Monday, August 31, 2009


The picture above is from the European Space Agency - a phenomenal coordination of international space exploration efforts by the EU countries and their partners. It's a representation from a database of space debris compiled by the ESA. Very interesting sequence is on this website. It seems our waste isn't limited to the biosphere. "Waste" is by far the biggest issue created by our human civilization, and it includes pollution and CO2 emissions along with the toxic stuff.

ESA has a page that talks about its mission and purpose, along with some history and background. In its discussion of business and market development, it outlines its earth observation platform. It's marketing earth studies for industrial and business purposes, and the science and technology page showcases some collaborative missions.

It's not a very active site; however one resource has been developed that's now for use in Google Earth. It concerns a topic of very recent concern, that of global warming and its impact on the biosphere as land dries out and temperatures rise. The ATSR World Fire Atlas is here. Select the country from the map, specify the timeframe, and select Google Earth output format. If you've got Google Earth installed, the dataset will come up mapped on an interactive globe that can be navigated very quickly.

I don't suppose there's anything further we can do to obliterate our planet? NASA hasn't said much about this...until very recently.

Update 1/17/14: The Japanese have come up with a proposal to deal with this problem - garbage management in Low Earth Orbit.

Update 2/19/20: Avoiding space debris might require new legal framework, US lawmakers say


The "green building" movement has been evolving for over a decade now, and has produced a multitude of ways of measuring the design of building efficiency. This can be confusing, since there is no unifying legislation, and there are different standards for pubic buildings, institutional buildings, K-12 structures and residences. In addition, there's a cacophony of standards in Europe, inasmuch as they more effective than US standards because they start with a fundamentally passive approach and build energy systems into that. This is known as Net Zero design; examples here from US Dept. of Energy.

What has not happened consistently is the monitoring of performance, as this article points out, and there's still much disagreement about how this should be carried out by facilities managers in order to make sure that the building is performing as desired. This is also opening vast new grounds for liability for professionals, since one-off design can be highly engineered but not tested, like products, in a "reality check" field testing process against benchmarks, much like the ISO 9000 standards for the technology field. Some firms are taking control of this process by involving the owners, and limiting liability to their fees for the "green" certification, as well making the contractor responsible for any deviations from design or specifications, and the owner's process of commissioning the building after construction is complete. The owner's responsibility continues thereafter, with the possibility of incremental improvements to a higher certification.

There's a move afoot to bring these standards and guidelines into compliance via the international code, ICC, so that with today's global building practice, there's a way to effectively design and build structures that actually perform without having to wade through layers of regulation and conflicting codes that produce "camels" for buildings. Until then, building performance will continue to fall short of the desired design goals in spite of everyone's best efforts. There needs to be a systemic approach to construction, as well as conservation strategies in power generation, fuels production and water conservation.

Friday, August 28, 2009

See the eagle?

The photo above shows the flip animation for a project done on the Eagle Rock landmark in Northeast Los Angeles, in collaboration with The Center for Arts, by Jane Tsong. She has a wonderful website for her public art and other projects, done here locally. Delightful ideas.

Myriad small things, it's called.

Most impressive is a map of the streets around Occidental College that shifts to the underlying topography and streams when you roll the mouse over the pic. The theme of her work is natural environments and man-made "interventions" at many scales.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"This isn't the wiring I specified!"

Screams the architect played by Paul Newman in "Towering Inferno", as he rips live wiring out of a panel. One of my favorite flick send-ups of the building industry. More architects in the movies are here, Off the Record!

PS Architects don't specify electrical wiring sizes.

Shrinking Bigfoot

The building and development sector is undergoing a major learning curve as the impacts of carbon on climate change become apparent, and the linkages to carbon production are more and more centrally linked to development. More development and construction not only consumes resources, but creates the single biggest impact on the planet by the production of materials, consumption of all resources during construction, the shipping, trucking and transport of materials from all over the globe, in order to produce a result: a black hole.

The black hole, as I've talked about before, is the replacement of existing natural processes, using millions of btu's worth of energy, to create huge blocks of structure that consume even more btu's, water and resources over its lifetime (unlike nature, which returns water and oxygen to the area it covers) and produces waste that is environmentally destructive over a much bigger area than the structure itself. It now creates greater traffic demand, which is part of the entire destruction cycle, and the whole thing spirals downward.

This black hole is driven by expansionist and capitalistic development pressures, in our artificial system of monetary profit that does not recognize the value of the environment or even acknowledge that it's fundamental to our existence. Pressures such as legislation requiring more development, as SB 375 does in California, is a result of wholesale profiteering by an industry that is not only attacking the environment, but the residents who are trying to protect what remains. The truly ugly part of this setup is that public dollars are used to push this development into communities that are already at the limits of their resources, in direct opposition to resident concerns about existing overwhelming development and its impact on the local environment, such as the "heat island effect" created by urban development and the degradation of local terrain.
New systems of funding major "public private partnerships", or P3, have come into play to combat the cost spiral that has historically doubled or quadrupled original cost estimates at the beginning of these large projects. These systems of partnering combine financial, legal, and government process into a system that streamlines the project but eliminates the "firewall" of checks and balances that create public accountability for projects of this magnitude. Frequently these projects require projections of use to justify their existence and revenue, but have historically fallen far short of these projections leaving the public holding the bag for these projects as well as the destructive impacts. Understand that the monies are going into private pockets at public expense. Like the black hole of Iraq.

The scale of development, its funding and character, must change. Massive projects and overdevelopment have created damage that will take centuries to balance out, if ever. For example, the big dams have destroyed rivers and silted them over, creating far more problems than they attempted to solve, as well as failing to produce the energy to society over time that they remove from the rivers. A principle well known in the financial arena is "reversion to the mean". In the sciences, this is called entropy, and it means that a system cannot exceed the energy that exists within it, but can only move it around - and in so doing, convert energy to matter (heat to carbon).

A regenerative approach, which operates in a systems fashion and is flexible in scale and internal feedback, is the direction that natural systems have evolved on our planet, and it's critical that human society learns quickly to adapt this model. It'll be necessary to construct a financial system that follows this model instead of the destructive mechanisms we have now that devour resources to benefit the few. The scale of human habitation now dictates that we can no longer try to operate outside the laws of nature, but within its systemic capacity. In doing this, the existence and structure of human social capital and natural capital will finally be recognized and incorporated.

Ways to do this are outlined in books such as "Getting a Grip", by Frances Moore Lappe and "The Real Wealth of Nations" by Riane Eisler. I find this fascinating, because Nature is a woman, too.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Urban Food Movement

Sustainability web-mag Inhabitat and modern design site Dwell have just announced the winners of the Reburbia Design Competition. The competition, which has been running for the past 6 weeks, challenged architects, designers and concerned citizens to come up with solutions that would address the problems that plague present-day suburbia by envisioning different scenarios for the future. Proposals tackled foreclosed McMansions, vacant big box stores, strip malls, parking lots and more with design fixes ranging from community agriculture and algae-based biofuels to zeppelin-based transit and pools transformed into water treatment plants. The competition drew over 400 entries from countries all over the world.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Re-Greening NYC: Vision

The Grand Concourse in the Bronx has a rich heritage and is visioning its future development. The Bronx Museum of the Arts and the Design Trust for Public Space launched a competition earlier this year called Intersections: The Grand Concourse Beyond 100. The winning entries are posted here in The Architect's Newspaper.

In response to Mayor Bloomberg's goal of a green NYC by 2030, it represents another iteration in the idea of urban regeneration that is dynamic, green and community-based, interacting in the urban fabric instead of creating isolated building structures. This opens up possibilities such as vertical farming - using hydroponics and water recycling - to bring natural processes into the city that provides a local food supply as well.

We've come a long way from the earlier dystopian visions of NYC and the earth, in general, as the only logical endgame. Logan's Run, in particular, was specific to the much-envisioned dome over the city with the apocalyptic earth on the "outside". Human vs. nature. I think we get it now. There's no "versus"

Friday, August 21, 2009

Re-Greening Chicago

The regenerative "re-green" movement that's been building in NYC is beginning to take hold in Chicago. This make sense because large, tall structures are a huge investment that would cost tremendous amounts of money to tear down and rebuild, as well as the environmental cost of recycling the materal and the inevitable landfill waste that results. This financial and environmental payback is now becoming apparent to business and industry, especially since the return on investment in future savings and lower energy and water consumption is now valid and quantifiable. Scale matters!

For example, Chicago-based Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture has the commission to design a $350 million retrofit of the old Sears Tower, now re-named Willis Tower after its new owners. The five-year project will reduce the tower's electricity use by 80 percent and reduce water use by 40 percent, saving 24 million gallons of water annually.

More details on Smith + Gordon Gill clean technology tower methodology are here:"Building on the concept of biomimicry, Clean Technology Tower uses advanced sustainability systems and strategies to foster a symbiotic relationship with its environment. Sited and formed to harness natural forces, the tower refines conventional methods of capturing those forces to increase efficiency."

The retrofit strategy is being globally implemented in other cities now, as this approach takes hold and uses energy savings to pay for the increasing costs to use power and water, as well as reducing greenhouse gasses.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

NOAA - Abandoning the Ark?

From its website: NOAA understands and predicts changes in the Earth’s environment, from the depths of the oceans to surface of the sun, and conserves and manages our coastal and marine resources. Their article, Warmest Global Ocean Surface Temperatures on Record for July was posted last week. Recent investigation of ice cores has documented the direct human impact on global warming.

Doesn't understanding create a responsibility? The USA and its corporations are spending more money on global environmental destruction than any other country. From Seeking Alpha: "The United States, the only superpower remaining on earth, currently spends more on military than the next 45 highest spending countries in the world combined. The U.S. accounts for 48% of the world’s total military spending."

It's YOUR money, as Charlie Gibson is fond of saying.

The River Runs Through It Mathematically

Our own Arroyo Seco is part of the watershed for the Los Angeles River, currently encased in concrete thanks to the Army Corps of Engineers' prewar project built in a effort to get stormwater to the ocean as quickly as possible. It is now the County's responsibility to maintain it as a flood channel.

The natural properties of the waterway have been greatly diminished, as the channelization destroyed the harmonics of the river's meandering flow, not to mention the sheer waste of water that would normally percolate into the aquifer along river marshlands. The importance of the river and the watershed in our society, and an awareness and appreciation of it and its natural processes, is central to the idea that it should become a central focus of an integrated process of natural cycles and human infrastructure.

The City of Los Angeles has mounted a huge campaign to restore the river and its natural qualities, and many organizations and nonprofits are participating in the revival of this critical natural feature. Much of the work remaining to be done is not just around the river, but development and building guidelines throughout the region which will retain water upstream and return it to the watershed and tributary rivers instead of turning into polluted stormwater.

Global communities are becoming focused on the incorporation of land contours and water cycle so as to return to the natural process of rivers and hydrology, as well as the local climate and water supplies, per the World Water Forum held in Istanbul, Turkey, in March of this year. It has become a major human rights issue, as well as an ecological and environmental one.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


The picture above is the proposed Westgate development area on the former eastern site of the old Ambassador College, currently under construction. This project highlights the loss of character and scale in new development in Pasadena that has been allowed under a new staff-driven "Central District Specific Plan" that superceded the old city standards that gave Pasadena its quality, class and scale, grounded in the Bennett Report and reinforced by the Gray Book. This project was assembled at maximum density, no open space, with strenuous objections from the neighboring residents, who asked the City to take a stand to preserve the City's character and scale, to no avail.

It compares with the infamous block layout and juxtaposition, shown here, of Pruitt-Igoe, Yamasaki's first independent commission that was notoriously dynamited into oblivion in 1972. Look at the contrast to the existing neighborhoods and the massive scale jump. This kind of development, with large horizontal massing packed onto a site, is what created the dysfunctional exterior spaces and lack of coherence in the project.There is no penetration of the public space into the project, hence the vulnerability of a block that does not belong to anyone.

Pasadena is experiencing an invasive style that began, apparently, with the Ross Dress for Less store on Lake Street. These are multi-colored stucco boxes with "hats" trying to disguise the fact that boxed-out density in multifamily housing is nothing more than a revenue vehicle. Massive blocks of condos and apartments are being shoehorned onto commercial lots, some of them retaining fragments of existing outstanding early modern commercial buildings. These are being marketed as being pedestrian-friendly "smart growth" when in fact they have no expression on the street, just massive walls without setbacks for blocks. Not a place I'd want to walk around in; the building scale is just blown out of proportion. I see no indications of a commitment to sustainable or green public spaces at the edges, just wall-to-wall building mass. This is not consistent with the Green City approach that asks for open space and unpaved areas with overhangs and sheltered spaces.

Pictures below illustrate the problem of scale and form that are apparent even in the early stages. The construction is typical cheap wood-frame stucco box, very little detailing, typical of many projects already around town, such as the Stuart and Trio. None of the quality (steel frame), character, scale and detailing that went into the Paseo Colorado residences are evident here.

Manifest Destruction

Florida, Georgia, Alabama in water wars, Texas is in a water shortage, now California is dry and burning up. The climate-change driven droughts are settling in hard in the coastal states of the US, and the "water police" are turning in citizens who dare use a hose on the wrong day. It has come to this. The massive denial at the National level of clear climate trends in order to foster more and more "growth" for private profit is finally paying off - in the destruction of the environment and the increasing tension and chaos in society over these issues. We have the big industries and corporations that bought our government to thank for this, and to this day there is legislation being sponsored to spur more consumption and growth, particularly construction projects. We have no more resources to rely on, yet this demand for more growth goes on and on.

The rationale for growth and expansion as a means of profit has been embedded in US policy and economic development since the inception of this country, in "Manifest Destiny": westward expansion, the Louisiana Purchase, the acquisition of Texas, California and and Alaska . These territories were then opened for settlement with land given out to those who were willing to migrate and colonize areas by setting up farming. This embedded the practice implemented by the US government of taking over resources for profit which is a method as old as humanity.

To make a long story really short, the entire economy of the US has been structured in this model of consuming resources, with embedded legislation and financial structures which ensure that the consumption of resources through land development, purchase of goods and the implementation of global resource wars remains the driving engine of this country's life style. The phase we're in now, with financial collapse and ecological collapse, is the logical consequence of unfettered capitalism. The Malthusian scenario has now come in to play, and technology can no longer be used to "combat" the properties of a system, the earth's ecology, which provides the basis of life support for all of us.

Our current generation of politicians at the national, state and local levels now have the unenviable job of turning around a mindset that built this country. Many business, political and government groups are still demanding and legislating this growth and development as a solution, much of it in green clothing, in spite of the clear danger that this world view now represents to society. In California, many cities are trying to deal with the local resource issues, such as water and energy, while the State mandates the growth increase embedded in SB 375, for example, which is touted as an anti-sprawl measure because it focuses increased construction around transit centers whether the cities can deal with it or not. Considering that development and construction creates far more pollution, resource depletion and water consumption than any savings obtained by ostensibly driving less, it is actually a destructive measure. There will need to be a reconstruction of State and National policies and governance in order to resolve the formidable issues of human over-demand on the existing resources of this planet. That, or let nature do it the really hard way.

There's a way to avoid ecocide (checklist here) and ending up like Easter Island, if we have the will to do it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Home on the Moon

The Dick Edwards Exceptional Leadership Award was presented at Space Center Houston by Asian Semi-Final Competition sponsor, Abhishek Agarwal of India to Hayley Rohrer of Dougeldyne, Pratisksha Thaker of Grumbo; Dick Edward’s wife, Anita Gale; Syed Daniyal Akhtar of Vulture; Lindsey Berkenpas of Rockdonnell; and Johnson Space Center Semi-Final Competition sponsor, Norm Chaffee.

Some 160 high school students from six countries and five states were in Houston earlier this month for the 16th annual International Space Settlement Design Competition to plan a permanent settlement on the moon.The competition was founded by Boeing engineers Dick Edwards (1933-2009) and Anita Gale of Houston and Delos executive Rob Kolstad of Colorado Springs.

See the article by
Marianne Dyson, Author of Space & Astronomy; Former NASA flight controller.

Monday, August 10, 2009

And You Thought the Valley was Bad Now

The California Legislature has spent July in discussion about water laws when it's not brawling about the State budget. According to the SFGate blog, there is legislation passing through without public discussion that will have a huge impact on water supplies, and mainly concerns the conditions around the Bay-Delta water supply for our entire region.

This activity responds to the current political fracas around water supplies, but also reacts to the issue pictured above, which is a projection of July temperature increases out to the end of the century, which is part of a draft report (download pdf) from the California Resources Agency in response to a required Climate Adaptation Strategy from the Governor's office.

A report on the Delta Bill package now working its way through the legislature towards an August 13th public comment hearing is written by the Planning and Conservation League, which is the lobbying arm of the environmental movement. In addition to the Bay Delta specifics, it also makes very clear that California will need to develop very effective strategies in defense of global warming. As you can see, we will not have much water available to us in the future, and the central valley will probably have to be abandoned as a farming resource unless we turn to tequila production to replace our wine industry...

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Digital Insurgency

This morning I was reading the New York Times coverage of the new position being taken by the Department of Defense that climate change is a threat to US Security. This reflects the evolving change in the US position on this issue, which I discussed earlier with respect to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and its efforts to negotiate world consensus on climate action. This collaborative process has been attacked by the Cato Institute, among others, who attempt to deny the impacts of carbon emissions on climate.

Checked in at the UN Portal for IPCC, and found that it's been hacked, supposedly from an individual in Brazil, with some message about "those who do nothing" as a quote from Einstein. Well, an attack is an attack, this is direct and illegal, even if it's draped in sentiments about slow-moving global political processes. Until the site top page is corrected, information on the IPCC is still available here, and the other subpages on the site are still functional.

In the meantime, as the NYT goes on to point out, the need for a real climate bill is becoming far more urgent as science data comes in showing the progressive acceleration of change.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Live Above the Train?

Picture above is from a Flickr site on transit-oriented design, which has finally hit California after years of implementation in Europe and other areas of the United States. California has a unique problem of being a famously sprawl-driven state, which now must reconcile its highway-autopian freedom with the realities of overcrowding and overbuilding. Here's a definition of Transit-Oriented Design (TOD), as it has been discussed for years in the planning profession.

This kind of urban planning is fundamentally about linking dense development with public transportation in some form in order to create non-auto dependent lifestyles. It's the polar opposite of suburbia, especially the Orange County type of long, winding cul-de-sac streets off of huge arterials that culminate in distant shopping centers. With no car, it's no food, no clothes, no exercise, no life, with Mom trapped in the driver's seat. I think that scenario has played itself out.

At the Federal level, there has been a recent formal adoption of TOD as public policy that has taken place at the Department of Transportation. However, many cities have used TOD for decades, mostly older cities on the East coast, and many have already implemented it in recent decades on the West coast.

Milwaukie, Oregon is beginning its implementation of light rail community development, but unlike the established model of Portland, which is much denser, this town wants to see much slower and smaller development.

The California challenge is interesting, and requires tremendous investigation and study to implement it appropriately. It's not a matter of just plopping down developments, there must be an integration with a city's General Plan, as well as coordination with regional transit development. Pasadena and South Pasadena have had both good and bad experiences with implementing this concept along the Gold Line route.

Here's an example of a transit study that precedes community development schemes which then become adopted in the General Plan after extensive public involvement.

By the way, Cleveland City Planning Commission has the best online visual glossary of planning terminology and buzzwords I've seen yet. Give it a go, it will clarify many ideas discussed in this blog.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Many Voices: The Future is Here

Worldwatch is highlighting the scarcity of resources that face our world now. "Water scarcity has many causes. Population growth is a major driver at the regional and global levels, but other factors play a large role locally. Pollution reduces the amount of usable water available to farmers, industry, and cities. The World Bank and the government of China have estimated, for instance, that 54 percent of the water in seven main rivers in China is unusable because of pollution. In addition, urbanization tends to increase domestic and industrial demand for water, as does rising incomes - two trends prominent in rapidly developing countries such as China, India, and Brazil."

And how is California dealing with this? By requiring that cities grow by huge amounts through the RHNA numbers assignments, by a loophole, in their general plans, in order to ensure continued building sector growth in the face of a growing, permanent drought. This is regardless of actual population demand or capacity for natural resources to provide support for urban living or ecological survival. Currently, a discussion of climate change adaptation at the State level is asking for public comment.

This irresponsibility is built into an unending growth for profit scenario that our system is based upon now, clearly an unsustainable course. Per the Growthbusters site: "Locally, nationally, and globally, modern society worships Growth Everlasting above all else. Economists preach the gospel of growth. We’ve built a system that has us addicted to growth. Real estate developers, chambers of commerce and economic developers are pushers lobbying and propagandizing to keep us hooked."

This issue goes beyond the ability of individuals to "conserve", as is exhorted by utilities and government agencies that lack a strategy to actually change the consumption model that they are built on. There are options, but they are disturbingly difficult, per an article in Orion: "The third option, acting decisively to stop the industrial economy, is very scary for a number of reasons, including but not restricted to the fact that we’d lose some of the luxuries (like electricity) to which we’ve grown accustomed, and the fact that those in power might try to kill us if we seriously impede their ability to exploit the world—none of which alters the fact that it’s a better option than a dead planet. Any option is a better option than a dead planet."

The economists at the federal and global levels are beginning to seriously discuss the need to change the economic fundamentals of a system that is no longer viable as a means of providing corporate profit. "Going forward, not only will economic growth disappoint, but the economic cycles will become more volatile again with several boom/bust cycles packed into the next couple of decades. This is a natural consequence of the Anglo-Saxon consumer-driven growth model having been bankrupted. Growing consumer spending over the past 30 years led to rapidly expanding service and financial sectors both of which will now contract for years to come as overcapacity forces players to downsize," per John Mauldin's post.

This involves not only changing the model, but a massive shift in values from the corporate-driven marketing and control of the entire energy/food/housing/money/transportation supply chain that is proving to be massively destructive. "Consumers" must reclaim their lives as citizens involved in real interactions and civic dialogue, and as human beings in their interactions with each other, not as rapacious CEO's and politicians. A step in the right direction by the building industry is outlined here.