Archive for the ‘Sustainable Materials’ Category

California Governor Jerry Brown, aka Governor “Moonbeam,” took on his many critics at the 2012 Greenbuild in San Francisco, saying the people who originally called him that are “no longer around, while I still am.” To huge laughs, he said “apparently, moonbeams have more durability than other beings.” In a rousing speech designed to rally the green building community, Brown walked the crowd through his profound “eco” philosophy, while also laying out a path for attacking climate change in California and across the U.S.

In ancient Greek, Brown said “eco” means house. As an example, “economy” means “rules of the house.”  “Logos” means “lord, god, or the deep principles or patterns of nature.” So ecologos or “ecology is the bigger house we all live in – the environment. It’s more fundamental than economics. Economics sits within ecology. Not the other way around. This means through our economy, we can’t repeal the laws of nature.” Furthermore, humanity “can’t mock the laws of nature or thumb our noses at the climatic system. We have to learn to work with nature.”

Unfortunately, the reality is that climate change is the “least important item on the agenda.” Climate change gets some lip service from politicians, but is still seen as a “little too out there” so politicians focus on the day-to-day issues of “crime, taxes, jobs, roads.”

The only positive trend may be that “we know far more than we did 50 years ago about the climate.” With Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, which launched the modern environmental movement, and the Earth Summit, the 1992 UN conference in Rio, which effectively launched the sustainability movement, “there has been progress.” Today, scientific academies all around the world have independently expressed themselves on the climate, saying that “long-term, there are irreversible consequences.” The Union of Concerned Scientists even recently wrote a letter, a “warning to humanity,” saying that “people are on a collision course with nature.”

In California, Brown has pursued an ambitious agenda, which builds on a legacy of environmental action. Under Brown’s first term as governor, California was the first state to create fuel efficiency standards for appliances, leading the charge across the U.S. Now, the state has the only functioning cap and trade system for reducing carbon emissions in the union. As part of this effort, California is now quantifying greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and moving down the emissions quotas each year. “Year after year, this has required a collaboration among powerful forces.”

Today, California also has the most number of green buildings in the U.S., two times more than Texas, its nearest competitor. The state is also putting “more investment into renewable energy than anyone else. We are not waiting.” Still, Brown wants to go further: “We we need to get to zero-net energy buildings across the state. We need to get to a surplus of energy.” The state is now aiming for all residential buildings to be zero-net by 2020, and all commercial buildings to reach that goal by 2050. In addition to achieving net-zero buildings, Brown wants all of these buildings to be healthy. “People want healthy buildings — they want indoor spaces to be as healthy as outdoors.”

To move forward the effort to make indoor spaces healthier, Scott Horst, senior vice president at the U.S. Green Building Council and the man in charge of LEED, said the upcoming LEED version 4 will be moving forward with a controversial effort to provide credits for those buildings that “disclose chemicals in materials.” The effort, apparently, created “blow back” by groups aligned with some chemical and building product manufacturers. The result was an onslaught of letters from Senators and Congressional representatives “threatening that the federal government and state governments would stop using LEED as a rating system and benchmark.” Comparing USGBC’s efforts to Rachel Carson’s efforts to end the use of DDT, the chemicals in sprayed agricultural fertilizers, Horst said the backlash reflected “old patterns of industry versus the environmental movement.” Horst said “we can’t have an us versus them approach. We have to have business at the table.”

As William McDonough, one of the world’s leading thinkers on materials and ecology, showed, at least some businesses have gotten the message and are joining commercial and environmental goals. Announcing the official launch of his Cradle to Cradle (C2C) rating system, which “assesses a product’s safety to humans and the environment and design for future life cycles,” McDonough brought out a number of leading building product manufacturers to talk about how they use C2C, a “fulcrum for change,” to do business differently now, more in tune with the environment. The overall goals: to treat “materials as nutrients” and use these materials to achieve targets related to “revitalization, renewable energy, water stewardship and breaking social barriers.”

McDonough said his C2C approach is critical because “there are now 2,500 chemicals in mothers’ milk.” He asked, “is this our intention, to poison each other? How about the intention to improve our shared health and well-being?” The movement for healthier materials is “fundamentally a question of social justice. Do we want to tyrannize the next generation?”

Image credit:  Governor Jerry Brown / Wikipedia

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Jeff Stein, AIA, is president of the Cosanti Foundation. Stein has taught at Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD), Wentworth Institute, and was dean of Boston Architectural College for seven years. He attended his first building workshop at Arcosanti in 1975.

Arcosanti is a living, experimental laboratory for the “arcology” theories of Italian architect, Paolo Soleri, who recently won the National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement. Arcology, a literal joining of the words architecture and ecology, calls for a new alternative to today’s “hyperconsumption,” a self-reliant urban system that functions like a super-organism. How are the theories of arcology working out in practice out here in the desert at Arcosanti?

They’re working out really well but at a very small level. Arcosanti, some 42 years after it first was begun in 1970, is just a tiny fragment of what it intends to become — a town for a few thousand people. Right now, we’re at a population of a little less than 100. It’s pretty easy at that small scale to join architecture and ecology, but we have in mind some bigger ideas. While they certainly come from Paolo Soleri, they also come from Henry David Thoreau.

Before I moved to Arcosanti this past year, my wife and I lived near Walden Pond for about a decade. The contrast between that place and this is pretty interesting, but the ideas that Thoreau and Soleri both have had are pretty congruous. Thoreau said, “Give me a wildness no civilization can endure,” which isn’t quite what we’re after exactly, but you could understand his attitude back then. There is wildness that no civilization can endure. Instead what we’re after is trying to create the beginnings of a civilization that wildness can endure.

Here at Arcosanti we’re only building on a few acres of a 4,000 acre land preserve. Some 3,985 of those acres are intended to remain wild. While at the center there isn’t a group of hermits but a lively cultural center. Arcosanti is meant for a few thousand people– not just as retirees living in apartments who have to drive 20 miles for groceries — but a living, working community whose architecture is gaining some light and heat in the wintertime and shading itself in the summertime, and whose solar greenhouses are recycling organic waste and growing food for the population and producing heat energy to power the town itself.

You mentioned that the entire Arcosanti site is settled within an invaluable cultural landscape, including ancient pueblo dwellings and rock drawings. How does this historic landscape shape what you are practicing here today?

It’s a fascinating and historic landscape, one that has been populated for thousands of years, and yet there’s almost no trace of the population of literally thousands of people, who over many, many years, have lived on this same spot where we’re sitting right now for this interview. It’s always been that way. I’m thinking now of a Spanish gentleman explorer, Alvar de Vaca, whose gallion was washed ashore near Galveston, Texas, around 1528. He and two of his companions walked around Texas. They went up into New Mexico back down to the Rio Grande in Mexico, between 1528 and 1536. They were never on their own by themselves ever in those eight years. They were always on well-trodden paths. There were trails. They were always well taken care of by people in villages and communities that they happened upon. It was an entirely settled landscape, and yet there’s almost no trace of those settlers at this time– only another 500 years later.

We’re trying to be cognizant of the historic landscape and preserve almost all of it. We can find out some things about the people who lived here before based on the little amount of ruins and petroglyphs and signs of their civilization that are still here, but we’re also somewhat trying to use them as a model for behavior. We’re not paving everything over with concrete and asphalt, and we’re not pumping all the oil out or digging all the coal out or transforming the landscape, except in a very tiny place where the center of this urban experiment, Arcosanti, is meant to be constructed.

Arcosanti uses just 25 acres of its 4,000-acre compound. The idea is to show visitors how a compact community looks when it lives in a landscape, but doesn’t sprawl out or take it over. The built Arcosanti site is 15 acres, with much of that landscaped. How does the landscape architecture reflect the theories of arcology? What are the benefits of the landscape you use?

The built landscape here is a working landscape. It’s not meant just to be viewed or walked through in a passive sort of way, but really functions, and relates to the buildings that it surrounds. The buildings are all about connection. Many of them have pretty rigorous curved shapes, and even some of them are in the form of the apse, a quarter of a sphere that when facing south, can shade itself in the summertime, and gather light and heat from the low winter sun. That curved form provides a really interesting social space in which people can experience each other. They can see each other work, people walking by. All these buildings at Arcosanti are about connecting people to each other and to a place.

The landscape architecture here isn’t trying as it has to do in many cities to soften the hard-edge built landscape or humanize it in some way. It is actually an outgrowth of it. A couple generations ago, Frank Lloyd Wright worked very hard in blurring the distinctions between inside and outside of his buildings. Even in his most modest houses, the Usonian houses, he would do things like drop a glass wall directly into a flower bed. The glass would extend to a foundation underneath the flower bed, but there are flowers growing inside. A big overhang would extend maybe six feet from the line of that glass wall so it was hard to tell if you were inside or outside. The landscape was making its way into the building, and yet your experience was making its way out of it. Paolo Soleri, the founder of Arcosanti, spent a year and a half working with Frank Lloyd Wright and took some of those interesting ideas away from his time with Wright.

The apse is attempting to construct a building that doesn’t separate you from your surroundings. The way it doesn’t do that is the fourth wall of the building is nonexistent. The apse provides shelter in which you can do most of your living and working out of doors year round in this climate: 3,700 feet, American Southwest. It works with the sun and seasons. The surrounding landscape becomes a part of your actual living space. You feel connected to the living things that are part of the landscape and to the landforms that have drawn you to this place.

Where we touch the earth with our architecture and landscape architecture, we really transform it into this urban condition of Arcosanti, but, otherwise, we’re leaving it alone entirely so that historic landscape that surrounds this place is in its natural form. Just lately, a film crew from Canada was here doing a piece from Canadian television about nature deficit disorder among young people in Western civilization. It’s a real and interesting issue in which young people aren’t outdoors, or if they are, they’re in this gridded rectilinear urban environment in which they don’t get a sense of seasons, plant life, or the patterns that nature provides. Back with Alvar de Vaca in Galveston, Texas, nature had always been the home of humans. We’re trying to rediscover what that means for us in miniaturized, densely-populated urban conditions that integrate nature and nature’s patterns into the living space.

The dense urban core also includes some fascinating public spaces– amphitheaters, plazas, streets, and gardens. How has Soleri and his designers approached the landscape architecture in the denser, more trafficked areas?

In the denser areas, there are moments where there are native plants growing right in front of somebody’s doorstep or trees that are grown for shade or for their fruit here and pretty well-tended, but, otherwise, it’s the desert areas or hardscape. In the tradition of an Italian hill town in which there aren’t streets and roads and parking lots within the populated townscape, there are pedestrian paths and stairways and sidewalks that are going through, but they’re hardscaped.

You can sit down almost anywhere. The walls of buildings are often designed so that they function as outdoor bleachers. The roofs of most buildings are accessible and you can get on top of them. There’s a little bit of roof gardening going on, but we don’t really have any substantial green roofs at Arcosanti yet. We have quite a few places that are earth-sheltered. We do harvest all the rainwater from our roofs. They slope at a really slight angle so that water can run off into cisterns. We use that for landscape watering.

Since the 1970s, the city has only grown. In fact, it seems to be constantly evolving with a whole new set of projects just this year. Can you talk about the new “greenhouse apron” prototype? How does this help the community reach its goals related to food production?

Arcosanti is in a really interesting landscape: the high desert of central Arizona at about 3,700 feet elevation, just on the edge of the Sonora Desert. It’s interesting in that about 2.5 billion people on the earth live in desert landscapes. That’s the first interesting thing. The second one is that while we’re the water planet, it appears that we’re becoming the desert planet pretty quickly, too, in that one third of all the deserts in the world have happened since 1900, mostly as a result of deforestation and overgrazing and humans drawing down water tables.

When we get to solve a problem for Arcosanti, we’re solving it for quite a large segment of the earth’s population. One of those problems is growing food in a desert. They call it a desert for a reason. We only get 15 inches of rainfall a year here at Arcosanti. It’s beautiful, there are canyons; there are flat plains. It looks like you could just plow that with a tractor, and start growing corn. In fact, you can’t do anything of the sort.

We’ve turned to greenhouses, an architectural solution for growing food. You don’t have to have thousands of acres of cropland out there to produce food for thousands of people. You can grow it very intensively in solar greenhouses, and in that case, it’s grown right on the doorstep of the town itself. The people who are, essentially, the farmers can be part of the town. They don’t have to live by their acreage, and because of the intensive style of tending the horticulture, you don’t need a lot of chemicals, insecticides, fertilizers.

You’re not only growing food, but you’re producing warm air in these greenhouses. You’ve probably noticed this no matter where you are, air under glass like under a skylight tends to get really warm when the sunshine’s on it. That’s what happens in solar greenhouses, too. If you don’t need hot air in the town directly, you can duct it off by opening some vents at the top of a sloping greenhouse, but, otherwise, you keep your vents closed and have that air come, and flow to warm up the infrastructure of the town itself.

We have a couple of small solar greenhouses attached to buildings here. One of them is attached to my apartment, and I can just open a little door in the bottom of my living room wall in the wintertime and this wonderfully fresh 120-degree air from plants and from the sun comes wafting into the apartment. It’s fragrant because plants are flowering, it is oxygenated because of the plants, and moist because the plants are transpiring moisture. Everybody should have this experience, but moisture is the main thing here. You can grow plants in a greenhouse, and as the plants transpire their moisture, it doesn’t get lost in the desert air, but it condenses again onto the greenhouse glass and can be recycled.

More ambitious project initiatives are also in the works. The “critical mass” master plan calls for the ability to house 500 people full-time in this landscape and running the community. Vertical garden walls will be added to new residential complexes, while greenhouses would create new micro-climates that will enable more self-sufficiency in all seasons. What’s the big future vision for Arcosanti? Where do you see it in 25 years?

You can do all the planning that you want, and we, certainly, are doing all the planning that we want to here on a daily basis at Arcosanti, but in the end, it’s conjecture. It’s dependent on so many outside forces. We’re not self-sufficient in terms of food growing, book publishing, clothes-making, or financial status here at Arcosanti. We have bootstrapped this entire project so far over 42 years by educational initiatives– the construction workshops, tourism, lectures, demonstrations, and the making of the famous Soleri wind bells as part of the economy here. We’re constantly looking for ways to expand the economy and for not only philanthropists, but for investors to become a part of the project. We have partners now among a series of colleges and universities that are doing projects involved with the notion of what if? What if Arcosanti became a global educational resource about sustainability, urban design, and landscape? Or what if it just turned out to be a Soleri museum? Or what if it became the corporate headquarters for something like Google?

There are design departments in a couple of different colleges in the U.S. and in Europe working with us on business plans and infrastructure design for those scenarios, but my own plan is for Arcosanti to continue its growth to become really a global educational resource and a national educational resource, too. I would like to start from the spark of Arcosanti a national discussion among American children and their parents about how cities should be designed — about how landscape architecture should actually work in urban areas, what it means to live in a city, and what it means to have wildness in the landscape outside of cities, too.

There’s a lot of talk about getting higher mileage for cars. Hybrid cars get maybe up to 50 miles per gallon– whoopee– but even so, the entire transportation sector of the U.S. only takes up a quarter of all the energy use in this country. Another quarter’s in manufacturing, mostly because we’ve sent much of our manufacturing to other countries, China included.

Half of all the energy use in America is used in buildings– in constructing them in the first place, but mostly in running them — heating, cooling, lighting them. So if you look up from your computer right now and look around you wherever you’re sitting in this country, you’re seeing obsolete buildings– buildings that we can no longer afford to support in terms of their energy use, and we certainly can’t afford to build many more of them. Yet, almost no one in the country, and certainly none of our politicians, is talking about any of this as an issue. It seems to us here at Arcosanti that it’s the main issue: how we design buildings, how they’re integrated into their landscapes, how cities are designed, not just for energy efficiency, of course, but for real sustainability at all levels of income. We use about one-sixth of the electricity at Arcosanti that most institutions of our size use. As a result, that’s five-sixths of electricity that we don’t have to pay for because we just don’t use it. We don’t have cars within our community.

ASLA is having a conference in Phoenix. Phoenix has around 4.5 million people, with almost 3 million cars in the 900 square miles that is the city. Imagine that each car costs $20,000, which is actually a conservative figure, but let’s imagine that. This means that people in Phoenix are paying $60 billion just to be able to drive to work, school, grocery store, doctor’s appointments, and that’s not just once in a lifetime. It’s every five to 10 years because these cars are renewed. It’s a huge transfer of wealth from almost every individual to a few car companies. That’s not even counting the amount of money that’s spent on roads, parking lots, gasoline, and all of that. Sixty percent of urban land in Phoenix is car-related.

If we’re able to change how we think about cities and cars as we hope to by sparking debate that begins here at Arcosanti, then there might be serious income available to build some truly wonderful things, and to live the kinds of wonderful lives that we’re just not able to live now because the patterns of our cities are so archaic.   

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Jeff Stein / Jared Green, (2) Arcosanti / Cosanti Foundation, (3-4) Arcosanti Historic Landscape / Jared Green, (5) Arcosanti apse / Cosanti Foundation, (6) Arcosanti step seating / Jared Green, (7) Arcosanti “greenhouse apron” / Cosanti Foundation

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Italian designer Marco Stefanelli is breathing new life into old pieces of wood and stone for his Brecce collection of sustainable indoor and outdoor lighting. Cast-off sawmill byproducts, left-over firewood, or broken concrete building parts are embedded with resin and long-lasting LEDs so they glow from within.

On his blog, Stefanelli writes about the idea of material reuse, or hand-made cradle to cradle manufacturing: “The idea that generates my new work is transforming a generally one-shot productive process (just think of wood and stone) into a serial one.”

Stefanelli emphasizes that he’s looking for materials seemingly on their last legs, turning what everyone views as waste products into something useful and beautiful: “In order to realize Brecce’s project I wanted to take inspiration from natural objects that in some ways have reached their final step in the life cycle. They are sawmill’s outlets, pieces of urban architecture, logs carried by the river, firewood…”

For his pieces, the “formwork” is made of wood or stone but divided into multiple segments. Resin is the middle layer that keeps the work together.

Stefanelli wrote: “I’ve tried to give these pieces a second chance, tempting the light to come out from the material and amplify the sensory experience.”

See more images at This is Colossal.

Image credits: Marco Stefanelli

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With the success of the High Line park in New York City, it seems almost every city now wants one. Toronto has long been batting around ideas for its Gardiner expressway, while Los Angeles is trying to dream up the money for new parks to cap old freeways. Philadelphia is moving forward with reusing parts of its old rail infrastructure at the Reading Viaduct, while Chicago has already created plans for its own High Line: the Bloomingdale Trail. Now, London wants to get in on the game, with the launch of a new international design competition to create some ideas for a British High Line.

Sponsored by the The Landscape Institute, Garden Museum, and the Mayor of London, A High Line for London: Green Infrastructure ideas competition for a new London landscape is clearly inspired by NYC’s recent success story, which they argue “transcended the commonly-accepted role of urban parks to become one of the world’s most popular landmark.”

Still, they say they don’t want to copy the High Line exactly: “The judges are looking for proposals which similarly engage communities with green infrastructure. Green infrastructure is the network of open and green spaces, including features like green roofs, designed and managed to provide benefits such as flood management, urban cooling, green transport links and ecological connectivity – an approach which can have a huge and exciting impact on the way in which we live in the capital.”

Judges include High Line founders Joshua David and Robert Hammond; landscape architects Kim Wilkie and Johanna Gibbons; Matthew Pencharz, Environment Advisor to the Mayor of London; and Dr Penelope Curtis, Director of Tate Britain.

The winning team will get £2,500 and the runner-up £500 as prize money. The finalists will also be displayed in the Garden Museum.

Submit your ideas by September 14, 2012.

Also, read more about the “real” High Line effect in a recent op-ed in The Huffington Post by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) president, Charles Birnbaum, FASLA. Birnbaum says that instead of trying to copy the High Line in an effort to spur economic development and boost tourism, cities should understand that a unique set of circumstances led to the High Line in Chelsea. “In fact, the ‘High Line effect’ should be viewed more broadly as a holistic approach to urban design that suggests how to transform existing urban landscapes to meet contemporary needs. The High Line was almost magically reawakened by a team of landscape architects, architects, horticulturalists, engineers and others, led by James Corner Field Operations. What really happened there is, first and foremost, a triumph of historic preservation and design.”

Image credit: High Line. 2010 ASLA Professional General Design Award / copyright Iwan Baan.

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Singapore is heavily dependent on Malaysia for its water supply but is now creating new sustainable parks designed to reduce its reliance, said Herbert Dreiseitl, International ASLA, Atelier Dreiseitl, at the Greater & Greener: Reimagining Parks for 21st Century Cities, a conference in New York City. As an example, his amazing new 62-acre Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park recreates nature, transforming a 2.7-kilometer concrete-channel lined river into a 3-kilometer natural meandering system. At the same time, the new system slows down and stores some of the rainfall that hits the city-state. The park is a model for how cities can transform outmoded, broken systems into natural systems.

Singapore has to import so much water because all its hard surfaces funnel water straight into the ocean. In the tropical heat, much is also lost to evaporation. “They can’t keep their water they have.” To address these problems, the city-state has created a new strategic master plan to reduce reliance on Malaysia and capture more of its own water for reuse. The new plan, which includes water guidelines Dreiseitl created for the Singaporean government, focuses on “collecting, slowing down, and storing rainwater.”

A central catchement — the Kallang River — is part of the larger system providing drinking water to the city-state. In the past, the river was actually set within a concrete channel in many key places so in heavy monsoons it would flood and then evaporate.

Dreiseitl convinced the government to let the river escape its concrete channel and meander through the park, turning an “old-fashioned park and canal” into green infrastructure system that teaches the community about how nature actually works. The new system is actually a lot safer — the previous concrete channel actually killed many residents who were playing soccer down there when flash flooding struck.

In Dreiseitl’s cutting-edge approach, the “blue and green are integrated.” To achieve this, he has to convince the city departments that handled water and parks to abandon their siloed approaches and better communicate with each other. “Now, territories, finances, and maintenance overlap.”

To make this seismic change happen, Dreiseitl said he had to get the Singaporean government to trust his new approach, so he actually used his own design fee to create a test site. Exploring 12 different “bioengineering techniques,” Dreiseitl commissioned a set of in-depth hydraulic and materials studies. He was floored by how “crazy” the plants grow in Singapore so he had to adjust his models based on plant growth. He figured out what kinds of soil conditions would ensure slope stability in those temperatures. Lastly, he invested heavily in training the construction workers. “We couldn’t just show them pretty drawings of the new systems because they had no experience with these systems. We had to train them.”

With the approval of the government in place, Dreiseitl moved towards creating a new stream while the river was still flowing. In a feat of sequenced engineering, Dreiseitl managed to re-engineer soils, add bio-engineered plant systems along with trees, break up the existing concrete channel and reuse the rubble to stabilize the entire system — all while the river was still running. No artificial fertilizers were added. All materials on site were reused. In fact, some of the excess rubble was used to create a new hill, a look-out point over the park.

Importantly, the new system actually works. Dreiseitl said the new river “can hold lots of capacity and cuts in half the peak floods.” The new, cleansing biotope digest pollutants and creates oxygen in millions of gallons of river water each day. Some of the cleansed river water is diverted and reused in the watery playscapes. Before the water touches people, it’s further cleansed by a UV radiation filter. “It’s not only a purification system, but also a beautiful garden.”

The German landscape architect said for the project to work Singaporean officials just needed to be “learn how to behave with risk.” They had wanted to put a fence around the meandering river to keep people out of the flood plain, but Dreiseitl threatened to quit over that, arguing that it would not only ruin the design but break the human connection to the natural system. Instead, Dreiseitl’s team worked with the government to create an “amazing” early warning system, with towers that flash lights and use loudspeakers to make announcements in 6 languages so people can still sit down there but get early warnings when the river is going to overflow.

He thinks this kind of experience with nature in Singapore, the “most artificial of cities,” is critical. In Singapore, everyone “lives in of air-conditioning. They use underground subways and go to underground shopping centers” to escape the heat. As a result, much of the population is cut-off from nature. He said kids are particularly blown away by the wildlife in Bishan. Since the park was redesigned, biodiversity is up 30 percent. There are now 59 species of birds, including sea eagles, and 23 kinds of dragonflies.

To add proof to a recent U.S. National Park Service report that being near a wildlife preserve raises property values, Dreiseitl said the nearby apartments are up 48 percent in value since the park opened. To laughter, he added, “I should have bought a place before it opened.”

Dreiseitl believes that to implement such a game-changing system landscape architects need to have a “strong, logical argument.” Designers “must convince with a narrative.” There has to be inter-disciplinary planning with engineers and architects to capture all the benefits. He also said climate change can be a “engine” for convincing clients to move forward with new models like these. “In the past, cities thought water was a problem to get rid of, but with climate change we need to focus on water security and reuse all water.”

Read an interview with Dreiseitl on designing with water.

Image credits: Atelier Dreiseitl

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After two years of internal debate among 17 different federal agencies and the D.C. government, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) released its long-awaited plans for a new Southwest Eco-District designed to undo the worst damage of the massive “urban renewal” projects inflicted on L’Enfant neighborhood over the past decades. Designed to transform the spooky, almost pedestrian-free area just south of the Mall into a highly sustainable, people-friendly cultural and business destination, the Eco-district plan means to take on many challenges at once. As Elizabeth Miller, ASLA, the intrepid landscape architect who is guiding the project, explained, this 110-acre, 15-square block project is meant to showcase “high performance buildings and landscapes” while creating space for 19,000 new federal workers and solving some of the worst pedestrian access problems.

At the beginning of the hearing today, NCPC Chairman L. Preston Bryant, Jr said the project can go a long way to “breathing new life into the city.” While the whole Eco-District may take 20 or 30 years to design and implement, “we have a once in a generation opportunity to make this happen.” He added that NCPC and its many federal partners are eager to move forward because there are some synergies that make the timing right: The Department of Energy (DOE) building is “coming to a lifecycle decision,” meaning that it’s ready to be torn down because it’s now highly inefficient in terms of energy and water use; the Southwest waterfront plans are moving forward, with $2 billion in private sector investment set; and the D.C. government-led Maryland Avenue redevelopment project is on its way.

Miller outlined a vision for an Eco-District that provokes the imagination, at least among sustainable designers. She said the new District will “capture, manage, and reuse water, energy, and waste” and work beyond a single building, leveraging clusters of buildings to create a new system. At the same time, the plan will take aim at the incredible lack of public access — the barriers, the highways, and grade changes — that keep people away, except for the federal workers that have to go there for work.

Diane Sullivan, sustainability planner for NCPC, said a sustainable mixed-use community will arise out of a set of new “guidelines, objectives” that will frame neighborhood development efforts and the creation of new environmental systems.

On developing the neighborhood, Sullivan said that a user survey of D.C. residents found that the lack of amenities was the overwhelming reason why people didn’t want to move down there or even hang out there. So the goal is create a new tree-lined 10th street (or L’Enfant Place) that can connect the Mall to the new Southwest waterfront development while also making that connection itself an exciting cultural destination, lined with 1.2 million square feet in new space for up to 5 new museums, along with farmers’ markets and other draws.

Better pedestrian access is also key to making all this work. In the new plans, Miller said Virginia and Maryland Avenues will re-appear, carving new paths through new buildings as park-like avenues for promenading. Sullivan said the new local street designs cutting up the mega-blocks are still being worked out. She asked, “which streets should be monumental? Which should be local?”

To better get those pedestrians — all those federal workers — to the area, a “better inter-modal system” will be put in place, with a revamped, solar roofed-L’Enfant station, offering both commuter rail and Metro. To ease pressure off Union Station, more commuter rail may be directed there somehow.

The saving grace of the scary L’Enfant Place now is the fountain in Dan Kiley’s Modern-era Benjamin Banneker park, with its dramatic overlook across the Washington Channel. Unfortunately, the rest of Kiley’s park was not well realized. With spaghetti loops of highways cutting through, it’s a matter of taking your life in your own hands to go from the park to the waterfront. In the new plans, Kiley’s park will be completely redone but the area will still serve as a monument to African American surveyor Banneker. The new, more sustainable park will more easily connect to the waterfront while providing a new visual identity for the “eco” part of the district.

Now, on the systems that will make the district more eco: First, many of the old federal buildings will go, getting a revamp so they meet the goals of Obama’s Executive Order 13514, which calls for federal agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, water and energy use. The ones that stay, like the famed Brutalist HUD building, will be updated to be more efficient.

Sullivan said the goal is to have “zero-net energy district as measured in carbon.” Pretty near impossible unless fully renewable power is the rule for the new Eco-District. Sullivan said solar PVs and solar thermal systems (for hot water) will be added to the roofs of the new buildings wherever possible, while ground-source heat will also be tapped. A central facility run by GSA, which runs on natural gas, will still be used (but that won’t get them to zero emissions).

Heading down towards the water, the freeway that cuts off the connection between Benjamin Banneker park and the waterfront will be capped with a new layer covered in solar panels.

For water, the goal is to reduce potable water use throughout the Eco-District by 70 percent and manage all stormwater where it falls. All building greywater will be reused while blackwater will go to the new anaerobic plant. Rainwater will be caught by acres of green roofs (including edible ones), green streets, trees, and planters. What isn’t caught will be funneled into cisterns underneath 10th street and used later. Green infrastructure is then clearly a central part of the strategy. Permeable areas overall are to grow to 35 percent, while the tree canopy is to reach 40 percent (a solid target). (Right now, the barren area has just 8 percent tree cover). While we didn’t hear anything substantive about creating a wildlife-friendly landscape designed to attract diverse species, we hope that’s in the works.

There are more ambitious goals for waste reductions: Some 75 percent of construction materials for the new buildings will be reused, and 80 percent of everyday waste will be diverted from the landfill. A composting program will be put in place, too.

So, how will this all actually work? Sullivan sees some government buildings first getting a light rehabilitation and then others will undergo a full rehabilitation. Three federal buildings will be “re-purposed” as major infill development begins. Then, big redevelopment will start over the freeway. At the same time, critical projects like a new Banneker park and a new 10th street landscape will begin next year.

What’s this all going to cost? Miller and Sullivan said an economic feasibility study only provided some high-level numbers, but they did say the federal government would make back its multibillion dollar investment over 20 years through reduced energy, water, and waste fees; increased revenues from private sector developers; and improved local tax gains.

While we hope this project is a sure thing, new governance structures and partnership and financing agreements will need to be worked out among all the partners, including the private sector developers who are key to making this all happen. Let’s hope this is not a protracted process. As the Eco-District gets moving, it can become an innovative showcase for how to revamp government hubs across the U.S.

Learn more about the bold plans. D.C. residents can attend a public hearing on the proposals on July 19. The comment period will be open for three months. Comments will be incorporated into a final plan ready to go by early 2013. By the end of next year, NCPC hopes to have design competitions launched for a new Banneker park and 10th street, its two priority public projects.

Image credit: ZGF Architects, courtesy of NCPC

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Bustler writes that Ferpect, a French design collective, recently won the top prize at the French street furniture design biennale for their work Dune, which is being exhibited at La Défense square in Paris until the end of the year. Ferfect is a group of architects, engineers, and thinkers.

Ferfect says their Dune system is a piece of “micro-architecture” that can be moved around depending on the climate. The front side of the 20-degree acacia-wood slopes allows for sunbathing and people watching while the rear frame of pine slats provides shelter from the wind or sun. 

The team has also built in tables, shelves, and benches, allowing for users to “check a document out of the wind” or “have lunch with colleagues.”

Ferfect thinks their “interchangeable and easily transportable modules” could be assembled into larger islands. Like a real dune, the system could be highly changeable, evolving with the elements, moving from place to place in a park. We could these popping up in the many empty, underutilized plazas in downtowns across the globe.

See more images.

Also, check out another fascinating piece of street furniture: a 2,000-foot-long undulating art installation you can actually sit on. UK-based architecture firm Studio Weave, who created the unique public amenity for the town of Littlehampton in West Sussex, writes about its benches’ journey through the town: “The structure sinuously travels along the promenade, meandering around lampposts, bending behind bins, and ducking down into the ground to allow access between the beach and the Green.”

Something we really like to hear: The design team says the project was made entirely of reclaimed materials. “The Longest Bench is made from thousands of hardwood bars reclaimed from sources including old seaside groynes (including Littlehampton’s!) and rescued from landfill.”

Image credits: (1-5) Ferfect via Bustler, (6-7) Studio Weave

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A number of bold new works of contemporary landscape architecture in Europe show the power of pavers, those small, sometimes interlocking sets of paving materials. Creating a sense of depth and quality with simple geometric forms, these projects are subtly elegant. Here are a few offering unique textures that may draw you in:

In the new city center of Nieuwegein, Netherlands (see image above and below), Dutch firm, B+B Urbanism and Landscape Architecture, turned an outmoded shopping mall into a new “vibrant heart” for this relatively new city. The theme, a “blooming city”, is represented in the bold paver patterns, says the firm in Landezine. Natural stones are used in a mixture. “The pattern breaks free of both plan and architecture by means of an abstract representation of such natural elements as branches and flowers.”

Another form of city center, a new town hall square in Solingen, Germany, by German firm scape Landschaftsarchitekten, is an “urban living room” for the municipal workers in the surrounding building. Again, a bold geometric pattern is used to create a striking landscape. The design team writes in Landezine: “To build a coherent area, a pattern of black and white lines traces the whole public open space. Like a marquetry, a connecting concrete carpet integrates various functional elements and provides zones with different characters and uses.” The central square is defined by the pattern, as are the sides of the green spaces, which allow for movement. 

Four courtyards then serve as a “counterpart to this open, lively square.” The courtyards are arranged as “abstract gardens.” Notice how the black and white pavers transform into less hard-edged strips of gravel, with plants coming into the mix. In fact, wherever nature appears, the black and white pavers seem to disintegrate.


In Pas-De-Calais, France, the old textile mills along the banks of the Haute Deûle canal are being transformed into a new park. Designed by Atelier des paysages Bruel-Delmar, the project pays honor to the canals and irrigation ditches, but creates something new as well. Working class factories and dorms are now office buildings for high-tech workers. Public spaces and a new water garden filled with phytoremediating plants draw in residents from the community and techies taking a break. 

The design team wanted to create new public spaces without “depriving this quarter of the charm that resides in the proportions of the streets bordered with worker houses.” A new courtyard creates the sense of a hard linear park that respects the working class vibe, while pavers made out of concrete and industrial basalt create texture along paths. 

Image credits: (1-3) Blooming City Center / Renee Klein, Frederica Rijkenberg, (4-7) Town Square, Solingen, Germany / atelier 2, Gereon Hofschneider scape Landschaftsarchitekten, Rainer Sachse, (8-12) Haute Deule / Atelier de paysages Bruel-Delmar

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A new bin design in Portugal makes recycling fun and easy, two qualities not often associated with sorting your trash. These qualities may be needed though, at least in higher-trafficked areas, given most recycling bins are anything but user-friendly these days. Created by architectural and urban design firm AND-RÉ, the prototype set of bins are meant to give recycling a higher profile in the community, while will also encouraging more “democratic” use among many types of users.

The use of bold forms and colors is meant to seduce people into recycling their organic waste, glass, metals, paper, and cardboard. The designers assert: “The negative perception of the garbage bins was forgotten by changing the status of the object itself.” And people seem to be responding. Tourists were seen taking photos next to the bins. Children were even observed asking parents to put garbage in the right bins, turning sorting into a kind of game.

Made of composite fiber and high-resistance stainless steel, the bins limit unpleasant interactions with “dirty surfaces” and waste smells. While the set of bins have a similar look, inside, there are different sorting and storage mechanisms. “The system for organic waste and metal use a container (a drum with rotary counterweight axis) associated with the movement of the lid. Glass and paper systems use a fixed conduit, regardless of movement of the lid.” There’s also a pedal that frees the hands so more O.C.D. users can avoid touching the bins all together.

While the design is eye-catching, more sustainable recycled (and recyclable) materials should be incorporated if these get rolled out in more communities in Portugal or elsewhere.

Image credit: AND-RÉ

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The Sustainable Sites Handbook: A Complete Guide to the Principles, Strategies, and Best Practices for Sustainable Landscapes by Meg Calkins, ASLA, elucidates strategic design approaches, measures for site performance, and provides an intelligent framework to discuss sustainability and understand technical issues. The handbook is extremely clear and well-structured, synthesizing a wealth of specific information into a useable form. The book embodies the very significant achievement of the Sustainable Sites initiative (SITES), in its broad-based collaborative approach to the subject.

The book begins by discussing the conceptual underpinnings of sustainable design and then moves through a comprehensive project development framework; from planning and site selection, through water, vegetation, soils and materials, to a discussion of human health and well-being and the issues of management and stewardship.

The broad disciplinary base of the SITES program, with its numerous expert contributors and reviewers, has allowed a surprisingly detailed and nuanced approach to the subject areas covered. The value of the book is as a guide to practitioners who are finding their way through the SITES system but also as a general reference to issues of sustainable site development more generally.

Perhaps even more than its professional use, I believe the book will be an invaluable resource for educators and students as a guide to sustainable design practice. Its comprehensiveness and synthetic approach to issues of site development and management provide a framework that can be broadly applied. The book brings together sound technical and procedural information placed within a well-reasoned intellectual context.

The book’s layout is clear and legible but the book design and production exhibit the limitations of quality in both materials and images so ubiquitous in contemporary textbooks. Given the density of the material, significantly more attention to a more dynamic graphic design and layout would have made a profound difference to the reader experience. The photographic images, which are vital in the elaboration of the text, suffer from being uniformly low contrast black and white images as a result of paper quality, and a more varied and lively design approach to typography, illustrations, and color would enhance both the ability to absorb the information and relay how much fun it is. Given the quality of the content and its broad market appeal, this would have been an opportunity for the publisher to invest in what should be a classic text and reference work, and one can only hope that will happen for subsequent editions.

Given the scope of this book, Meg Calkins has done a superb job in providing intellectual direction and expert content and guiding her excellent collaborators in the creation of what is destined to become a key reference work for the profession.

Read the book.

This guest review is by Elizabeth Mossop, FASLA, Professor, Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture, Louisiana State University

Image credit: Wiley & Sons

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