The Original Green Blog
This blog discusses in plain-spoken terms various in-depth aspects of Steve Mouzon’s proposition of the Original Green, which is that originally, before the Thermostat Age, the places we made and the buildings we built had no choice but to be green. The Original Green is holistic sustainability, and broader than Gizmo Green. If this blog interests you, please subscribe to it by clicking the RSS button to the right.
No new town being built today embodies Original Green sustainability principles more explicitly than Schooner Bay in the Bahamas, but the town stands at the crossroads today, and could go in either direction. Town Founder Orjan Lindroth has set an heroic slate of things in motion that goes far beyond normal place-making goals, but this fabulous foundation required such effort to complete that investors have grown impatient and it is now possible that ordinary things could be built on that extraordinary foundation.
The Ecological Dividend post described many of the assets built into Schooner Bay that will yield log-term benefits, and The Schooner Bay Miracle tells the story of how some of those principles and techniques allowed the town to emerge virtually unscathed from the wrath of Hurricane Irene at her strongest point.
Patient place-making was once the way that great places were built, but it declined as development morphed into something more akin to industrialization than town building, with every system geared to crank out as many units as quickly as possible. Never mind that building patiently is precisely how to make the greatest profit over the life of the project.
Seaside, Florida is the best example in part because it has been there the longest. If you talk to Seaside’s Town Founder, Robert Davis, he’ll tell you that he made more money on the last 5% of the lots he sold than the first 95%. This never could have happened had Robert blown Seaside out in the normal 3-5 years. Instead, he took 30 years and was able to retire a wealthy man on just the profits of one development rather than risking everything every few years on a new development. Schooner Bay could do precisely the same thing Seaside did, if the investors rediscovered the patience of townbuilders.
The worst thing they could possibly do now is ditch all of the effort and time that went into the original vision of Schooner Bay and sell the lots using the normal marketing fluff with which island properties are too often sold. Do this, and they will be competing on bells and whistles, and on cost per square foot. In other words, the lowest common denominators.
Does that sound like the best way of moving out of the shadows of the Great Recession, which has been the worst seven years for real estate than almost anyone alive today has ever seen? Or would it be a better idea to move beyond those dark years to better days ahead buoyed by great and sustainable ideals lots of people can get behind, and accompanied by arguably the best planners on earth, and numerous other nationally- and internationally-known creatives who have worked with Schooner Bay through the years?
The Bahamas and the Caribbean beyond are littered with half-finished projects sold on the lowest common denominator. Schooner Bay is based on the only model ever proven to work in the islands: true sustainable town-building. This is how Dunmore Town on Harbour Island was built. And Hope Town. And Green Turtle Cay. And Man of War. The places people have loved the longest and valued the most were all built as real towns, not housing built on the industrial model and sold with glossy marketing. In real towns, people come because of the town, and then buy a cottage. Places where people only come for the lowest common denominators of the housing aren’t towns at all, nor are they resilient in the long term. Schooner Bay could suffer that fate. But it doesn’t have to suffer that fate.
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I almost never go to bat for a new town, but there is too much at stake here to remain silent. I spoke two weeks ago at the World Congress of the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture, and Urbanism (INTBAU). My presentation, which you can read in its entirety here, lays out how Schooner Bay has been the starting point of so many advances in sustainable building practices along the Caribbean Rim. After the presentation, Prince Charles held a reception for the speakers and select attendees at St. James Palace where I had the honor of telling him a little about our work there, and why places like Schooner Bay are so important in spreading sustainable practices.
What can we do now? Please spread this story to anyone on your networks who might be interested. Then go there. Relax for a few days at the Sandpiper Inn or the Black Fly Lodge, and have a look around. I’ll be doing the same myself soon, then I’ll post the Unofficial Guide to Schooner Bay Secrets. It’ll point you to many of the really cool green things that wouldn’t be on a real estate agent’s tour, but which you should see. Yes, you really should see this place.
Here’s a great illustration of how frontages are the arteries of value in a city like we were discussing yesterday. Washington Avenue on South Beach is the color-coded street running left-to-right in the image above. When you walk down Washington, it’s clear that the bones are good, but the shops that aren’t vacant are typically t-shirt shops, tattoo parlors, greasy spoon lunch counters, liquor stores, smoke shops, sex shops, and a collection of clubs, bars, and bona fide dives. There’s enough concern in Miami Beach about Washington that the city has commissioned a study of how to improve it. Before we go any further, let me be exceptionally clear about my role here: I’m a citizen blogger who happens to live just inside the top of the map above, near the center, and my only interest is in putting out ideas that might help make my town a better place. The people actually doing the work are fully capable; I’m just hoping to put a bug or two in their ears, as we used to say back when I lived in the deep South. With that clear, let’s look at some things that should be considered:
Coding Existing Walk Appeal
The seven standards of Walk Appeal: W6 Great Street, W5 Main Street, W4 Neighborhood Street, W3 Sub-Urban Street, W2 Subdivision Street, W1 Parking Lot, W0 Unwalkable.
I’ve coded Washington and its crossing streets for its existing Walk Appeal. As discussed yesterday, Walk Appeal has measurable metrics, immeasurable characteristics, and these work together to have a great impact on a neighborhood business’ failure, survival, or success. That’s because people walk further when there’s greater Walk Appeal. You’ll find people walking 2 miles or more instead of driving on W6 Great Streets because it’s so enjoyable. On a good W5 Main Street, they often walk ¾ mile or so. W4 Neighborhood Streets is where people actually walk that ¼ mile instead of driving that the planners talk about. On W3 Sub-Urban Streets, the distance drops to a tenth of a mile, and on a W2 Subdivision Street, it’s down to about 250 feet. In a W1 Parking Lot condition, good luck getting anyone (including you and I) to walk more than a hundred feet if we don’t absolutely have to, because the experience is dreadful. And in W0 Unwalkable conditions like a sidewalk between a busy arterial and a parking lot, the only people you’ll find walking are those whose cars have broken down.
Analyzing Walk Appeal
You don’t need a specialist to tell you where to find Walk Appeal… just walk out and observe where the people are.
Places with low Walk Appeal usually attract fewer people; places where it’s higher attract more. Knowing why it works that way is eye-opening, as we’ll see shortly. And businesses reach out into surrounding neighborhoods for customers only as far as the Walk Appeal of the connecting streets allow.
Along Washington Avenue
You can’t properly judge Walk Appeal from one side of a street. Walk both sides, because Walk Appeal is largely influenced by things close by.
Looking at the map at the top of this page (click it and zoom in for a better view), it’s apparent that the East (beachward) side of Washington has fairly consistent Main Street character. Admittedly, several blocks reach that standard, but just barely. The other side of the street, however, is much spottier, with the longest stretch of the lowest rating being at the school just south of Española Way. Fortunately, there is no place on or near Washington Avenue that sinks to the level of a W0 Unwalkable place, even though some relatively short stretches approach that level. And the only places that rise to the level of a W6 Great Street are not on Washington at all, but are the crossing streets of Española Way and Lincoln Road.
Washington's Crossing Streets
Businesses can fail on Main Streets if the crossing streets' Walk Appeal isn’t strong enough to pull the customers in.
If Washington Avenue is to have any hope of serious improvement, the first thing to fix isn’t Washington, but rather the crossing streets. There are thousands of hotel rooms on Collins, running parallel to Washington just one block over, and thousands more on Ocean Drive just beyond that, yet few of those people get to Washington because the Walk Appeal of the crossing streets is mediocre at best and almost unwalkable in places. The only two connections Eastward from Washington with great Walk Appeal are Española Way and Lincoln Road.
It’s just as important walking inland as well. I’ve been told that almost half of South Beach residents do not own a car, so if Washington hopes to attract them as customers, Walk Appeal needs to be improved walking Westward as well.
The Tough Demographic Factor
Walk Appeal isn’t for everyone. Some people actually gravitate to places with low Walk Appeal.
This is a tough discussion to have, because some may consider it offensive, but it’s essential to talk about this if we want to change the character of Washington Avenue. We’ve all noticed how teen goths, punks, and the like tend to hang out in places their parents would never go. And it’s not just kids, either… the rougher side of the Bike Week crowd feels perfectly at home in tough places with little or no Walk Appeal. Think about all those crossing streets with low Walk Appeal that don’t entice the average tourist to walk to Washington. They’re perfect streets for the tougher crowd. So is it any wonder that the majority of people who make it through this filter of low Walk Appeal streets to Washington are the customers of the seedy shops that populate the street? Washington is only a block away from some of the biggest fashion names on Collins, but will never entice those people to shop on Washington until the crossing streets change dramatically.
Improving Walk Appeal
Improving Walk Appeal is neither art nor rocket science. Most measures are as simple as third grade geometry.
The four things below are all measurable. We’ll look at only a few examples of how to implement them on Washington, but it should be easy to imagine other places along the street where these principles would work as well.
No building makes a greater Walk Appeal impact for fewer dollars than a well-placed liner building.
Washington liner buildings should have retail on the first level with stairs interspersed that rise up to serve two living units each on the levels above. I’m familiar with many good thin house designs from the years working on the Katrina Cottages initiative.
Every parking lot on Washington should be lined with liner buildings, which need not be more than 18 feet deep. They can be as thin as 14 feet, however, or possibly even 12 feet. The worst frontages on Washington are all parking lots, but the longest bad frontage is at the school. Simply put, the school doesn’t want to be on Washington. Its tall metal fence is built of cheap aluminum tubes, with crude spear-tips curving out to the street, almost like a prison fence, except turned the other way to keep people out, not in.
If the school board sold the outer 12 to 18 feet of its property for a liner building, that liner building would serve as a completely secure wall, and Washington would get a very interesting block of shops on the street with customers living above. For that matter, it’s possible that the school board could keep the property and develop it themselves, if that’s legal.
Buildings along a street should be tall enough to enclose the street space as an outdoor room.
Ever hear anyone say “I’m too short for my width?” Washington has that problem as well. Most buildings along Washington are 1-story, with a few taller buildings sprinkled in. But it is about a hundred feet wide, building face to building face. The world’s greatest streets (make that W6 Great Streets) typically have street enclosure ratios close to 1:1, meaning that the buildings are as tall as the spaces between them. That’s tough to do in the US, where our streets are wider than most European streets. American Main Streets are doing well if they achieve a 1:3 proportion, and below 1:6 (like most of Washington), there isn’t enough enclosure to make the street feel like an outdoor room. So Washington definitely needs to grow taller. How much taller? The best urbanism in the world is usually 3-5 stories tall. Leon Krier says 3 stories for a number of good reasons; Christopher Alexander says 4 stories for other good reasons. Paris says 5 stories (often with an attic tucked above). Because Parisians love South Beach already, I’d suggest that we make them feel even more comfortable, and allow Washington to grow up to 5 stories tall, with any vertical addition taking a building up to at least 3 stories in height.
Getting the storefront right is a building's most important Walk Appeal role at the scale of details.
Measured walking along the sidewalk, glass should occupy no less than 60% of the wall at eye level, and ideally closer to 70%. The sill should be no less than 6 inches from the ground, and no higher than 30 inches. And the top of the glass should not be less than 8 feet from the sidewalk. People walking by can therefore see enough of the interior of the shops that it’s entertaining. But that’s only the beginning.
It’s really boring to walk past lots of the same stuff. This applies to both the stuff in the stores and the architecture of the exterior. So ideally, the shops should be narrow enough that your view changes ever 4 to 8 paces. That pretty much describes the shops on the East side of Washington as they exist today. So keep them that way. Any building height that is added should not change the storefronts, nor the width of the shops because what is there already are the bones of an awesome avenue of storefronts.
There is no greater barometer of vitality than sidewalk cafés, and no greater Walk Appeal role for the sidewalk.
Sidewalk cafés do great where traffic is very slow, or there is on-street parking to protect the patrons. Washington Avenue has both. Sidewalk cafés achieve close to silver bullet Walk Appeal status because humans are social creatures, and we love seeing other humans. Streets with thriving café scenes are almost guaranteed to get pegged as “vibrant” by everyone, and become many people’s favorite places over time. Today, the city tightly regulates sidewalk cafés, reportedly charging establishments a fee for every seat on the street. City Hall would come out ahead by stacks of cash if they allowed seats for free, because their other tax revenues would increase substantially not only from the eating establishments, but because the higher Walk Appeal would draw people to the other shops as well.
Obviously, the task at hand is greater than the scope of a single blog post, but if Miami Beach gets these things right, they will be well on the way to a fabulous Washington transformation. And I hope this illustrates how powerful a transformative tool Walk Appeal can be. What do you think?
They’re the thinnest and smallest of a city’s elemental parts, but “frontages,” a geeky planning word for the space between the front windows and doors of a building and a civic space or thoroughfare, do more to create or kill value in most cities than any other part of the city. Rarely more than a couple dozen feet deep, and often as thin as a few inches, the total acreage of frontages in a traditionally-planned town is less than that of thoroughfares, and is tiny compared to civic spaces and building lots, which are the other three elemental parts. Yet they make the greatest difference in the vitality and sustainability of the city.
Along a thoroughfare, the frontage is divided into the public frontage, which is located on the thoroughfare’s right-of-way (including sidewalks and usually street trees) and the private frontage, which is the part of the building lot between the property line and the front windows and doors of the building. When buildings front directly onto civic spaces (such as plazas), however, the frontage is simply the thickness of the front wall and cornice of the building. The frontage isn’t very tall, either; the part that drives vitality and value extends no more than three stories high.
Healthy frontages create value by building high
Walk Appeal; unhealthy ones do not.
Walk Appeal is that characteristic of a path which entices people to keep on walking, sometimes for miles, rather than stopping short. Enhancing Walk Appeal is a frontage’s primary job. A decade or two ago, achieving high Walk Appeal was considered an art form, but now we know it’s simpler than that. Much of it is simply geometry, and is therefore measurable. Other characteristics of Walk Appeal are immeasurable, but are equally real. And the impact of
Walk Appeal can be startling, meaning the difference between failure, survival, or thriving to neighborhood businesses. One other thing… as this image illustrates, places with great Walk Appeal typically have strong Bike Appeal as well, and allow each mode of transportation to coexist and thrive. Basically, Walk Appeal is a good indicator of a friendly place for all sorts of self-propelled transportation.
Thinner frontages create more sustainable urbanism and enhance Walk Appeal.
When buildings are placed closer to civic spaces or thoroughfares, several benefits accrue. But one word of warning: pulling buildings to the street brings screams of protests from the Landscape Urbanists, such as I witnessed at CNU19 in Madison, Wisconsin when Charles Waldheim proclaimed “whenever you insist on pulling buildings to the street, you lose!” I asked “you lose what?” several times, but he turned away and never responded. Waldheim and his colleagues want the freedom to place architecture wherever they want it in the landscape. They are masters at beautiful parks, but this is no way to build a sustainable city. He repeatedly cited Detroit’s Lafayette Park as a sterling example, but when we visited a year ago during the first Lean summit, nobody was there. Literally, there was not a single person on the streets other than us. It was beautiful, if you like Miesian architecture in a garden, but had very low Walk Appeal, as was evident because nobody was walking. But if you’re more interested in building sustainable urbanism, here are some of the benefits of thinner frontages:
Thinner frontages set the stage for more nourishable places by leaving more space in the rear.
Someday, we’ll build an agricultural aesthetic people other than gardeners will love. When that happens, we’ll be able to plant edible frontage gardens. Until then, edible gardening that enhance the nourishability of a place will likely be restricted by many cities to outdoor rooms hidden from public view. So the closer a building is to the front of the lot, the more room there is on all but the most urban lots for edible gardens behind the frontage.
Buildings closer to the sidewalk are more interesting to walk past than those further away, enhancing Walk Appeal.
Like Nourishability, this accessibility benefit is no more complex than third grade geometry. Walking close to a building is more interesting than walking further away for at least two reasons: your view changes more quickly, and you’re able to see more details of the building. Additionally, you may be close enough to speak with someone on the edge of the building. Making a walk substantially more interesting may make the difference between someone walking and driving, giving them more choices of means of access.
Why put any buffer between people on the sidewalk and businesses hoping to serve them?
The worst offenders are shopping malls surrounded by seas of parking, and they’re dying across the country. Second worst are strip commercial buildings with parking lots in front. When is the last time you’ve walked to a strip commercial establishment? A sustainable place must be serviceable, so that you can walk to the daily services of life in your neighborhood, and that works best when commercial or mixed-use buildings are pulled right up to the sidewalk, with nothing screening storefronts or signs from people walking by.
We’ve known since Jane Jacobs that “eyes on the street” make it more secure. Be sure they’re close enough.
Again, this is third grade geometry. The closer people are to the street, the better they can see and help supervise what happens there.
Thinner frontages allow buildings to be adapted to more uses over time.
Buildings pulled closer to a thoroughfare or civic space can be used for more things over time than those further back. Consider the two extremes: buildings built directly on the sidewalk can be almost anything: civic, retail, offices, residential (townhomes), lodging, industrial, or even storage in those inevitable low points all urbanism faces at some points in the future. At the other extreme, a building located at the end of a five-mile driveway is likely to be one of two things: either a very wealthy person’s estate home, or the chemical plant so located that it can blow up and not kill everyone in town. When buildings are adaptable to more uses over time, they usually last longer.
I could go on, as properly designed frontages can influence the lovability and frugality of buildings as well, but you get the picture. Just as a rudder can steer a ship many times its size, nothing steers the prosperity of a town or city like well-designed frontages. Simply put, they are the arteries of urbanism.
Ben Franklin was a Twitter master a quarter-millennium before the medium, as I wrote in the Foreword to Mark Major’s excellent new book Poor Richard, ANOTHER Almanac for Architects and Planners, but Franklin was also more skilled at describing true Original Green sustainability than anyone alive today. What follows are some of my favorite nuggets of Poor Richard wisdom. Read them, then ask yourself “does this help keep things going in a healthy way, long into an uncertain future?” More often than not, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
Here’s another question to ask yourself as you read these: “is this bit of Franklin wisdom more about consuming things or sustaining things?” Or, “is this more about using stuff up or handing stuff down?” And one more: “how many of these have been sticky enough to come down in some form to our day? Here’s Ben, in chronological order:
Hunger never saw bad bread.
The poor have little, beggars none, the rich too much, enough not one.
He that lies down with Dogs, shall rise up with fleas.
Without justice, courage is weak.
All things are easy to Industry; all things difficult to Sloth.
Fools multiply folly.
Hope of gain, lessens pain.
Necessity never made a good bargain.
Humility makes great men twice honorable.
Three may keep a Secret, if two of them are dead.
What's given shines, what's received is rusty.
Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.
To be humble to Superiors is Duty, to Equals Courtesy, to Inferiors Nobleness.
God helps them that help themselves.
Don't throw stones at your neighbors, if your own windows are glass.
Creditors have better memories than debtors.
I saw few die of Hunger, of Eating 100,000.
He that would live in peace & at ease, must not speak all he knows, nor judge all he sees.
He that can compose himself, is wiser than he that composes books.
Well done is better than well said.
The worst wheel of the cart makes the most noise.
The noblest question in the world is: What Good may I do in it?
Write with the learned, pronounce with the vulgar.
Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor Liberty to purchase power.
The ancients tell us what is best, but we must learn of the moderns what is fittest.
As we must account for every idle word, so we must for every idle silence.
Time is an herb that cures all Diseases.
Wish a miser long life, and you wish him no good.
Drive thy business; let not that drive thee.
Search others for their virtues, thy self for thy vices.
He that falls in love with himself, will have no Rivals.
Let thy Discontents be Secrets.
Promises may get thee friends, but Nonperformance will turn them into enemies.
When befriended, remember it: when you befriend, forget it.
Be always ashamed to catch yourself idle.
If you would keep your Secret from an enemy, tell it not to a friend.
There are no fools so troublesome as those that have wit.
He that sows thorns, should not go barefoot.
Death takes no bribes.
If you'd lose a troublesome Visitor, lend him Money.
A spoonful of honey will catch more flies than a Gallon of Vinegar.
Give me yesterday's Bread, this Day's Flesh, and last Year's Cider.
God heals, and the Doctor takes the Fees.
Keep thou from the Opportunity, and God will keep thee from the Sin.
He who multiplies Riches multiplies Cares.
A true Friend is the best Possession.
Beware of little Expenses; a small Leak will sink a great Ship.
He's a Fool that cannot conceal his Wisdom.
No gains without pains.
'Tis easier to prevent bad habits than to break them.
An ounce of wit that is bought, is worth a pound that is taught.
A quarrelsome Man has no good Neighbors.
It's the easiest Thing in the World for a Man to deceive himself.
Virtue and Happiness are Mother and Daughter.
Dost thou love Life? then do not squander Time; for that's the Stuff Life is made of.
A good Example is the best sermon.
He that won't be counseled, can't be helped.
Write Injuries in Dust, Benefits in Marble.
A slip of the foot you may soon recover; but a slip of the Tongue you may never get over.
Lost Time is never found again.
Liberality is not giving much but giving wisely.
He is not well-bred, that cannot bear Ill-Breeding in others.
Wise Men learn by other's harms; Fools by their own.
Content makes poor men rich; Discontent makes rich men poor.
Drink does not drown Care, but waters it, and makes it grow faster.
The wise Man draws more Advantage from his Enemies, than the Fool from his Friends.
All would live long, but none would be old.
He is Governor that governs his Passions, and he a Servant that serves them.
Genius without education is like silver in the mine.
Little Strokes, Fell great Oaks.
What signifies knowing the Names, if you know not the Natures of Things.
'Tis easier to suppress the first Desire, than to satisfy all that follow it.
Not to oversee Workmen, is to leave them your Purse open.
Cunning proceeds from Want of Capacity.
The Proud hate Pride – in others.
For want of a Nail the Shoe is lost; for want of a Shoe, the Horse is lost; for want of a Horse the Rider is lost.
Hold your Council before Dinner; the full Belly hates Thinking as well as Acting.
Ceremony is not Civility; nor Civility Ceremony.
If Man could have Half his Wishes, he would double his Troubles.
Success has ruined many a Man.
Many have quarreled about Religion, that never practiced it.
Haste makes Waste.
Anger is never without a Reason, but seldom with a good One.
When out of Favor, none know thee; when in, thou dost not know thyself.
You may give a Man an Office, but you cannot give him Discretion.
Speak little, do much.
Think of three Things: whence you came, where you are going, and to whom you must account.
There was never a good Knife made of bad Steel.
Love your Enemies, for they tell you your Faults.
Love, and be loved.
One To-day is worth two To-morrows.
Work as if you were to live 100 years, Pray as if you were to die To-morrow.
Plough deep while sluggards sleep.
Never leave that till to-morrow which you can do to-day.
It is hard for an empty bag to stand upright.
There will be sleeping enough in the Grave.
Silence is not always a Sign of Wisdom, but Babbling is ever a Mark of Folly.
Contentment is the Philosopher's Stone, that turns all it touches into Gold.
He that's content, hath enough; He that complains, has too much.
Hope you enjoyed these!
I’m at Greenbuild in New Orleans. A walk through the exhibits reveals a lot of manufacturers trying to prove that what they’ve always sold is green. That’s the definition of greenwashing. On the other hand, there is some really clever stuff here as well. I’ll be blogging about both on my Useful Stuff blog today and tomorrow because it’s better suited to quick, short posts with images than this blog. Check it out!
There’s a strongly-held view in some architectural camps that minimalist design is unlovable, but I believe that’s a misconception based on the famously-sterile architecture of the 1970s. I even railed in last week’s post against the dangers of pursuing minimalist design so hard that we get rid of essential things. So let’s take a look at ways clean design can achieve lovability.
Love and Respect
It’s hard for design to be lovable and therefore sustainable if it’s not respectful of its setting.
Wanda and I moved to Miami eleven years ago, buying a unit at The Dixon, a noted Art Deco landmark in the heart of South Beach. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I’m a long-time advocate of lovability as the first foundation of sustainable buildings because if a building can’t be loved, it won’t last, because we'll find some excuse to rid ourselves of the unlovable. But I’m also a huge advocate for contextual design that respects its surroundings, so it was a foregone conclusion that our renovated condo would not look like something we might have done in another setting. Instead, it became an intriguing exploration of a new part of the character of lovability.
The high standard of great minimalism is losing no essential thing while keeping no unnecessary thing.
Our bedroom is the simplest room I have ever designed, and I thought for a long time about what was really needed. A tent is exotic yet peaceful to me. The bedroom was almost perfectly square to begin with, so I began by encircling the room with a curtain that is precisely an eleven foot square.
The curtain runs across everything… windows, closets, yes, even the door. Come into the room and close the curtain and it’s very much like being in a tent. It’s also very quiet because the fabric absorbs so much sound. Andrés Duany said “this room feels better than any room I’ve been in for a long time for reasons I can’t quite describe.
The huge white ceiling fan indulges a bit of fancy with a nod to our island home: each blade’s spine is a fishing rod stretching sail cloth into a blade. The bed is a white leather platform bed with a white down comforter. There are only two other things in the room (other than us): two little floor lamps of a perfect height for reading in bed.
Other than that, what is really necessary? And editing all those other normal bedroom artifacts out creates a couple’s retreat so immersed with and peace and calm that it borders on the sublime.
A Chef's Kitchen
Visual simplicity in a kitchen hides all the tools from view. Far better to see everything, so cooking is simple.
Our kitchen is a very different room from our bedroom. It abandons the visual simplicity of the bedroom so that it can achieve simplicity of use. Our son Sam, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, calls this a “chef’s kitchen,” the opposite of which is a “show kitchen.”
A chef’s kitchen creates a different sort of lovability. By being quirky, engaging and warm, it invites others to join in and cook together, like Wanda is doing with her sister Janna here. Several types of lovability are delivered by the design itself, but in this case, the design merely sets the stage for people to have experiences they will recall in pleasant memories.
Things that Curve
No part of the body is without curve. We resonate with design that reflects curving human form in some way.
These shelves are soapstone slabs, cut in a gentle mirrored S-curve (or reflected cyma, if you prefer) to honor the Art Deco heritage of the building, as that language of architecture was well-stocked with repeated ribs of various shapes used for many purposes.
Most consruction materials and components are straight, from wood studs to concrete block to sheets of metal roofing. Curves, therefore, are usually quite expensive to achieve. A space composed only of curves would be so exotic that it might even seem psychedelic, as you might recall if you’ve ever seen any of the 1960s architecture that tried to do precisely that. So use curves sparingly, but don’t forget about them because well-designed things that remind us of our own form usually get points for lovability.
Things that Grow
Places that welcome living things, plant or animal, tend to be more lovable than those too polished to be bothered.
We’ve all seen rooms so visually sophisticated, whether classical or modern, that it seems as if any intrusion might degrade them. “Too perfect to live in” is a description I’ve heard countless times for places like this.
Because minimalism falls off this cliff faster than classicism, it’s really important for a minimalist space to be imperfect enough to accept various life forms. And a minimalist room arguably benefits most, because these two palm fronds arguably make a bigger impact in a room like this than they would in one already chock-full of decorative embellishments. Bringing the outdoors in can be a responsible thing as well… Wanda almost always salvages greenery that was trimmed or pruned away, giving it a few more days of life indoors as it delights us in exchange.
Lovable places frequently are built with at least one thing that brings you up short and makes you chuckle.
The most chuckle-worthy thing in our condo is probably the door casing. For reasons that are a story for another day, I needed the casing to sit very flat against the wall. And I wanted to honor the metal detailing found throughout our Art Deco building in some way. I was walking through one of those great old lumberyards in Miami one day… Shell Lumber, if you know the area. I was looking for something else, but then a piece of flashing caught my eye. It was precisely the right width, and quarter-inch drip crimp not only would hold the free-floating edge straight along its length, but it was a near-perfect metaphor for the edge band often found on classical wood casing. Delighted, I purchased my galvanized-roof-flashing-turned-door-casing and headed back to the condo, where my trim carpenter thought for a moment that I had completely lost my mind… but who still to this day occasionally brings people here to show them his most unusual casing job ever!
Head to Foot
Lovable design reflects the vertical arrangement of the human body, which has a top, a middle, and a bottom.
Most often, reflection of the body from head to foot is thought of as a head, body, and foot, like the capital, shaft, and base of a classical column. But there are other ways of reflecting us as well.
This room, for example, divides between middle and bottom at the waist, marked by a black soapstone belt. The tile wainscot reflects the legs and the black soapstone base (not visible here) reflects the feet, while the mirror and painted wall above the belt reflect the body and the painted coffer reflects the head. It’s a bit of a high waist, but that’s because I needed to align the band with the window sills beyond, as you can see from their reflection in the mirror.
Reflecting Our Faces
We resonate with things that reflect us, including the form of the human face.
It’s not essential for a design to have an abstracted face in order for the design to be lovable, but when you can make that happen, people almost invariably smile. Of all the ways of reflecting the human body, the reflection of our faces reaches us most deeply.
If you’re interested, I’ve posted a portfolio of images of our condo, including these and some other images, on the Studio Sky site. Studio Sky, in case you don’t know, is a design firm I run with two great friends, Eric Moser and Julia Sanford. Our goal is to build places and buildings that are highly sustainable according to Original Green and related ideals. I’m building a really interesting Original Green section on Studio Sky, where I step through each of the foundations of the Original Green, all the way to frugal buildings, illustrating each principle with a collection of patterns, some of which might not have occurred to you yet. You’ll find some of the examples from this post on the lovable buildings page, along with several others. I hope you find these Studio Sky pages useful… please keep coming back, as I’m adding stuff all the time.
Leading with principles that anyone can use for free instead of the normal sales pitch makes Studio Sky’s site a bit unique among designers and builders, but I believe this will be the future of designers’ and builders’ websites. If you’re interested in what the future may hold for us, I’m doing a New Media workshop for designers and builders November 8 in Celebration, Florida. Hope to see you there!
As for this post, it has just touched the tip of the lovability iceberg. Have you had enough, or would you come back for more? I’d be happy to do a series of posts on lovability if anyone’s interested… just leave a note below… thanks!
Simplicity isn't so simple, but simplicity done right can create some of the most lovable experiences and things… and the things we love the most are usually the things we sustain the longest. The problem is that there are several types of simplicity, including at least one charlatan close to the end that's not nearly so simple as it appears.
The Bandwidth Pendulum and the Victorian Revival
Conjuring simplicity with images of a simpler time works for a while, but doesn’t ease our bandwidth demands.
The architectural establishment won't acknowledge it, but a Victorian Revival has fluorished for the past three decades in the US, arguably getting into full swing at Seaside. How is it possible that people have embraced things that high-style designers might tag as "fussy" or "frilly" during precisely those decades when our bandwidth has been increasingly sapped away by the 24/7 connectivity of the digital era? I believe the Victorian Revival sprang from a desire to strip away our modern burdens of time demands and complexities and invoke the perceived simplicity of an earlier time. But pendulums always swing back, and while things that recall images of a simpler time can transport us out of the digital torrent for a while, we need a deeper simplicity now, as time demands wash ever deeper over us. Let’s consider several ways of achieving more deeply-rooted simplicity.
Simple to Use
The life expectancy of a tool is inversely proportional to the thickness of its manual.
The best tools need no manuals at all, because their uses are self-evident. And the things that are simplest to use actually lend themselves to much inventiveness of purpose because it’s easy to imagine other things they could be used for that their original designer may never have envisioned.
A simple pleasure is more easily repeated than one that depends on a complex set of conditions.
The caption of this post’s title image asks an important question: Is that bowl of Tuscan bean soup sitting on a checkered tablecloth somewhere in Tuscany simple or not? Visually, there are a lot of things going on, from the texture of the soup itself to the knotty fabric of the tablecloth. So designers might consider the image to be visually complex, but almost everyone else would consider the experience of eating a bowl of Tuscan bean soup in Tuscany to be one of life’s simple pleasures.
And as such, it’s something you can have any time you’re in Tuscany… or any time at all, if you know how to cook. And that’s the great pleasure of simple pleasures: they’re so accessible to us because they come so easily, and many of them can be repeated for a lifetime.
Outsourcing work might be more efficient, but things done in-house are less susceptible to disruption.
Take the IT department, for example. It’s good to have a good IT department. But it’s better to work with systems that are simple enough that you don’t need an IT department. That’s why Apple has fans, while all the other computer companies merely have customers. Those other companies make consultants more powerful; Apple makes me more powerful by making power simpler.
Imperfections are signs of depth - only thin veneers can be perfect, and that perfection doesn’t last.
Veneers had a long and illustrious history… until recently. For centuries, people overlaid structures built of strong but crude materials with thin layers of costly materials with the intent of making buildings more noble. Today, our motive has changed: we're no longer seeking to make buildings more noble, but to make them maintenance-free. So now we coat building elements with thin layers of cheap materials like vinyl or aluminum in hopes that we will no longer have to care for the building. But because they're cheap and thin, today's veneers can only hide the imperfections of the base material for so long. And when they fail, they do so hideously. Because we've seen far too many cheap veneers come apart at the seams, there is now a budding desire for building with real materials. A timber column, even with its cracks, is better than a structural column encased with a flimsy wrap of other materials. Those cracks in the timber column show that this is the real thing: a building element with depth, and that won't suddenly come apart one day.
Nature’s accountant balances all of the books.
Nature is incredibly complex at the microscopic level, but everything balances out. One creature’s waste is another one’s food, as we’ve known for a long time. And even when humans put things far out of balance at one moment in time, nature finds ways of achieving a new balance. Consider how quickly an abandoned place is reclaimed once the people leave. This simplicity of everything balancing out even though the individual workings of nature might involve very complex chemistry or physics is a high standard we cannot really even aspire to yet. The best way to invoke the simplicity of natural economy is simply to plant stuff and feed things, and let nature do its work. We can’t yet manufacture tomatoes, but we can grow them.
Elemental forms can be very efficient carriers of information when they ask less of us to unlock their story.
This round pool, for example, is recognizable as such in fractions of a second whereas a more complex water body might require some investigation to see if it’s a stream or a pond. Even if we don’t consciously ask ourself that question, our mind is still burdened with having to recognize the complex shape. The whole world cannot be composed of elemental shapes, of course. But things that can be simply shaped while at the same time being understandable are a welcome relief in our increasingly complex world. In the end, the goal should be to achieve a healthy balance between simplicity and complexity, so the more we’re bombarded with more and more information, the more we appreciate elemental but understandable things.
The Minimalism Hazard
"Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.” ~Einstein
Minimalism seems at first like the ultimate simplicity, removing every non-essential thing until we're left with the real essence of whatever we're designing. Unfortunately, many architects ignore Einstein's dictum and begin removing essentials. They eliminate the visible roof entirely, for example, leaving the owner with leaky flat roofs in wet climates. They try to reduce the top of the wall to a single line, but then can't properly flash the parapet. Unlike the iPod, which kept all the essentials but got rid of everything else, much architecture today gets rid of essentials as well in the name of style, and then suffers for it.
Don’t confuse the path to simplicity with a simple or easy path, as it requires many choices, and editing things out.
Which sorts of simplicity should we choose? Everyone will likely have their own mix, but I’d suggest that any choice that removes clutter and allows us to focus on the most important things is probably a good choice. What do you think?
Yesterday was the third anniversary of the loss of Steve Jobs, and to this day, most people completely miss his biggest contribution: the enabling of new living traditions where there had been none before. Much like the way Gizmo Green dominates green building conversations, almost all stories about Steve focus on the technical side of his brilliance. But if you go back and read what he actually said, it’s clear that one of his core motivations was to allow ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
There’s an apparent disconnect between what Steve did and what a few of us are trying to do for sustainability that actually isn’t a disconnect at all. Steve built powerful tools without knowing everything that people would do with them. He had some ideas, to be sure, but there’s no doubt that he took delight in people coming up with uses he never considered. He famously said that a Mac is a “bicycle for your brain,” because bicycles transform humans from one of the most inefficient species at travel to one more efficient than all but a few species such as condors. Steve didn’t need to know where you would go with your bike in order to design the bicycle/Mac… he just needed to design it to make you more effective.
The Original Green is sustainability built upon an operating system of living traditions, and it’s what kept humanity alive for almost all of human history. We’re at a strange and rare point in history where the living traditions for building sustainable places and buildings have died almost everywhere on earth, beginning in the early 20th Century. And so there is much confusion about the nature of living traditions, and whether they can even exist at all today.
News flash… they can and do exist. The blogosphere is a vibrant living tradition that sprang up in just the last decade, with millions participating and hundreds of millions (or more) reading their work. So there’s no doubt they work well today, even if architecture and urbanism aren’t reaping their benefits yet.
Part of the resistance in architecture stems from rejection of things before our time because of the need to do transgressional work. This prejudices architecture against things that have long been proven to work, which is where new living traditions probably need to begin. The other part is a misunderstanding of how the process works because most of us have never seen them work in architecture or urbanism. The illustration above shows how it works.
The worker in the illustration is like the Original Green itself… the intelligence behind sustainable places and buildings. Living traditions are similar to the tool (or operating system) wielded by the worker. The products created are the built artifacts of places and buildings.
Problem is, architects tend to confuse the artifacts with the worker. An intelligent worker can build different things tomorrow from what is built today. Just because we begin with artifacts long proven to work doesn’t mean we won’t be producing better artifacts tomorrow. As a matter of fact, a living tradition is always learning because the heartbeat of a living tradition is four simple words: “we do this because…” Basing design on principles in this way, rather than style, means that everyone is allowed to think again, and that what we build tomorrow has the hope of being better than what we build today.
We’ve grown so dependent on our gizmos that we often forget about the natural ways of doing things… ways that are often just as effective and usually a lot less costly than the mechanically-driven methods. Take fitness, for example. How many Americans get in their cars and drive to the gym where they work out on the equipment, then drive back home again, spending $100 or more per month by the time you count the memberships, the gas, the wear and tear on the cars, and the value of the commuting time? And how many more people sign up for memberships but quickly quit going, while the membership fees keep draining from their checking accounts?
My friend Nancy Bruning was the editor of the Original Green, and she’s also a prolific author, with one of her latest being 101 Things to Do on a Park Bench, which lays out the idea she calls Fitness Alfresco. Nancy shows you some of those moves throughout this post.
But there’s a problem shared by both Fitness Alfresco and the Original Green: there’s not much money in it. Americans spend billions of dollars per year with the fitness industry, and that’s almost certainly dwarfed by the building equipment and control industries. Meanwhile, Fitness Alfresco costs you nothing but time and some comfortable clothing. So how can Fitness Alfresco spread beyond the circle of Nancy’s influence if there’s no big money to drive it?
I’ve been asking myself the same thing about the Original Green. I’m unlikely to find big equipment manufacturers as sponsors or advertisers because I advocate for doing things that require less equipment. And I repeatedly make the case that the things with the greatest impacts are not the measures that make our buildings smarter, but the ones that make us smarter. So where’s the corporate sponsorship future in that? Is the Original Green just a book and a website, destined to die when I run out of passion or run out of time?
I watched a fascinating conversation with two friends on Facebook recently spurred by this story on the happiest cities in the US. One friend is strongly conservative (as is the article) and the other is reliably progressive, but they came to a surprising agreement via this train of thought:
The happiest cities aren’t where you think they should be, and for the most part represent places considered to be “backwards.” But why is that? Places where people know how to do for themselves, raise their own food, etc., should be considered the most sustainable. And they’re demonstrably happier.
Why, then, should they be cast in a negative light? Is it possible that it’s precisely because they are more sustainable? Meaning that they consume less? Specifically, they spend less on consumer goods? And so it’s therefore in the interest of the vast American Media-Advertising Complex to portray them negatively? Both my friends came to this conclusion from markedly different places on the political spectrum.
So what hope is there for those who advocate consuming less? A decade ago, there wasn’t much hope because we all got our information from the top down, and that information was all sponsored by big corporations with many things to sell you. Now, however, we have learned how to bypass the corporate megaphones and speak directly to each other via a growing choice of New Media such as blogging, Twitter, online communities such as Facebook, and more.
New Media for Designers + Builders describes this revolution in detail, and it’s a revolution I believe will bring as much change as the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago. Those New Media are therefore where the hope lies for real sustainability.
It’s not just theory, either… there are those out there who are showing us how to get it done. One of my real heroes is Chuck Marohn, who went from being completely unknown a few years ago to being the leader of the Strong Towns movement today… a movement that just held their first national gathering a few weeks ago. Chuck’s message to cities and towns is precisely an Original Green message about spending less, but getting more. Strong Towns could not have existed in 1994, but today, it’s beginning to change America.
So that’s my take on it… but am I missing something? This is a “half-baked post,” with several ideas I’ve been thinking on for some time, but I’m not at all sure that I’ve got it all right. What do you think?
The following are tweet-casts of the Atypical Building Types session at CNU22 in Buffalo last week. I’ve edited the tweets lightly whenever I remembered something else the speaker said.
• Simple, flexible, & replicable: those are our new flex-building ideals.
• We want to be able to aggregate buildings in small increments because that’s what makes financing work in today’s market.
• The keys to making incremental buildings work are paying attention to fronts, backs, & shared courtyards.
• The most adaptable buildings are a designed on a single chassis that allows many buildouts over time.
• I'll talk about Baldwin Park and several types we use that have good vertical mix.
• We're all about getting stuff implemented, not just being theoretical.
• Building type choice is one of the most important, if not the single most important, decision we ever make in place-making.
• New types need to be "better than market" to really show the success of the type, otherwise nobody will take a chance on building them if they’re not more compelling.
• “Individual entry stacked flats” is a term we use for units that are similar to a mansion apartment… so long as it’s the type of mansion apartment that has only one front door.
• Individual entry stacked flats are a great way of integrating 1 bedroom units into an existing larger-home context because it doesn’t seem like you’re building out of character with the neighborhood.
• Individual entry stacked flats can look just like townhouses when they’re attached.
• Individual entry stacked flats bulk out to fit in a street full of larger row houses.
• Multi-entry stacked flats are great corner units because they can have entries on each frontage.
• Flex units can attune well to the market because of their adaptability to today's market.
• Flex units are designed to easily morph from their inaugural residential condition to retail when the time is right.
• The first level of a flex building should be a 1-story flat because that's what converts to retail later on.
• The podium building is most far-reaching & evolving type in our toolbox today. It mixes construction types, pushing wood to its limits in the code.
• CNU should take a lot of credit with the push for podium buildings, which let us build 5-6 story buildings.
• A podium building is typically concrete on the main level, with a 4-level wood building above.
• SuperWood buildings are a new type of podium building composed of 5 stories of wood construction (type 3A) on a concrete podium with upgraded fire rating on all exterior walls.
• SuperWood buildings can put bigger box retail in the concrete base.
• The concrete first level of podium buildings can be extra-tall for large tenants who need tall ceilings.
• Viewed from downhill, our new SuperWood building is an amazing thing to see, with a tall main level and two lower parking decks. All told, it looks like 9-story mostly-wood building!
• Let's look at Julie Sanford's Edge Dwellers.
• In America, we've created construction where we can't live in buildings without outside air.
• There are many international sources of design inspiration for these case study houses.
• Edge dwellers are designed to produce more energy than they use.
• All of these case study houses are meant to be built of locally available materials.
• The tent dweller is a model of disengagement with the land, hovering lightly above it.
• The eco-dweller admits natural light & amplifies breezes, and is meant to live off the grid.
• Eco-dwellers are raised on piers, treading very lightly on the land, preserving existing drainage patterns.
• Our Belize project aims to reinvigorate local traditions of hardwood construction.
• These Belize cottages have no insulation in exterior walls, and are built without highly skilled labor.
• The Belize cottages reduce the number of layers we typically build in a building. What you see is what you get: studs, sheathing, and siding.
• We want to build a much smaller conditioned core of the building.
• After the meltdown, the lenders weren't there any more, so builders could no longer build spec houses. In some ways, this was a good thing.
• The problem is, you can't get the pace of construction to sustain a project without the financing of individual buildings.
• One of the greatest puzzles to American construction today is how to increase the capacity of building without the financing we once had.
• We are now looking at modular construction to boost our capacity.
• Modular is not less expensive than good stick construction - it's about the same. The bonus is speed.
• We're doing Marianne Cusato modular designs by Clayton Homes.
• One really interesting thing about modular is that it fits great on the tiny lots of old towns because the modules have to be small enough to travel down the highway.
• Going from the staging area to the building site in an existing town with a modular house can be an adventure. We have a special subcontractor for that.
• “Lift off” is that moment when your heart's in your throat with a modular house in the air and destined to go between two existing houses.
• The smallest cottages have porches built with the house in the factory. Larger houses have site-built porches.
• This presentation is mainly about the building types I'm not allowed to build.
• My idea for this new type began with English leasehold from the Middle Ages.
• Today, the threshold of an urban development is to have a pro forma that's better than surface parking.
• Here’s the core question: How do you get the price down so low you don't need a public-private partnership for an urban infill?
• You can get tremendous variation along a street just by making the boxes a little larger or smaller than the ones next door.
• Our tiny incremental $300,000 building in New Haven has 6 tiny units & flex space on street… and still, the landowner elected to keep his surface parking!
• My day job is to work for a luxury apartment developer. At night, I do townhousecenter.org.
• T4 didn't really exist before Miami21. It now applies to about 1,000 acres in the city.
• If we can figure out T4 in Miami, we can build quite a lot of it as successional upzoning occurs.
• We designed a 25' wide row house type to fit two abreast on Miami’s typical 50’ lots.
• Our Miami townhouse type doesn't have parking. Miami21 requires 1.5 spaces/unit, which is a problem.
• We're working on an exemption to off-street parking for small buildings near transit in Miami.
I will write up my presentation and post it sometime soon.
• Roughly ⅔ of the buildings once existing in New England have been torn down.
• It is interesting that parking is considered part of the burden of the lot rather than part of transport system.
• Someone should initiate a parking credit for blocks with Zipcars.
• The key to the best new building types is funding that doesn't require Wall Street.
• The biggest problems with live-works are fire codes & finance.
• CNU is working with the FHA to get the allowable percentage of work area in live/works increased.
• Working at home should be a basic human right.