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By Amanda Bryan, VIA Architecture

It never fails to amaze me how resilient and innovative human kind can be, when out of seemingly overwhelming adversity, a people can be mobilized into aspiring citizens of change. As I participated in this year’s Design for Livability: Sustainable Cities conference, I sensed such resilience and high aspirations in the crowd as it leaned forward in anticipation for the great solution to the problems before us. The problems we face are not just economic nor are they issues which affect merely Seattle residents and so the AIA, Cascade Land Conservancy, and UW School of Built Environments tackled the conference from both the local and regional scale. Building upon a foundation of education, presenters were encouraged to share their many experiences and projects as a teacher would share its knowledge with its pupils.

The topics of the conference ranged widely, covering issues such as ailing infrastructure ripe for overhaul, alternative ecosystem markets, large ecodistricts as a solution for overbuilt utilities, non-profits as motivators of change, formulaic changes in single family developments to combat sprawl, and typological changes in multifamily zones to revive a waning population of children. Like Karen True from Friends of Third Place Commons in her presentation Creating and Activating Great Places, the presenters aired their thoughts passionately and compellingly. The topics themselves gravitated towards interdisciplinary action that not only relied upon large scale governmental shifts but also community action.

If there was one key message I got out this conference, it was that the all too political word “Change” isn’t just about electing the correct official or voting for the right propositions (although this helps), it’s about taking what you’ve got and ‘throwing it into the pot’ to form a collective will. This might mean becoming a group activist or maybe as little as simply volunteering in a community group a few hours a month. Either way we become active participants in our society rather than mere observers.

As we have all watched the economy shift and budgets stretch to cover the endless needs demanded of cities and communities, people have both figuratively and literally ‘rolled up their sleeves’ and made use of their resources. I think this conference is yet another representation of this resilience and similar future events will mark our generation as persevering innovators for those we leave behind.

by Catherine Calvert, VIA Architecture

VIA was pleased to sponsor the recent keynote presentation to kick off last week’s Design for Livability: Sustainable Communities conference, put on by AIA Seattle, Cascade Land Conservancy and University of Washington College of Built Environments.

Our presentation was about Ecodistricts, featuring our firm’s work on Southeast False Creek in Vancouver, home to the future Athlete’s Village for the 2010 Olympics, as well as the work of ZGF and the Portland + Oregon Sustainability Institute (P+OSI) on the Lloyd District. 

What is significant about ecodistrict projects like these is that they illustrate how far the bar needs to be raised in terms of radical rethinking of neighborhood design if we are to make any difference at all in terms of the way we use our cities and connect our infrastructure.  Five years ago I had the privilege of touring neighborhoods in Malmo and Copenhagen and understanding the total logic of organizing communities around district energy systems and cogeneration.  That experience was an “a-ha moment” – it’s not about living off the grid (as we were taught in the 70’s), it’s about all of us plugging into the grid and sharing our resources. 

Clearly, however, projects like the Lloyd District and Southeast False Creek don’t happen by the good intentions of architects and planners.  They can only come to fruition using the synergy of political will, economic opportunity, technical innovation, and at a stage of infrastructure lifecycle that’s ripe for renewal.  One of the most interesting technologies implemented at Southeast False Creek is the “harvesting” of heat from a large diameter sewer pipe that runs along the perimeter of the 80-acre property.  Only through high levels of cooperation between the City of Vancouver’s Planning and Engineering Departments, the technical understanding of how this heat could be exchanged, and the creation of a new district utility for management, could this resource have been fully utilized.

Rob Bennett from P+OSI and Dave Ramslie from the City of Vancouver had some excellent summary themes to share:

  • It is vital that the “policy framework” be in place for these projects to be carried out. This is a combination of governance and planning context that establishes the authority and sets the groundwork for the jurisdiction to execute projects.
  • That these projects leveraged “opportunistic planning”, in most cases writing new forms of planning code to create outcomes that are mutually beneficial to the city and the developer.
  • Designing and building stand-alone green buildings is not enough.  We have entered the second generation of green building, where connection to a shared infrastructure is necessary for buildings to be fully sustainable. This interconnection is not unlike the evolution of PC’s, which didn’t reach their full potential as working tools until the internet network became established.
  • Envisioning and executing projects of this kind involves a new kind of applied knowledge for architects and planners. Integrated, networked, holistic solutions are the way of the future.  Personal expertise and business models must adapt to this.
  • Sometimes a business case is a stronger driver of sustainable solutions than any kind of policy or technical innovation. If there is money to be made, then there is a much greater chance a project will get off the ground.

It’s a challenge to all of us to look at these projects not as one-off solutions but as models with transferable lessons and working technologies that should be emulated as widely as possible.  Southeast False Creek started as a vision over 10 years ago in the pre-LEED era and has been executed only through the determination of many hard-working individuals who saw the project through many changes and roadblocks.  Since that time, forecasts about climate change and the future of humankind have only become more dire.

What kind of vision do we need to start with now to make any kind of difference?

Conscious Consumers

Oct 14, 2009

By Annette Thurston, VIA Architecture
I have always been an advocate for “Going Green” in theory. It seems like the right thing to do and I want to save the planet, but the whole idea just overwhelms me every time I think about it.  Doubts and questions start filling my head like “is my recycling really helping?  Everything I buy comes in plastic, it’s impossible to avoid.  I don’t want to walk that far to the store; I need my car to haul all of my grocery bags. I want to relax and watch TV at the end of the day and Facebook with my friends (sometimes I’ll waste a whole Sunday just catching up on shows and watching movies).  I love food and I love shopping. It’s too expensive to buy organic”…and on and on it goes.

Why should I sacrifice all of the things that I love?  I’m a person who likes her purchases cheap, I like them quick and I don’t care how they get here. Honestly, ‘going green’ just sounds like too much of a hassle.  So I’ve just been doing the bare minimum that most people do which is recycle plastic, tin and paper and hope that someone puts it to good use. I really have no idea where that stuff goes when I throw it in the bin every week.  Then I heard about this movie No Impact Man and I took my friend Adam to go see it with me.

The premise of the movie is that Colin Beavan, his wife and their 2 year old daughter would lower their carbon footprint to 0 over the course of 12 months in New York City. They did really extreme things like shut off their electricity for 6 months and only travel by foot or bike and only buy locally produced food and milk. They actually gave away their TV — just gave it away! But the point of them doing all of that was to see what they could live without.

As Adam and I were walking to our cars and talking about the movie, we started thinking about all the waste we produce in our daily lives and what we are really getting out of it. The combination of being inspired by this movie and the fact that we are fairly competitive people, led us to challenge ourselves to a year of reducing our impact.  I’m not going to lie, we are pretty high maintenance and it’s not going to be easy.  But even people such as us need a place to start.  So taking our cue from Colin Beavan, we divided the next 12 months into three phases and came up with a list of things that we know are wasteful and want to try to live without.  

For Phase 1 we have vowed to: give up all things plastic ie plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic tubs, plastic utensils, any food that is packaged in plastic etc., give up aluminum, reduce our TV time and laptop time to 2 hours a day each to conserve energy, purchase only as many items as we can carry, and dine out a maximum of 3 times a week and that INCLUDES going out for coffee.

The minute I posted this list on my Facebook page, there was an immediate attack on our project. Some people laughed, some people mocked me by saying ‘You?!  Ha! Good luck!’ Some people jumped to the obvious, ‘what about yogurt containers, shampoo/conditioner bottles, ball point pens, sandwich bags, your cell phone? How will you live without those?” People are automatically discouraged by the thought of giving up these things they’ve grown to be so dependent on. And actually, so are we. Good thing we like a challenge. We are just learning as we go and we know it will take a lot of research and questions, a lot of frustrations and a lot of cravings as we adjust to our new lifestyles. But we vow not to give up until we have exhausted all other options that are available to us. 

The main thing we hope to get out of this project is that we want to become more aware of where our products come from, where they go when we discard them, and what the actual cost is to our health and the environment by purchasing them.  We can do only what is within our power and economic limitations.  We are striving to be Conscious Consumers and we are determined to reduce as much waste as is humanly possible for us while still living satisfying, fulfilling and happy lives.  And hopefully we will make some small difference to our planet.

We will check back with an update once we are through Phase 1 and introduce Phase 2 of our project.

By Naomi Buell, Marketing Assistant at VIA Architecture

While recently reading an article on Iconic Architecture, I came to realize how truly important it is to have “the right building for the right place.” Although new to the field of architecture, I have seen how buildings can create community or just as easily discourage it. I grew up in buildings which always had large grassy areas or courtyards for all the children to play in. I was always close to parks, waterparks, seawalls and fresh food markets. This is how I thought the world was for all children; I had trees from which to launch snowballs, safe bike routes and easy access to view the yearly symphony of fire fireworks display. I was but an aquabus away from the pool and a short walk from the beach. I could see the large grassy hill which I had slid down many times on my toboggan, the world indeed was my oyster. I suppose I should personally thank whoever it was that designed Granville Island and the False Creek Area surrounding it, for they created my backyard.

An Image of Granville island which shows the water park, ponds, parks and beautiful greenery (it’s even nice on an overcast day)

However, it would seem that for some, this is not an ordinary upbringing. For many, parks are something you have to drive to and grass is not simply a stones throw away. The site of a concrete building may be their landscape where one might play on swings in a gated area. Situations like these give the impression that architecture is no longer about the people.

In the article I read which inspired this post, (Moving Beyond the “Smackdown” Towards an Architecture of Place) it seemed that rather then being about the people, Iconic Architecture is often more about making a statement or getting the recognition of peers. It is about thinking outside of the box to create something so unique that magazines will write about it for years to come. Unfortunately, the functionality of some of these buildings gets lost in the plans to make a monumental structure an area has seen. It would appear that while thinking outside of the box, they have made a structure as hospitable as just that, a cardboard box. As William H Whyte said “It’s hard to create a space that will not attract people, what is remarkable, is how often this has been accomplished.” Having little technical knowledge about architecture, I am unable to comment on some of the examples given by the article’s author Fred Kent.

The Bilbao Museum, which launched the iconic architecture trend, with its inhospitable plaza in the foreground

However as a born and raised Vancouverite, I do feel qualified to note one such structure that, while poetic and idealistic in thought, does not create a gathering space. Robson Square, a civic space comprised of the law courts, an art gallery and government offices, was completed in 1983 by Arthur Erickson. Erickson biographer Nicholas Olsberg describes the basis for Erickson’s design as an almost spiritual progression “with the courts — the law — at one end and the museum — the arts — at the other. The foundations of society. And underneath it all, the government offices quietly supporting their people.” While there have been many demonstrations on the steps of the Art Gallery as well as street performers and heated chess competitions, there is a lack of people gathering anywhere else. While there once was an outdoor ice rink, which attracted many families even that has become a melted memory of winters passed.

Perhaps it is the lack of light or greenery and landscaping that makes this area unappealing or maybe all it needs is a few picnic tables to increase the usability of the space. Whatever the reason for this empty space, it is a shame that it goes relatively unused. It would seem that only the art gallery stairs, which comprise a very small portion of the overall space, is the only structure being used. Is this symbolic of people flocking to the arts rather then the foundations of society? I say this with a hint of sarcasm as I believe it is more the proximity of the stairs that lead to their popularity but it is somewhat noteworthy nonetheless.

Architecture creates a city, it creates communities and it has a ripple effect that goes far beyond the beams and walls that hold it together. It has the power to bring people together, to encourage the laughter of children and to create a liveable city. While awards and recognition are always well received, it should be about the people, about the place and about the future that it will create.

Image Sources: Image 1, Image 2, Image 3,

by Krystal Meiners, VIA Architecture

As a follow up to yesterday’s post, here is a “prezi” (online presentation tool) about permaculture. If you haven’t used Prezi before, you can either set it to autoplay, and it will change every 10 seconds (with the option to stop it if it goes too fast), or you can hit the arrows manually to change the screen.

Enjoy!

by Krystal Meiners, Junior Designer at VIA Architecture

Permaculture: permanent agriculture, permanent culture, sustainable gardening, sustainable agriculture, agro-forestry, food forest, ecological design; call it what you like… it’s awesome!

I recently started school again for Ecological Planning and was both excited and overwhelmed by my summer line-up of classes which included Environmental Science and an Introduction to Permaculture; both classes were outstanding. My permaculture class served as a much needed link between the environment, human landscapes, and community sustainability, all of which piggyback on the principles of sustainability in the built realm. Throughout architecture school and in the course of my time at VIA, I have learned how to create sustainable communities through density, infrastructure, street realms, setbacks, massing and so much more. However, I have come to learn that agriculture and food security is an important system that governs community health and success, not as an exception to the built environment, but in addition.

Before taking this class I would often come across articles about urban farming, bioremediation, sustainable site design, community gardening, etc. I was always inspired, but reluctant to file these projects under fringe architecture and urban design experiments. I have learned, however, that this movement towards sustainable landscaping and permaculture has begun to reform industrial agriculture practices around the world and has become increasingly influential in community planning.

Permaculture is sustainable garden and landscape design that focuses on food security, maximizing space and getting the most output from the least input. By taking cues from nature, permaculture gardens exploit the diversity of plants and animals and their ability to grow harmoniously. Rather than using the industrialized agricultural systems of monocropping (growing one crop per farm), permaculture designs use principles of layering and plant partnerships to create food forests that serve both the human consumer and the needs of the plants.

 

The principles of permaculture are founded on how things grow in their natural setting as well as the maturity of ecosystems and the diversity of plants and animals within those ecosystems. While many permaculture gardens would appear “overgrown” or a little on the “wild” side, these gardens actually simulate the patterns found in nature and try to fill as many niches as it can. However, nature doesn’t always produce a habitat that caters to human consumption. Permaculture gardens take the guesswork out of nature by utilizing plants that are used in food, medicine, tea, clothing and other consumer products. These gardens serve multiple functions, leveraging our knowledge and observation of nature to partner these items together in a way that reduces human input.

One of the founding principles of permaculture design is that each component must serve multiple functions, and each function must benefit multiple components. For example: plant partnerships or “guilds” use multiple plants and insect species to help each other grow and need less input from the farmer or gardener (in the form of weeding, tilling, fertilizer, etc.) to remain protected and fruitful. Many of these partnerships are age-old, but became outdated when industrialized farming methods swept the nation. One such guild is the Native American “Three Sisters” garden. Here, corn is planted with beans and squash; each serving the other in its own way. The legume uses the corn stalk to grow, while the squash fixes nitrogen into the soil for the other two plants and creates a ground cover, protecting the soil from erosion and holding in moisture. Adding a fourth “sister” such as a sunflower will also attract bees and other pollinators and in turn will give us yummy seeds. The “Three Sisters” garden respects the properties of each plant in its natural setting, yet yields a great harvest to humans. At the end of the harvest several of the plants are chopped down for in-place mulching to build the soil until the next season.

The goals of permaculture design or ecological design, as some like to call it are to use what you already have and to make the least change for the greatest effect. The principles call for greater observation of site and regional ecosystems, and in turn can change laborious landscapes into productive environments. We can see the effects of permaculture design changing our communities already. In India, permaculture founder Bill Mollison changed a community farm blighted and desertified from monocrop farming and the overuse of pesticides and herbicides, into a lush food forest with all of nature’s principles in place to:

•    keep the soil moist to avoid erosion and improve production
•    attract beneficial animal and insect species
•    use biological and renewable resources and catch and store energy
•    produce food products for a healthy community
•    produce a low input sustainable community agriculture

The images show a similar transformation in Malawai, Fiji.

We can also see permaculture design at work relatively recently in our communities here in the PNW too. Things such as bioswales, bioremediation, and p-patches all help build and beautify our communities and are all under the umbrella of permanent agriculture and permanent culture. It is my hope to bring permaculture principles to the design of livable and sustainable communities that will foster healthy relationships between the environment, the built realm and the public.

Image Credits: Permaculture Garden, Food Forest Layering, Three Sisters Garden, Malawi, Fiji example, Eastlake Bioswale: Krystal Meiners

With the wrap up of the 2009 basketball season, we are proud to have been a sponsor of the Seattle Storm.

We had two opportunities to man the “Go Green” table this summer, which is a great campaign initiated by the Storm to encourage their fans to utilize green living principles in their everyday lives.

We handed out posters encouraging transit, recycled pencils, and organic lettuce seeds that not only included instructions for planting the seeds, but also gave hints for other ways to be green (like taking transit or carpooling to the games). We also collaborated with Yes! Magazine, a local magazine focused on sustainability, by handing out free copies during the game.



We appreciate the relationship that we had throughout the season and wish them the best of luck getting ready for 2010!

by Catherine Calvert, VIA’s Director of Practice + Director of Community Architecture
Sustainable building design is not exactly news. Over the past 30 years, and particularly in the past 10 years, information on how to reduce the energy and resources used in building design, construction, and operation has become increasingly available to the design industry. Building rating systems such as LEED® can assist architects, municipalities, and building owners seeking a common language and understanding about what constitutes sustainable architecture.
By contrast, architects wanting to design transit systems sustainably have few guidelines to follow. Transit systems are, by definition, not buildings. Most systems consist of a collection of infrastructure and dynamic elements – trackway, vehicles, support facilities, and stations, which are often unconditioned environments, open to the elements. The environmental footprint of a transit system goes far beyond the energy and materials expended in building these facilities. There is not much point in minimizing the amount of energy used by a transit station light bulb when the energy needed to operate a system over its 50 or 100 year life outweighs this expenditure by a factor of thousands. It is important that as designers seeking to achieve transit sustainability look beyond the buildings to the system as a whole.
And what is sustainable transit, anyway? Equally important to the facilities are the decisions made about where the system and stations are located. What kind of neighborhoods does the system serve? Does zoning around the stations support compact forms of development that don’t require a car? Is there adequate density and ridership to ensure financial sustainability for the transit system? Does urban design around the stations support safe, attractive pedestrian pathways? Are the transit stations integrated into a mix of uses that meet people’s needs and support varied activity throughout the day?
Furthermore, what aspects of transit vehicle design and operation can be optimized in terms of energy consumption and resource use? How can train design take advantage of advanced technology such as regenerative braking? How can track design use gravity to assist in deceleration as trains approach stations? How can train materials be selected for healthy indoor air quality?
Transit systems around the world are all attempting to answer these questions. A few agencies, notably New York’s MTA, Hong Kong’s MTR, and Portland’s TriMet, have made sustainability a high priority and have been pioneers in the experimental application of new technologies to transit facilities. For the past five years, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) has held an annual conference dedicated to the discussion of Transit Sustainability, most recently in Salt Lake City in August 2009. These discussions have lead to the recognition of a need for shared knowledge and the development of a set of best practices specifically addressing the needs of the transit industry.
Out of this has grown an APTA initiative led by Tian Feng, District Architect for the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency (BART), to develop a Compendium of Sustainable Transit Practices. Developed over a period of three years as an evolving brainstorm session between key transit agency representatives and private industry advisers from all over North America, these guidelines are designed to offer best practice and case studies that will be helpful to transit agencies of all modes (bus, ferry, train, light rail) and of all scales. VIA’s Founding Principal, Alan Hart and I have been key contributors to the development of this document, participating in numerous working sessions and providing editorial research to support this effort. We strongly believe that the sharing of this type of knowledge will shorten the learning curve by transit agencies seeking to build new systems or to make existing ones more sustainable.
The first draft of the Compendium of Sustainable Transit practices can be found on the APTA website:

by Catherine Calvert, VIA’s Director of Practice + Director of Community Architecture and
Angie Tomisser, VIA’s Interior Designer

As designers, it’s fascinating to watch the approach to design as portrayed on national television:

  • Give us a week, and we’ll build you a house from scratch – not only shiny and new, but customized to your exact hobbies and tastes!
  • Go to your neighbor’s house and rip out all the things you don’t like – and replace them with the things you like – they’ll be so surprised!
  • Just watch me and copy everything I do – wow your friends with your excellent taste and originality!
  •  

It reminds us of other types of reality shows – the ones where people drop a dozen pounds in the hour that you’re watching – except that what you don’t see is the 50 hours they had to spend in the gym to burn those calories – literally, the heavy lifting that goes on behind the scenes.

Now we’re all for the promotion of good design, and the way in which an improved environment can affect people’s lives and wellbeing. What we’re wary of, and are starting to hear in discussions with various non-designers, is people’s perceptions of what designers do as “picking good stuff” or being able to instantaneously create a vision of how a space should function, look and feel. We wish it were as easy as it appears on reality TV.

The process of design involves its own form of heavy lifting. Good architecture doesn’t happen instantaneously, but rather is the result of thoughtful, diligent consideration of design problems, testing of ideas, and gradually closing in on a thorough, sensible solution. Even the simplest transformation deserves time to think it through and to get it right. It’s hard to describe this to someone without appearing to be mystifying the design process. It’s not mystical … but it needs a particular set of skills that go beyond the superficial. No great piece of architecture is simply about looking good.

As a society we have become so hooked on instant gratification. Buy that new car — even if you can’t afford those payments – who cares, you’ll look so good driving it! If there is any silver lining in our current economic downturn, it’s that maybe people are thinking twice about the quick hit. An investment in carefully considered quality, of saving for what we really have thought about, of taking the time to make careful decisions – this can’t be a bad thing.

Do you think we could make this catch on in reality TV land?

by Silas Archambault, MA Planning Candidate, School of Community and Regional Planning (UBC)

Public space: Urban areas where a variety of activities can take place. Panhandling, performances, social encounters, picnics, street vending, and the occasional zombie march. These dynamic, multi-use spaces define a city. They are crucial in building community cohesion, and are a major determinant of neighborhood livability. We are used to thinking of streets, parks, squares, and libraries as entirely public. However, a discussion of public space often excludes the one where we have the most frequent and close interactions: on transit.

Each day, hundreds of thousands of people take transit in the greater Vancouver region. Some are pushed up into the armpits of complete strangers. Others politely ignore the fellow passengers sitting opposite and read the newspaper. Every once in a while, a few people will erupt into conversation. Of course, Friday night on the bus will be a cacophony of conversation and probably a few not-too-discreet beers. The SkyTrain has even hosted a few dance parties.

When sitting on a silent bus, every body wired with an iPod, you cannot help but think of the possibility. This is one of the few spaces that gathers a diverse population. Better yet, it holds them as a captive audience – in close quarters – until their stop. There is so much potential for social learning, new ideas, civic engagement, perhaps even a pleasant ride! Ohh, the social possibilities.

Perhaps surprisingly enough, I am not the only one thinking about this. October 30th, the Cooperative Auto Network is hosting TransportCamp to discuss how transportation can be a catalyst for more vibrant communities. This will bring together 150 people to generate new ideas. Darrin Nordahl just published My Kind of Transit which provides a number of case studies of transit systems in the USA which are actually pleasant to ride. There is even a growing repository on social research in transportation.

There is no doubt that transit plays an important role in community. The very way it is designed, lighting, seating, visibility, location, to name a few aspects that contribute to a more socially positive experience. There is also a lot of ‘soft’ infrastructure that can be done to encourage a positive social space.

TransLink services are taking steps in the right direction: Morning commuters on the #22 enjoy trivia and the chance to win candy bars. I managed to bag a Mars bar almost by accident. You can occasionally catch a musician at a downtown SkyTrain station. Back in February, TransLink hosted an I Love Transit night which capped off I Love Transit week. This brought together a surprisingly large plethora of transit nerds who could tell you the schedules of obscure community shuttle routes without blinking. Props also to Jhen of the Buzzer Blog, which brings transparency and personality to TransLink. The greater Vancouver region is taking steps towards making its transit system a livable and dynamic part of the public realm.

Transit can bring people together. Just look at the massive political force of Rider Unions. The Los Angeles Bus Rider Union (LABRU) is an amazing example of collective action and they all came together on (and about) transit! TransLink has the potential to tap into a community of riders for support, a community that will flourish if recognized, nourished, and heard. There needs to be a sense that transit is a place, rather then just the space between. Transit can be a place where citizens learn, interact, and celebrate.

With a showcase trolley system running from Granville island to Main Street, which had to be imported from Europe to get the right equipment, it is clear we ‘get it’ about the experience of transit. If it’s not pleasant, people won’t ride. With this in mind, it is possible to take the steps to provide a complete mobility experience. For one of the most livable regions in the world, let’s challenge ourselves to set a positive example.