Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Tale of Two Roofs (part 3 of 3)

or, Lessons in Resource Conservation from a Post-Disaster, Developing-Nation Context
…And How to Reconcile them with One’s Experience in Design, Energy-Efficiency, Urban Agriculture, and Living Systems

Rooftop Agriculture in Port-au-Prince: Creative? Crazy? Or Common Sense?

An underused rooftop overlooks the dense urban neighborhood of Delmas, Port-au-Prince

Another roof example (funny enough) reflects the years I and my colleagues spent bashing our heads in Chicago against entrenched views of how people thought of their buildings and their environment.

In the United States, we’ve gotten used to roofs being places where one punches a lot of holes, puts all the things one doesn’t want to see (HVAC units, extractor fans, and vents), hooks them up to the things we do want inside like washing machines and air conditioning, spreads a litany of petrochemical-based products in the form of roofing, and prays the whole damned thing doesn’t leak until the building changes hands.
That’s about it.

When promoting the Red Line Green Roofs Initiative in 2008-2009, my colleagues and I argued that roofs were the ‘fifth fa├žade’ of our buildings, and that they could, and should, do more than simply be inactive spaces devoid of human interaction which depreciate in value quickly.

In developing countries, they get it.

Roofs in developing countries are also critical tools in water conservation.

Typical Haitian rural home with simple rainwater capture and storage: pitched roof directs water to above-ground cistern (at center of photo).

In rural Haiti, the average rural home has a pitched roof which directs rainwater to gutters, downspouts, and finally into above- or below-ground cisterns, from which water may be drawn. In urban areas such as Port-au-Prince, a (nearly) flat roof serves the same purpose, with the bonus of becoming places where people sit, bathe, wash and dry clothes, and even ride a bike!

Because multi-story/multi-family buildings in urban areas of Haiti are common, flat roofs of steel-reinforced concrete are prevalent. For reasons of ease of construction, fire-resistance, and building integrity during earthquakes, they are also ideal, especially with better design, detailing, materials, and construction practices.

Back in Chicago, we used to dream of such roofs.
While doing feasibility studies for potential rooftop agriculture projects, we primarily came across lightweight steel joists or simple wood joists supporting roofs which had very little additional available dead load or live load to give. Simply put, having extra dead load allows one to put more stuff (maybe a green roof?), and extra dead load might allow the roof to be used by people.

We did have some successes, however (see below).

Rooftop garden installation in Chicago, IL, 2009-2010. Architect: Dave Hampton, Echo Studio; Designer: Michael Repkin, Repkin Biosystems; Contractor: Derek Ottens, Green Cross.

 A truly sad missed opportunity, however, is when a new building is planned without accounting for a rooftop to be not only green, by useable by people!
It was sad in Chicago, and even sadder in Haiti.

In urban areas of Haiti, the difference between a roof which is capable of holding people safely – or not – is negligible. And, coupled with the prevalence of rooftop water storage tanks, to which water is traditionally pumped using a small electrical pump from cisterns, a ready source for water-conscious irrigation is readily available by attaching simple, flexible drip emitters.

To quickly sum up the benefits of rooftop agriculture:
·      Beautiful places added to urban environments sorely lacking views of, and access to, living things
·      Reduction of the Urban Heat Island Effect by active cooling through evapotranspiration
·      Reduction of local roof temperatures by as much as 60 degrees F
·      Deflection of heat-causing UV rays to reduce roof overheating, extending the life of roof membranes
·      Creation of local jobs
·      Reduction of ‘food miles.’
·      Fresh, hyper-local produce to create food independence

I wanted to put a caveat and say that some of the above are ‘truer’ in developed countries than in places like Haiti, but when one works through the ramifications of each… they seem doubly true.
For example, fresh produce is brought to the city of Port-au-Prince on the heads of villagers from the mountainous Kenscoff region, an 8-hour trek. Would some of these people like to consider being urban farmers? Crazy, but not as crazy as a population of 100,000 in the dense Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Delmas 32 without significant space for urban agriculture.

And the interlocking considerations concerning that one design decision have only just begun.

Again, the values that drove me before I left for Haiti, namely the conscious conservation of resources through design in order to work – and live – better with our environment, did not need to be forgotten.

Quite the opposite: they needed to be reinforced.

What Next?

Haiti was an incredible opportunity to serve, personally and professionally, despite my having focused here on those things which could have been rather the good things which did happen. Nonetheless, the frustrations I experienced when the winning arguments were ‘too crazy’ or ‘we don’t have the budget for that’ are with me still.

Given this, maybe the next logical step is to be in a position of power that the architect is usually too low down in the food chain to affect.
In other words, maybe it would be rewarding to be working with a government body or a funding agency and be the one to say things like:
‘not “crazy” enough’
‘we don’t have the budget for you to build badly’
‘would you put your kid in that?’
‘working with the environment is not an option… it’s the answer.’
The lessons learned before, and after, Haiti can thankfully begin to merge.
And, as I seek what is next for me, I may find that the questions that arose in each place may very well have the same answers.


Monday, December 17, 2012

A Tale of Two Roofs (part 2 of 3)

or, Lessons in Resource Conservation from a Post-Disaster, Developing-Nation Context
…And How to Reconcile them with One’s Experience in Design, Energy-Efficiency, Urban Agriculture, and Living Systems



Earthquake vs. Envelope: Keeping the Baby with the Bathwater

A kindergarten in the Delmas 32 neighborhood under repair/construction, 2011.

In Haiti after the earthquake, the loss of life was something I had never experienced, and the immediacy of need in the built environment was daunting.

Over time, things were improving, but were still hardly adequate.
For example, internally displaced persons (are we afraid of the term 'homeless'?) figures:
  • 1.5 million after the January 12, 2010 quake (Source: OCHA)
  • 810,000 by January 2011:  (Source: IOM DTM / OCHA)
  • 515,000 by January 2012:  (Source: IOM DTM)
  • 357,785 by October 2012 (Source: IOM DTM)

Further, 28% of surveyed buildings were collapsed, with 33% requiring repairs, and 80% of schools destroyed following the quake (Source: Architecture for Humanity).

The numbers vary depending on the sources, as you'll no doubt notice, but bottom line: people needed homes, schools, social services, and places to do business. Given this, pursuits other than ‘building back better’, safely and quickly, seemed frivolous. I needed to turn entire parts of my brain - or recent training and experience -off.

Or did I?

The obvious example was in the design of earthquake-resistant buildings.

A proposed Passive House, in section. The red line indicating the building envelope, and an attempt to divide interior from exterior to eliminate thermal bridges.

In Chicago, I used my Passive House training to plan, design, and implement buildings with very energy-efficient envelopes, or those surfaces of a building that touch the exterior. The goal was to try as best one could to separate interior from exterior – like the Styrofoam lining inside the hard outer shell of a cooler or Thermos – and minimize (or eliminate) energy-wasting thermal bridges. This was critical in a climate such as Chicago, which as many know, experiences both many months of severe winter and hot, humid summers.

In the Caribbean, temperature (and humidity) swings are less severe, and whether energy is lost by conduction, convection, or radiation through a building’s envelope, an earthquake really couldn’t give a shit.

Energy conservation – in the form of good building envelopes – didn’t really matter in Haiti, right?

An example of an existing primary school in the Delmas 32 neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. Owners often did the best they could with available funds, but roofs like these were not unusual.

The answer came when standing beneath a lost battle: a school classroom addition recently completed, the roof of which was the most prominent – and important – element.
Comprised of one single thickness of corrugated aluminum sheeting, just like thousands of other crappy school roofs in Haiti, I stood under it, alongside students as the heat beat down mercilessly on our heads on a modest (for Port-au-Prince) 85 degree F day.
I had argued, unsuccessfully, to add a tiny amount to the budget for a roof that would helped cool the classroom passively, using the following multiple layers:
  • the aforementioned aluminum sheeting, atop
  • wood battens, which would create a void space to allow heat to escape from behind the metal sheets by convection, atop
  • foil-faced radiant barrier plywood sheathing, to deflect UV rays up and away, reducing transference of heat energy through the roof

But budget decisions trumped this design.

While I could go on extensively about the many decisions involved in earthquake-resistant design and envelope/energy-conscious design, the point is that the two are not mutually exclusive, and if the goal were truly ‘sustainable’ development, both must be considered.

Consider also that:
  • Schools in Haiti are traditionally little more than a few concrete block walls and a roof. If the main element that makes for a comfortable, humane learning environment is ‘cheaped-out’, everybody loses.
  • Haiti is blessed with no snow, so those structural loading considerations we worried about in Chicago roofs was not an issue. What Haiti has – in spades – is hot, humid, sunny days. So… design for it.
  • Wealthier building owners in Haiti do – and will continue to – air-condition their buildings. If building envelope is an afterthought, valuable conditioned air goes out the window (almost literally), and with it go the lessons of resource conservation to current and future generations.

If we take the opportunity and expense to satisfy the minimum requirements of withstanding earthquakes – which is challenging enough in making good design, detailing, materials, and construction oversight all work together to produce a correctly built building, why wouldn’t we do the easy stuff with passive design and good building envelopes?

Too many decision-makers in post-disaster, developing-nation contexts like Haiti let expediency get in the way of making truly sound, informed decisions to allow people and their environments to work great together.

(more to come soon...) 

Related posts

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Tale of Two Roofs (part 1 of 3)

or, Lessons in Resource Conservation from a Post-Disaster, Developing-Nation Context
…And How to Reconcile them with One’s Experience in Design, Energy-Efficiency, Urban Agriculture, and Living Systems

A 'temporary' home built around a tree near the Villa Rosa neighborhood, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 2011.

Returning to the United States recently after nearly two years in the much-beleaguered Caribbean nation of Haiti is quite a startling change, both personally and professionally.

The question, as I’ve explored in previous posts, is not only “what do I do next” but also “what does my profession do next?”

In October 2010, I took a position as a Design Fellow with Architecture for Humanity in Port-au-Prince, and was seconded, or as I like to refer to it ‘embedded’ (literally) as staff architect for a relief organization started by actor/director Sean Penn immediately following the January 12, 2010 earthquake to assume the management of a camp that arose informally on the grounds of a working country club.
55,000 internally displaced people had made temporary homes in the middle of Haiti’s largest city on a golf course, without existing infrastructure more significant than a few drainage canals, paths, lights, and the occasional ball-washer.

As J/P Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO) began to move from much-needed medical services-focused disaster response into redevelopment to encourage the voluntary return of locals to the neighborhoods surrounding the camp, I helped create the Redevelopment Program and was responsible for enlisting and managing a growing team of architects, engineers, and builders. We planned, designed, and built new homes, retrofitted existing homes and a school, and did adaptive reuse of existing buildings into clinics and a community center, all to earthquake-resistant standards.

Communication and coordination across Haiti were still poor even nearly a year after the quake, and government, NGOs, funding agencies, and private enterprise - when they managed to speak to each other - often had conflicting agendas. J/P HRO, which its CEO himself described as “a plane that built itself after takeoff”, was still learning how to communicate better internally and get increasingly complex projects done.
The pressure was constant to work quickly and effectively. Some projects worked better than others, and lessons to learn abounded.

Many lessons have stayed with me.

The ones I still ponder the most involved decisions not taken which, in Haiti, seemed like luxuries at the time. Fundamentally, however, those decisions ultimately about how we work with, and sometimes against, our environment.

Working From Underground to the Rooftops

The Rooftop Victory Garden at True Nature Foods, Chicago, IL, 2009.

Prior to Haiti, my experience included 15 years of working in architecture firms, ranging from small and community-based to large and corporate, on projects from a children’s group home in the Blue Ridge mountains to a 180,000 square foot underground museum storage and research facility next to Lake Michigan.
After the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, I was inspired to re-examine life a bit, and start my own small practice, Echo Studio, which focused on ‘sustainable’ projects, paying particular attention to energy-efficiency and resource conservation.

I helped found and run Urban Habitat Chicago, a nonprofit that promoted sustainable concepts and practices, specifically urban agriculture. One project involved our salvaging building materials from a 1958 Modernist home slated to fall to the bulldozer within 5 days. This led me to research a great alternative to demolition: building deconstruction, and I did all that I could to help bring that growing industry to Chicago, along with encouraging materials reuse. I eventually partnered with the Delta Institute and joined the board of the Rebuilding Exchange, which takes surplus reclaimed materials and sells them at reduced cost, as well as producing valued-added items such as furniture and special objects.

I also began to fill gaps I felt I had in my training with continuing education, taking classes at the Chicago Center for Green Technology, becoming LEED certified, and finally a certified consultant for Passive House, one of the highest-efficiency design standards in the world.
My volunteer and professional experiences led me to some more off-the-beaten path projects, such as making a small building with 85% reclaimed material, advocating for better use of urban roofs along transit corridors, and designing and building living walls and rooftop gardens.

In a nutshell, most everything I was doing had become about the conscious conservation of resources through design, in order to work – and live –better with our environment.

Then came Haiti.

Related posts

A Tale of Two Roofs (part 2 of 3) 
A Tale of Two Roofs (part 3 of 3)  

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Where does a building end?

Machu Picchu

22 years ago, when sitting beside landscape architecture students in my first year of design studio in the architecture program at Virginia Tech, I asked myself:
"Where does a building begin, and end?"
22 years later, I still ask myself this.

The question is less driven by curiosity than now being a red flag signaling a crisis of identity - as a professional, and as a person.
And I suspect I am not the only one.

In that first year, all disciplines which fell under the College of Architecture and Urban Studies - would-be architects, landscape architects, and urban planners - all took the same core design studio. The intent was, basically, that design is design.

Dealing with proportion, number, color, shape, etc. as well as the process of study and questioning, proposing design solutions, developing them, and having them shaken up by peers and professors (sometimes literally) prepared students for the common ways in which these related professions worked.

Emerging, diverging, and returning to integrated design

Much has been written on the divisions inherent which become increasingly clear when moving from student to professional in the United States. One has only to speak to a few design professionals, schooling aside, to find some common themes:
  • As emerging professionals in their 20's, technical demands overshadowed conceptual. School was the bastion of ideas; upon leaving, one was busy with learning how to make those ideas work - drawing them, building them, and keeping them under budget.
  • As newly-licensed professionals in their 30's, specialization became a way to distinguish oneself in order to advance within their place of employment: the curtainwall detailer, the hotshot renderer, the smooth operator who handled clients best. Those who ventured out on their own found specialization necessary to distinguish themselves from others in a flooded market.
  • As seasoned professionals in their 40's with more experience managing people of different disciplines and projects in various sectors, specialization was job security. But, in a world with increasing demands and desires for mastery of many design and construction methods, technologies, and disciplines, these professionals were finding themselves having to reinvent what made them valuable.
Ask any U.S. architect (or landscape architect or urban planner) with a dozen years experience whether they are interested in, or think they need to know about, what other design disciplines know.

They answer might not be clear, but what is clear is that the growth of the 'sustainability' field has introduced a new dynamic and dimension largely absent to design professionals educated in the 1990's.

The sun rises over Machu Picchu

While traveling recently in Peru (see photos), and finally seeing the buildings and landscapes that first struck a chord with many a student in history of architecture classes, I became aware that professional divisions - architect, landscape architect, and urban planner - were probably quite fluid.
One does hear references to Inca architects and engineers, but I suspect these are contemporary overlays.

The 'master builder' of the cathedral days, was more present in these incredible designed environments than in many of the scores of churches I visited as a student during a semester abroad in Europe and Scandinavia.

The kinship between the pinnacle of the (built) achievements of the Inca Empire and where we want - and need- to be headed today is striking.
The proof is in the many contemporary projects that cross the realms of architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, and many other engineering, ecological and biological disciplines.

The design professional finds him, or herself, asking not simply "where does a building begin, and end?", but the larger, more fundamental question inherent:

"where does the design professional begin, and end?"