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Monday News Roundup

Mar 12, 2012

Hope you all had a great weekend! Here’s a roundup of last week’s highlights:

Why Do Green Schools Matter? — Part1 & Part 2 (Sustainable Cities Collective)
London Middle School in Ohio pursues LEED Platinum certification; this article discusses the project a few months after first occupancy, and talks to the school’s principal and superintendent to give us a feel for the impact of the work being done.

Starbucks ‘The Bank’ Concept Store in Amsterdam (Contemporist)
Starbucks Coffee have recently been opening special concept stores in various cities around the world. Last week, their latest concept store known as “The Bank” opened in Amsterdam.

Bicycle Buses Let Dutch Kids Pedal Together to School (Treehugger)
In an age of rising gas prices and skyrocketing cases of childhood obesity, Dutch educators have devised a wonderfully positive way to get kids to and from school — by letting them pedal there themselves on a brand new fleet of bicycle buses.

Tools to Help Cities and Towns Guide Green Development (Switchboard)
A lot of towns and cities now recognize that there is merit in going greener.  They now want to encourage the kind of development that will help reduce pollution and consumption of resources while at the same time saving taxpayer money and providing beautiful, walkable, convenient neighborhoods that give people choices about how to live.  But this is new territory for many jurisdictions that wish to follow good, 21st-century green practices but whose basic authorities governing how to plan and build neighborhoods haven’t changed for fifty years or more.

109 Ideas to Improve 21 Cities  (Sustainable Cities Collective)
Living Labs Global Award 2012 shortlists 109 potentially transformative ideas for 21 cities. Living Labs Global is a non-profit located in Barcelona and Copenhagen, and their annual awards aims to reward ‘companies and organizations that have developed solutions that add high value to users in cities around the world.”

El Paso Commits to a Smarter, Greener Future (Switchboard)
Early last week, the city council of El Paso, the nation’s 19th-largest city, unanimously adopted a detailed comprehensive plan built around the principles of smart growth and green development.
Vancouver Cyclists’ Café Offers Different Spokes for Different Folks (The Globe and Mail)
The café, located in a downtown alley between Hornby and Burrard, will cater to the daily commuters whizzing by on Hornby, now that it has a bike lane, or the weekend warriors who want to park their ride without carrying their own bike lock.

By Katherine Idziorek, VIA Architecture

A recent New York Times article about density in Manhattan caught my attention, both because it asks “how much density is too much?” – a thought-provoking question, if not yet applicable to most U.S. cities, which are nowhere in the neighborhood of “too much” – and also because it brought again to the surface the stance on urban densification taken by Edward Glaeser in his recent book, Triumph of the City. Glaeser, an economist, makes the argument that denser cities are in a broad sense more successful and resilient cities, a point with which I have no general objection, and the explanation of which made for a truly interesting read. It’s one of his solutions to the problem with which I take exception – the specific identification of historic buildings and districts as barriers to achieving increased density and therefore successful urban environments.

Are dense urbanism and historic preservation really at odds with one another? It seems they shouldn’t have to be. In a world awash with “green” language, sustainability could be understood as the development of dense urban environments. It could also be understood as the reuse of existing and still viable building stock that promotes the continuity of unique urban histories and identities.

I was genuinely surprised that Glaeser targeted historic districts as a major impediment to achieving urban density.  This might be a more relevant argument when referencing geographically-confined and historically dense Manhattan (though I’m still not entirely convinced), but what would happen if we tried to apply this logic to the rest of the country? The majority of U.S. cities are certainly not lacking in sites for urban development due to the encroachment of historic districts.

Why focus on replacing older buildings when they have the potential to contribute to our cities in such significant ways? There is lower-hanging fruit out there in terms of achieving greater efficiency in urban development than the replacement of historically and culturally significant structures. What about the areas of our downtowns that are devoted to cars and surface parking?  What if we developed some of that land for housing and supported it with improved transit systems and infrastructure so that new residents wouldn’t need to rely so heavily on cars, much less require an abundance of surface parking lots? This strategy might not be as easy as razing a few city blocks, but it would certainly represent a more transformative and forward-thinking approach to urban densification.

The preservation and conservation of existing building stock is inherently sustainable, and older neighborhoods often act as significant economic engines within our cities.  The Seattle-based Preservation Green Lab (PGL), an initiative of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is doing some exciting work that supports an emerging economic argument for the conservation of older buildings.  The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse, a study released by PGL earlier this year, analyzes the potential benefits of reusing buildings instead of replacing them. In most cases, the life-cycle costing data reveals that building reuse offers greater environmental savings than demolition and new construction of a comparable facility. This is, of course for a building of equal “density potential” – not new construction with greater capacity. But retaining older structures has other, increasingly quantifiable, benefits – greater environmental savings, more job creation, decreased embodied energy and increased materials savings. Conserving significant buildings also contributes to social and cultural capital while providing city residents with an important connection to place.

The recent debate about and modification of height limits in Seattle’s historic districts is evidence of our own city’s recognition of the desirability of urban density, particularly in areas such as historic but economically distressed Pioneer Square, which could use an injection of population. At the same time, the creation of the Pike/Pine Conservation Overlay District is a policy nod towards recognition of the value of existing building stock that is older, smaller, and though it does not qualify as historic, contributes significantly to a unique and economically vital urban neighborhood. Seattle is also grappling with how to achieve dense but contextual new development in and near historic districts, as evidenced in two Pioneer Square projects-in-progress at the North Lot and 200 Occidental.

Tall buildings are by no means the enemy – but we do need to focus on ways of creating dense urban environments without sacrificing neighborhood character. Part of the appeal of historic districts and older neighborhoods is their human scale and fine-grained texture. Contemporary construction is necessarily of a different scale and character than older structures and districts in the city, a condition driven by changes in building technology and development practices over time. It seems that there is great potential for synergy in retaining a mix of the two – conserving still-viable older buildings while striving for the best in contemporary architectural and urban design for new projects.

Building density isn’t just about replacing smaller buildings with larger ones – it requires an efficient and thoughtful use of every aspect of our urban environment and the provision of the appropriate infrastructure to support it. We shouldn’t frame the question as a need to choose between dense downtowns and conserving significant older buildings – we should instead be asking ourselves how our urban systems can be altered in a more comprehensive way to support increased density while retaining still-viable historic and older building stock, which is in itself evidence of urban resilience.

I know that I’m preaching to the converted when writing to the audience of the VIA blog – it’s clear that contextual design and the critical connections between transit, land use, and dense urban development are understood. So, let’s turn the focus of the original question on one of our own cities: what would a significantly denser Seattle look like?  How would it reflect our values as a city? Would we choose to target our historic districts for redevelopment?  Or would we find other ways to increase our urban population?

Monday News Roundup

Mar 05, 2012

Happy Monday, all! Following are last week’s news, art, planning, and architecture highlights:

Mapping the Happiest States (Planetizen)
Richard Florida reports on a new map showing the results of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which analyzes a number of “happiness” factors on a statewide level.

Are Container Houses the future? (Sustainable Cities Collective)
French architect Patrick Partouche recently designed and developed a single-family unit made up of five shipping containers.

California’s Groundbreaking Green Building Ordinance (
California State policies to date have created exceptional green buildings that effectively raise the ceiling for green building. By setting minimum standards, California is doing something equally important: raising the minimum floor.

New York Botanical Garden to Debut Living Wall of Orchids (Architizer Blog)
Famed French botanist Patrick Blanc, renowned for his lush, gravity-defying gardens, has made his way to the New York Botanical Garden this spring to design a series of horticultural walls that will showcase the illustrious tropical orchid.

Is Urbanism Slowing the Rise of Car Travel?  (The Atlantic Cities)
Researchers have been saying for several years now that cities in the United States and other developed countries may have reached “peak driving” — a level of vehicle miles at or near the saturation point.

2030 Carbon Targets May Be Within Reach (
Architecture 2030 says new energy projections from the federal government show the building sector is on its way to achieving long-term goals in energy and carbon reductions.

Meet Steve McDonald, one of the newest members of the VIA family:

Who are you and what do you do?  
I am Steve, and I am an aspiring guitar player, dad, and architect. The latter two items take up a lot of  time, so the aspiring guitar player is a perpetual thing.

What made you decide to go into your field?  
In summer 1978, I was traveling from New London, Connecticut to Spokane, WA  via the Empire Builder, and we had a layover in Chicago.

I remember looking out our hotel window at the then Sears Tower. An old gentleman asked what I was looking at, then described to me the skyline- but specifically the Sears Tower and its bundle tube design. He said he was an architect, and from that point forward that’s what I was going to be. I’ve still never designed a super high-rise building to date, though.

What did your family think of your chosen field?  
Yea… he’s going to college!

Who is the teacher who had the most influence on you and why? 
Harry Merritt-  in college he taught me to see what wasn’t there, and then draw it.

What was the biggest hurdle you faced along your educational path? (academic, financial, motivational, family or peer pressure, outside distraction, etc.)  
Probably financial. In 1987, I took out $8k in loans during college and was petrified every time I signed for a new loan.  I  wondered how I was going to pay this off when most of my peers were graduating with no job or an unpaid internship—wait– isn’t that how it is now?

What inspires you?  
Right now, it’s my family.  My eldest is almost off to college and her excitement of next year is infectious.  The middle daughter wants to play division-one soccer and go pre-med.  My kindergartener is just learning that everything can be dismantled with a screwdriver. My wife is embarking on a photography career. They are all embracing change to be the best they can, and their passion is powerful.

What schooling is required for success in your career?  
Learning architecture from all phases.

What kind of people are the most successful in your field? Are there any specific attributes?  
The soup-to-nuts architects that can, or have, done all aspects of architecture.  I admire pragmatic solutions that can be built because, ultimately, I became an architect to see work get built.

What is the best advice you were ever given?   
Don’t buy a boat and live on it.

Is your field growing? (ie. is there room for new entries and is there career growth?)   
I would say it’s stabilizing. Because of the horrid attrition over the last few years, we are reclaiming past architects and absorbing new ones. But yes, there is a future for aspiring architects.

What advice would you give someone considering a career like yours?   
Learn your craft from all perspectives. Some components of making architecture may not be so sexy, but when you are aware of all of them you elevate you credibility as an architect.

What keeps you motivated in your field?  
Learning something new every day with the thought that I can pass it along at some point. Watching buildings get built is pretty cool too.

Monday News Roundup

Feb 27, 2012

It’s your last Monday before March! Let’s look at our most interesting pieces of news, architecture, planning, and art from last week:

Block 11 by MEI Architecture
MEI Architecture designed a parking garage in Almere, The Netherlands, that has a facade of plants and panels featuring cultural images.

Chicago Commits to Downtown Bus Priority
A series of bus lanes will link commuter rail stations, downtown, and the Navy Pier. It’s not quite a transitway — despite the branding — but it will speed movement for thousands of passengers.

Re-imagining our Consumer Culture

Minimizing waste, through either cradle to cradle and/or local economies, is crucial for improving our environment and our quality of life.

Nation’s largest public Food Forest takes root on Beacon Hill
After nearly three years of planning, Beacon Hill residents are breaking ground on what will be the nation’s largest public food forest.

Should Cities Embrace ‘Sandwich Board Urbanism’?
Rethinking allowed uses in city rights-of-way can change the look and feel of streets in unexpected fashion—especially when the focus is on more than the ambiance of sidewalk cafes, benches or clocks. One example is the impact of sandwich board signs.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater Now Accepting Applications for Summer Camp
That’s right, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pennsylvanian masterpiece is now accepting applications for summer residency programs, and lucky high school students who will be ushered into Wright’s chef d’oeuvre will be given the opportunity to “explore one of the world’s most famous and architectural important buildings independently and without the pressure of crowds” and “examine how architecture and design can exist in harmony with nature” through investigation, analysis, and hands-on design projects.

Paradise Parking: Automobiles Reclaimed by Nature
Paradise Parking is a new series of work by American-born, Paris-based photographer Peter Lippmann. The photos capture abandoned cars in a state of complete decay as each is gradually consumed by nature.

The Promise of a Seattle Gondola

By Matt Roewe, VIA Architecture

The promise of an aerial gondola connecting the waterfront, Seattle Center, South Lake Union and Capitol Hill.

When we think of aerial gondolas and trams, ski resorts and carnival-like strings of pods hovering overhead at past world fairs usually come to mind.  But what if a gondola took you to great urban destinations where people live, work, play and shop? What if these districts were served by other modes of transit? Could a gondola be a truly effective and self-sustaining transportation alternative that just happens to be energy-efficient and quiet?

Read the full article here, on!


Tuesday News Roundup

Feb 21, 2012

Hope you all had a great long weekend! Here are last week’s best news, art, and design bites:

The Solution to Nimbyism (Seattle Transit Blog)
The Earthscraper – a 65-story, zero-feet-tall building – is the solution to all concerns about height and massing while simultaneously enabling nearly limitless density.

State of Play: The World’s Most Amazing Playgrounds (Popsci)
The playgrounds of tomorrow must offer something that even the most enticing virtual offerings cannot: real spaces that look at least as amazing as anything virtual.

How and Why Does an Architect Become Famous? (Planetizen)
In a fascinating essay in the journal Places, Keith Eggener examines the politics of architectural reputation through the lens of architect Louis Curtiss’s life and career.

Transparency in the Building Industry – Nutrition Labels for Building Materials (Arch Daily)
Transparency Lists are a resource of precautionary measures which breaks down into categories common building materials and the potential dangers associated with their composition.

Before & After: Sad Office for One Becomes Happy Workspace for Two (Apartment Therapy)
Husband and wife engineers convert single office to efficient double office space with room for both of them to work.

Can This Suburb Be Saved? (New York Magazine)
At MoMA, curators and architects seek a way out of the cul-de-sac.

Virtual Tools for CAD (Arch Daily)
Engineering faculty at Washington State University introduce the Virtual Reality and Computer Integrated Manufacturing Laboratory, or VRCIM, offering a unique solution for increasing the effectiveness of CAD-based design and visualization.

Why the Future of Sustainable Cities Rests with China (Planetizen)
China’s massive and growing urban population presents a unique opportunity – while most urban growth in the Western world will take place in existing cities (at least for the immediate future), developers in China must build new cities from the ground up just to keep up with demand.

Luccon Translucent Concrete  (Design Milk)
Luccon is a material developed in the early 2000s, made up of lasagna-like layers of concrete and fiber optics through which light can pass. However, the material is sealed and just as strong as concrete.

By Graham McGarva, Founding Principal, VIA Architecture

Our satisfaction with a given condition is founded on our expectation. In Vancouver, we have long had an expectation of livability in its various guises— urban and rural landscapes; mobility and access; and commercial and cultural activities (food, beverage, entertainment). Our Downtown became an increasingly desirable place to work, then to play, then to live, then to learn. Always tacitly assumed as a place to invest.

In that mode of expectation, affordability and amenity overlaid well— choices at each end of the spectrum.

Success (and geographic constraint), coupled with the normal rules of engagement, has brought a tension in aff and am. It has not been the demon of density that has threatened the equation— no flight from caterpillar blight—  but rather the opposite: the creation of an urban culture emerging from the pupae of its anti- urban antecedent.

Affordability is a huge issue. The tool box to bring the price of housing within normal economic reach needs to be completely rethought. It cuts across the whole spectrum, intractable for those in need of supportive housing or deep subsidy.

The Downtown Vancouver Association is committed to the enhancement of Downtown Vancouver as a place to live, work, play, learn, and invest. Its primary perspective is of the “man and woman on the street”, drawn Downtown by amenity (primarily of home and work). There has been a sharply increasing price to be paid; this price can be measured in terms of time, money, and expectation.

Expectation is probably the least understood variable in the affordability/amenity equation, but it governs how we view balance in our lives.  It is our lens for how we spend time and money, for our connection and separation with other people, family, friends, and strangers.

Who are we in the Downtown? What do we expect?  What are the consequences of expectations— fulfilling them, denying them, changing them?

We are using three breakfast forums to explore realities and priorities, then seeking to identify three concrete actions that can be taken by individuals, the marketplace, and/or City Hall in enabling amenity to mitigate the stress upon affordability.

We need to shape shared paths into the future, embody the relevant amenities we need for sustainable urbanity, and shed the paraphernalia of entitlement from a past that is no longer present.

Amenity answers could be in the tangible realm— the size of windows and how far apart dwellings need to be from each other; or the virtual realm— legal agreements that place transferable affordability covenants on title; and most likely both— speeding up traffic light cycles so pedestrians can walk more freely through the outdoor rooms of our urban streets.

The first DVA Forum is set for 8:00AM on Tuesday, March 27th at BCIT Downtown Campus, chaired by VIA Architecture’s Graham McGarva. Speakers will include Gordon Price, Geoff Meggs, Jennifer Podmore-Russell, and those of you who show up to share your ‘reality snapshots’ with us.

We look forward to seeing you there.

Monday News Roundup

Feb 13, 2012

Hope you’re all having a good pre-Valentine’s Monday morning! Here’s a list of last week’s most interesting bits of the internet:

Educating architects with virtual reality (Arch Daily)
Resources like Columbia’s VR Learning Site are bringing new technology to training architects; offering ways to explore the world’s most interesting structures from the comfort of one’s own home.

The AIA announces new Partnership to further Disaster Relief and Rebuilding Efforts (Arch Daily)
The American Institute of Architects (AIA) and Architecture for Humanity have announced their new strategic partnership to coordinate advocacy, education and training that will allow architects to become more involved in helping communities prepare, respond and rebuild after a disaster.

AWB-Seattle member project, Escuala Saludable y Ecologica, one of three international winners of the Design SEED Competition (Architects Without Borders, Seattle)
AWB Seattle board member Ben Spencer, along with his UW team and partners, recognized with top honors in Design SEED Competition for sustainable building strategy-rich design in Peru.

Windows on the World Restored: New Views from the World Trade Center (Architizer)
Breath-taking views from the 84th floor of the new World Trade Center tower in New York City.

Four Pioneering Examples of Sustainable Refurbishment from Around the World (Sustainable Cities Collective)
Old made new… and sustainable. Examples from Canada, London, and Australia.

ArchDaily 2011 Building of the Year Awards (Arch Daily)
ArchDaily announces the start of the 2011 Building of the Year Awards process, starting with nominations, then voting– your opinion matters!

The AIA Elevates 105 Members and Six International Architects to the College of Fellows (Arch Daily)
The 2012 Jury of Fellows from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) have elevated 105 members to its prestigious College of Fellows, to be honored at an investiture ceremony at the 2012 National AIA Convention and Design Exposition in Washington, D.C.

Forward to the Past

Feb 10, 2012
Forward to the Past

by Catherine Calvert, Director of Community Sustainability, VIA Architecture
Photo: Seattle’s Denny Regrade (credit)

There has been much discussion about Peak Oil and the ways in which the increasing scarcity of fossil fuels will affect the way we live in the future. The basic premise is that our days of abundant cheap oil are over, and that our entire lifestyle of consumption, freewheeling mobility, and comfort needs to change drastically now in order to avoid extreme and sudden hardships in the future. With a limited supply of oil available (maybe 20 years according to the most pessimistic views), we’d better put what we have left to good use – this would mean investment in noble purposes such as construction of public transportation projects, and a move away from frivolous uses such as leisure motoring and shipping disposable goods around the planet.

We at VIA think a lot about these problems, particularly the issues relating to mobility and infrastructure. Some of us may learn to grow our own food, ride bicycles, knit sweaters to keep warm, and avoid shopping at big-box retail stores – and there is much to be said for relocalizing our habits and grounding our lifestyle in the real and substantial. But these strategies will only go so far, and they are not available or suitable for everyone; we can’t all live in Belltown and feed ourselves locally in February, for example. If we’re going to be increasingly reliant on public transportation, we need to prioritize these projects for the resources they need to be built and maintained as using fossil fuel becomes increasingly challenged.

This image that appeared in Pacific Northwest Magazine a couple of months ago (1) was startling. It was taken in about 1906, during Seattle’s first “regrade” of downtown. Look carefully … what do you see? Earthmovers and hydraulic excavators? No, actually a horse and wagon, and a steam shovel, likely powered by coal, or maybe by wood. Not a drop of petroleum in sight.

Images like this of the Denny Regrade project remain startling to our modern eyes because of the project’s sheer scale and audacity.. To literally move Seattle’s downtown hills out of the way because they were inconvenient — did we really do this? And without the internal combustion engine and heavy machinery?

While it’s clear that going back to the horse and buggy days may not solve our mobility problems, we do believe that creative thinking and focus can pull us away from relying so heavily on the technology we’re currently taking for granted. The people in that photo were able to accomplish big feats without iPhone apps and without internal combustion engines- why can’t we, as advanced as we are as a society, brainstorm ways to go back to basics and not rely so heavily on fossil fuels? We were able to move mountains without it once – what could we accomplish today if we really had to?