Category Archives: design

Affordable, sustainable housing in Houston

Fast Company has a feature on a great sustainable housing project in Houston. Row on 25th is a re-invention of the American Row house.

The Fords’ new company, Shade House Development, builds sustainable townhomes in downtown Houston. Shade’s flagship project, Row on 25th, was profiled in the February issue of Dwell. The row of townhomes in Houston Heights, a hip-ish downtown neighborhood, is a study in careful compromises–both economically and environmentally. “We feel there is a real desire for this kind of living,” Matthew told me recently over email. “We, as a firm, try to look beyond spread sheets and historical data to offer solutions for problems people may not even know they have.”

Back in 2011, the Fords (working with an investor friend, the airport developer Holden Shannon) bought a plot of land in the Heights and built a single town home on it. Shannon stayed in the unit whenever he was in town, making suggestions about the design that ultimately led to the final, revised layouts for the other eight homes they planned to build on the site. The two-story, 1,900-square foot homes are simple and light, with silhouettes inspired by Hugh Newell Jacobsen, a champion amongst vernacular American architecture fans. “The simplicity and privacy offered by Row is in direct response to the complexity and loss of privacy we are all experiencing due to being interconnected and ‘on’ all the time,” Ford adds.

The Holiday Inn

The Holiday Inn in Saskatoon
The Holiday Inn in Saskatoon

As I was walking home I noticed the south side of the Holiday Inn and I was stunned that whoever built the building was able to get away with how these panels look.  Up close it looks like adhesive (you can see trowel marks on it) but it really looks horrible.  I am biased against the building (I find it ugly and it kills street life) but it makes me wonder if the outside of the building looks this bad, what is the inside of the building going to look like.

Ugly architecture, no street life, and a flawed finish.  It fits right in with a lot of other buildings in downtown Saskatoon.

Urban Lego Design

This is a great idea by the City of Calgary

The City is inviting Calgarian’s of all ages to use their imaginations and creativity to play with an iconic toy that will help turn stations into places.

In an effort to design communities that require less time behind the wheel of a car, you’re invited to show us what you think Transit Oriented Development (TOD) could look like by building miniature communities using LEGO building blocks.

Transit oriented development (TOD) is a walkable, mixed-use form of community development located within a 600m radius of a Calgary Transit Station (LRT or BRT), creating convenient, accessible and vibrant neighbourhoods for residents and visitors.

Our first of several TOD events scheduled throughout the summer attracted hundreds of ‘builders’ and observers, and no two designs were alike.

Defending Switzerland

In case you wonder how Switzerland has kept itself from being invaded over the years, here is how.

McPhee points to small moments of "fake stonework, concealing the artillery behind [them]," that dot Switzerland’s Alpine geology, little doors that will pop open to reveal internal cannons that will then blast the country’s roads to smithereens. Later, passing under a mountain bridge, McPhee notices "small steel doors in one pier" hinting that the bridge "was ready to blow. It had been superceded, however, by an even higher bridge, which leaped through the sky above—a part of the new road to Simplon. In an extreme emergency, the midspan of the new bridge would no doubt drop on the old one."

It’s a strange kind of national infrastructure, one that is at its most rigorously functional—one that truly fulfills its promises—when in a state of cascading self-imposed collapse.
I could easily over-quote my way to the end of my internet service here, but it’s a story worth reading. There are, for instance, hidden bomb shelters everywhere in an extraordinary application of dual-use construction. "All over Switzerland," according to McPhee, "in relatively spacious and quiet towns, are sophisticated underground parking garages with automatic machines that offer tickets like tongues and imply a level of commerce that is somewhere else. In a nuclear emergency, huge doors would slide closed with the town’s population inside."

Describing titanic underground fortresses—"networks of tunnels, caverns, bunkers, and surface installations, each spread through many tens of square miles"—McPhee briefly relates the story of a military reconnaissance mission on which he was able to tag along, involving a hydroelectric power station built inside a mountain, accessible by ladders and stairs; the battalion tasked with climbing down into it thus learns "that if a company of soldiers had to do it they could climb the mountain on the inside."

In any case, the book‘s vision of the Alps as a massively constructed—or, at least, geotechnically augmented and militarily amplified—terrain is quite heady, including the very idea that, in seeking to protect itself from outside invaders, Switzerland is prepared to dynamite, shell, bulldoze, and seal itself into a kind of self-protective oblivion, hiding out in artificially expanded rocky passes and concrete super-basements as all roads and bridges into and out of the country are instantly transformed into landslides and dust.

Rethinking Le Plateau-Mont-Royal (and how to do municipal politics)

A good article on Luc Fernandez, Montreal city councillor and mayor of Le Plateau-Mont-Royal

Luc Ferrandez’s last bicycle was a Kona, a sturdy model with thick tires, ideal for hauling heavy loads. During his 2009 campaign as the Projet Montréal candidate for the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough, he would hook it to a trailer piled with a laptop, a projector, a collapsible screen, and (this being Montreal) a couple of bottles of rosé. After setting up his equipment next to a café terrace, he would distribute paper cups and launch a PowerPoint slide show of streets and squares in Copenhagen, Paris, and Madrid, as well as historical photos of local boulevards, all unencumbered by traffic. He figures it was these partys de trottoir, or sidewalk parties—during which he made the case that Montreal could be as clean, green, and safe as any place in Europe—that won him the mayoralty of the city’s most populous district. His mountain bike, alas, didn’t survive the campaign.

“I was having a discussion with a citizen,” recalls Ferrandez. “I left my bike against a wall, unlocked. When I came back an hour later, it was gone.” These days, his main mode of transportation is an Opus, which has the upright handlebars and broad saddle of a bike you would expect to find leaning against a canal-side railing in Amsterdam.

I like his philosophy

“I accept that some people think I’m the devil!” Ferrandez shouted over his shoulder, making a right onto rue de Brébeuf. “For them, the Plateau doesn’t exist. It is just a place to be driven through. I don’t give a shit about these people. They’ve abandoned the idea that humans can live together.”

Ferrandez’s vision of what the borough is, and could be, seems almost exalted. “The Plateau is an Italian cathedral. It’s a forest. It’s something to protect, something sacred. I don’t want it to become a place where people come to live in a condo with triple-glazed windows for a couple of years. This has to be a place where people can be comfortable walking to the bakery, walking to school, walking to the park—where they want to stay to raise a family.”

Design for the homeless

The Atlantic Cities has a fantastic post about excellent design and homeless shelters.

Sometimes when Theresa Hwang is visiting a project site, maybe the 102-unit Michael Maltzan apartments rising from the corner of East 6th Street and Maple Avenue on the edge of downtown Los Angeles, pedestrians will stop and gawk and inquire about what’s coming.

"What are you building?" they invariably want to know.

"It’s housing."

"Can we move in?"

"Well," Hwang then responds, "are you formerly homeless?"

And this always throws people for a loop. Hwang’s organization, the Skid Row Housing Trust, has been renovating and providing permanent supportive housing for the city’s homeless for more than 20 years. But more recently, dating back to a first collaboration with Maltzan about eight years ago, the Trust has been building its own developments that remarkably mimic market-rate condos. Really striking market-rate condos.

The strategy is built on the idea that high design matters for the homeless, too, because it changes the dynamic between these buildings and their residents – and between both of them and the communities in which they’re located. Nothing can deflate the NIMBYism that inevitably accompanies social housing quite like a building that looks like this:

Homeless shelter in Skid Row

Compare this to how we build shelters in Saskatoon and the rest of Canada.  Design makes a difference in mental health and these designs are spectacular.

Mobile healthcare clinic for $15,000 and it can be ordered “to-go”

Fast Company interviews it’s founders

FC: In early 2011, seed money enabled you to get your company, G3Box, off the ground. How is it progressing?

Susanna Young: Right now we’re making a template to give to construction firms. It costs $15,000 to $18,000 to build a clinic. Our goal is to produce one in two to four weeks. We’ll start taking orders in August.

Gabrielle Palermo: We’re also finding shipping partners to haul the boxes to ports in Los Angeles for distribution.

This reminded me of a Seattle group that is using shipping containers to bring grocery stores to Seattle’s food dessert

Using a shipping container as a grocery store in Seattle
Using a shipping container as a grocery store in Seattle
Using a shipping container as a grocery store in Seattle

A group of Seattle entrepreneurs has come up with one solution to the urban food desert problem, and it doesn’t involve adding traditional supermarkets to underserved areas. Their new venture, Stockbox Grocers, is taking the favorite building block of the green-building movement—the shipping container—and adapting it into a miniature food emporium, packed from floor to roof with fresh produce and other staples.

"Our goal is to bring food back to communities, and focus on communities that don’t currently have good access to food and are heavily dependent on public transportation," says founder and owner Carrie Ferrence. This week, Stockbox celebrates the opening of a 160-square-foot prototype store in a parking lot in a neighborhood where corner stores are the only source of food. Up to five customers can shop at once, said Ferrence, and only one person is needed to staff the operation.

Should Saskatoon save the Study Stone Centre?

In New York, a battle rages on what to do with brutalist architecture. Should it be saved?

As Modernist buildings reach middle age, many of the stark structures that once represented the architectural vanguard are showing signs of wear, setting off debates around the country between preservationists, who see them as historic landmarks, and the many people who just see them as eyesores.

The conflict has come in recent months to this quaint village 60 miles north of New York City — with its historic harness-racing track, picturesque Main Street and Greek Revival, Federal and Victorian houses — where the blocky concrete county government center designed by the celebrated Modernist architect Paul Rudolph has always been something of a misfit.

“I just don’t think it fits with the character of the county seat and the village of Goshen,” said Leigh Benton, an Orange County legislator who grew up in the area. “I just thought it was a big ugly building.”

Completed in 1967, the building has long been plagued by a leaky roof and faulty ventilation system and, more recently, by mold; it was closed last year after it was damaged by storms, including Tropical Storm Irene.

Edward A. Diana, the Orange County executive, wants to demolish it, an idea that has delighted many residents but alarmed preservationists, local and national, who say the building should be saved. The county legislature is expected to decide whether to demolish or renovate it next month.

Those who want to save it call it a prime example of an architectural style called Brutalism that rejected efforts to prettify buildings in favor of displaying the raw power of simple forms and undisguised building materials, like the center’s textured facade.

“Preservation is not simply about saving the most beautiful things,” said Mark Wigley, the dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. “It’s about saving those objects that are an important part of our history and whose value is always going to be a subject of debate.”

The article does have one great quote that describes both the Sturdy Stone Centre and the Education Building at the University of Saskatchewan.

In an interview Theodore Dalrymple, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has written about the architecture of Le Corbusier, described Brutalist buildings as “absolutely hideous, like scouring pads on the retina.”

That sounds about right.