Recent Posts


Monday News Roundup

Mar 19, 2012

Hope everyone had a fantastic St. Paddy’s Day weekend!

Here’s the roundup of last week’s most interesting articles:

Envisioning a Havana Bike Culture (Sustainable Cities Collective)
Cuba’s largest city, Havana, lacks a comprehensive sustainable transportation plan. Realistically, the city will not have the means for massive infrastructure for a number of years but cost effective alternatives exist, particularly in biking.

It’s easy to steal a bike in NYC  (
Casey Neistat tries to steal his own bike in several locations around NYC and finds it’s pretty easy…even if you’re doing so right in front of a police station.

Seattle Gets the Street View on the Quality of Its Lights  (The New York Times)
Enlisted by a consortium of power companies, consultants, the Department of Energy, the Seattle Department of Transportation and Seattle City Light, about 300 people were paid $40 each to spend an evening engaged in a civic version of the kind of debate that has taken place in households for some time now: what kind of light do you prefer: old and yellowy or a new and cool white?

Interactive Map Reveals Whether You’re One of 4 Million Americans Threatened by Sea Level Rise  (TreeHugger)
Scientists have been criticized—and have criticized themselves—for failing to do a better job of communicating the risks of global warming to an apathetic American public. A new report, entitled ‘Surging Seas’, has utilized a number of different tools in its authors and supporters’ efforts to carve out some media space for its findings.

SDOT Encouraging Applications for Intersection Murals to Help Calm Traffic (
Seattle Department of Transportation is encouraging neighborhoods to apply for funding to paint a street mural. SDOT says the intersection paintings can slow down traffic when there are no stop or yield signs, and helps bring neighbors together to plan and create the mural.

Why Mobility is Key in Helping the Urban Poor (Sustainable Cities Collective)
Healthcare, energy, education, financial services, agriculture, livelihood creation…social enterprises across the world operate in a wide span of sectors. There is a one lesser-talked-about area, however, that is vital to recognize because it affects the delivery of social impact in all of the above sectors—mobility.

Chicago Hops On Bike Sharing Phenomenon (Planetizen)
Alta Bicycle Share, Inc., of Portland and its equipment manufacturer, Public Bike System Co. have been selected over two competing bids to implement and operate a $21 million network beginning this summer.

Building Artificial Bones with the Help of LEGO Robots (Archetizer Blog)
In what looks like the summer science camps of your youth, researchers at Cambridge University have outfitted their laboratory with two units of LEGO Mindstorms robots, using the micro-structures to automate procedural work.

by Kate Howe, Urban Planner, VIA Architecture
Monday, December 30, 1940 California’s first modern freeway, the “Arroyo Seco,” was born. The event initiated the population’s full embrace of limited access freeways and expressways in a building boom. A year after the passage of Eisenhower’s 1956 Interstate Highway and Defense Act, the California Division of Highways proposed construction of a vast system; 12,250 miles of controlled access highways would serve every city with a population greater than 5,000. In the next decade the dream was made possible by a large infusion of Federal cash (in California, the federal burden clocked in at 91% percent of the costs for designated Interstate Highway mileage), top down planning and few environmental controls. Infrastructure investment throughout the fifties was an extension of post-depression economic development intended to stave off recession, as well as providing one face of the coin for access to the Modern Suburban American Dream.

1958 Bay Area Freeway-Expressway plans (courtesy Erik Fischer Flicker Photo Stream)

Sixty years later, cruising around the State, we alternatively take this infrastructure for granted while also being astounded at the scale of change accomplished in such a short time. Here in Oakland, at the landing of the Bay Bridge’s eastern shore, four highways converge in one of the Nation’s largest distribution systems, completed in the late 1950s. Arguably the zenith of California highway building, it is known locally as “The Maze.”

Oakland’s approach to the Bridge in 1936 – note the pedestrians on the on ramp. (courtesy Erik Fischer Flickr Photo Stream)

2012, the Maze’s elevated freeway routes and a BART train

Highways in Oakland, the port and the Bay as seen from above (Courtesy bats Flickr Photo Stream)

Of course, while they offered new mobility, freeways came at the expense of the health and aesthetic form of a neighborhood. Urban communities were routinely demolished, and concrete barriers entrenched dividing lines that still affect both today’s crime rates and real estate price points.  In West Oakland alone there are 54 Acres of empty space under its freeways; some used for parking, but most is overgrown or used for illegal dumping. Looking back one can almost see the large flows of our Nation’s capital dollars flowing out of the urbanized and industrial urban centers (where labor was strong) and redistributed into greenfield, suburban landscapes where districts could define their own terms with their surroundings.

The freeway system, followed quickly by BART, shuttled people past the rooftops of minority neighborhoods and into new areas that could afford to ignore perceived “urban problems.” In Alameda, multifamily housing was outlawed in the City’s 1973 charter.

City Center… linking Federal Programs for Job Opportunities and Economic Development, May, 1967. Shows the Cypress expressway completed in 1957. The expressway fell down in the 1989 Loma Prieta Quake and was subsequently moved. (courtesy Erik Fischer Flickr Photo Stream)

Census 2010 population distribution of the Bay Area (Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other, and each dot is 25 residents.)(courtesy Erik Fischer Flickr Photo Stream)

Fast forward to today. The last freeway was built in 1991; very few are now proposed. California’s suburban expansion is, arguably, complete. We are now saddled with a strongly anti-tax population that has scaled back its ability to invest in infrastructure, while simultaneously, the cost of infrastructure construction has risen.

High Speed Rail (HSR) is emblematic of this new reality. Despite its real value as a visionary solution to congestion on the 1-5 corridor, it again is representative of a broad  re-distribution of wealth– both federal and state capital back once again into our urban centers. HSR has been using rational planning arguments to battle against what is mostly emotional and fear based, and an entrenched anti-urban position. For many, it is the recognition that those “urban problems” must be shared more broadly. The project is in stalemate, trapped by both the courts and the environmental processes, and may yet be either litigated or legislated out of existence, or return in some scaled-down form.

Transbay terminal downtown San Francisco

The result for the near future is arguably a focus on smaller scale, urban and multi-modal corridor development. These are a broad range of interventions that are less threatening and can have immediate benefit on surrounding populace in safety health and aesthetics. I’ve seen many of these homegrown, community-led conversations throughout northern California, and increasingly in Los Angeles County with a focus on urban-scaled mobility and affordable interventions. While they lack the monumental appeal of a highway program or HSR, the conversations here in the East Bay focus on bridging gaps, rebuilding, and even reintroducing portions of the older systems, such as the East Bay Key system.

Key System Street Car Route 1926

This year, the City of Oakland is initiating a study (for yes, the third time) to look into the feasibility and potential economic development opportunities that would result from a streetcar line connecting Jack London Square with Oakland’s Uptown and MacArthur BART. A $300,000 grant from CalTrans will pay for an updated study. Similarly, AC Transit is on route to construct the Bay Area’s first real BRT along Telegraph Avenue (another of the Key System routes).

Many around our region are in agreement that dollars should be spent where they will benefit the greatest number of people, such as improving those areas that are already fully serviced by good transportation infrastructure and/or mass transit.  However, consensus building takes time, and it has become an increasingly desperate reflection of our times. It’s not a comfortable outcome for everyone, including both those who will see their share of investments shrink, and those who are fighting for a bigger share.

October 2012, Occupy Oakland encampment

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.