Musings of a former Rocket Scientist

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  • Diluting the Green Label

    What Does ‘Sustainable’ Really Mean?

    GreenwashingSmokestack“Sustainability” has been all the rage for years now.  In fact, it has almost become passé.  The term has become so ubiquitous that most people don’t even notice it anymore.  Unless a product goes out of its way to advertise the fact that it is radioactive and should be kept in a lead box at all times, it is almost a given that its manufacturer will claim it is ‘green’.  In fact, there is a virtually inexhaustible array of arguments one can use to claim that anything is green.  Natural Gas is ‘green’ because it is better than Coal.  Coal is ‘green’ because it isn’t as dirty as it was in, say, 1890.  PVC is ‘green’ because it can (hypothetically) be recycled, despite the fact that almost nobody actually does recycle it.  This advertising strategy is commonly known as ‘greenwashing’; I presume that there is a whole chapter on it in most introductory marketing textbooks.

    Continue reading  Post ID 6

  • Our Green Kitchen Remodel

    SketchUp Model of new kitchen – used to experiment with materials.

    The Kitchen is a room in the house that is commonly remodeled, usually every 20 years, or when you first move in, or when you are planning to move out and want to sell the place.  Most people spend a fair amount of time in their kitchen and it get’s a lot of wear and tear.  Appliances break down or go out of style.  Cooks have different needs and habits and want a space that works well for them.  We want our kitchens to be functional and beautiful.  When my wife and I moved to DC, we had just gone through a kitchen remodel in Cleveland (not realizing that we’d be moving), and we were in no mood to do that again, at least not right away.  Our DC kitchen was actually brand new, having been installed to flip the house.  It was serviceable (the layout was OK and the appliances worked), but that was all that could be said for it.

    The cabinets were white thermofoil over particle board, and the finish carpentry was crap (the sole purpose of adding trim is generally to cover gaps and mistakes, but at even this modest task, the installers had failed).  The doors were too small but the fascia was extra wide, so while there was plenty of room in the cabinets, you had to turn your plates sideways to get them in (which bugged my wife something fierce).  Eleven years later, we decided it was time for an upgrade, and we wanted to get a few years of use out of it before we had to move again.

    Continue reading  Post ID 54

  • Regenerative City House – Let’s get this Parti started

    connections-diagramIn previous posts, we have talked about the clients and their goals, the site and the genius loci.  Now we are ready to start designing.  Our goal is obviously to meet the clients’ goals, but also to integrate with the site ecosystem.

    Rather than listing the full-program, I am going to condense it to the critical spaces and relationships as shown here in the connections diagram.  Compost requires treatment and transportation (not generally piped), suggesting the spaces connected by compost be relatively close to each other, for example.  The yellow lines (relaxation and meditation) suggest a visual connection.  Water (blue) can be piped as needed, and so on.

    The ‘thermal character’ of each space suggests whether the space should be on the south or the north side of the house, but this is not a hard requirement.


    Continue reading  Post ID 236

  • Regenerative City House – Poetic Considerations

    Regnerative Design and Permaculture are a blend of art and science.  When beginning the regenerative design for a community, the design team is often encouraged to create a vision statement in the form of a story, tracing the origins of the site, its evolution and ultimately what it CAN be.

    In a previous post, we looked at  site analysis.  In this post, we’ll wax more philosophic, historic and poetic (if I can manage that – writing poetry was never my thing, I prefer to put my poetic instincts into the design).

    This building epitomizes the religous and cultural history of the neighborhood.  Note the menorah and stars of david integrated with the architecture, revealing its original use, and the sign out front showing its cultural and ethnic conversion.
    This building epitomizes the religous and cultural history of the neighborhood. Note the menorah and stars of david integrated with the architecture, revealing its original use, and the sign out front showing its cultural and ethnic conversion.
    (click to enlarge)

    History of the Place

    Before settlement by Europeans, this land was probably mostly forested.  It is the high-ground of Washington DC and therefore unlikely to have been part of the river or marsh ecosystems.  Up until the late 1800’s, this area was farmland, and it grew only slowly during the first decades of the 20th century.  Only since around the time of the second World War has the neighborhood really take shape, and it has a rich cultural heritage including strong Jewish and African American communities.  The project site is at the edge of the neighborhood, where it quickly transitions to multifamily housing and then commercial development.   Houses here are set further back from the street, which is, in turn, wider than typical for the neighborhood. As a result, the street feels a little like an orphan, detached from the rest of the community.  One of the client’s hopes for the new site design is that it will serve as an inspiration for other residents of the neighborhood.  Creating a local network (perhaps even a small cooperative) of amateur gardeners could help bring the street’s residents closer together.

    Continue reading  Post ID 227

  • Regenerative City House – Site Analysis

    Site plan showing buildable area and basic topography
    Site plan showing buildable area and basic topography

    Regenerative design, and indeed the best architectural designs in general, spring from a deep understanding of the site and a sense of place.  In a previous post, we talked about the Regenerative City House site location, the clients and their goals for the project.  Here, we’ll talk about site analysis.  You can use a similar process to analyze your own site.

    It is common practice to analyze a site to determine the best building location and orientation based on views, proximity to the road, parking, local zoning, soil conditions (ground water and bearing capacity) and so on.

    It is also not unusual to map existing vegetation in order to avoid unnecessary site preparation and to preserve specimen trees (those that inspire poetic outbursts).

    For a large part of the 20th century, that was all the site analysis you needed; mechanical heating and cooling and electric lighting took care of the rest.  Landscaping was intended to serve the building (generally as decoration); designers rarely asked themselves how the building could improve the on-site ecology.

    In regenerative design (which is an extension of sustainable design), site analysis is more comprehensive.  The goals here include taking advantage of natural light, air and water flows, and to promote cooperation between the building and landscape (rather than the landscape* serving the building alone).  Lyle (ref.1), Yang (ref.2) and Mollison (ref.3) each include some great thoughts on comprehensive site analysis.

    * In the context of regenerative design, the term “landscape” should be interpreted not merely as decorative trees and bushes, lawns and follies, but as a healthy functioning ecosystem supporting wildlife as well as the human community.

    Continue reading  Post ID 189

  • Regenerative City House – Introduction to Project

    graphic representation of the client's vision for this project - an environmentally balanced sanctuary in the city.
    graphic representation of the client’s vision for this project – an environmentally balanced sanctuary in the city.

    In this project, we are going to document the design process for a Single Family detached dwelling located in NW Washington DC.  What is different about this project is the client’s interest in regenerative design.  As 0ur website explains, the intent of regenerative building design is to make interventions that actually improve the environmental quality of the site, not just buildings that are ‘less bad’ for the environment.


    Continue reading  Post ID 175