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Rewarding Good Design Deeds — SEED Certification and Public Interest Design

Catherine Calvert, AIA
Director of Community Sustainability, VIA Architecture

I recently attended a two-day training course at the University of Washington on the SEED certification system, sponsored by the Public Interest Design Institute.  SEED (an acronym for Social, Economic, Environmental Design) is a framework developed to assist community-focused projects in establishing objectives, following a holistic and inclusive design process, and measuring success using self-defined goals.  Similar only phonetically to another well-known sustainability rating system, the SEED system uses a grass-roots approach to both certification and the design process itself — membership and certification are free, projects must grow out of community need and involve communities as an integral part of the work, and no prescribed points are defined for a project to meet.  The SEED Evaluator allows socially-based projects to achieve third-partyvalidation, encouraging both transparency and accountability, and creates a new standard intended to be used by community organizers, leaders, designers, and funders to measure the public interest design aspects of design projects.

Pomegranate Center collaboration in Walla Walla (photo credit Seattle Times)

The course was led by Bryan Bell, a well-known advocate for public interest design, founder of Design Corps, and author of books such as “Good Deeds, Good Design”  and “Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism”.  Deeply respected in the architectural community for his pioneering work in socially conscious design, Bell is a natural mentor, keen to further the concept of public interest design and to engage a broader part of thearchitectural profession in recasting its role in the community. The course featured several representatives from the local Seattle community who have based their practice on community focused work, such as Milenko Matanovic from the Pomegranate Center , Rachel Minnery and Sally Knodell from Environmental Works, Jeff Hou from the University of Washington, and Steve Dombrowski from GGLO.  Other presenters included Lawrence Cheng from Boston, Michael Murphy from MASS Design Group, and Jamie Blosser from the Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative. All presenters shared rich case studies of engagement with community problem-solving through design, with situations ranging from restoration of a Pueblo community in New Mexico to construction of medical clinics in Rwanda.

There was particular emphasis on the business considerations of socially conscious practice, as so many for-profit architectural practices struggle with the issues of wanting to do good works in the community, but also needing to be financially sustainable. With economic times being challenging and fees highly competitive, conventional models of architectural practice sometimes afford limited opportunity to provide pro bono or reduced-fee work. Bell’s challenge to the group was to let the business opportunities grow from immersion in community issues; sometimes this means helping clients create a case for funding, and other times may mean formation of a not-for-profit architectural practice that can apply for its own research grants.

The premise and mission of public interest design is that “Every person should be able to live in a socially, economically and environmentally healthy community.”  Early development in the green movement was focused heavily on the environmental aspects of design; a decade later we are coming around to understanding design’s long-abdicated responsibility for supporting human health and wellbeing through social relevance.  Beyond SEED, many other bright minds in the sustainability field are looking at similar issues, with particular emphasis on developing appropriate metrics for measuring the success of social initiatives on a scale from individual projects to entire neighborhoods.

What these systems share is a willingness to wade into the areas that are slippery and less conducive to empirical measurement.  The “social” or “human” aspects of sustainability, when considered by sustainability rating systems, tend to stop at measures such as air quality, accessibility, safety or noise reduction, all of which can be converted to metrics.  The greater challenge is to use design to take on issues such as health, biodiversity, homelessness, food access, and other similar kinds of problems.  The SEED Evaluator enables teams to establish project-appropriate goals that are self-defined, and to measure success against these.  Successful projects completed under SEED also emphasize evidence-based design, or the “importance of using credible data in order to influence the design process,”, popular in health-care architecture and now being applied to other problems.

What is significant about the SEED Evaluator is that it requires a period of time to pass following completion of construction in order to account for the experience of the occupants and users as evidence of the project’s success.  Architects are accustomed to being “done” when the ribbon is cut, and feedback from our clients one or two years into occupancy often relates to deficiencies or warranty items rather than actual building performance.  Remaining open to, and welcoming, a feedback loop that extends this relationship over a long period of time represents a mindset shift for designers.

The other significant aspect of community-based design is its emphasis on humanism.  Our profession has a bad reputation for overlooking human needs in favor of aesthetics.  By contrast, public interest design places high priority on the concept of invisible structures, or the connections between organizations, communities, and people that are created through collaboration, and the supporting mechanisms that need to be in place to make this kind of collaboration successful.

The Public Interest Design Institute website:  http://www.publicinterestdesign.org/

SEED Evaluator website:  http://www.seednetwork.org/evaluator/

What Would You Do With the Old 520?

Image source: Seattle Transit Blog

Imagine stumbling across 363,000 tons worth of concrete pontoons in the free section of Craig’s List. Would you build a floating island? A massive version of Stonehenge? Perhaps stack them on top of each other for a 33 story condo complex?

Well this is your chance to show off your idea for what our state should do with these massive blocks of concrete.

Read all about it on the Seattle Transit Blog by clicking here.

Meet Aaron Schaefer, one of the newest members of the VIA family:


Who are you and what do you do?

I am Aaron, and I am a husband and proud caregiver to a 5 year-old brown mutt and two-year-old human child.  When not doing those things, I dabble in Architecture.

What made you decide to go into your field?

Two things; as a child I had a penchant for recreating things I saw out of Legos, which, later on, I  deemed a skill most easily translated to the field of Architecture.  Or probably more so, spending many hours exploring the quiet spaces of the out-buildings on my grandparents’ farm.  I found great joy playing in these quiet, mostly neglected “ruins”, and then later I found Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, who also had a fondness for ruins.

What did your family think of your chosen field?

“You have to be good at math, right?”  You don’t, the machines do that stuff.

Who is the teacher who had the most influence on you and why?

Bruce Johnson, my fifth year studio instructor, taught that an interesting concept or narrative can be sparked by celebrating things which may appear to be, at first glance, insignificant or peripheral to a central idea. Then utilizing them as a way of informing the original premise.

What was the biggest hurdle you faced along your educational path?

7am classes, who can function that early?

What inspires you?

Watching my son try to make sense of all this crazy new (to him) stuff out there.  He keeps me on my toes with his trusty sidekick “why?”.  I quickly realized that I too need to think twice about all that crazy stuff out there.  “Why?”, indeed.

What schooling is required for success in your career?

My experience was that for my 5 years of formal architectural education, you need about twice as many years of professional education at the very minimum as a basis to really “get it”.  Of course, there are exceptions.

What kind of people are the most successful in your field? Are there any specific attributes?

Those who wear black.

What is the best advice you were ever given?

“Don’t step in that.”

Is your field growing?

Though ever increasingly marginalized, architects are still the aesthetic and functional medium needed to execute good projects.  So, yes, there is room for new entries and growth.

What advice would you give someone considering a career like yours?

Be sure you love the work.  Good work comes from impassioned, engaged people, and conversely nothing is as draining as spending too much time doing something you couldn’t care less about.

What keeps you motivated in your field?

Finding, or seeing others find, novel solutions to old problems, big and small.

Monday News Roundup

Jun 18, 2012

Happy rainy Monday morning from Seattle– here are some of last week’s interesting items:

DIY Wearable Turn Signals for Cyclists Turn On When You Lift Your Arm (Treehugger)
A fun project by Instructables user CTY1995 is great for cyclists riding city streets. It’s turn signal arm bands that light up when you lift your arm.

Parks and Pavilions: A Meeting of Landscape and Architecture (Sustainable Cities Collective)

The new issue of Architype Review focuses on parks, the spaces designed to explored on foot, and pavilions, the spots from which visitors can take a moment to sit and enjoy the landscape. Some of the best pavilions compliment their setting, creating a unique presence and vantage point. They fundamentally respect the environment while providing a new texture.

Why Cities are Better for Watersheds than Suburbs (Sustainable Cities Collective)
Development necessarily creates giant swaths of constructed areas that have no unifying ecosystem. It also disturbs existing natural areas that are part of the natural cycling of water, minerals, chemicals, plants and animals. Yet despite these complications, density is valuable in terms of impact mitigation on a per-person basis, as least as far as pollutant loading and watershed health is concerned.

An Artist Reinvents Architectural Photography via iPhone (The Atlantic Cities)
Lynette Jackson, a telecommunications professional from Atlanta, is not an architect, but turns her architectural photography into complex art pieces, letting sections of her built subjects set the tone for the layers of design treatments, created using only the apps on her phone.

How walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods help seniors (Sustainable Cities Collective)
AARP’s Active Living for All Ages: Creating Neighborhoods Around Transit shows how transit-oriented development (TOD) facilitates the independence and mobility of older adults.  This new six-minute video features conversations with residents, local officials and experts in TOD in Arlington, Virginia—a walkable, mixed-use community with access to a variety of public transit options, entertainment and recreation, and basic services such as shopping and medical services.

Wall of Planters Shades And Ventilates House; A New Kind of Living Wall (Treehugger)
House in Ho Chi Min City features wall of planters for shade, ventilation, privacy, and visual interest.

A Boon For Downtown’s Urban Parents

By Amanda Bryan, Architect Intern
VIA Architecture (originally posted on Crosscut.com)

Many cities, faced with increasing populations and a growing demand for urban living, are moving toward making their downtowns welcoming residential neighborhoods for families with children. Seattle is no different. In the last year, a new and exciting effort among government and private sector leaders has emerged to respond to downtown Seattle’s changing demographics.

Since 1990, downtown Seattle’s population has grown by over 70 percent according to census data, making it the fastest growing neighborhood in Seattle within the last two decades. The overall population has increased by 25,000 new residents, and the neighborhood is now home to over 1,700 children 15 and under, and more than 3,000 children 19 and under. These are not small numbers. Downtown Seattle has welcomed more residents in the last 20 years than downtown San Francisco, Portland, Denver, San Diego and many other U.S. peer cities.

Developers are rushing to respond to this demand, currently building or planning to break ground on over 3,000 housing units within Downtown this year, more than at any one time in the last decade. For many families though, there is still a major obstacle standing between them and downtown living: neighborhood schools.
Continue reading the full article here..

Monday News Roundup

Jun 11, 2012

Happy sunny Monday! Here are some highlights from the last two weeks:

10 Beautiful Photos Celebrating World Oceans Day 2012 (Treehugger)
The photography of Brian Skerry helps illustrate why World Oceans Day is a big deal.

Happy 145th Birthday Frank Lloyd Wright (Arch Daily)
Perhaps best known for his Fallingwater House and New York’s iconic Guggenheim Museum (see our original doodle below), Wright was a prolific architect, interior designer, and writer who spent his life advocating an “organic” architecture at harmony with its surroundings.

Income inequality, as seen from space (Per Square Mile)
Per Square Mile writers were curious: could you actually see income inequality from space? It turned out to be easier than expected.

Giant Vending Machine Dispenses Bikes and Surfboards Instead of Junk Food (Inhabitat)
Forget Doritos and sugary sodas, the goodies that this vending machine in San Francisco recently dispensed were out of the ordinary! Instead of junk food, the machine delivered large goodies that would be used in adventure travel.

How Permaculture Could Transform Campuses Across the Globe (Treehugger)
At the international Permaculture Your Campus Conference, directors of the award-winning UMass Permaculture Initiative will give an introduction to permaculture in a campus setting and share the value that it has created for the University of Massachusetts system and local community.

When an Earthquake Meets Truly Old Buildings (The Atlantic Cities)
The impact of the 6.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region last week appears to have been made worse by the fact that significant seismic activity is rare there. Centuries of stable ground meant many villages in the region were well-stocked with Renaissance-era structures that were particularly vulnerable to tremors.

Urban walkability: the new driver in real estate values (Better Cities)
Throughout the country, since the recession, house values have lost as much as 35 percent. That is clear, regardless of location. But what was happening quietly, it seems even before the recession took hold, was that home values within city location were escalating faster than outlying locations.

The Risky Business of Parking Lot Creation (The Atlantic Cities)
The computer storage giant EMC in Hopkinton, Massachussetts, recently sought a zoning change to build a 900-space parking lot near corporate headquarters off Interstate 495. The unspoken threat here is that the company couldn’t possibly continue to call Hopkinton home without accommodating employees who drive to work. But the asphalt would go down on environmentally sensitive land – a little bit of paradise paved to put up a parking lot.

What’s the Difference Between a Parking Lot and a Playground? (The Atlantic Cities)
‘Urban hactivist’ Florian Rivière’s latest project “Don’t Pay, Play” divines sports complexes out of the checkered parking spaces of car parks, rendering what is generally perceived as one of the city’s greatest, yet unavoidable ills into potential public spaces.

Get Stoked to Surf The Fourth Wave of Planning

by Dan Bertolet, Urban Planner
Photo credit: VIA Architecture (Original article posted on CityTank.org)

Last year in Seattle, the Bullitt Foundation’s proposed Living Building was subjected to a costly legal challenge based on Washington’s State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). Opponents argued that an environmental impact statement (EIS) should be required because the building would block views. Given that it’s on track to being one of the greenest commercial buildings ever constructed in the United States, and is also located in a dense, walkable, transit-rich neighborhood, the fact that environmental regulations could be exploited to oppose the project suggests something is amiss, to put it mildly.

Following on the heels of the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Washington’s SEPA was created during an era in which the planning culture was dominated by concerns over ecological degradation and responded with strict limits on growth -– planning’s so-called first wave.

Continue reading here…

Credit DavidSuzuki.org, Jode Roberts

Nature is the best medicine. A growing body of evidence has shown us that getting out into nature can reduce stress and boost your immunity. And experts say that exercising in natural settings is exercise squared — increasing your energy level and fitness.

While taking time to get out into nature in our busy daily lives is definitely a challenge, it may be simpler than you think.

Green space is as close as your neighbourhood park or backyard garden. Trails, ravines, and community gardens are often not too far from your daily routine. And the birds and the bees (and other critters) are always nearby; you just have to take time to listen.

The David Suzuki Foundation is challenging you to join them in spending at least 30 minutes a day in nature for the next 30 days.

Read the full article and join the challenge here.

VIA Bikes to Work

May 29, 2012
VIA Bikes to Work

by Katherine Idziorek, Urban Planner,VIA Architecture
Photo credit: Cyclists on Dexter Avenue, Flickr user Oran Viriyincy

As we near the end of the Bike-to-Work Month Challenge, it seems like an appropriate time to share some of the experiences of VIA Seattle’s team, the BIA-king VIA-kings (that’s right – choosing the team name is half the fun).

This is the first time that I have worked in an office that has formed a team to participate in this event, which is organized by the Cascade Bicycle Club and sponsored by Group Health (among others).  As a relatively recent road bike convert and a new addition to VIA, I was excited to join the team.

Bike-to-Work Month is an event meant to inspire. It presents a challenge and gives us a reason to ride. It’s an opportunity to learn new skills while building cycling confidence and promoting awareness of the potential for Seattle streets to accommodate multiple modes of transportation.

Cascade works hard to make the month of cycling as accessible as possible by providing supportive services and activities such as commuter classes, route recommendations, bike-to-work breakfasts, and online safety and equipment tips. Each individual or team participating in the challenge is able to log in to an online account and record the number of trips made and distance traveled.  A calculator displays individual and team statistics as well as the health and environmental benefits of cycling in the form of calories burned and CO2 offset.

I have long wanted to attempt commuting to work by bike, but I was never really able to motivate myself enough to give it a try.  I have plenty of alternatives – it’s easy for me to walk to work, and I live on an express bus line. I thought that biking through downtown would be unsafe and scary, and that the long climb home (I live close to the top of Queen Anne Hill) would be torturous.  But I felt a bit safer trying out the bike commute during Bike-to-Work Month because I knew that other cyclists would be out there – both seasoned riders from whom I could learn more about commuting etiquette as well as newbies like myself who were giving it a try for the first time. As for the hill…it would be extra exercise, and good for me.  I promised myself that I would commute by bike every day this month, rain or shine.

The team aspect of the challenge made it more fun.  Having my VIA workplace team for support and inspiration definitely provided needed encouragement.  Our fearless team captain, Steve McDonald, kept us organized and motivated.  We even took on a challenge from the WSDOT SR520 team, “We Wheel West.”  We’re a bit behind at this point, but we are sure making a valiant VIA-king effort.

VIA works on a daily basis to design and build healthier, more accessible and livable cities and to support multiple modes of transportation. The Bike-to-Work Month challenge gave the team an opportunity to promote our office values through our actions and transportation choices. By participating in this event, we are hopefully working toward building awareness and acceptance of bicycle commuters, contributing to a safer culture for cyclists, and garnering support for improved bicycle amenities and infrastructure in our city.

Bridge Cyclist, credit Flickr user ebis50

According to Cascade, thousands of people started biking for the first time during Bike Month last year. This year, on May 18 (Bike-to-Work Day) alone, more than 16,000 people participated in the event. In July, Seattle will be getting the nation’s first bike counterso that the city’s cycling data can be recorded and shared year-round.

As of this posting, the BIA-king VIA-kings have logged 320 miles.  Collectively, we have made 73 trips, burned 15,800 calories and offset 315 lbs. of CO2 emissions that would have been generated choosing to commute by car instead.  We have added more riders to our team every week, and even the most seasoned of riders among us had something to gain from the experience.

Here are some of the BIA-king VIA-kings’ observations, accomplishments, and lessons learned:

Catherine biked to work for the first time since she was a teenager and found it to be a more fun and interesting way to exercise – and that commuting by bicycle has an unexpected “cool” factor.  On Bike-to-Work day, she rode the entire 17.5 miles to work via the Kingston-Edmonds ferry!

Matt found that Seattle’s hills and rain and often make cycling tough, but misgivings about getting soaking wet on the way to and from work can be somewhat assuaged by amenities like bike storage lockers, clothes-drying racks, changing rooms and showers.

Our team captain,Steve, has biked to work for nearly 16 years, and although he has seen cycling gain recognition as a means of commuting in Seattle during that time, he still feels a bit naked without his helmet on. He notes that although the situation is improving, a lack of infrastructure and good behavior on the part of both cyclists and drivers still keeps us from being safe.

Kristin racedher kids to school by bicycle and won!  Very impressive.

Dan rides every day all year, so this month was no different for him except that this month, there were more cyclists in his way and he occasionally lost his spot on the bike rack.

For me, the best part of Bike-to-Work Month was having a reason to explore new routes and to learn the city better – I love riding through Seattle Center every day and along 5th Avenue under the monorail.  I learned three different but correct ways to make a left-hand turn in traffic (thanks to Cascade’s helpful how-to guide). I gained commuting confidence.

Having transportation options is great. It’s key to creating a livable, viable urban environment. Commuting by bike was always an option for me, but it was one that I had left unexplored for various reasons.  After taking part in the team challenge this month, I now know that it’s by far the fastest way for me to get to work, that it feels good to get the extra exercise, and that it’s not as scary (but just as steep) as I thought it would be. Will I keep cycling after the month is over? I’m honestly not sure yet. But now I don’t really have an excuse not to – because now I know that I can do it.

Monday News Roundup

May 21, 2012

Happy Monday! Here’s a little of what last week had to offer:

Roundhouse Plaza Opens (Price Tags)
One of Vancouver’s newest (and one of its oldest) public spaces is ready for its unveling.

30 Minutes on Mass Transit in 20 World Cities (The Atlantic Cities)
The 20 maps in this article were made by Mapnificent, a new website created by Stefan Wehrmeyer that suck in Google Maps-friendly transit data to show just how much of the city you can cover in however much time you want to spend.

Infographic: The AIA History (Arch Daily)
Last week,  over 17,000 architects and designers, contractors and project managers, magazines and bloggers converged on the Capital for the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) 144th National Convention, Design Connects. So let’s take a moment to reflect on this Association’s long history, intertwined with our nation’s history, and look at how it’s evolved to become both a vital resource for working/emerging architects and the voice of the architecture profession today.

It’s a Good Week to be a Bicyclist (Sustainable Cities Collective)
Biking is a great way to experience great places: it gets us out in the open air, moving at a speed that allows us to appreciate our surroundings. In this artivle, SSC rounded up some events going on around the country last week that gave you a great excuse to get out and bike your city or town!

First Look at NBBJ’s New Amazon Complex in Seattle (A | N Blog)
The largest development proposed in the history of downtown Seattle—an approximately 3 million square-foot headquarters for Amazon—may take eight years to complete. Project details presented at a recent downtown design review committee meeting revealed that Amazon’s glassy three block project, designed by NBBJ (designers of the recently-c0mpleted Gates Foundation, also in Seattle), will be built in three phases of two to four years.

The Expo As Change Agent (The Atlantic Cities)
Seattle is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair. The 1962 Century 21 Exposition is remembered as a great space-age fair of the New Frontier-era that inspired The Jetsons, popularized monorail, and spread the idea of revolving restaurants to the world. The first U.S. world’s fair after 1940, it also now serves as an excellent reminder that expos can be powerful agents of urban transformation. Century 21 left a permanent legacy of infrastructure and attitude that continues to shape Seattle to this day.