A few thoughts before we go…

Not surprisingly, another semester of our undergraduate careers has ended, pushing us that much closer to when we will have to deal with these issues in the real world. This course has been an interesting survey of a wide variety of case studies that deal with the issues that we have been studying. In some ways, it seems like we are in a completely different place from where we started, but the progression to this point makes sense. We began with a large scale view at what it means to think in systems and how this can be applied to nearly any discipline, not just architecture.

While on this point of thinking in systems, I wanted to express some concerns about our system of reviews. It seems slightly counterproductive to have these intensive reviews at the very end of the semester when we can no longer change or add to the work we have done after receiving criticism. The idea of everyone in the school displaying their work at the same time for the purpose of comparison is certainly relevant and helpful, however, it would be nice if this new system of rotating juries and bringing in intensive super juries might serve more useful at a slightly earlier date in the semester. Reviews can be encouraging in which case, going back to work is exciting if you have new ideas to work with, but if these ideas are left latent, they can be lost. Also, speaking of systems, if we are going to have everyone pin up at the same time and use almost all of the pinning space in the school, we need to readdress the lighting system that accesses each of these points, because some projects end up in dim corners or some even less fortunate ones end up taped to a temporary board with drafting dots. Perhaps this could be a project for the A school, not a major renovation, but a rethinking of the pinup spaces.

But I digress. where we have ended up is with a head full (and a blog full) of thoughts on what we have studied and hopefully an idea of what sort of systems work to achieve a coherent and functioning building so that in our next studio we can begin to incorporate these ideas into our designs from the beginning. I think the structure of this class is unique. One might expect there to be a midterm and a final exam in this class with some sort of calculations to be done to determine light intensity or heat flows. I like the way that it is structured, however, for it is much more like an extension of studio where we can observe case studies and experimental methods and apply them to our own experimental projects.  It also doesn’t feel like too much of an ending now since there is no cumulative final to cram for and we can look forward to seeing these systems again in the Spring.


The Last Lecture Part II

Another idea brought up in Bill’s lecture on Thursday is something I incorporated into my project last semester but that I left behind in this project and wish to carry forward. The idea is not necessarily concrete, but I see it as designing the entire space of the site, both interior and exterior, and refraining from pushing the boundaries of the building envelope to the edge of the site, but incorporating the existing landscape or some sort of semi-exterior space into the design of the built space.

It is seen here in the Institute for Forestry and Nature Research in the Netherlands (fortunately). Although it appears at first glance that the building extends to the far reaches of its allotted space and that there is not any penetration of the exterior landscape into the interior of the building, that is not the case. As Bill mentioned, the plan almost seems inverted to us because the major spaces, which would typically be occupied by building space is actually the semi-exterior space that serves as both a visually and emotionally appealing place, and a potential space for mediating temperature and air quality within the building.

This incorporates the idea of the double building envelope into the design and provides an alternative to a space that is strictly interior or strictly exterior. Again, this technology is nothing radical, nor does it need to be. The strategies are simple, yet present an building that is elegant in appearance and function in terms of the systems we have been discussing all semester.  When discussing materials, we see that a simple palette of wood, metal, and glass make up the majority of the building. The glass and metal envelope establish the first boundary between exterior and semi-exterior in a simple system of operable louvers while the wood sets up the boundary between semi-exterior and interior. Most likely the wood would not have to be treated or maintained as rigorously as it might be without the envelope surrounding it.

For my assignment four, I explored the Earthship idea which incorporates into its design a garden that can be used not only for the mediation of temperature and air quality but to produce at least a portion of the food that would be consumed by occupants of the building. These gardens in the Forestry Institute resemble those of Earthship. I’m sure this idea is being explored in other systems thinking projects as well for it is the idea of reducing the drain on the systems that bring food to a site. Perhaps that is something that could be incorporated into the Institute’s semi-exterior space as well.

In my second semester studio in the spring, mine and several other projects incorporated the idea of entering some sort of transitional space such as these ones rather than simply entering the building directly from the street. The reviews were positive for an institution-like program for it removes the idea of a hard boundary which one must choose to cross and allows for an inviting space that doesn’t necessarily have to be programmed, but can be a place simply for enjoying.

The Last Lecture

It’s funny how we discover “precedents” for our studio projects after we have designed our building. The first example Bill showed us in class on Thursday reminded me of my building this semester. The idea for my building consisted of having two masses pulled apart to reveal the void between. The sectional qualities of my building resemble that of the Genzyme Headquarters in Massachusetts.

I do wish that I had been able to study this building more before reaching charrette. One concern for my building was that there would not be enough light that would be able to penetrate to the lower floors of the building. I had attempted to remedy this by making my theater, which was suspended in this space, translucent, to allow light to permeate into the lower space. Because this was not well received in my review, I would have like instead to incorporate this system of rotating and hanging mirrors into my building in order to catch the light and transmit it down in unpredictable ways rather than gradually getting darker as it descends.

This was not the only thing unresolved in my studio projects. As Bill mentioned to one of my classmates in their final review, the question that sparks our idea at the beginning of a projects should be based in research or in a field that requires research that we can then delve into. It is apparent from this project that there was an interest in energy consumption and availability that was researched and integrated into the design of the building. This initial research then translated into researched that helped develop the design of the mobile light system and the louvers that allow light and air to enter strategically. For our final Systems assignments that were incorporated into our studio work, many of us had key points that we felt we need to incorporate into our buildings in some way or another and perhaps fudge a few details to make them work (those mainly being the stack effect and light-sensitive louvers. But it is interesting, and slightly overwhelming, to see how the amount of work that truly needs to go into designing systems like these both at the scale of the entire building or  at the scale of a small, defined space. Hopefully, future semesters will involve beginning the design process with thinking of strategies like these.

Like Kevin and Carrie Burke mentioned in their lecture, it is about working at different scales and working with both advanced technologies and relatively simple ones. As I was critiqued for in my review, major, defining elements in a design should perform multiple functions. This idea of multipurpose use also draws all the way back to the Meadows reading from the beginning of the semester. The chandelier is beautiful, serving as a central occupying element that draws the eyes of the occupants, but is not simply ornament, it addresses the idea of light and energy use in the building in a simple and experimental way.


It was exciting to see the work from a smaller-scale local firm in class last week. They seemed to be the perfect firm to guest lecture for this class, according to their opening treatise. As we have only completed three studios in school so far, each with very different program requirements, it is difficult to build a statement like this one that acts a thesis for an entire firm and encompasses all the works completed by it. It is likely that most of us have carried a unique design aesthetic through our three semesters, but nothing that can be explained so concisely yet clearly. Perhaps, over time, as we continue to integrate the systems we have studied in this class, we will be able to develop some sort of guiding premise like this one to inform our work.

I also appreciate that both the bridge between ancient and future and the bridge across different scales was made apparent at the beginning of their presentation. It immediately indicates that their firm is an experimental one that combines old technologies with new and that their design treatise is applied not only to small scale houses but to larger works as well. The idea of zooming out to the scale of region brings us back to things that we explored in Assignment 3. We were looking at the sources of energy and the distances that they had to travel to reach us, sometimes spanning across entire states. This first image calls up the idea that seemingly different regions, such as the Appalachians and the Chesapeake are connected to each other and designing in a central location like Charlottesville requires somehow acknowledging that bridge between regions and understanding how design can affect the flow of resources from the mountains to the Bay. Zooming in to the scale of the molecule brings up the idea of the properties of materials that we choose to put in out buildings. Since we have dedicated much of the semester to thermal properties and heat transfer, we can translate this to the idea of insulation qualities of materials or their ability to let in wind and light.

My favorite work by this firm was their home and studio space which they literally use as an experiment for their testing of systems and technologies. I appreciate their comment that you cannot truly know the result of something until you build it and see how it works. We spend most of our time in computers these days which is valuable in some ways but cannot tell us everything we need to know. I actually at first thought that the first image of their home was a rendering. (It might be, I actually still can’t tell).

Even building models can sometimes not be telling enough. It brings up the issue of scale again and whether or not a model at such a small scale compared to the real building would truly be able to mimic the light conditions seen here. It also carries forward their idea of bridging ancient and new ways of building. The position of an opening to catch light at key times of the year is an seen in many ancient examples yet, this house is evident of a much more modern approach to architecture. I wonder if any critcs in our school would say that the system for the roof structure that follows the sun is too literal. Even if so, it’s all right because a project is never finished.

Assignment 5

My studio project this semester began by analyzing a piece of artwork and abstracting it into a built form. When I selected my piece of artwork, had no idea that it might somehow play into the systems of my building. The piece of artwork I selected was a wood inlay depiction of a canyon. The ideas that I drew from that first project into my building was the idea of a canyon as a mass that was once interlocked and was then pulled apart. In my building, this has resulted in mass pulled apart to reveal the interstitial spaces and structure between. These interstitial spaces lend themselves to the idea of a double building envelope that addresses the entrance of light, heat, and air into the building.

My first poster is meant to compare light and air in the summer and winter. These are longitudinal sections that reveal most of the programmatic space of the building. Spaces marked 1 denote the Artist-in-Residence “pod” apartments. Because these are living spaces I thought they should be positioned such that direct sunlight was available, but not forced, for as much of the day as possible. They are located on the South side of the building so they receive optimal sun exposure. Louvers are located on the south side of the pods that can be adjusted to the angle of the sun throughout the day and throughout the year. During the summer, they can be angled to block the majority of the light and heat when it is unwanted. In the winter, the louvers can be opened to receive as much light as possible. Also located in the pods are light wells that bring the sunlight in and reflect it down to the lower level pods and the lobby space below. The light would enter the pods through frosted glass rather than transparent which would allow for a soft, glowing light rather than harshly reflected light to enter the space.

Spaces marked 2 denote the galleries. Because gallery spaces require limited direct sunlight, I placed a trombe wall on the South side of the galleries to both control the amount of direct Southern light that enters the gallery spaces as well as to provide a mass for solar heat gain. The south facing wall may absorb the solar energy of the sun and disperse it throughout the galleries. At the northern end of the gallery spaces is the open “chimney” that allows for stack ventilation. The cool air that enters the building at the lower entry level is pulled through the open spaces at the bottom of the building toward the chimney at the back. As the air warms and rises out of the chimney, it pulls more cool air through the building. This is aided by the prevailing winds from the South during the summer. During the winter, the prevailing winds are from the Northwest and are blocked by the large mass of the gallery spaces. The number 3 denotes general circulation spaces and the 4 denotes the theater that “floats” in the center of the building. This is meant to reflect and disperse the light that filters down from above and the large angled wall that cuts through the center space is meant to help in this process. The angles for the sections are derived from the altitude of the sun on the summer solstice at 3pm (approximately 70 degrees) and on the winter solstice at 3pm (approximately 15 degrees).

My second poster zooms into certain smaller scale spaces in the building, particularly the Artist-in-Residence pod. In addition to the manipulation of light I mentioned earlier, the pods are also meant to allow air to circulate through the space. The air can enter on the South side of the pod and, because the North side of the pod is open to the center of the building, the air can circulate through the canyon-like space. The light wells that pierce through the pods also serve as miniature chimneys that can draw warm air up and out and cool air into the pods. The floor of the pods also serves as the thermal mass that can retain the heat from the direct solar gain that is optimized during the winter months and disperse it selectively. The bottom left section shows a pod in relation to the adjacent studio spaces. The studio space is an example of the interstitial space that allows for the double envelope that creates an indirect transition from the outside to the inside. The inner studio space is separate from the outdoors but can be influenced by the outdoor elements as allowed by the interstitial space. Sometimes referred to as a loggia, the interstitial space can be used to regulate the indoor climate. The outermost wall can be opened to allow air and light in depending on the time of day and year. This interstitial space can be occupied either as its own space or as a continuation of the adjacent studio space.

The final diagram simply shows the plan of the building in relation to the azimuth of the sun through the year. Because the interstitial spaces are on the east and west of the building, the range of the arc of the sun at different times of the year determine the amount of light that either needs to enter these spaces or be blocked from them.

The Basement Tour and Air Conditioning Thoughts

Last week, we toured the enigmatic A-school basement to get a look at the systems that  create the building we all know and love. In our conceptual studio projects it is hard to imagine incorporating the complex web of ducts and machinery that carry water and conditioned air throughout our abstract designs. The tour reaffirmed my aspirations toward designing only at small scales at which these massive technological interventions can be avoided. It seems slightly ridiculous to have this large scale operation going on in the basement when the building temperatures aren’t even comfortable for most of the year. But it is reflective of what we have come to expect in terms of comfort. As Bill mentioned in class, we have a narrow range of adaptability when in comes to temperature and that has influenced the design of public buildings like the A-school for the last half-century.

I found this New York Times article which talks about the U.S. demand for air conditioning in comparison to other countries and how we got here in the first place. Another article I found on ArchDaily talks about the increasing size and population of cities and the resultant disconnect from nature that began as far back as the Agricultural Revolution and significantly increased with the Industrial Revolution.



We have grown comfortable in our defiance of nature and also less resilient. It is difficult to imagine returning to a world without air conditioning. Instead, it should be thought of as progressing to a higher level of adaptability. Some of the evidence in these articles offers hope that this is possible. Some disasters like a nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan have reduced the amount of energy available which has forced major buildings to reduce their use of air conditioning. It is unfortunate to think that it always takes a disaster to invoke change, especially since we tend to revert back to the old ways once the disaster is forgotten. But these incidents do show that we can overcome the conditions to which we have become accustomed.

Because these conditions have arisen through the built world, the solution is in design. It’s interesting to see a building like the A-school that seems to be stuck between two eras. Designed in the middle of the 20th century, the school seems to be trying to be modern but is held back by the plastering of red brick on the face. It is also held back by the conventional use of air conditioning systems that create seal the building off from the outside world. We often open the windows year round to try to balance the indoor temperature with the outdoor. One of the items mentioned in the article was that often buildings cannot even operate without their air conditioning systems because of the poor air quality and need for circulation or because windows are not operable. As the New York Times article mentions, just as the mantra for light was “the more the better,” so it is for air conditioning. However, that idea is changing for light and therefore it can change for air conditioning as well. The approaches we have seen in class towards using the natural systems will be the solution. The Earthship projects that I studied in my research project use no air conditioning systems at all, only the natural wind and sun patterns channeled by the desin.

These are design issues that we will be addressing in our future projects. If for no other reason, we should address them so we don’t have to answer a critic by saying “Oh, I did that because I needed the HVAC system to fit.”

Assignment 4 – Earthship Systems

The term Earthship describes a particular type of house that, in the terms of Michael Reynolds, “interfaces” with the earth rather than combats it as is the case with most traditionally built structures. Although there is a specific organization founded by Reynolds, known as Earthship Biotecture, that constructs these houses the Earthship is meant to be a house that can be built by a layperson without having to receive the permission of the organization. Earthships are presented as highly sustainable structures. Therefore I decided to focus my research on the merit of this claim in relation to specific areas. The areas I chose to focus on were the employment of natural and passive systems within the design, the reuse of materials, and the social accessibility of the Earthship.

Though many Earthships have been built, there is a standard method and module of construction amongst them. They can be easily distilled into their most fundamental components and described by the concept of “interfacing” with the Earth. Earthships exemplify many of the concepts we have discussed in class, namely, that of designing to exist within and as a part of existing natural systems rather resisting these systems by employing manmade infrastructure. Reynolds clearly defines the systems we use in traditional in his book, Earthship, as well as the ways in which Earthship design addresses these systems: Energy production and distribution (primarily electricity and heating and cooling), water, sewage, gas, food, materials, and monetary systems. Reynolds argues that each of these systems which are currently met by large-scale manmade infrastructure can be met instead by designing to meet natural conditions. For the purposes of this assignment, I categorized these systems into the previously mentioned areas of study, although of course, there some overlap. Natural systems encompass heating and cooling, food, and water. Reuse of materials also includes water as well as materials and sewage, and monetary systems falls under social accessibility. Electrical energy production will be discussed separately. An important concept in an Earthship that is made evident by the overlap of these systems is the idea of multi-functional spaces and systems rather than isolated elements.

Evaluating the sustainability of the Earthship equates to understanding the processes that allow for the house to operate off the grid. We have studied many of these systems in class. The primary system of the Earthship is that of capturing and storing energy from the Earth and the Sun. Orientation and placement of individual Earthship modules determines its ability to do this. A key requirement of an Earthship is that it is built into the Earth rather than constructed above it. The purpose of this is to provide the house with as much thermal insulation as possible. The greater the thermal mass of the Earthship, the greater its ability to retain heat and disperse it over a longer period of time. This ensures that the interior of the house maintains a relatively constant temperature regardless of fluctuating temperatures outside.


This placement within the ground is coupled with the construction strategy of the module. Each module has a thermal U-shaped structure made from used tires packed with earth paired with a south facing wall of windows that creates the greenhouse. The glass wall of the greenhouse is sloped according to the geographic location of the particular Earthship. For New Mexico, the state in which the original Earthships were designed, the slope of the greenhouse is 30 degrees in order to capture the direct light of the sun at noon on the winter solstice. This direct sunlight will allow the thermal mass of the Earthship to gain and retain the maximum amount of heat on the day of the year with the least amount of sun. It will also reflect much of the direct sunlight on the summer solstice in order to keep the Earthship module cool during the summer. Earthships located farther north will want to have less of a slope on the greenhouse wall in order to allow the direct sunlight of a lower sun into the space. Earthships in a hot and humid climate will need the glass wall to face north to avoid extreme solar gain.


Another important factor in the climate of the interior is the circulation of air through the space. Vents in the lower part of the greenhouse wall (or in some cases air ducts located underground) will draw air into the space. A skylight is always located at the top in order to draw the hot air out of the space and continue to draw in cool air, keeping the space cool on hot days. Air also plays an important factor in terms of the food system. A concept that is central to the idea of the Earthship as independent of existing infrastructure is that of being able to produce its own food. Obviously this concept is dependent on having a functioning greenhouse that can produce a sufficient amount of food as well as create an environment in which the inhabitant is in direct relationship with the photosynthetic process. This also exemplifies the idea of multi-functional space. The greenhouse is both the source of food and the means by which the house gains heat and ventilation.


Water is another essential system that typically relies on large scale infrastructure. The Earthship employs a rainwater collection technique that catches runoff from the roof in a rain barrel. The water is then filtered through a sand filter into a storage tank from which it can be pumped into the house. Once the water is used in the house, the greywater can also be used to water the garden. Rather than employing the typical wastewater treatment systems, some Earthships have adopted a system similar to the living machine. A living machine is based on the natural process of cleaning water. Certain aqueous plants and ground conditions are suitable for the aggregation of the bacteria that break down waste. The living machine recreates these conditions in order to handle wastewater in a decentralized manner. In the case of the Earthship, the water that comes out of this method of treatment can be reused both in the house to flush toilets and in the garden to water plants.


The treatment and reuse of water leads to the concept of recycling materials. When first brainstorming ideas for materials to be used in the Earthship, Reynolds first came up with the criteria that the material had to provide the appropriate amount of thermal mass, provide the structural strength needed to support a structure that is partially buried in the ground, and that was also readily available to the common person. A used car tire packed with earth was his solution. Not only does this meet the criteria, but it also provides a use for the nearly infinite number of used car tires that have no function and cannot be broken down and is readily available in most areas. The tires act as the core of the thermal walls and would then be coated by some sort of local material, perhaps sod or concrete. The materials that are used to build the roof and greenhouse structure are meant to be local and readily available.


This addresses the final area of study of the social accessibility of Earthships. Because Earthships are made from relatively inexpensive materials that are readily available, they are can be an attainable goal for most people. The method of construction of an Earthship is also meant to circumvent many processes of traditional construction. They are meant to be constructed by the people who will inhabit them.

One criticism of the Earthship involves this issue. The main source of energy for the house is meant to be photovoltaic panels installed on the roof. Although this allows the Earthship to be off the grid, it negates the concept of affordability. We have also discussed in class the fact that photovoltaic panels require energy to produce than they will make up for in providing energy to a home. What this really brings up is the issue of adaptability of the inhabitants. We have discussed how the successful systems are those that are resilient and adaptable rather than efficient and unyielding. David Sheen responds to these criticisms by saying that an unwillingness to live with limited supplies of water and electricity is incompatible with the self-sufficiency of these buildings. This goes along with the willingness to take on the intense labor that is required to build one’s own Earthship. Clearly the lifestyle, the labor, and the aesthetic that are all involved with inhabiting an Earthship is an issue in terms of implementing this type of self-sufficient housing. Perhaps the photovoltaic issue means that the inhabitants should also adapt to live without an unlimited supply of electricity. The sustainability of the Earthship does not equate to meeting the current expectations of housing. To adapt to the lifestyle required by a housing model like this one will require a fundamental shift in the way we view housing from viewing it as a series of unrelated events to viewing it as a system of interconnections.