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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?

Monday News Roundup

Feb 06, 2012

Happy post-Superbowl Monday! Let’s catch up on last week’s most interesting articles:

Digital vs. Analog Ways of Transforming Cities (Sustainable Cities Collective)
Is an app enough? Turning “transactional” into “transformational”

Parking being squeezed out in Vancouver (The Globe and Mail)
Developers in Vancouver being forced to offer fewer parking spots; VIA’s Graham McGarva offers his thoughts

The environmental building blocks of urban happiness (Sustainable Cities Collective)
Correlation between the shape of our communities and neighborhoods to the mental and physical well-being of their citizens

Weekend House / Pokorny Architekti (Arch Daily)
Slovakian weekend house design uses traditional ideas in a very modern way

Urban Farming as a Successful Business (Sustainable Cities Collective)
Urban farming methods refined for success

How Greenways Create Healthy Communities (Sustainable Cities Collective)
Greenways blend urban and rural design for harmonious communities

Coffee Shop Neighborhoods for the Next Seattle (City Tank)
Discourage sprawl, encourage “Coffee Shop Neighborhoods” in Seattle for the health of communities, transit, and citizens

A Paradigm Shift in Urban Runoff (Planetizen)
Capturing and filtering rain water as it falls helps decrease polluted runoff in urban areas

by Katherine Howe, Urban Planner
VIA Architecture

Transform, a non-profit advocacy group in the Bay Area, recently developed the GreenTRIP program, an incentive program for multifamily infill development designed to help reduce car use. This is pretty interesting stuff for those of us who practice smart growth because most everything in an infill development – from design, to feasibility, to use – can revolve around the amount, placement, and cost of parking.

Almost all cities have codes that regulate how much off-street parking a developer must build. Out of date and often based on suburban standards calibrated to maximum car use, these codes are, at best, a blunt instrument. They often over estimate the amount of parking needed, which encourages people to drive by effectively subsidizing the cost of storing cars. This, of course, is not new information, and much ink has been spilled in the discussion of the high cost of free parking. After multiple decades of this approach, many communities – from Issaquah to Bothell – are finding that they now have 50% -75% of their existing developed commercial land area in one kind of use: surface parking.

The off-street parking cycle is hard to break because it requires a paradigm shift: a switch from accommodating personal mobility via cars, to other modes that also compel a retrofit of the land uses already in place. To do so requires a headlong push in the other direction. It’s too expensive to go half way, i.e. to keep building lots of parking at suburban rates but in structure or underground. This doesn’t work, except in the most valuable areas, such as a strong downtown. Even there, building all that free storage space for cars can make that future project’s lease rates no longer competitive with what’s already there. A New Urbanist solution, such as Kent Station or Mill Creek, tuck the oceans of surface parking behind retail establishments along a “walking main street.” But this superficial solution just masks the problem and is only an aesthetic fix.

Removing requirements for parking altogether is often discussed in TOD plans as one of the first strategic moves a city can make to support incremental infill development. This can help projects pencil economically and also allows them to be designed in a more compact, transit friendly way. Furthermore, developers can charge separately for what it really costs to build parking (from $35,00-$45,000) per space.

Neighborhoods tend to be skittish about moving in this direction, because when many people consider new developments all they see is traffic! I’ve heard this over and over again. Even in our existing, transit-rich environments this change to take on the parking problem is slow. In part it is due to a failure of imagination, and in part it is because reversing course takes a lot of work. It requires setting up a whole new system, where all stakeholders can see the end point, with options that work for each party.

This is where a GreenTRIP program will be most useful. GreenTRIP effectively creates something like a LEED awards program for infill development in already transit-friendly locations. It provides an alternative and pre-validated set of choices to reduce our dependence on the provision of new parking spaces as our only solution for urban mobility.

The program has been designed to allow a partnership between developer and the City to participate without taking on added risk, or taking a lot of public flack for “giving away something for free” by reducing parking requirements. It is also intended to reassure neighborhood residents and financiers by clearly showing exactly how urban design (read street edge development that you want to walk to, and closely mixing together uses) can, when combined with support for particular behaviors such as free transit passes, access to a car share, and un-bundling your parking space from your unit (you rent it separately), result in less overall driving by residents. That means less congestion on already busy roads, more transit riders, and the beginning of a virtuous cycle of people who will positively support transit. More likely than not, it might also mean better living spaces because dollars are invested in the building and not in the parking garage. In short, the program frees up private sector dollars to support something other than new car infrastructure.

At VIA, we’ve been working on similar issues for some time. We are looking forward to collaborating with King County on their upcoming Right Sized Parking Project, which will tackle similar questions: How can we help cities to better adjust their parking requirements in support of transit? How can we elevate this to a broader question about improving personal mobility at a regional level, and give real options that don’t require a fight in each neighborhood?

Perhaps it’s really just about adjusting what we can realistically take for granted. Combining smart urban design with a range of transportation options has the potential to catalyze big changes in how people choose to travel around the Puget Sound region, and ultimately reverse the vicious parking cycle.

Monday News Roundup

Jan 30, 2012

The top headlines from last week all in one place:

Our (Un)Sustainable Vocabulary(xkcd)
A comic detailing how the word “sustainable” is unsustainable 🙂

Inca Public Market by Charmaine Lay and Carles Muro(Dezeen)
Check out the zigzagging wooden roof of this market hall in Majorca, Spain.
The Threat of Poor Urban Design to Public Health (Planetizen)

A profile of the work of Dr. Richard J. Jackson, one of the leading voices calling for better urban design for the sake of good health.

The green dividend from reusing older buildings (Switchboard)
We already know that, in many cases, retaining older buildings can strengthen the enduring legacy and enjoyment of a community. But is it good for the environment?

Does Car + Bike = A Good Thing? (Sustainable Cities Collective)
Besides gaining ultra-buff legs, many ‘part-time’ bike commuters end up with an extra $12,400 at the end of the year!

A Profile of the ‘Jane Jacobs of Urban Design’(Planetizen)
An engaging profile of David Lewis, the community planning pioneer whom Richard Florida calls the ‘Jane Jacobs of Urban Design,’ as he celebrates his 90th birthday.

Rio de Janeiro unveils its first BRT station (Sustainable Cities Collective)
With 10 regular turnstiles and two adapted for wheelchair users, the station was designed to take advantage of natural ventilation using wind sensors.

How Bicycling and Walking Directly Impacts Health (Sustainable Cities Collective)
The 2012 benchmarking report for bicycling and walking ranks all 50 states and the 51 largest U.S. cities on bicycling and walking levels, safety, funding and other factors.

How a rain garden cleans industrial pollution(Switchboard)
As NRDC’s water program rightfully emphasizes, one of the most vexing conundrums in highly urban areas is how to handle polluted rainwater runoff.
Ranking Housing Affordability in America(Planetizen)

A report investigates to what extent the affordability of housing is tied to land use policies and how much is related to other factors.

by Wolf Saar, Director of Practice, VIA Architecture

Volf Saar (credit: Wolf Saar)

Last July, my father turned 90. In November, he moved into a nursing home. This was not an entirely unexpected event considering that he has Parkinson’s and has seen a slow decline in his mobility and his ability to avoid falls. With my 87 year old mother becoming increasingly frail (and, at the time, approaching a hip replacement) it was determined that the safest and most feasible alternative for dad was a move to a place where he could receive 24 hour skilled care. The time of “aging in place” ended for my dad.

The experience of being the adult child of two aging parents took on a new dimension as we shifted attention from in-home care to institutionalized care. Since my parents live in Burnaby, BC while I live in Seattle and my sister is in Calgary, every interaction is either remote or requires a road trip for me or an airplane ride for my sister. As an architect, I naturally approached the move with a designer’s eye. My focus ranged from pragmatic to sensual in trying to control the process from afar.

As a bit of background, I’ve observed that in British Columbia, subsidized care is generally of a high quality, although there is a decidedly “institutionalized” approach to this care, necessitated by tight budgets and government infrastructure. As my father’s needs exceeded what an assisted living facility could provide, there were few alternatives between the standard regimens of subsidized in-home services and full-on nursing care. My experience in the US has been primarily in the “private pay” realm and, although that exists in BC as well, our family’s resources did not allow us to consider the option. How wonderful it would have been to have greater choice and the opportunity to direct and have more control where my father lives but, in BC, government-subsidized skilled care nursing is provided on a “first bed available” basis.

My sister and I were wary of this policy and worried that he would end up somewhere less than ideal so we felt fortunate when he was admitted to George Derby Centre, an attractive facility that incidentally caters to veterans. Never mind that being Estonian, my father fled the Russians in the early days of the war and eventually settled in Berlin where he experienced WW II from the “other side” as a photographer for a US agency stationed in Berlin; he jokes that many of his fellow residents were dropping bombs on him! Aside from this quirk, the facility appears well-funded, well-maintained, and well-managed (although they seem to have some issues with misplaced laundry)…

Volf Saar (credit: Wolf Saar)

The quality of care and a hallmark arts and crafts facility (my dad has become an emerging weaver!) is offset by a decidedly institutional feel, reinforced by the size of the facility and long corridors clogged with medical carts and other tools needed in the care of the residents. The demands of operational efficiencies were a visible driver in the design. Large common rooms serve as both dining rooms and day rooms and, in their goal to be “flexible” appear to be kept simple in lieu of providing a richness of scale to promote varied interactions and experiences. The proximity of the nurses’ station to these common areas adds to the institutional character. I am consistently dismayed when visiting nursing homes when I see seating around the nurses’ station encouraged. Residents seem attracted by a sense of being where all the action is.

The living units themselves are small dorm-like single-occupancy rooms with a private accessible bathroom. Aside from being small and especially challenging when a wheelchair encounters furniture brought from home, the fact that residents personalize these units helps offset some of the sense that this is a “temporary” situation.

The subsidized system in BC has provided an enormous peace of mind to my parents as they have aged knowing that they will be cared for as health declines and this has indeed been the case. The cost to them is a fraction of what a private-pay alternative would be and the care is good. The down side is that choice is limited. Availability is by geographic region therefore the number of facilities available is limited. The size and type of facility that a resident initially enters is dictated by the available bed policy. Once in a facility, the resident can be put on a waiting list to go elsewhere but that wait can be lengthy and the stress of yet another move can be daunting. Generally, the philosophy and approach to care is standardized. Certainly, a place like George Derby that has put attention to the creation of a home-like experience within a large complex is more successful than others. Creative options like smaller groupings of residents or adult family homes are not evident in the government-provided arena.

My father is well-cared for and has found a few touchstones such as art-making that seem to focus his activities but aside from that, he “exists” day to day and, as is the case with many of his fellow residents, is fairly isolated. As I go through this experience I often wonder how the progressive concepts that the senior living field is engendering elsewhere and in the private-pay world could be transferred to make this time in his life fuller and richer.