Tag Archives: sustainability

new technology

I am always looking to what is coming in technology, and how that can free-up form to allow it to do what it wants to do. Solar panels have long been something that students typically stick on, rather than considering them to be a material that has its own unique properties. After all, what is the difference between a photovoltaic panel and a brick? But new technology has the potential to allow for still other ways of integrating this essential technology. (For integrate it we must! Some of my colleagues can’t seem to find a way to look at these aesthetically, yet see no problem in having boilers and AC. Why is one tech acceptable, yet another not? Habit, mostly. Habit of thought.)


These spherical solar cells are really cool. The actual cells are the little dots, and the whole in this case is inserted into a concentrating lens about the size of a fist. The nice thing about this is that they could be mounted onto the flowing surfaces of a biomorphic project, maybe looking like dew drops on a leaf. Another cool form factor I’ve come across is this spinning conical-shaped collector. Much larger than the sphere, of course, but another take that alters the flat plate mindset.

solar-scattering algorithm

There have been so many innovations happening in the lab and in start-ups. Particularly interesting are the nano scale developments, such as this light scattering pattern. Of course I wish it would be a visible pattern maker, but even that is possible, since more color options are becoming available as well.

I am a graduate of SCI-Arc, which has had three different locations over its existence. A Home Depot opened right next to its second location. It was apparently a beta-testing store, meaning that they used the store to evaluate trends for the overall market. The way the students use material is nothing like the standard market; they see potential and application completely unlike the average person. I like to think that the way students use things, how they see the potential in things, can influence markets.

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Natalie Jeremijenko: creative sustainability

I very much like the work of Natalie Jeremijenko. I first encountered it at Mass MoCA. At the time I hated it. But since I have come to appreciate it. This piece talks about many things: the tenacity of nature; the strange stresses that we humans place on the natural world; the interaction between the natural and the artificial (I’d love other comments about interpretations).

Natalie Jeremijenko at Mass MoCA

Her TED talk is also quite nice. In particular I like the way she thinks about the built environment and its role in remediating industrial ills. I especially like the solar chimney in its elegant simplicity. It takes advantage of two very fundamental concepts: hot air rises; and the color black absorbs the most amount of sun, creating hot air.

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A Building in Order of its Permanence

In How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand made a diagram that holds pretty true, at least as far as most modern and contemporary buildings are concerned.

A building in order of its permanence, from: Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn.

In terms of teaching comprehensive design, I have found this diagram to be quite useful in breaking down the huge number of tasks required into a series of manageable chunks. I don’t always use these – in fact I have conceived my own series. I start with site/siting/scenario. How do we deal with the site? I break this up into an analysis that deals with the two primary classes of site factors: physical and cultural. In the studio this amounts to the massing and orientations of the building. But it begins to extend into internal logic as well, and how that internal logic interacts with the forces of the site. Needless to say, this sets the frame for the rest of the work. It also, given the general limit of a semester to accomplish a great deal of work, gets cut off prematurely. This is regrettable. In an ideal world, we would continue to the next task when the appropriate level of completion has been reached. On the other hand, if we waited for all schematic issues to be resolved, students might never get the opportunity to engage with the full range of integration.

Following site comes structure. I ask them to resolve this as a three-dimensional model, typically in the computer. Too often I see column grids thrown down, but on further inspection they do not have a relation to the section. Structure is generally quite straightforward. I talk about coherent systems. Occasionally I get a student who really pushes the envelope, and that is fun.

Skin in contemporary buildings is usually divorced from structure. We look at materials from a performance viewpoint, and a cultural/aesthetic viewpoint. The skin in a contemporary building is a complicated system of enclosure, most importantly acting as a conservative and selective mediator of the environment, but at times also a regenerative (as per Banham). It is the single most important building system for reducing energy consumption and maintaining comfort. It is also the cultural face of the construction, and as such it is the conveyor of meaning. Negotiating between those factors of performance and aesthetics is a sweet agony.

The aspect that gets the least amount of play is services. That is because they are so little known, but also because they are still and ignoble art. Even though they gobble-up vast chunks of the architect’s budget, they are still largely considered an afterthought. Especially in schools students are rarely asked to consider these systems outside of their building systems classes. Here we are, 33 years following Reyner Banham’s The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment, and the great divorce between building aesthetics and building systems continues, at least in the schools. That gulf is diminishing in the profession, due to climate change and the rigors of high-performance buildings. But this can be fun. How does water drain from a roof? Through some piece of pipe? Or could it channel into a stream that jets off of the building into a fountain below? How does the sun enter the building? What does cooling look like? How can we engage those things that provide for our physical comfort in an inventive architectural manner?

Brand’s penultimate category is space plan. To me, that is the least interesting. Students can get wrapped up into massaging this forever. I typically call this stage (Public) Space or Circulation (I know it is a “C,” but it is an “S” sound). Rather than get entangled into the intricacies of space planning, I focus instead on those areas most accessed by the public, and try to give them quality and resolution. This stage engages the students with how the user accesses and moves through the building, how interior relates to exterior, and what the form and function of the landscape is.

The final category in my taxonomy is synthesis. This is the time for reassessment and the tying-up of loose ends. This is also the production phase, in which the student is to figure out how best to tell her/his story.

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Psychomotor Domain

In general, I think that we as teachers of architecture probably need to gain a better understanding of the processes of learning. I am a novice and an admitted lightweight in this arena, but I have been thinking a lot about it. I was introduced to Bloom’s taxonomy a couple of years ago by my dear friend, Jassen Callender.

I have been interested in the psychomotor domain of learning as it relates to learning about issues of sustainability/environmental engagement. I came across several systems, and I am trying to assess which one fits best within architectural education. Probably the most widely accepted is E.J. Simpson’s taxonomy. It is easy to see why. It goes beyond the development of a child’s skills, or the pure mechanistic response of reflex into the psychomotor contribution to learning. Simpson’s clearly stands out, because observation/perception is probably at the root to our understanding of the physical world. What is also interesting is that Simpson’s taxonomy acknowledges the fact that the cognitive and affective domains cannot be separated from the psychomotor, and incorporates that indivisibility in the set category.

I ask the question of my colleagues: how can we instill a body understanding of natural forces? I suppose part of the answer to that question is that students need to live some, for that aids perception. Coming close to drowning fighting one’s way out of a rip current, chopping wood, picking strawberries, these are life experiences that shape our perception of the natural world. Can we shape an understanding of the physical world? Can we construct a pedagogy of engagement that moves between the concrete and the abstract.

E. J. Simpson’s taxonomy:

Perception: The ability to use sensory cues to guide motor activity.  This ranges from sensory stimulation, through cue selection, to translation.

Set: Readiness to act. It includes mental, physical, and emotional sets. These three sets are dispositions that predetermine a person’s response to different situations (sometimes called mindsets).

Guided Response: The early stages in learning a complex skill that includes imitation and trial and error. Adequacy of performance is achieved by practicing.

Mechanism: This is the intermediate stage in learning a complex skill. Learned responses have become habitual and the movements can be performed with some confidence and proficiency.

Complex Overt Response: The skillful performance of motor acts that involve complex movement patterns. Proficiency is indicated by a quick, accurate, and highly coordinated performance, requiring a minimum of energy. This category includes performing without hesitation, and automatic performance. For example, players often utter sounds of satisfaction or expletives as soon as they hit a tennis ball or throw a football, because they can tell by the feel of the act what the result will produce.

Adaptation: Skills are well developed and the individual can modify movement patterns to fit special requirements.

Origination: Creating new movement patterns to fit a particular situation or specific problem. Learning outcomes emphasize creativity based upon highly developed skills.

R.H. Dave: this appears to nicely describe the act of acquiring a physical skill, like throwing a baseball or drawing.

Imitation — Observing and patterning behavior after someone else. Performance may be of low quality. Example: Copying a work of art.

Manipulation — Being able to perform certain actions by following instructions and practicing. Example: Creating work on one’s own, after taking lessons, or reading about it.
Precision — Refining, becoming more exact. Few errors are apparent. Example: Working and reworking something, so it will be “just right.”

Articulation — Coordinating a series of actions, achieving harmony and internal consistency. Example: Producing a video that involves music, drama, color, sound, etc.

Naturalization — Having high level performance become natural, without needing to think much about it. Examples: Michael Jordan playing basketball, Nancy Lopez hitting a golf ball, etc.

A.J. Harrow: this also describes the acquisition of skills, however, I like the final category: non-discursive skills. For artists, this category where the physical gains a level of communication is fundamental.

Reflex movements — Reflex movements are actions elicited without learning in response to some stimuli. Examples include: flexion, extension, stretch, postural adjustments.

Basic fundamental movements — Basic fundamental movements are inherent movement patterns which are formed by combining of reflex movements and are the basis for complex skilled movements. Examples are: walking, running, pushing, twisting, gripping, grasping, manipulating.

Perceptual — Perceptual refers to interpretation of various stimuli that enable one to make adjustments to the environment. Visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or tactile discrimination. Suggests cognitive as well as psychomotor behavior. Examples include: coordinated movements such as jumping rope, punting, or catching.

Physical activities — Physical activities require endurance, strength, vigor, and agility which produces a sound, efficiently functioning body. Examples are: all activities which require a) strenuous effort for long periods of time; b) muscular exertion; c) a quick, wide range of motion at the hip joints; and d) quick, precise movements.

Skilled movements — Skilled movements are the result of the acquisition of a degree of efficiency when performing a complex task. Examples are: all skilled activities obvious in sports, recreation, and dance.

Non-discursive communication — Non-discursive communication is communication through bodily movements ranging from facial expressions through sophisticated choreographics. Examples include: body postures, gestures, and facial expressions efficiently executed in skilled dance movement and choreographics.

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Sustainability in the Curriculum at CCNY

I have joined the curriculum committee at CCNY, and have volunteered to do work on the “sustainability” curriculum. Part of my task is to review what other schools do. In reviewing the curricula for about 10 schools, it is apparent that not much difference exists between SSA and most other schools in terms of the overt curriculum. Most schools have some variation of 9-10 studios in the undergrad curriculum, 3-4 history theory courses, and usually a technology sequence of 2 structures classes, 2 materials and assemblies classes, and 2 environmental controls classes.

What becomes important lies below the surface. I contacted Alison Kwok, who is one of the most recognized green building educators, and her response was:

“Really depends on the mission of the program.
–are studios taught by ALL faculty or are studios taught by designers and are the technology people separated/included/integrated at all?
–how many tenure related faculty have technology backgrounds? (of 32 Oregon tenure related faculty , approx 1/3 are teaching ECS, structures, construction . . .)
-how many green electives are offered? (again that depends on how green is defined)
-what kind and how many galvanizing activities/programs on campus and in the department?

I guess those would be my criteria.  Critical mass is essential. Without that, change doesn’t happen, from the faculty and the student side.”

Kwok’s comments pretty much sum it up. Without the buy-in on the part of all faculty members who teach in the design studios, at least in the levels that the school determines that such teaching be the focus, this is a failed project.

So, how to achieve buy-in? The answer isn’t to bend all faculty to the will of the technological, but how to erect a scaffold for the curriculum that promotes the goals of teaching green building while at the same time allowing room for the individual design instructor to pursue her/his own agenda. A level of academic freedom is essential in a school of a creative discipline. Architecture is a hopelessly complicated discipline. Issues of form, structure, occupation, and urbanity are important pursuits. I doubt that any individual faculty member is a climate denier, or thinks that green building is a worthless pursuit. But people develop expertise in various areas, and it is counterproductive to ask that they potentially bag decades of research and teaching. These pursuits are still valid questions. So let us look at how we use our resources (i.e. faculty).

My own feelings are this. We need to rephrase the questions we ask. To quote Le Corbusier: “The airplane shows us that a problem well stated finds its solution. To wish to fly like a bird is to state the problem badly… to search for a means of suspension in the air and a means of propulsion, was to put the problem properly.” If we look at the current Sustainability Matrix, we see that the first semester first year is devoted to “Introduction to principles of form; basic craft.” The sustainability agenda is “introduction to sustainable design thinking, global warming, development projections; and history, theory, concepts, and philosophy of sustainability.” To be honest, I’m not even sure what this means. What if we changed the overall focus? Could we instead say “introduction to air, earth, light, and water?” The principles of form and basic craft could still be taught, but in service to a larger agenda. Consider light: perhaps a light pavilion, or perhaps scale-less. How to create interior and exterior space defined by ideas of light? Ask students to consider time in relation to sunlight. There are many approaches – texture, reflection, translucence, change. Other problems become dependent upon this. The goal isn’t necessarily a high performance building, but awareness, creative exploration.

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