Friday, December 31, 2010

Hogmanay

The remains of Boghall Castle at Biggar are emblematic of the Scottish environment LINK, an outline of the new environmental laws put into place this November. It's the turning of a new page in Scottish culture and its burgeoning environmental movement. This movement embraces history and tradition as well as a future that protects biological diversity and plans for a sustainable society going forward. This is outlined in the document, "Scotland's Environmental Laws Since Devolution - From Rhetoric to Reality". It focuses on the protection of the National Parks, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park and emphasizes biodiversity, a core issue. How can these and other parks be protected with a clear strategy while developing river management plans and wind farms? The necessity for public participation in this dialogue are emphasized, for it's people and culture that make Scotland unique.

In Scotland, one of its indigenous customs is among oldest celebrations in human history - the Hogmanay. It's the ancient New Year's winter pagan festival, famously celebrated throughout Scotland's cities and towns. So with that, we'll take a cup o' kindness yet, for auld lang syne. And welcome the earth's renewal in the coming years.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Colonial Pakistani Hymn



Some British-era churches of the Raj in Murree Hills, Pakistan (formerly British India before 1947) In the northern Punjabi region near Islamabad. Masonic Lodges in Pakistan also share this unique history. This Imperial style of architecture evolved throughout the nineteenth century in India, reaching its peak in New Delhi.
(Music) "Ave Maria" by Sarah Brightman

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Another Year Later

Again, after a fall rainstorm, the golden leaves are swept away in the wind. We're having a stormy period this time, interspersed with record-breaking high temperatures. This decade is the hottest on record, and the progression keeps slowly moving on, with increasing fires in the foothills. Our local disastrous Station Fire of August of last year has left us with denuded hillsides above the foothill cities in the San Gabriel valley, so those places are expecting rain and mudslides again. Recovery will take years. In the meantime, we're hoping that the US Forest Service will take further responsibility for the management of the remaining forest lands and begin the restoration process in areas that need them.

Restoration and enhancement of viable natural habitat in the mountains and forest lands is crucial to regaining the ecological balance of the woodland habitat, as well as water management issues that arise with the debris basins during the winter. Lately, the County of Los Angeles has attempted to catch up with lack of maintenance in these dams by proposing to truck out large amounts of sediment and dump it into what little riparian area remains. This is happening at the Santa Anita Reservoir and at the Hahamongna Watershed Park near JPL in Pasadena, creating a huge backlash by the local residents. Of course the problem is exacerbated by the debris flows from the fire, but a comprehensive and rational management approach is needed. One that allows the water and sediment to flow downstream and recharge the aquifer in a more natural fashion without destruction of the mature trees and habitat that currently exists.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bay Delta Decision

The USGS California Water Science Center has been working in the Delta for decades. Their work includes water monitoring, experimental wetlands and fish tagging. This data is the basis for the evaluation of the ecological health of the Bay Delta. The 2008 Bay Delta environmental study was ruled last Tuesday to be based upon faulty science and called for a rewrite of the US Fish and Wildlife plan for the Bay Delta.

This decision by Judge Wanger in the complex case of resolving the water management issues in California's critical water supply has reset the terms of discussion and future agreements of managing this resource, based upon information from all parties and the benchmarking by the USGS. The Fish and Wildlife Service has always emphasized the Delta Smelt issue as being key to measuring the Delta's health and functioning, and this ruling upends that argument. The responses cheering this decision are primarily from Southern California entities which filed the lawsuit and that are demanding more water from the Delta, including the MWD and its associated Water Contractors. The decision opens up the opportunity to send more water to Southern California and to agriculture, which drives the requirement for the Peripheral Canal construction to move more water out of the Bay Delta.

This Peripheral Canal would be funded by a water bond that was postponed from the midterm elections to the next statewide ballot in 2012. The proposed implementation of the Peripheral Canal has been covered very comprehensively by the Los Angeles Times. Today's edition covers a compromise "tunnel" option to the canal and existing pumping systems that's also on the table.

Aquafornia has a review and discussion of how the Bay Delta functions as the hub of water storage and and delivery, but also points out the deterioration that has taken place in the levees and water flow management. It also reviews the earlier decision by Judge Wanger in 2007. In March 2007, a state court ruled that DWR was in violation of the California Endangered Species Act by repeatedly failing to protect the smelt and endangered salmon over the last two decades. The judge threatened to shut down the pumps in 60 days, but the decision was appealed. In May, Judge Oliver Wanger, a federal court judge, threw out the federal permit, ordering all parties back to the court in August 2007. This decision had the effect of cutting water exports from the Bay Delta, but only in a temporary fashion. Now the Federal Secretary of the Interior has weighed in with support on the "tunnel option" as a solution to the impasse on dealing with this situation.

This battle for water as a diminishing resource in the State of California will only become more critical going forward, so it's imperative to develop a major plan for managing this key water resource in a responsible way. Its degradation shows just how treating it all as a plumbing problem to supply the highest water bidders is shortsighted and eventually disastrous.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Population Bomb Redoux

Remember Paul Ehrlich's book, "Population Bomb", which predicted mass starvation by the early 1980's due to runaway population growth? Didn't happen, we ducked that bullet by increasing the agricultural yield and upped our consumption of fish and meat. This required corporate farming and fishing which used financial resources to input the energy and effort to increase food supplies, mostly at the expense of local ecosystems. Part of it is due to the costs of energy and equipment to keep food production at a maximum - turning oil into food - which again dumps pollution, pesticides, fertilizers and carbon into the air and water. It's a system of money that props up an artificial food supply that is increasingly volatile and has encroached on natural systems that are the "commons" of the globe.

Money is one form of information, and tracking it as it expands and contracts underscores how systems can collapse and degrade very rapidly, and take years to recover. It's a dynamic interaction, with many complex factors that have to be balanced in order to prevent the degradation of the common resource pool that unregulated use of assets creates. There is no "invisible hand" moving capitalistic systems or natural systems to balanced equilibrium. It is, rather, an increasingly volatile cycle of intensive buildup and subsequent disintegration.

The "Tragedy of the Commons" is a paper that showed that the relationship of self-interest and resource management has to be balanced. This rationale, originally an exploration of the issue of overpopulation, has now expanded to show how self-interest destroys common assets and natural resources. This means that the modern commons must be considered as all of nature and animal populations in the global commons. There is obviously a limit to how much humanity can consume without restoring balance to the natural systems.

But how do you achieve this preservation of the common global resources with a population that has already exceeded earth's carrying capacity since 1980? An interview with Bill Ryerson, founder of the Population Media Center, outlines how groups of people can be taught through stories to change their behavior. These stories are entertainment, soap opera, and educational documentaries. What this could do is help populations of people become self-limiting by choice, and thus diminish the demands on ecosystems that use up all available resources and diminish the critical diversity of species that is necessary for functioning ecosystems.

The fiscal reality check that we're currently experiencing on a worldwide basis has its parallel in natural system collapse, which is something that can be averted by the development of a steady-state system that produces a livable environment without consuming the world's common resources. That's the tragedy of the commons. Everyone's self-interests ends up devouring more than the planet can bear.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Blue is the New Green

The idea of regenerative architecture being used to heal existing degraded land or add land mass to accommodate structure is emerging as an advancement in sustainability. Many of the large design firms are tackling this issue in creative and thoughtful ways. For example, "Blue is the new Green", this being a mode of going beyond building conservation strategies and taking a deeper look at all the elements of sustainability and using less energy while regenerating the natural environment, returning water and resources, especially developing landscaped "carbon sinks". This goes well beyond the code mandates, even the benchmarking that is evolving in building design. For example, GSA is seeking for info on green building technologies as a process streamlining rather than new thinking about regenerative processes.

There has been an "existing green" urban rehab strategy in New York City for quite awhile, and it's beginning to show some results. This is an urban fabric repair that tries to bring down the energy consumption and improve the efficiencies of older buildings.

Blue design, however, creates places that are not just neutral, but actually add back to the natural world and its resources, and is the future of sustainable design and architecture, according to an interview with Paul Eagle, managing director of Perkins+Will, New York; and Janice Barnes, principal at the firm and global discipline leader for planning and strategies.

Another major design firm, F X FOWLE, has published a Regenerative Architecture series, which involves land reclamation in Copenhagen. These new concepts are addressing the climate change issues that we are now faced with because of the carbon that's been dumped into the environment since the industrial revolution. As a global community, we haven't been able to come to an agreement or put measures in place to abate the carbon damage we're doing to the land and the ocean, so it has come to this: figure out how to adapt to a rapidly deteriorating planet.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Long Life, Low Energy, Loose Fit

This architectural mantra of the late '70's was an early definition of sustainability. Integrate flexibility and adaptability to future unknown uses; provide long span, high-load capacity structures, allow freedom of internal configuration within a passive envelope approach. This passive solar approach was one of form and orientation, much like the historical homes and structures that have evolved in different countries and cultures as a response to climate. Sustainability as defined by the Bruntland Commission in 1987: “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." A site called Original Green goes into other attributes of "true sustainability", which emphasizes the sustainability of place and the notion of flexibility as the grounds for being sustainable.

This is fundamentally different than the "green" approach as codified by building codes and standards; the presupposition being that it relies on machines to reduce energy consumption. The LEED standards, in particular, are a system of counting up "green" points for certain products and systems that take into account the energy to produce and transport these products. There are points for site location and rehabilitation of existing structures, but again, a formula that may or may not generate good results.

This approach is being studied extensively by the building industry.There's a demonstration project by NASA that will take the extreme measure of an operating facility to see what the "green building" approach can be capable of. The National Audubon Society has built a prototype nature center structure in Los Angeles, and plans to build a thousand urban facilities around the country by 2020.

While the building industry is examining technological methods for energy conservation and reuse which has become the de facto code and LEED approach to the problem of consumption and energy use, there remains a more fundamental path towards sustainable habitation of the land. That has to do with the actual regenerative natural systems that we find in undisturbed ecosystems, which we're beginning to investigate more deeply. This approach is known as biomimicry in many fields, but in architecture it means adapting the strategies and structures of nature and using organic processes to develop and support habitable structures. The Biomimicry Institute in Missoula, Montana is promoting this approach, and has a network of resources and case studies.

In the meantime, as the photo above shows (click to read about collecting rainwater through a "skin"), there are all kinds of creative design experiments going on in form generation that are exploring these more nuanced approaches to sustainability that get to building form as a functioning biological system that integrates with the local site characteristics and consumes very little energy and water. While they're not scientific per se, they open many new possibilities that leave the code-generated "green" structures way behind their exploration of process.

A firm that is taking this process seriously by integrating management change of the design process is DLR Group. Exhibiting leadership in the adoption of the AIA's 2030 Plan addressing global challenges in the built environment, they are adapting their firm's core values to address all aspects of sustainable practice. Part of this approach involves pushing the envelope on digital communications and design technologies in order to manage the massive amounts of data needed to solve complex and knowledge-based design solutions.

The proliferation and power of technology tools, used in concert with building information modeling and other modeling platforms, are crucial to pushing the boundaries of sustainable design. Today, 3-D models created in BIM tools can collect information and accurately analyze the built environment to validate design ideas. Powerful analysis engines such as IES-VE, GBS, and Ecotect energy modeling software can quickly produce meaningful results including energy analysis, daylighting and lighting studies, utility costs, code analysis, and life cycle cost studies.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Water Barons

Serious water issues are impacting California in the near future, particularly considering the Bay Delta fisheries collapse and the environmental degradation it has experienced from being overdrafted. The picture of ground water withdrawals above is from the Ground Water Atlas, online at the USGS website. The site is full of maps and charts illustrating the situation with our water use in this state. Most of the groundwater usage is in the central valley for agriculture, and also in Los Angeles County. In Southern California, this groundwater is not sufficient for our population or industrial/agriculture needs, so we rely on the State Water Project, the Colorado River Aqueduct, and the Los Angeles pipeline from Mono Lake.

Aside from the politics of multiple water districts and their subcontracts, formal supply requirements and allocation of water useage, there's the important issue of the agricultural water. It is being consumed by corporate farms for very inappropriate kinds of produce for the environmental conditions and fed by very inefficient water systems and meters. An illustration of this is a story from Alternet, which covers the story of Roll International, owned by the Resnicks, which controls most of the claimed water in Kern County. The Resnicks became billionaires growing almond and pistachio trees with their takeover of a public water bank. They developed this tree farm on the Westside of the Central Valley, which is marginal land that should never have been used for irrigated farming, particularly water-intensive crops like the trees.

However, the currently dying trees made for good copy for water demands based upon the lingering drought of June 2009 in the valley, creating the impression that increased water supply was critical to propping up this water-intensive crop.

This is an example of the very difficult situations that must be resolved with new Bay Delta policies that need to implement environmental restoration, system upgrades and repairs with a balance of appropriate allocations for use in California. We're at our limit of water consumption, with the aquifers being currently overdrafted and a dwindling supply of water from imported water due to climate change. The BDCP study shifts the emphasis to appropriate use and conservation rather than continuing to consume water in our current pattern. Reform of agricultural water use is thus a high priority. As the article points out,

The Delta is the hub of California’s water engineering system and the current focal point of the state’s infamous water wars. Environmentalists and Delta communities want to reduce water exports. Irrigators in the San Joaquin and their strange bedfellows in the powerful Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which draws water pumped through the Delta, want to increase water exports. There is one thing all sides agree on: The Delta is a disaster waiting to explode.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Archiporn, Critters, Caltech and Turkey

Sometimes the creative fulcrum is a response to issues that at first seem at complete odds with each other. Let's say you need to fast-track a structure beyond all reasonable possibility due to politics. Well, start by re-using everything and designing as you go into construction. There's this existing building, a dynamic client program, and, oh by the way, an earlier unused design in your hip pocket. The design concept as it was originally born in Pasadena, for Caltech, was unused when that project was canceled. Its original idea was the passive cooling strategies in the taller central core, facilitating air ventilation flows to the exterior.

The "wolf in sheep's clothing" was a response to the need to minimize the materials used in a structure, as well as provide flexibility during construction as the design is actually resolved. Good idea, but wasn't used, at least not at Caltech. But, when the same architect has another design opportunity in a country across the globe that required immediate design and construction to beat a one-year deadline, the mashup happened. A building was re-used, an idea about a flexible construction process with locally adapted materials evolved, and a highly integrated team used a 24-hour design and construction cycle to make the deadline. The result is a highly thought-provoking building that was born in adaptive reuse and came out as a landmark solution. The Nakkastepe structure in Istanbul is the corporate headquarters of two corporations - Vakko Fashion House and Power Media Center.

It involves not only the need for a structure adapted to the language and the culture of Turkey, but also to be able to withstand the severe earthquakes that would challenge even California structural design:

“Given only two weeks after initiating design to submit the Showcase’s steel order, REX and its engineers designed a set of steel boxes that could be assembled in a myriad of configurations. This strategy allowed the steel shapes and quantities to be ordered from the steel mill before the final Showcase design was complete. Ultimately, space use requirements, code restrictions, and a circulation path winding from bottom to top of the tower dictated the final stacking of the boxes.

“Whereas the Annenberg Center’s Ring was a fragile, post-tensioned concrete structure which depended upon the robust, steel interior for support, the Vakko/Power’s existing Ring is painfully over-designed, the byproduct of numerous deadly earthquakes in Turkey."

Yet the simplified steel design allowed for a very effective and streamlined response to the seismic problem; it is a research-driven response rather than computer-generated form for its own sake. The resulting facility is unusual in its expression of these structural issues, which tend to drive a massive scale into some smaller programmatic spaces that become subservient to its overarching physical demands. Intentionally chaotic in its expression, the final form is deceptively calm on the exterior. It's a rather pure interplay of structure, material and purpose due to necessity, and stands as an example of how this problem produced an expressive facility grounded in its culture that has roots in ideas half a world away.