Monday, May 30, 2011

The Threat Remains

On May 24, a Hahamongna Watershed Park Advisory Committee public meeting reviewed the various issues involved with the water, dam repair and sediment issues, as well as the various user group agreements for the site. A report on this meeting is here at Friends of Hahamongna. An additional blogged response, a very effective one from Dianne Patrizzi, is here at Mademoiselle Gramophone; a map posted here shows the issues very clearly.

This project has become a long, drawn-out fight about the use of natural riparian habitat area for a soccer field, about which no one seems to know why it's being proposed in this location. It appears to be a manufactured use, since the public demand for soccer fields is centered in the schools. It's in an isolated area that has seasonal flooding, perfect place to take your kids to drown in the muck, I suppose. It will destroy the habitat with tons of sediment fill (I think I see the hand of the County and the MWD in this) that currently sits behind the dam. Unfortunately this one-time solution of piling sediment here does not solve the ongoing sedimentation issue with a functional redesign of the system which could sluice the sediment and bank more water than the old original design is capable of. Where does the next pile go? The discussion has a long, involved timeline of over a decade, which can be read in a series of articles on the Save Hahamongna site.

An earlier report from June of 2010 documents a public meeting that, as always, registered serious public protest over this proposed development in the Hahamongna Watershed Park. Somehow the actual public desires and goals for this public open space are being lost to destructive management solutions, so that this threat to our local natural ecosystems remains to this day.

We must redefine this problem to respond to the actual impact of increasing runoff and silting that occurs now and in the future; that was never part of the original plan which was to just park this pile of sediment inside the Watershed Park. And so what does the County plan to do with the next pile of dirt in a few years? Just fill in the whole thing? This makes less and less sense the further this thing moves along, particularly since the County doesn't do the necessary maintenance that would mitigate the problem.

The destruction of the Angeles National Forest during Sept. of 2009 has not been taken into account as it should be for any EIR mitigation process; when things change necessarily so do the plans and strategies. Look at the lessons that we're having to learn from New Orleans and the Missisippi Delta; the old way of brute-force engineering doesn't work any more, nobody can afford the cost to keep it up, and the resulting destruction is massive. So the game has now changed to working with natural terrain and watershed forces; a different approach.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sun Sets on an Obsolete Solution

Nuclear power is once again on the table for discussion now that we've experienced another incident on par with Chernobyl, with impacts on society and ecosystems that make the 3-Mile Island incident (1979) that triggered worldwide protest look tame. This recent calamity, in the "land of the rising sun", Japan's Fukushima reactor illuminates the extreme risks and costs of nuclear, the result of the 9.0 quake on March 11. It's now evident that four of the six reactors experienced meltdowns, which is why so much radioactive material has been pumped into the atmosphere and the ocean, impacting other countries globally.

It's not just the radiation risks of this extreme and unsustainable technology. Nuclear power uses tremendous amounts of water, its Achilles' heel. It's far more effective to use local strategies to move water and power in ways that work in concert with natural systems. In California, this is an especially sensitive issue, because water sources are already scarce, and the statewide aquifers are being overdrawn, which collapses the ground and destroys water quality. We cannot support nuclear capacity in the West for this reason.

And in a very cogent analysis of the industry, William A. Collins emphasizes the very high cost and the dangers of building power sources that not only create immense risks, but are the most expensive and highly subsidized power sources in existence. It's an obsolete solution to a problem that must be met with local sources of sustainable power and a reduction in demand using innovative technologies. The nuclear industry, like the oil industry, is protecting old and outdated methodologies which stifles the creative and innovative approaches that could result in better infrastructure that can be maintained by smaller entities. These big projects never seem to get the funding necessary to keep them working safely, which is attributable to human nature and a perpetual underfunding of maintenance and operation sectors - the inevitable result of inflation. We need to recognize these issues and plan for sustainable infrastructure, not the old brute-force engineering solutions which require high maintenance at high cost.

When the sun rises, the energy should flow. It's that simple.

Update: Germany has decided to follow Italy and shut down all nuclear power generation by 2022. The cost of the risks is not worth it. This is demonstrated by the problems plaguing Edison International's nuclear power plant at San Onofre, California.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Seeds of Collaborative Design

When Garrett Eckbo collaborated on the design of 1414 Fair Oaks with Smith and Williams, he was part of a practice known as Eckbo, Dean and Williams, and belonged to a group of architects and designers teaching at USC which included Whit Smith and Cal Straub and many others (Wayne Williams was Whit's student at USC, not related to Edward Williams, Eckbo's parner). At that time, in the mid-fifties, he was a landscape architect who was well-known for his published work, Landscape for Living, which stressed collaborative and imaginative modern principles of landscape design. He had studied landscape architecture during the 1930s at UC Berkeley and later at Harvard, where he encountered the modern movement and studied under professors such as Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus. The full story is here:

In 1958, Eckbo Royston and Williams divided into Royston Hanamoto and Mayes, and Eckbo Dean and Williams. In 1964, Donald Austin became a partner and the firm was recast as Eckbo Dean Austin Williams, later known as EDAW. Ultimately, the laboratory for progressive landscape design with a focus on the relationship between individual and community grew into a multinational planning corporation. Eckbo returned to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1963 to head the Department of Landscape Architecture at Berkeley until 1969. He received the Medal of Honor from the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1975; he retired as Professor Emeritus in 1978, and left EDAW a year later.

The company originally founded by Eckbo, EDAW, Inc. was established in 1964 and grew to international prominence and became an AECOM company when it was acquired in December 2005. It's now an international urban design, landscape architecture and planning firm with 34 offices. EDAW’s origins date to 1939, when aspiring landscape architects Garrett Eckbo and Edward Williams formed an informal partnership to practice landscape architecture, urban design, and planning. Eckbo, a leading proponent of modernist design, and Williams, a land planner, were among the first to recognize the design and planning disciplines as a means to reconnect people to place. Eckbo and Williams were later joined by partners Austin and Davis, and the first letters of the four last names - EDAW - became the name of the firm. The practice grew in size and capabilities and was officially incorporated in California in March of 1967.

The 1414 Office Building is thus an anchor for the emerging Southern California modern movement of the time, which has ultimately evolved into an entire gestalt of integrating human experience in a dynamic landscape that demands interaction with people and their activities. This seed became a fundamental presence in the formulation of landscape architecture as part of the natural processes as well as a seamless part of the experience of the built environment, which went on to influence major projects across the globe.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Good Ideas Never Die

It's appropriate to celebrate the recognition of the Smith and Williams Collaborative work on tour this weekend, May 21st, by Pasadena Heritage. I'm posting above one of Wayne Williams' scans of the 1414 Office Building structure that housed the firm and its related consultant offices in South Pasadena. It was designed by Wayne and Whit Smith, and landscaped by Garrett Eckbo to express a unique collaborative practice that set a precedent for the integrated design methods used today in the digital BIM design of projects. It was a laboratory of design and technical innovation for the firm's projects that brought together engineers, contractors and designers from the start.
Then take a look at the conceptual design with a similar aesthetic for the Extreme Light Infrastructure project, designed by design studio BFLS in London. It starts operating in 2015 at Dolní Břežany near Prague in the Czech republic. The building will house the required infrastructure for scientific research in the field of laser development, dedicated to the investigation and applications of laser-matter interaction at the highest intensity level (more than six times higher than current levels of laser intensity). The central element of the design is a massive concrete ‘box’ comparable in size to a football field, with a lightweight roof, floating over the complex, providing a unifying element.

Cutting edge, technology, design integration, landscaped interiors and an explosion of creative ideas coalescing into forms that speak similar languages across the globe. Generation after generation!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Legislating Zero

A special report from the Architecture 2030 organization notes that a bi-partisan congressional effort reestablishes the 2030 Challenge targets in the US Senate:

The Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act of 2011 was introduced on May 13, 2011 by Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). The bill places meeting the 2030 Challenge target of zero-net-energy for new buildings by 2030 as the first item in a comprehensive strategy for U.S. energy reductions in the building and industrial sectors. Specifically, Sec. 101 of the legislation, Greater Energy Efficiency in Building Codes, directs the Secretary of Energy to “establish targets for specific years” with each target “higher than the preceding target” on a “path to achieving zero-net-energy” by the year 2030.

The baselines for incremental updates of the codes are the 2009 IECC for residential buildings and ASHRAE Standard 90.1–2010 for commercial buildings. The first code update, the 2012 IECC, which will be released in about a month, meets the initial 50% reduction target of the 2030 Challenge.The 2030 Challenge has been included in numerous other federal, state, and local pieces of legislation. This most recent bill offers another opportunity for the U.S. to realize the energy reduction targets of the 2030 Challenge.

This legislation is an example of the needed "third leg" of the implementation of zero-carbon existence in American culture, the other two being the net-zero industry benchmarks as was laid out in my last post, and the actual change in the supply chain for materials and labor that result in the complete reduction of carbon emissions.

The impetus for this has come from the architecture and engineering profession for decades now, and on Thursday May 12, a keynote speech by New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, addressing a capacity crowd during the opening-day session of the AIA National Convention in New Orleans, warned that Americans need to change their values and embrace a green global ecosystem to ward off a truly cataclysmic future. He is a Pulitzer Prize winning author in the fields of economics and US foreign policy.

The 2011 AIA Conference is dubbed "Regional Design Revolution: Ecology Matters". This signals a call for a major turning point in US public policy, which must now move from its thrall to old polluting industries to the clean, regenerative energies that flow with natural processes. No longer can the US simply pig out on cheap, destructive oil and extractive fuels while destroying global ecosystems and bringing on the climate change that is wreaking havoc around the planet, in addition to triggering destructive wars in order to capture other countries' resources for corporate profiteers.

And the students have something to say about THAT, as well. It's their future now, as well as their challenge.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Zero-Sum Game

A cohesive look at the means by which the built environment can evolve into something that not only conserves energy and water, but actually heal the environment is offered by the "Living Building Challenge" developed by the International Living Future Institute:

This Challenge is a philosophy, advocacy platform and certification program. Because it defines priorities on both a technical level and as a set of core values, it is engaging the broader building industry in the deep conversations required to truly understand how to solve problems rather than shift them.

In going beyond the LEED system which focuses only on the energy and water systems in a structure itself, it quantifies a way of including the embodied energy, the cost of traveling to a site, and an entire matrix of site, material and health issues. This goes beyond a stand-alone project such as the one that NASA is using as a demonstration of zero energy consumption. An article originally from Architectural Record, one of our industry trade journals, has an excellent, discursive article that describes how this Challenge is aimed at transforming the way that the built environment is viewed from an ecological as well as a cost point of view. It quantifies the necessary qualities of natural capital, and factors in the expense of energy and transportation to construct buildings.

This raises the bar considerably above the existing LEED and BREEAM programs, and continues the necessary evolution of benchmarks in the design and construction industry. Since this industry is responsible for the vast majority of pollution and energy consumption today, especially in the United States, it becomes imperative to address the issue now.

In fact, the kids are having something to say about it in the courts.

Monday, May 9, 2011


I began this blog with a statement from my experiences and education out on the Arizona mesa and Grand Canyon, related to my graduate studies at San Luis Obispo. The concepts we studied as a university class and as workshoppers at Arcosanti were about how people are influenced by their experiences in form and community. The intellectual structure of Paolo Soleri's work evolved from a design generation based upon the work of the philosopher/priest Teilhard de Chardin, which expresses the idea that human culture can create spiritual evolution to an "Omega Point" if given the right form of habitation that is directed towards a high level of human interaction and socialization. This was dubbed the Noosphere as it is laid out in the thesis for this kind of form generation.

The form of these habitats are designed and driven by passive energy principles, and the source of food is locally-grown with water and waste recycling as absolute prerequisites. It's a web-of-life prototype, where all things are interconnected, just as in nature. Miniaturization and integrative life cycle/energy strategies are the direction of the future, following the trajectory of Moore's law, and are part of Soleri's philosophy of using form and streamlining to reduce the impact of humanity on the landscape. That means more and more powerful, effective tools that consume less and less space and relieve the tedium of repetitive labor and work. This reduces the time demand for the drudgery of tasks, and allows this energy to be harnessed in the support of creative and expressive work that connects culture and human interaction. Which is the story of human cultural evolution as societies made the work of survival more and more efficient over thousands of years, and traded ideas and information, cross-fertilizing the creativity that energizes the arts, humanities, science, law and government.

Not only does the form of the arcologies become self-sustaining, but the reduced footprint provides the open spaces for natural regeneration of ecosystems. This theme of building community with efficiencies of scale and conservation of energy and resources is one that has been a strong thread in the architectural community since I first began working and studying architecture, design and urban planning. It was expressed in school as "Long Life, Low Energy, Loose Fit", which is an approach that generates forms that accommodate human needs in a way that does not demand extremes of technology and energy to adapt to its local site, and also provides the flexibility that allows it to shelter many different patterns of living. This responds to what we now call "social media" as the glue that holds a society together and moves it to higher levels of interaction and cooperation. Kind of a "tribal high-rise" as it were.

The future of the global environment, the synergy (greater than the sum of its parts) of the natural world and human societies, lies in the balance of these things.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

What's the Buzz?

The built environment is emerging as an amalgam of land forms, existing and historic structures, freeform interventions in urban landscapes, and an immense variety of spatial experiences that are responsive not only in form and space, but in energy applications as well as land and water conservation. These complexities and problem-solving exercises that were formerly too difficult to document, understand and develop have now become more accessible with the emerging tool of laser scanning. This technology is impacting all kinds of human interface with the environment, opening up avenues of design that were formerly too complex to carry out within mid-range budgets.

The technique of using laser scanning to capture very detailed data about existing landscapes and urban forms is relatively simple, generally using available laser scanning equipment in conjunction with aerial mapping data. This creates very accurate documentation of existing forms, but at the same time generates tremendously large files of point clouds that need to be imported into a 3D CAD (BIM) program with the use of extraction software. These are really, really gargantuan amounts of data that have to be manipulated in discrete portions with high-end computers and servers by experienced people in order to generate accurate digital models and specifications.

It's very time-consuming; however the technology is advancing to the point where its cost is coming into line with the detailed surveying and 3D documentation that has traditionally been used with existing structures. For major structures this cost is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but expending the time (months) and money to produce accurate 3D documentation of historic structures, especially, gives the designers and engineers an extremely accurate documentation of an existing site and its structures and landscapes. This allows for very fine-tuned design.

The implications of this kind of technology are that very accurate design analysis and engineering is possible at the beginning of the project, which leads to the sort of project concepts that let the structures and landscape integrate seamlessly into the ecosystem and potentially repair ineffective energy and water use issues. The reduction in cost of construction and the lifecycle expense to run and maintain an environment is the ultimate payoff in the new way of viewing the true costs of all structures. The effective, small interventions into the energy flows of a place are now much easier to comprehend, study and respond to with forms that do most of the work in a relatively passive way, capturing the sun, wind and water of its place. The effective miniaturization of the power and water systems can enhance the basic approach established by form and be expressed as small, quiet components of the form itself. People can then interact very flexibly with their public and private spaces; it becomes about choices and things that create positive experiences.

Miniaturization and life cycle strategies are the direction of the future, and this technology, applied in the early research of a place, can bring human habitation back into concert with its ecosystem. It can assist the natural energy and water flows instead of fighting them, and return the natural cycles of place to functional ecosystems. Intelligently applied, it can heal the wounds of earlier, clumsy development that didn't understand the world that existed around it. The flat Cartesian grid and the rigid boundaries can give way to gentler and more sympathetic scale and better engineering that responds to the dynamic forces on a site. The use of technology to increase our understanding and leverage intelligent use of tremendous amounts of data can lead the way to a regenerative process in our human habitats.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Time Machine

From Planetizen, "Give Yourself the Green Light", about how the American military impacted the kind of sprawling urban form developed in the 1950's. Postwar might and ingenuity were applied to some of the urban problems in order to solve them, and military planning was adopted to develop American cities and suburbs. The means of access to everything became the automobile, and this kind of thinking solved all problems with acres of asphalt and parking lots. An earlier post delves into the reason that auto-based planning is destructive to urban areas as well as suburban and rural landscapes in creating sprawl.

Here in Southern California, it became the norm to "drive 'til you qualify" for the cheap outer suburban mortgages that are now imploding our economy, along with inexpensive gas. Those days are now past, and it's important to look at new paradigms, such as are outlined in this interview with Peter Calthorpe, author of “Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change”. As he states, "I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to demonstrate that if you design communities around a car, you’re going to have increased automobile use." No, but the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Highway Administration certainly had their sights fixated on the rigid military formulas for how to develop cities. It was like garrisoning the highways and cities for an industrial invasion; it's Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

The change in urban design approach espoused by New Urbanists involves the desire to implement transit oriented development (TOD), and sometimes this kind of planning puts the cart before the horse, especially when it comes to building projects before the transit linkages exist that provide an alternative to automobile dependence. The shift needs to be made to rail and bus that connect nodes of walkable areas, and reduce the impact of the asphalt and concrete canyons in the urban areas. As Calthorpe points out, landscaped and open areas are a prime feature of urban areas that have escaped the automobile culture. Additionally, some creative arts expression with mass transit has started to enliven the light rail being developed along the old rail right-of-ways in Los Angeles. The precedent being, perhaps, the old Moscow underground stations that made "arriving" somewhere a special experience.

Hence, many cities are beginning to take the first steps to repair the urban fabric by unbuilding freeways in order to open the city up to light, open space and urban forests. This is the new paradigm that will need to ultimately prevail in our revitalized cities. It goes far beyond the historic "city beautiful" precedents and brings the critically necessary element of ecological regeneration into the mix of human habitation.