latch onto the idea of using their buildings to force people into doing thing they otherwise would not. The idea of “and this will make them stop here and look to the window and see the light? This a good warning to me – already a bit inclined to try to solve the worlds problems with my architecture. I have to be wary of using my design to force anyone into living greenly. So then the question is if I want to make a green building which helps people live more greenly I need to be certain that it is allowing or suggesting alternatives to people rather than trying to bludgeon them into some new idea.

October 4, 2007

Week the Fifth

Holy Crap! Here it is week five and I have yet again done not a whole lot other than what I produced this very morning. It was a pretty functional work day. I overhauled my table of contents and then expanded it into notes. Rewrote the case study section into a more organized little history. Wrote a new preface pertaining to my experience on IHP. The idea "if you don't have time to bake bread you don't have time to change the world" rolling into the importance of the domestic in architectural design. So ... where am I? I feel actually pretty decent about where the straight up research component is going. The next step is program / site or site / program. Ozayr is pushing it and I know its important. So it lacks only a decision. I know I was talking about Northeast Minneapolis. But sitting in class today and hearing Sam talk about how much information we have about Biloxi (and acknowledging how rich my own knowledge of the place is. I just don't know. So ... I need to talk to James about this. And bounce it off the home front. Ozayr says full steam ahead but I'm worried. I don't want to be a "Biloxi thesis" but on the other hand this might be my chance to do that multifamily housing project that we started to do and got cut off at the knees when we rolled into mixed use and single family. So ... I guess it needs some mulling. Anyway, here's what I gave Ozayr today ... Download file

September 26, 2007

Update for Class: week 4

Download file

The above link is a PDF of what I just submitted for "thesis class" tomorrow night. Its basically a thumbnail of each of the sections that will be in the final thesis - an introduction and my two known case studies, Usonia and the Weissenhof housing development. Also it touches on my planning to include some inspirational personalities in my studies - at the moment they are Soleri, E.F. Schumacher and my new hero, Eileen Gray. In essence its just the product of me sitting down and summarizing what I already knew. So ... now I need to add some things that I didn't know already.

September 22, 2007

Northeast Neighborhood

So ... it's certainly not too early at this point to start thinking about site in this process. I had discussions about choosing a site with two different faculty members this week. Julia Robinson told me that I ought to be beginning and ending with the idea of site selection; that is, she thought that I should find a community in Minneapolis, study it, and then work from there to determine what kind of housing or community project would be appropriate for that place. Then Ozayr also mentioned the subject. He was much more open to a multiplicity of options at this point and to finding something outside of the Cities if that's what suits me best. But with one thing and another I spent a lot of time thinking about it towards the end of this week. Then passing by a GDII review in the courtyard I noticed a pinup of group projects displaying neighborhood research as the beginning of some studio project. My attention was caught by the visually compelling display about Northeast Neighborhood. It triggered me thinking about the research I did on the area for BTR this summer and about what a diverse and interesting place it is. So this morning I did my grocery shopping on foot along Central Avenue. I went to the coop and to the Holy Land Deli and also an Indian grocery to pick up frozen paneer and I took my camera along. I was struck again by what a culturally rich place that area is. There are local food markets beyond what you imagine the market could support. There are community centers, a health clinic, a vet, a YMCA, high and elementary schools and a public library branch all within block of each other and accessed by 6 bus routes and a major city transit artery. It has a mixed income level and an a rapidly increasing level of racial diversity. A lot of potential really. Its also somewhere I like to go and have easy access to, which is not insignificant. This is more than a little a shot in the dark but I noticed an empty lot at Central and Lowry. Here's a picture. So ... I'll see where that takes me.


September 20, 2007

Dealing with Issues of Inertia

Well its clear that I spent the week swimming in a sea of uncertainty. I’ve been unhappy about it without really effecting any material changes. Part of the problem relates to schedule. I have to accept that from Sunday to Wednesday I will work on thesis related items very little or not at all. The pull of studio and the prep work for my other two classes is too demanding. So the impetus has to come in the Wednesday night to Saturday part of the week. Right now, actually. And this week I feel equal to the task.

I’ve been trying to get back to the basics of my interest – housing … almost full stop. Going back to ideas of housing that appeal to me. I read Gropius’ The New Architecture and the Bauhaus last night. It was interesting as a manifesto and as a portrait of what sounds like quite a cult culture in his school. Not too much about housing per se, but there was this. “… in the last resort mechanization can only have on object, to abolish the individual’s physical toil for providing himself with the necessities of existence in order that hand and brain may be set free for some higher order of activity? on page 25. That’s a pretty direct contradiction of Schumacher’s claim that the problem of production. Gropius’ main contention is a call for mass production and standardization. I don’t know if I can agree with that but it has to be somewhere to study. Ozayr recommended that I also check out Mies’ Weissenhof housing project. Along those lines I was reading about Usonia this morning. Now that can be tackled from the aspect of how cool Frank Lloyd Wright is … but that’s not my opinion. Its more interesting as a social collective – with architecture.

And this afternoon I picked up Paolo Soleri again. Now that is sheer madness but it has a wonderful overarching genius to it and I think will be a good inspiration to think outside the box. And to think on a grand scale. To be bold. So perhaps what I need to do next is to dramatically overshoot my proposed scale and see what delightful flights of fancy I can come up with to get started.

Eileen Gray

This is some reading I was doing last weekend actually but didn't get down on the typewriter at the time. I don't know how it will be useful but I have a feeling its something I want to apply. I'm particularly interested in her use and style of drawings. Which I feel might be helpful for me as I go on.

Gray said of her own work when it was displayed at the first exhibition of the Union des Artites Modernes in 1930, “House envisioned from a social point of view: minimum of space, maximum of comfort.? The house she’d designed had, “orientation of the main living space to southern exposure and view and of the bedrooms to the rising sun; segregation of private areas from public zones fo the house; and isolation of service spaces.? (269) By that, they mean the kitchen, which is a concept that wouldn’t fly today. But the house in question was designed for a bachelor with a housekeeper so naturally they would want their separate domains to be isolated. Contemporary ideas of housing (especially in my budget range) make those two characters into the same person.

She was a fringe modernist who questioned many of the ideals and style of her contemporaries. “External architecture seems to have absorbed avant-garde architecture at the expense of the interior. As if a house should be conceived for the pleasure of the eye more than the well-being of its inhabitants … Theory is not sufficient for life and does not answer to all of its requirements.? That is Gray directly from page 265.

Her Philosophy:

Again, Gray herself: “The thing constructed is more important than the way it is constructed, and the process is subordinate to the plan, not the plan to the process. It is not only a matter of constructing beautiful arrangements of lines but above all, dwellings for people.? (274/5) I couldn't agree more.

She was critical of modernism’s too great need for order. “The poverty of modern architecture,? she wrote, “stems from the atrophy of sensuality.? The dominance of reason, order and math leave a house cold and inhumane without some mediation of instinct, intuition or sense they produce unlivable space. (275)

Her Methodology:

Gray used a “folded out? style of drawing where the elevations were arranged around the plan to give greater expression and emphasis to interiors. (This method was also used by de Stijl.) It tends to isolate each room from the whole plan which worked for Gray because her interest was in the multifunctionality of key areas in the building. Incidentally it was a huge departure from the rest of her modernist fellows who were focusing on the flowing of one space into each other. “Each room takes on attributes of an entire dwelling. This type of drawing articulates the principal of total concept of design wherein wall and window, furnishings, floor and carpeting contribute equally to the creation of a microcosm, a complete and private milieu.? (272)

This is from “The Non-Heroic Modernism of Eileen Gray? by Caroline Constant

September 13, 2007

Course Correction

Its interesting to me that from the time I rolled into school today around nine until now (at eight in the evening) with the exception of attending Robert’s class from 12:45 to 2:00 has been spent on thesis today. And yet I’ve accomplished nothing concrete. The morning was devoted to catching up my bibliography to my notes – a penance to pay for my dilatory behavior over the last few weeks of not keeping it up to date. Then I went to Wilson and picked up some books. Then I had a meeting with Ozayr and the Thesis-ettes. And that lasted until 5:20, time to go to the thesis meeting. Oh the waste of a day. However it has been useful in pointing out to me (at several intervals) that I’m on the wrong track. That’s ok. I’m not going to panic – just need to reassess and refocus.

Fundamentally here’s the problem. I still agree with the “thesis statement? but more and more I’m finding that the waste angle isn’t taking me where I want to go. The questions then are two (and, to quote Never Cry Wolf, the possibilities are many). Where do I want my thesis to go? And … What angle should I pursue next to get me there? I’m still sure it has to be about housing. Said housing must be small, affordable, efficient, sustainable and utilitarian. I’ve given waste management the forefront but I had some more heavily economic issues going in mid August. They never made it as far as the blog but I still have my notes. Perhaps that’s the next angle. It can tie in nicely with prepping for the Small is Beautiful proposal for Modern. Well … “only a pen can penetrate. I have one here. Lets go.?

September 4, 2007

Iteration the Second

Here's a more recent and slightly abridged version of the first assignment. I'm not planning to work it over any more until I find out which thesis prof I have and what their methods are likely to be. In the mean time this is still my chance to make research hay while the sun shines.


The building industry is responsible for 35 percent of the waste generated in America each year. It is still possible to startle friends outside the world of architecture with this statistic, but to design students and professionals it is old hat – so often dinned in our ears that it fails to shock. It has become a byword, a fact. It ought not, however, to be taken for granted.

Construction and Demolition waste in America totaled an estimated 136 million tons in 1996, as compared with 133 million tons of landfill in Municipal Solid Waste in 2005. But of that MSW stream, a further 97 million were diverted to recycling and composting solutions and another 33 were burned for energy harvesting. In the public sector waste management has improved dramatically over the last 30 years; the situation is not perfect, but there is a sense of progress and a common goal that is actively being approached.

So far the building industry has not seriously tapped the potential of waste reduction, although industry in general has proved that great advances in sustainability are possible. The automotive industry has had its first zero waste auto plant up and running for over a year, turning out Subaru’s by the thousand in central Indiana while generating only a bi weekly dumpster of office trash. In America we recycle roughly 25% of our building waste (mostly large scale debris ground into fill for further construction projects) while in Germany and Belgium more than half of construction waste is recycled and in the Netherlands an average of 75% of C&D “waste? is reclaimed. This lack of activity and innovation here can only be due to a lack of interest. The American construction industry does not have effective incentive to change its approach.

Thesis Statement

Too often, sustainability is viewed as a good thing … for those who can afford it. But what good do a few LEED certified houses really do, when only 1% of American houses are designed by architects? The majority of people continue to live in homes built by contractors, largely uninterested or unaware of the potential of sustainable design. They would regard it as an impractical luxury. Since the focus of the popular press and even of architectural trade literature is often on high tech, high end solutions to environmental problems this isn’t surprising.

There are, however, many simpler options to reduce building footprint and environmental impact. Prefabrication, whole or partial, design for deconstruction, adaptive reuse, use of standard dimensions and simply reducing the size and scale of the building all involve reducing architecture’s contribution to the waste stream. Few, if any, of the above options make a building more expensive or more technologically complex. Waste reduction is a simple, effective and cost effective way to make a building greener. By approaching green design from the angle of waste reduction, it is possible to make it more and more immediately cost effective. My thesis proposes that environmentally friendly building techniques can be universally accessible when they are grounded in sound business theory and sensible waste management.

September 3, 2007

The Role of Economy

Backtracking to my re-reading of Small is Beautiful. I’m still not quite sure how this comes in but I know its important.

“One of the most fateful errors of our age is the belief that ‘the problem of production’ has been solved. Not only is this belief firmly held by people remote from production and therefore professionally unacquainted with the facts – it is held by virtually all the experts, the captains of industry, the economic managers in the governments of the world, the academic and not-so-academic economists, not to mention the economic journalists. They many disagree on many things but they all agree that the problem of production has been solved; that mankind has at last come of age. For the rich countries, they say, the most important task now is ‘education for leisure,’ and, for the poor countries, the ‘transfer of technology.’? E.F. Schumacher began Small is Beautiful with those words in 1973. The book seems to be ahead of its time (not only because the 1975 paperback was printed on 100% recycled paper, a fact advertised on the fly-leaf before the author’s name or the title of the book. It is no longer revolutionary to claim the continued existence of the ‘problem’ but the issue is far from the forefront of daily affairs. We could now say rather that the problem of production has been exported to China. But despite our continued enjoyment of cheap goods from omnipresent Targets and Walgreens stores, it is very clear to anyone who is looking that the associated problems have only been delayed and are accruing interest rapidly as we neglect them.

[I need to address briefly some of the associated problems but don’t want to get side tracked by the issue. As a first source see this article in Foreign Affairs September/October 2007.]

Schumacher argues that we have placed too much faith in the cult of finance as a way of judging our decisions and actions. When we allow economists to pass judgment on every activity (Schumacher goes further and says they deliver a “verdict? of “economically sound or uneconomic?), we give undue power to a field that ultimately has little to do with human health or welfare or happiness. He reminds us that John Stuart Mill one of the first political economists regarded his own specialization as very limited. He regarded it “not as a thing by itself, but as a fragment of a greater whole; a branch of social philosophy, so interlinked with all the other branches that its conclusions, even in its own peculiar province, are only true conditionally, subject to interference and counteraction from causes not directly within its scope.? [Continue this quote he goes onto some interesting other criticisms here.] Economy was never intended to be the only factor in our decision making. As Mill says, economy is so entangled in its sister disciplines that none of its decisions or ‘verdicts’ are valid if viewed in a vacuum. We make a grave mistake when we let economists be our moral compass. Keynes, another foundational economist acknowledged the danger of this but saw it as a means to an end. When he says, however, that “avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still,? I feel repulsed rather than persuaded.

August 28, 2007

Iteration the First

Today is one week to the first Arch 8777 deadline (and tomorrow is an informal meeting for which I promised work) so here it is … drum roll, please … a first stab at a hypothesis and thesis statement.

Continue reading "Iteration the First" »

August 16, 2007

Historic Landfill Controversy

The history of landfills in American life received national attention in 2001, when then Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton announced that she would be placing one on the National Register of Historic Places. “The Fresno Sanitary Landfill was opened in 1937 and closed in 1987. It is the oldest “true? sanitary landfill in the untied states,?(1) stated the National Park Service press release announcing its designation. “At the Fresno site, [sanitation engineers first practiced] the layering of refuse and dirt in trenches, compacting the dirt and refuse, and then covering the filled areas daily to minimize rodent and debris problems.?

The appointment was not without controversy. Many were outraged that the government would accord a landfill, “the same historic-landmark status as George Washington’s home.? The Seattle Times described the landfill somewhat less flatteringly than had the NPS release, calling it “a 140 acre mound of crankcase oil and paint solvents,? and reporting that Norton had “revoked the honor yesterday after she found out what a dump it really is.?(2) Actually its status was not withdrawn and it is still on the register (National Register Number 01001050) (3) Perhaps more offensive to many than the fact of its being a “dump?, was the site’s previous designation as a Superfund Toxic waste site, not to mention the 38 million dollars it had cost the government to clean up the methane emissions into the air and VOC leachate in the ground water around it from 1989 to 2001. The superfund status was vilified by environmentalists, including Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, who derided the Historic status as being just another slap in the face of the environmental movement from the Bush government.(4)

This seems unnecessarily pessimistic to me. As the National Park Service put it, “the Fresno Sanitary Landfill possesses those exceptional qualities that help us as a nation illuminate and understand trends in emerging and developing technology.? (1) From that perspective perhaps an early landfill, even, or especially, with its problems and cleanup, is as useful a Landmark as the preserved homes of the Founding Fathers. National Historic Landmarks “guide us in comprehending the trends and patterns in American History.? Those trends are that sometimes (often) we get technology wrong. Hopefully the Fresno Sanitary Landfill also illustrates a trend of learning from our mistakes and improving on the past.

(1) NPS press release, 2001
(2) Borenstein, 2001, A1
(3) National Historic Landmarks Program at
(4) White, 2001, A19

The Early Days of Trash

Trash has always been part of life as a human. To quote the self styled garbage archaeologist William Rathje, “Throughout most of time human beings disposed of garbage in a very convenient manner; simply by leaving it where it fell. To be sure, they sometimes tidied up their sleeping and activity areas, but that was about all.?(1) The trash management system in a hunter-gatherer society was straightforward enough; move debris out of the way of your feet, and when the smell built up too much, move on to a new spot. Naturally the first real problem with this method came about when people began to transition into a more settled lifestyle.

Even so, “not surprisingly, a human being’s first inclination is always to dump.?(2) In early settlements it was not always even common to carry waste to the edge of town. Instead people left small debris right on the floor inside their buildings, sometimes sweeping it to the edge of the room and still more occasionally bringing in good clean dirt or clay – fill of some kind – to cover it up. Over time this practice raised floors, houses and eventually entire cities, as roofs and doorways were elevated to accommodate the rising floor level. “Over time the ancient cities of the Middle East rose high above the surrounding plains on massive mounds called tells, which contained the ascending remains of centuries, even millennia, of prior occupation.?(3)

(1) Rathje, 1992, 32
(2) 34
(3) 35

August 12, 2007

American Trash

Wendell Berry, environmentalist critic and commentator, says that, “a close inspection of our countryside would reveal, strewn over it from one end to the other, thousands of derelict and worthless automobiles, house trailers, refrigerators, stoves, freezers, washing machines and dryers; as well as thousands of unregulated dumps in hollows and sink holes, on stream banks and roadsides, filled not only with ‘disposable’ containers but also with broken toasters, television sets, toys of all kinds, furniture, lamps, stereos, radios, scales, coffee makers, mixers, blenders, corn poppers, hair dryers and microwave ovens.? (4) This is a description of rural trash but it is indicative of a problem that proliferates throughout our country. As a society, America produces an almost unspeakable amount of trash. In 2005 we created 246 million tons of municipal solid waste alone (before recycling).

Berry blames this on “a symbiosis of an unlimited greed at the top and a lazy, passive and self-indulgent consumptiveness at the bottom.? He takes a dim view of our future. He was also writing almost twenty years ago, in 1990. Since then our generation of individual waste has remained steady at about 4.5 pounds of waste per person per day, although municipal recycling has increased to around 1.5 pounds per person per day. Numerous books have been published on the topic of corporate greening and some notable companies have taken great strides. The genesis of some of the first waste free industrial plans in North America (like the Subaru plant in Lafayette, Indiana, for example) is a positive step. It is encouraging to read quotes such as “Anything that’s waste is an inefficiency in the process, and inefficiency is lost dollars,? by Patricia Calkins, the VP for Environment, Health and Safety at Xerox, or “the biggest win is not recycling, but engineering the material out of your system so you don’t need to worry about land filling it,? according to HP’s David Lear, VP of Corporate, Social and Environmental Responsibility. The fact that such positions even exist is encouraging. Still, we generate a lot of trash. And Berry is right; we are all complicit. Before I can tackle what should happen to our trash, the baseline needs to be established:

What happens to my trash?

The answer to this question was almost laughably easy to find. All it took was a few clicks of the mouse to show me the City of Minneapolis website, where I discovered that none of my trash is land filled, instead it goes to the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, HERC for short, where the “use mass burn technology to convert 365,000 tons of garbage a year into electricity that is sold to Xcel Energy.? The gather enough power out of this process to run the equivalent of 25,000 homes. Well, that sounds like a good thing. Tours of the facility are available and I think I should take one to see the situation at first hand. For the moment though, we’ll assume that Minneapolis has found an ideal solution to their garbage problem … and their energy problem. But if that’s the case, why isn’t it what everyone does?

What happens to most American trash?

According to the EPA’s report, Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2005, 32 percent of that aforementioned 246 million tons of MSW was recovered through composting or recycling. Another 33 million tons, or 14 percent was combusted for power and the remaining 54 percent (133 million tons went to landfills). Leaving aside the pros and cons of recycling, and assuming provisionally that this energy harvest method is a good thing I wanted to know more about landfills.

A first (but by no means last) step in finding about American landfills is to see what they say about themselves. The NSWMA, or National Solid Waste Management Association, is a trade association representing for profit landfill companies. They define a Municipal Solid Waste Landfill as, “a scientifically engineered structure built into or on the ground that is designed to isolate waste from the environment.? Asked if landfills are a safe way to dispose of our trash they answer, “Yes. Modern landfills are well-engineered facilities subject to strict federal and state regulation for location, design, operating conditions, monitoring, closure, post-closure care, clean up (if necessary) and financial assurance.? That second to last point strikes me as not altogether comforting. Still more unsettling was their answer to the question “Are we running out of landfill capacity?? “No,? they state, followed immediately by, “On a national level, the United States has 20 years of disposal capacity.? And going on to add that on a state by state basis that amount might be as little as five years. I think we might need to be focusing more on that 133 million tons of waste still being directed to the landfills.

And bear in mind that number refers only to Municipal Solid Waste, which does not include industrial, hazardous or construction waste. Next question what about that construction waste?

August 7, 2007

Payatas - Trash City

My first real wakeup call about trash in the modern world came when I visited the dump community, Payatas, in the Philippines in March of 2003. I was, by that time, no longer a stranger to the breath-taking frankness of the hard knocks life in the so-called third world. But my visit to Payatas shocked me to the core. Metro Manila has several large (and I mean gigantic) municipal dumpsites, the largest of which is Payatas. Unlike in the US, for better or for worse, it is not simply a landfill – a large hole in the ground where trash is deposited until its filled and which is then sealed over and planted with grass and forgotten. Payatas is the site of a large informal recycling community. Hundreds of families live around and on the dump and earn their living by waiting on top of the pile as the trucks come in and then sorting through the waste in search of valuable items.

Some basic facts: 150,000 people work on the dump, picking through their share of the 6,700 tons of garbage that Metro Manila produces daily. The city has ten such dumps, all over flowing, of which Payatas is the most widely known, due to a collapse in 2000 that killed 200 people. More than 400 trucks come to the 100 foot high mountain of trash every day bringing in 1.800 tons of trash in a 16 hour work day. (2)

Payatas is the successor to Smokey Mountain, a still larger dump on the island of Luzon, which was home to the largest slum in Asia until it was forcibly cleared and the landfill closed by the Filipino government in November 1995. After the landslide at Payatas, the government attempted to close it too, but it was reopened at the demand of its workers, who are dependent on trash picking for their livelihood. (1)

What happens to all that trash? “The bounty of the trucks is sifted and sorted by the scavengers, who pass it on to scrap shops specializing in copper wire, old newspapers, aluminum cans, plastic, cardboard bits of machinery, box springs, raffle tickets, tires, broken toys – virtually all the infinite components of civilized life.? (2)

The way I remember it, the people of Payatas were able to find a use for nearly everything that came off the trucks – all of it going off to be reused, melted down, composted, or who knew what – except the plastic bags. I know that these can be recycled in the US because I’ve seen the collection sites outside grocery stores but in the Philippines there doesn’t seem to be a market for it. So in the end as you step across the ‘ground’ on the dump mountain looking down stories and across blocks to see the edges, what you’re standing on is mostly plastic bags. Bear in mind Manila is home to a society almost pathologically obsessed with plastic bags. If you buy something in a store, all other things being equal, you will walk out with at least three bags. In a grocery store all produce comes plastic wrapped, then is double bagged for you by a smiling attendant – who’s happy demeanor will turned to semi-horrified puzzlement should you attempt to refuse a bag. It seems to represent the pinnacle of modern, sanitary, western style living. So consequently they figure largely in the city’s trash. The man-made mountain of bags covers 22 hectares of land. It is awe inspiring. It is awesome. It is awful.

Visiting that dump community certainly made a big impression on me. I am still vigilant to the point of obnoxious about refusing plastic bags in stores – even if I’ve forgotten to bring one and end up with an unwieldy armload of goods to schlep home. In fact, for a long time I dedicated everything I threw away “to Payatas, with love? under my breath to heighten my own consciousness of the waste. I keep my own trash to a minimum – avoiding packaging where I can, recycling everything possible, composting via a neighbor actually in possession of a yard. I’ve been known to pick up other people’s plastic bottles – and even to go through trash after them – to keep them out of the waste stream.

The trash community at Payatas in the Philippines is not an isolated incident. Similar “recycling? systems are in place all around the globe – anywhere the daily average wage is low enough to make garbage picking a viable livlihood. In Mexico City, these pickers are known as pependadores.(1) In Cairo they are called Zabaline. The zabaline collect around a third of their city’s trash, of which they are able to redirect around 80%, “down to the filaments of the lightbulbs.? This translates to around 30 percent of the overall waste of Cairo which is more than double that achieved in the United States thus far.(2) So much for sustainability being a fad of the rich first world!

[Note to self: also look into the “chiffoniers? of Boston’s Back Bay dump in the mid 1800’s]

All of this is happening very far away and is, theoretically, not applicable to the modern United States. We don’t allow children to pick through carcinogenic refuse in our landfills anymore. The memory of Payatas affects me on a personal level; it gives me a visual aid to help me frame the concept of my own garbage. But the trash management policies of metro Manila have little bearing on what we do with garbage here in America.

[Next question: What DO we do with garbage here in America?]

(2) A Hell on Earth, Lived by Children and Parents. Stephen Holden. New York Times. (Late Edition (East Coast)). New York, N.Y.: Mar 28, 2002. pg. E.5

(3) Eking Out a Living, of Sorts, From a Mountain of Muck. Seth Mydans. New York Times. (Late Edition (East Coast)). New York, N.Y.: May 23, 2006. pg. A.4

(1) Rathje, 1992, 192

August 6, 2007

Biloxi, My Love

Autobiographical note: I spent four months living and working in Biloxi Mississippi as part of a sort of ad hoc study abroad program this spring. I went down there because my conscience told me it was the “right thing to do? but I found more than a charity case. I think its fair to say that I left my heart on the Gulf Coast. The work I did, the friends I made, the trains of thought that began there will be with me for a long time.

This thesis is, among many other things, but perhaps above all else, a love song - to Biloxi; to Hands On, which sheltered me from various storms; to the EBCRC, EBCRA, Hope Center or whatever-the-hell its called; to New Orleans and Mona’s Café; to the Shed (which is ironically my favorite restaurant in creation despite the fact that it serves not a single thing I can eat); to the fucking casinos that I loved at sunrise, if at no other time; to the beach; to house on Nixon Street and to the whole Gulf Coast.

On August 29th, 2005 Hurricane Katrina made land fall near New Orleans with results that everyone saw publicized for days on CNN and Fox news. Shortly thereafter it slammed through Biloxi, MS; blowing off roofs, washing building-sized casino boats onto the shore and flooding the whole peninsula of East Biloxi feet deep. The disaster in Mississippi got less attention in the national media but did as much damage or more. In its wake streets were left impassable by the debris – houses down the block from their foundations, downed trees and the detritus of a community shaken like a snow globe littered the city. FEMA estimated that 39.9 million cubic yards of debris were generated in Mississippi alone. “As much as one-third of the debris is vegetative matter that can be burned or chipped for compost. The rest must be recycled or land filled.? This is seriously problematic as Mississippi didn’t have enough landfills to accommodate that load.(1)

By the time I first set eyes on the city in March of 2006, most of this had been cleaned up, at least on the surface. The streets were clear and passable, although sidewalks were gone and houses still stood at odd angles in front yards, often not their own. During the week I worked in Mississippi that spring break I watched several condemned houses demolished and saw the remnants of many more – piles of rubble filling the space between chain link fences. A year later, when I returned to Biloxi, this time for a four month stay, even more of the visual evidence of the storm had been cleared. All those demolished houses had been transformed into empty lots with grass and weeds growing up to cover the concrete block foundations, stairways rising pitifully to nowhere and defunct driveways.

[Where did all that trash go!] [look into that EPA don’t ask don’t tell policy on all the moldy crap from New Orleans – where did I hear that rumor?]

To the uninformed Biloxi today might even appear to be a run-of-the-mill, run down community in any part of the country, albeit with rather more empty lots than normal. To me, though, the vacant property stood out like missing teeth in the face of an accident victim whose bruises are beginning to fade. I never saw Biloxi before the storm – but I know it didn’t look like this. The chain link fences are twisted and broken as evidence of the trees and buildings which collided with them. The sidewalks are heaving and crumbled, often missing, showing how the soil bubbled and churned under them.

And Biloxi is still a city filled with blowing trash. Most of this is no longer the detritus of Katrina but the carelessness of its current residents – social impulses worn down by the body blow that the community has taken. The city of Biloxi will pick up any construction waste that is Katrina related so people clearing moldy houses, demolishing sodden drywall and moldy rotten 2x4s, and knocking out broken windows carry their debris to the sidewalk and dump it there. Trucks come around irregularly and the piles grow large and flow out past the parking strip and into the lanes of traffic. People simply learn to live with it, walking down the center of streets rather than on sidewalks even if they still exist. Some of the trash is more circumstantial. Volunteers, construction workers and residents go through palates of bottled water every day, partly due to nerves about the city supply and partly because it is still arriving by the donated truckload on an almost daily basis. They down a 12 oz bottle in one long, thirsty gulp and then drop it on the nearest trash pile. Then the lightweight plastic bottle is caught by the next gust of wind and blows into the street proper. [This is on the generous assumption that such bottles aren’t dropped directly onto the street by their users.]

Biloxi, for me, was a laboratory and wake up call on any number of fronts, but for the purposes of right now, it really clarified the idea of waste in America and especially in the construction industry.

August 5, 2007

Following Goethe's Advice

As the man said, "what ever it is you do or dream you can, Begin it! Boldness has genius power and magic in it." I think that's true - at least I've found it to work for me on many occasions. It’s been working lately. As I don’t believe I mentioned in post, the first, this fall begins my third year of the M. Arch. program here at the U, which means, most significantly, producing a thesis.

Now, a Masters thesis for a professional program at a Midwestern land grant university is not a dissertation – its not much of a writing project at all. I’m pretty familiar with the process, having TAed the prep course for my elders and betters two years running now, and the way I see it, the college’s basic requirement is a fair-to-middling research paper to pave the way for a design-your-own-studio project. However, I have higher ambitions. For one thing, I have aspirations to the higher calling of academe and, for another, I’ve had two years to simmer over this idea already. So … I want more. That’s OK. I can fulfill the college’s requirements and satisfy my own expectations too. I know my classmates are generally looking forward to this undertaking with trepidation but … I’m excited to begin. So I’ve been working on it a bit in the copious free time provided by working at an 8 to 5 job this summer. We’re all supposed to be working ahead naturally but its much easier said than done and the most most people manage to do is come in the first day with a hastily typed topic and first idea. Then the race begins to gain certainty, polish your hypothesis, do all the associated research, come up with a design project and complete a detailed site analysis and program. Not too much to ask in a semester with a full load of other courses to boot. It reduces strong men to tears and renders the most self-contained people doubtful and whiny. I’ve seen it all and don’t want it to happen to me. Thus … this blog, which is supposed to provide both the motivation to keep me moving forward and a venue for posting current thoughts and work more compelling than the My Documents file of my computer.

The next entry should be research related. I’ve got a bunch of raw material and need to start processing soon. In the mean time – my preferred conclusion should already be becoming obvious.