Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Architecture and Health

The interaction of the built environment and human health has been a topic of great debate and much development lately. Between the Well Building Standard and the Living Building Challenge, we have new ways of thinking about and measuring our successes and failures in building healthy environments. I encourage everyone to go and read up on those standards, but today I wanted to bring my own angle to the topic. As a follower of the ancestral health movement, I'd like to look at environmental health from an evolutionary perspective, and through an architect's eye.

First off, the obvious: to quote my favorite blogger Mark Sisson, "avoid poisonous things." No species would survive long if it chose toxic environments. Yet, sadly, our building industry is chock full of poisons, and it is only with great diligence on the part of architect and builder that low toxicity can be ensured. On top of "clean" materials, it is important to ventilate well, which is a lesson that Passive House teaches. In a tipi or cave, there's plenty of fresh air (well, smoke too, let's not romanticize too much here); we need it in our buildings too!

Not doing harm is a necessary first step, but it's only a start. We must provide positive, nurturing environments! This gets into a newer and more subtle field. When we spent most of our time as a species outdoors, we were tuned to the sights, sounds, textures, and smells of the environment; such sensory engagement, and with natural forces, is a far cry from most indoor environments. On top of that, we were moving, not still--not living a dangerously sedentary lifestyle. And finally, from Jay Appleton to Grant Hildebrand, there is a persistent notion that we as a species seek "prospect and refuge" in our landscapes and environments: we instinctively want a combination of safety and opportunity.

So here's the big question: how do we design buildings that provide prospect and refuge while keeping people active and in tune with natural forces and sensory input? (Easy answer: send them outdoors! Well...OK, not into that parking lot there, but the woods 35 miles away...OK, not an easy answer after all.) There is a whole field of inquiry seeking to answer this question, that of Biophilic Design, but I'm going to take a shot at answering more simply:

  1. First, think of the building and site as habitat, not merely a functional package (machine) or fashion plate (trend). But design it beautifully, as an organic whole, an inspiring place.
  2. Second, as habitat, avoid all toxins in construction! Now to the psychological and design aspects:
  3. Provide vista: long views, even if only to sky, must be integral to the experience of place.
  4. Along with vista, balance natural light throughout the space, so that it comes from different directions, allowing one to sense the movement of the sun and appreciate the textures inside as light reflects from them.
  5. Provide strong sense of shelter and "edges" (gateway, transitions) bounding the habitat. The demarcation of inside/outside should correspond not to the building walls, but to the sense of habitat.
  6. Provide access to plants, animals, and moving water. A garden to cultivate, indoor plants, pets, birdhouses, livestock, a fountain or stream...the health benefits of these alone are manifold.
  7. Encourage outdoor experience by designing patios, screen porch, etc. into the flow of a building (a living habitat edge).
  8. Use natural materials as enclosure and finish, and if employing a decorative level of finish, use natural patterns--I know that's vague, but it is a worthwhile avenue to pursue. There is a reason Wright's stained glass windows have enduring appeal, and I think it's the "nature-pattern" richness of the work more than anything else. Homage to Mother Nature.
In coming weeks, I will show some examples of work embodying these 8 design fundamentals. Obviously these are for smaller buildings, not high rises, but they are broadly applicable. The result is a natural, nourishing, lovable environment. Why should we accept anything less?

Friday, May 8, 2015

From The Field: Finishes, cont'd

The excitement has been building as the house nears completion. As the cleaning crew wrapped up on Thursday, we saw all the tile, countertops, flooring, and built ins in their finished state at last. The owners  have been doing low-voltage wiring (Paul is a pro--technical director at Fuse Technical Group), and have been learning the details of mechanical equipment use, cabinet adjustments, appliances, etc.

05/01 exterior, porch screen frame not painted yet

05/01 Living Room and entry built-ins

05/01 Kitchen pre-appliances
It's great to walk through a house just before completion and LOVE the smell of the air inside. Big thanks to EHB for their attention to detail on materials not just with the construction, but also with the cleaning products used at the end of construction. The ventilation system and mini-split are up and running--mechanical room is all fitted out:
W/D (drain pan now removed), heat pump water heater, ERV

Energy and temperature/humidity monitoring systems
All cleaned and ready for tomorrow's tour:
concrete stain (RetroPlate) looks great

Natural light on the reclaimed hickory floor in the second floor hall

Timothy checking out the ladder to the bedroom loft
Looking to hall (and Jamie) from bathroom
It's been a beautiful Spring. Landscaping starts Monday!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Drawing On Place

Occasionally I am asked why I named my domain "drawingonplace." The reason behind it is at the core of my aspirations in architecture, so I thought I'd take a shot at explaining it, and then illustrate the idea as I begin to follow our next project on the blog.

I was introduced to the concept of Place by the architectural theorist Christian Norberg-Schulz in his book Genius Loci (Rizzoli, 1979). Beyond mere location, he uses Place to mean qualitative environmental character or "atmosphere," made up of concrete phenomena like texture (material), density (scale), color, and light. It was a refreshingly concrete idea for me against the abstract notions of Deconstruction that were the rage when I was in grad school.

We have all experienced places that have exceptional character--great cities, natural settings, neighborhoods, rooms; what Schulz shows is that we can identify why these places are exceptional, and use that knowledge as designers. But Schulz also takes it a step further to connect the idea of Place to something deeper, which is our connection to landscape and the way we as humans settle in different environments. Desert, forest, prairie, savanna, have traditionally called up powerfully different responses (he uses Khartoum, Prague, Rome, and Chicago as examples), though, sadly, sensitivity to landscape is usually literally and figuratively bulldozed these days.

All of this was simmering in my mind when I was ready to start my own firm in 2006. I knew I wanted to pursue sustainability, but I did not want to sacrifice design for efficiency, or sacrifice efficiency for vanity. So one day on vacation in Charlevoix, Michigan, I was standing and looking at one of Earl Young's Boulder Park Houses, and what was evident to me was Young's love of his place--he made it real in those houses. And the light went on for me: if you really connect a building to its environment in a sensitive way, you are well on the way to both beauty and sustainability; you will be drawing on the native resources (local materials, light, solar gain, ground forms, views), and establishing a sense of place in the process. The best modern building would be like the best traditional building in that it would fit and glorify its locality--I like to call it "resonating" with its surroundings--but it would go beyond appearance to integrate the best in efficiency and technology a la Passive House.

So that's the big idea--"drawing on place" means creating a quality of space-experience in vital balance with its environment; it means "drawing on" the positive, healthy qualities of a place to design a building/landscape that amplifies those qualities while establishing its own character. I often reflect on the Daoist concept of Yin and Yang, the dynamic balance of opposing forces. Our work can be seen using that analogy: if the setting is the Yin, our building is the Yang: the best design will be one that brings a dynamic vitality to the whole.

In my next post I'll put this into action on a project just starting downstate--here's a teaser pic of the restored prairie at the entrance of the site (house will be back by the woods), taken in early March:

Happy Spring!

Monday, March 16, 2015

From the Field: finishes, p. 1

Now that rough mechanicals are in and the air barrier system has been successfully tested, finishes are going in.These will get a lot more exciting pretty soon as tile, wood trim and accents, cabinetry and countertops, etc. get installed, but that will be next.

This stage of construction is where a lot of toxicity can enter a project, but we and Evolutionary Home Builders (contractor) are vigilant about keeping interiors healthy. Adhesives, caulks, primers and paints, and floor finish have been selected to minimize toxicity: low VOC is not enough: we look for zero VOC, non-toxic, GreenGaurd Certified products, and of course no added urea formaldehyde. At the end of construction we hire a third party to test the air for aldehydes and VOCs, so we are especially motivated to keep it clean. It makes such a difference--this jobsite has never had that awful toxic "new car" smell you get on so many construction sites. We're very grateful for the vigilance EHB brings to the project.
upper landing

upper hall looking east to master

ground, polished, and stained concrete floor

reclaimed hickory flooring going in...

...and hickory finished with Rubio Monocoat natural

panels on north side

10" exposure LP SmartSide smooth siding

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

From the filed: more insulation and airtightness!

In Passive architecture, you really don't want your buildings to suck. Technically, you want them to lose less than:
   0.6 air changes per hour when depressurized to 50 Pascals of pressure for the "old" Passive House Standard;
   or .05cfm of air per square foot of exterior envelope area when pressurized to 50 Pascal in the soon-to-be adapted PHIUS standard.
Jason LaFleur of EcoAchievers, a PHIUS+ and LEED-H trained rater did a preliminary blower door test today along with his laptop and Tectite sofware, wirelessly connected to the blower door assembly. Cool tools for sure.
the red door of truth

plotting readings
As you can see on the screen, the device sends a scattering of points which it plots on a curve. We were a little surprised that our first reading was over 0.6ACH50 so we did a walk around the house with his thermal imaging camera to look for leaks.

IR image: "cold" temp is about 66F, 35F outside

We didn't find any at the windows, but found a big one where the ERV exhaust penetration was taped off. Once we taped it off, we tested again and got a much better reading:
129cfm, or .46ACH50
At 129cfm/0.46ACH50, we're comfortably under the threshold! So big congrats to the team at Evolutionary Home Builders. This reading is likely to get better after drywall goes in, but it's not something to count on. One of the lessons of Passive building is to have a single dedicated air barrier system that you can see, test, and repair as needed. Additional layers can help, but first test that system.
living room, facing entry and TV built-in
The house is feeling, aside from warm, much more spatially solid with the insulation (that's blown-in fiberglass, Knauf JetStream, recycled. no formaldehyde). And the late afternoon winter light was very soft in the master bedroom: 

One more shot, looking from front sitting room out to the fireplace--can't wait to see the Elmwood Reclaimed wood mantle, the wood ceiling of the screen porch, and a fire in the grate...

Drywall, cabinetry, doors, siding...exciting month coming up. See you back here soon.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

From the Field: insulation and windows

Here's an update for the Oak Park home in construction--it's been a busy time with roofing, insulation, overhangs, exterior insulation, weather barrier, and windows. First thing after the air barrier (Prosoco, the pink stuff painted on the outside of the plywood) was to frame the overhangs, so they could get a roof on.
west (front) facade

6x6 cedar brackets
Then the polyisocyanurate exterior insulation went up:
working to the corner; there are two layers of polyiso and it's important to stagger the seams

wrapped up tight--polyiso flushes out with window bucks
The roof went on, and the polyiso was wrapped with a Delta weather resistive barrier:
roof is on, wrapped up in stylish black WRB with Prosoco-red trim, and we have a front slab

street facade--someday that plywood will be a real front door
The light and space at the stair is nice to be in:
interior of south facade above stair with Garrett and Rudy from the office

from stair to front bedroom--light!
And no Passive blog would be complete without some photos of the windows going in. These are Zola Thermo uPVC, an incredible value for Passive House performance. They're tilt-tun (open in) windows with jamb clips for fixing:
sill prepared for install--note how air barrier membrane runs to the interior of window plane

jamb clips screwed to framing; next a backer rod and sealant will make the openings airtight
That's it for this install--next will show rough mechanicals.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

From the Field: framing the Right-Sized Oak Park home

Framing is great fun to watch--it goes up fast, and in a few weeks you go from having drawings to being able to walk through real enclosure of space. It's like the week after Halloween to an architect: lots of eye candy! Evolutionary Home Builders has been doing their usual stellar job, and I'm going to show the timeline over the last three weeks.

First walls up, October 5. Note foundation vapor barrier to be sealed to sheathing later. Also note the advanced framing--single top plate, two stud corners...
...and insulated headers.
First sheathing, second floor deck, Oct. 16

Oct. 23: the form is visible!

Interior vistas taking shape as well.
Sheathing on, plywood window bucks going in, Oct. 28 

The sunny side of the house--bedrooms and stairwell.

Sure I'm biased, but I do love the proportion of's the really high quality dark chocolate of eye candy to me...
Since the sheathing is our air barrier, it gets coated with fluid-applied membrane (Prosoco), all the way over the window bucks. Oct. 29
Next update will include the overhangs which they're framing now, and most likely the insulation which is going on over the air barrier. Preserving a thermal-bridge-free envelope at overhangs and porch attachments is one of the big challenges when detailing the exterior, and I'll go into some detail on that next post as well.