All posts in Sustainability

Placeholder Alt Text

That Big Forest in the Sky

North America's tallest timber tower wins city support in Milwaukee
The tall timber arms race is heating up. On January 22, the Milwaukee City Council's City Plan Commission unanimously recommended that a requested rezoning at 700 East Kilbourn Avenue move ahead, clearing the first hurdle for the Korb & Associates Architects–designed, 21-story mass timber tower. The mixed-use Ascent’s first five stories would rise on cast-in-place concrete, with up to 8,100 square feet of ground-floor retail and four stories of enclosed parking above that. The remaining 15 stories would contain 205 rental units and be built from mass timber fastened with steel connectors. Korb & Associates plan on leaving the wooden elements exposed as an interior finish wherever possible. The 238-foot-tall tower is being developed by New Land Enterprises, which has partnered with Korb & Associates on a number of projects across Milwaukee previously. According to Urban Milwaukee, the developer hopes to break ground on the Ascent this year, assuming the rest of the approvals process continues apace. The rezoning for the site still needs approval from the city’s Common Council’s Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee. If Ascent’s design remains unchanged, it will slightly edge out Shigeru Ban’s 232-foot-tall hybrid timber Terrace House in Vancouver for the title of North America’s tallest timber building. According to partner and project architect Jason Korb, Ascent’s prefabricated timber components means that the top 16 floors can be installed in only four months. In a fire, the mass timber used for the structural elements will only char, not burn through, and Korb told Urban Milwaukee that, “The entire wood structure, and this would never happen, could burn down and the cores would be left standing.” Mass timber construction has been making slow progress in the United States compared to the rest of the world, but that may be about to change. The International Code Council, from which many state and local municipalities derive their building codes, recently embraced tall timber after two years of testing. With the new code adjustments in place, tall timber in the U.S. will only continue to rise.
Placeholder Alt Text

Tracking Paul Bunyon

Explore these maps of North America's blooming timber industry
facadeplus_logo1
Brought to you with support from
This article originally appeared as part of our January 2019 print issue in the timber feature. The timber industry has long thrived on its small-scale, local nature due to the sourcing of its materials as well as the limits on project size set by the building code. With this has come a good deal of fragmentation and disorganization, so we decided to map out the different schools, organizations, and manufacturers that are leading the way in the research and development of mass timber across the United States and Canada.
Placeholder Alt Text

(Mass)ive Growth

The U.S. mass timber industry is maturing while it branches out

This article originally appeared as part of our January 2019 print issue in the timber feature.

President Donald Trump’s tariffs, enacted in November 2017, have not yet made a significant impact on the U.S. mass timber industry. But if Trump chooses to take more aggressive action in the next two years of his administration, this could dramatically change. This urgency, coupled with the recent global obsession with building tall wood structures, newly motivates American wood manufacturers to become independent of foreign suppliers. This would entail American manufacturers catching up in machine technology and production capacity to bolster domestic trade and support innovative architecture sourced from home.

What’s clear is that U.S. demand for wood buildings is there. The country’s largest producer of cross-laminated timber (CLT), SmartLam, has experienced such rapid growth since opening six years ago that it is building a new headquarters in Columbia Falls, Montana, and planning a second facility in Maine to supply what the industry thinks will be an influx of midrise construction in New York and other cities along the Eastern seaboard.

“The expansion here is simply driven by need,” said SmartLam CEO Casey Malmquist. “There’s always been a grassroots support for CLT in the U.S. and a recently increased interest in research and testing. But now we’re no longer speculating about whether it will work—it’s going mainstream.”

While similar Pacific Northwest companies like DR Johnson and Katerra, as well as firms such as LEVER Architecture and Michael Green Architecture, have long led the field, production is growing in uncharted territories. South Carolina–based LignaTerra is adding another plant in Maine, while Canadian leaders like Nordic Structures in Montreal and Structure Fusion in Québec City, which already supplied CLT to projects across the country, are now focusing more attention on supplying the eastern U.S. market. Production is even swelling in the South with Texas CLT LLC, which is reopening a mill in southwest Arkansas.

But pioneering European companies, which have historically dominated the market and supplied American developers, are now putting down roots in the U.S. Austrian giant KLH is partnering with International Beams’ new factory in Dothan, Alabama, by supplying it with glulam blanks. Having opened this past September, it is the first plant east of the Rocky Mountains to produce CLT in the country and will primarily utilize the unique Southern Yellow Pine native to the region.

These investments show that the race to build such production facilities is vital to the U.S. market becoming competitive with other countries. But many experts say we need to increase cultural acceptance of mass timber as well as get investors on board before the industry starts churning up a sizable profit.

“The real strategy is that the big manufacturers in Europe are focused on making franchises here,” said Alan Organschi, principal of Gray Organschi Architecture in New Haven, Connecticut. “They can produce higher quality products cheaper, even with overseas shipping, than manufacturers can in the U.S. and Canada.”

Organschi’s firm has been at the forefront of timber innovation for 20 years. He is confident the market is growing and will prove that by designing 6- to 14-story buildings, the sweet spot for mass timber construction. Dominique Briand, general manager of Canadian structural engineering firm Structure Fusion, is also optimistic about North America’s future, but feels certain that product-specific issues still need to be addressed before wood can match the quality of other structural materials like steel and concrete.

“The problem is the tools are not there,” Briand said. “There’s not enough manpower or knowledge to make or sell mass timber in the United States. Plus it’s a disorganized market, which creates a big gap between the product and the project.”

Briand believes that as long as timber is trendy, it will take young U.S.-based companies about five to ten more years to be competitive with Europe. In the meantime, architects, engineers, and educators are working to imagine groundbreaking designs at modest scales to ramp up domestic interest and encourage policy changes.

Many U.S. states are using financial incentives to entice manufacturers to locate to their respective regions. In Maine, both the state and federal governments have provided funding for the University of Maine’s extensive research to advance timber assemblies. Russell Edgar of the university’s Advanced Structures & Composites Center says the ultimate goal of this work is to organize the state’s supply chain in order to make Maine viable for these companies.

“People are talking a lot about South Carolina and Georgia since they grow trees like corn at such rapid rates,” he said. “But in Maine, we have proximity to these huge markets in New York and Boston, so we’re busy trying to find ways to get these companies here now.”

Sourcing timber products within 250 miles of a project is a huge advantage to practicing sustainability and boosting regional economies—not to mention a reason for rarely crossing borders for building materials. But a little competition is healthy, especially for lumber producers who want to bid in a fair marketplace.

“The more people there are, the better it will be,” said Briand. “I only worry that because we’re such a fast-evolving industry, a lot of companies will build huge facilities and focus solely on making and selling products. It’s not just about the products; it’s about creating strong business plans so the investment pays off.”

Placeholder Alt Text

Ban-ing Tall Timber

Shigeru Ban Architects burnishes its status as a leader in mass timber
Histories of innovation in modern building materials typically recount how muscular substances are sculpted in the hands of masters: Eiffel and his iron, Corb and his concrete, Gehry and his shiny titanium scales. Shigeru Ban Architects (SBA), on the other hand, has sought out some of the less heroic products of our age, sometimes using trash as inspiration for the next big thing in structural solutions; the firm works with humble materials, but its final creations are no less accomplished for it. Wood is one of these seemingly humdrum materials that SBA has long played with, but in the past decade or so, it has skillfully taken advantage of the material’s flexibility. SBA is quite literally taking timber structures to new heights, and is currently at work on both the tallest hybrid timber structure and the largest mass timber development in the world. With work around the world, the firm has pushed the possibilities of what glulam, cross-laminated timber, and other wood products can do—both formally and functionally—proving to skeptical local administrators that timber is a material that can meet and even exceed their building codes. It’s not every firm that has clients with the appetite to replicate some of SBA’s more adventurous projects, but still, the firm has some basic advice for working with timber: Dean Maltz, the partner in charge of SBA’s New York office, said that “timber forces you to collaborate with trades closely,” which, he stressed, is both a challenge and an opportunity. Because mass timber products are prefabricated off-site and still something of an anomaly in much of the United States, it is crucial from the beginning of the design process to work with experienced fabricators. That early investment in collaboration can pay off later, though—Maltz claimed that even the firm’s more complex timber designs were built much faster than comparable steel or concrete structures because timber components can be prefabricated with incredible dimensional precision. The firm’s use of timber is not arbitrary—rather, it uses wood tactically, albeit sometimes extravagantly, to meet aesthetic and practical goals. While international building codes can be something of a jungle when it comes to mass timber, SBA is blazing trails through the wilderness. Aspen Art Museum The Aspen Art Museum, which is essentially a big-box building, doesn’t go wild with formal gyrations. Instead, for this low-key Rocky Mountain ski town, SBA let the structure steal the show. A basket-woven wooden screen dapples circulation spaces along the perimeter with Colorado sun, and the firm’s trademark paper tubes make an appearance as playful interior walls and seating. But the firm’s ingenuity really shines in the massive exposed timber roof truss. The space frame–like system is cleverly composed of interlocking planar timber members that curve gently at corners, a detail that allows components to be joined by a single fastener. The resulting mesh allows light to filter down to the spaces below while bolstering the roof against the winter snowfall. Kentucky Owl Park SBA’s most recent commission in the U.S. is for a 420-acre distillery and recreational campus themed after Kentucky Owl bourbon. Like much of the firm’s work, the park’s design blends bold geometry with nods to historical motifs and materials: While the trio of identically sized pyramids at the center of the complex contrasts with the surrounding big sky bluegrass landscape, these exposed timber structures are redolent of 19th-century metalwork, the kind that might have enlivened the original Kentucky Owl distillery. Further, wood columns will be girded by metal loops as in traditional barrel construction, and trusses webbed with curves and loops will add a stylized flourish. Swatch Headquarters and Omega Facilities SBA’s forthcoming trio of Swiss buildings for a pair of watch manufacturers (sister companies under the Swatch Group) are a study in contrasts. The new production facilities for Omega are rectilinear and formal, structured by a precisely gridded matrix of exposed engineered timber. The new Swatch headquarters, however, snakes along the Suze River under an arched wood canopy that is punctuated by periodic distortions before leaping across a street to connect to the joint Swatch-Omega Museum, also designed by SBA. Upon its completion later this year, the complex will be the largest timber development in the world. Shonai Hotel Suiden Terrasse No single SBA project displays the versatility and formal possibilities of hybrid timber structures as much as the Shonai Hotel Suiden Terrasse, completed in September 2018 in northern Japan. The hotel’s spa sits under a low dome supported by timber beams spectacularly interwoven in the same pattern used in La Seine Musicale, while the hotel itself showcases a sober mix of timber, concrete, and brick components. But in a shared central building, a long, open space is covered with a thin pleated wood roof that floats as though it were nothing more than a piece of folded paper.
Placeholder Alt Text

Tropical Topic

Maldives resort makes solar panels stylish for a luxury private island
Hot on the heels of the world's first underwater resort opening in the Maldives, an upscale hotel has opened a building with a distinctive solar panel roof on a private island in the Indian Ocean archipelago. New York's Yuji Yamazaki Architecture (YYA), which also created the submarine building, designed the new destination, known as the Kudadoo Maldives Private Island. The architects claim that the 320-kilowatt-peak (kWp) capacity of the roof system is enough to power the entire resort and that the system will recoup its cost after five years of use. Other design touches, like gaps between the panels to allow filtered interior daylighting and an extensive canopy overhang for shading, aim to minimize power use. The Maldives, a low-lying collection of atolls in the middle of the ocean, are exceptionally sensitive to climate change and any subsequent sea-level rise. Some studies estimate that islands like the Maldives may be uninhabitable by the middle of the century as rising sea levels flood aquifers, damage infrastructure, and submerge livable space. This makes the use sustainable power sources like solar panels particularly salient for the area. YYA chose to celebrate the panels on the roof rather than minimizing them or trying to camouflage them among other materials. Visitors will primarily approach the resort by plane, and the panels will be one of the first things they see. Of course, rooms at the private island don't come cheap. A recent search showed rooms starting at $2400 a night.
Placeholder Alt Text

Cementing Climate Change

Concrete production produces eight percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions
Concrete is perhaps the most prolific and malleable construction material in the world, but our continued dependence on it may be contributing to climate change more than was previously known. The English international affairs think tank Chatham House recently released a report that attributed approximately eight percent of the planet’s annual carbon dioxide emissions to concrete production. The chemical processes used to create cement, burning limestone and clay in a high-temperature kiln and grinding the result, contributes the greatest share of emissions (though the collection of sand, a commonly used aggregate, has its own problems). With the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) complete, a “rulebook” for enacting the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change was agreed on by the 23,000 international delegates present. Even with a guide in place for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the problem with concrete is that demand is only expected to rise. Currently, the world produces 4.4 billion tons of concrete annually, but that number is expected to rise to over 5.5 billion tons by 2050 as poorer countries rapidly urbanize, according to the Chatham House report. For the concrete industry to fall in line with the Paris Agreement’s targets, emissions will need to fall 16 percent from current levels by 2030. The report argues that target is already an ambitious goal. The production of Portland cement, the kind most widely used today, has remained largely the same since the 1800s. Limestone and clay combine in the kiln to form carbon dioxide and “clinker,” a substrate then mixed with limestone and gypsum to create cement. According to Chatham House, research into “alternative clinker” and low-carbon production methods has thus far been slow going. Less energy-intensive kilns, new types of clinker, carbon capture technology, and switching to renewable energy during the production process will all be necessary “to achieve CO2 reductions consistent with at least a 50 percent chance of limiting the average global temperature increase to 2°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100," according to the BBC. Timber, which sequesters the carbon dioxide absorbed by trees over their life, has slowly but surely made strides in replacing concrete in some projects. High-rise timber buildings have gotten a green light in Oregon, and continued research into carbon-neutral (or negative) projects is continuing apace.
Placeholder Alt Text

buildin' green

New building products from Greenbuild help to meet LEED standards
Meeting LEED standards isn’t easy. If you’re trying to design a healthy building environment, a great place to start is Greenbuild, the annual conference and expo dedicated to sustainability in the built environment. From November 20 to 22, professionals in architecture, design, construction, engineering, and planning flocked to Chicago's McCormick Place to learn more about environmentally friendly building materials and practices. You’ll find our favorite products that we saw below. Each answering to a different set of needs, they help to enhance building efficiency, human health and wellbeing, and promote sustainable design. Landmark Premium Double Hung Window  Silber Double hung?! Silber’s Landmark Premium Double Hung window opens in two directions: outward and downward. It is passive house–rated with thermal insulation and a multi-point locked, triple gasketed sash, making it airtight. Formawall with Halogen-Free Insulating Foam Core CENTRIA Dress up the facade and meet sustainability goals with Formawall. It can be used to make both vertical and horizontal designs. Better yet, the insulated panel system makes for a healthy building environment with a halogen-free foam core that provides thermal efficiency and moisture control. Mermet USA GreenScreen Nature Draper High-tech shade expert Draper paired up with sun control textile purveyor Mermet to offer a 100 percent fiberglass shade that’s 100 percent recyclable. GreenScreen Nature blocks up to 51 percent of sun, undesired heat, and harmful UV rays, helping to meet those green LEED building codes. It is offered in seven mineral-toned colors.   Metropolitan AF-690 Benjamin Moore Benjamin Moore’s color of the year is a cool, very agreeable shade of gray dubbed Metropolitan AF-690. Featuring cool undertones in a “neutral spectrum,” the shade and its harmonious 15 corresponding hues create “impactful common ground.” Living up to its namesake, it makes any room look “Metropolitan AF.” Pentagonals Tarkett Pentagonals is a collection of colorful modular tiles made of rubber, making it perfect for high-traffic areas. Pick and choose three different shapes to create virtually endless design combinations. And, with the help of Tarkett’s online visualizer tool, you can get motivated by the online inspiration gallery and create custom layouts with the design platform. Aromatic Cedar Columbia Forest Products Bye-bye pests and mildew! Cedar protects kitchens, pantries, basements, and indoor spaces alike from stink with its inherent natural properties (especially its scent). Columbia Forest Products' ¼-inch-by-4-feet-by-8-feet aromatic cedar plywood panels are offered in both mirrored and symmetrical styles.
Placeholder Alt Text

Timber Time

2018 Best of Design Awards winners for Unbuilt — Green Building
2018 Best of Design Awards winner for Unbuilt – Green Building: 6 Industrial Way Office Park Designer: Touloukian Touloukian Location: Salem, New Hampshire The 6 Industrial Way Office Park is a three-story, mixed-use building that will be constructed on a 16-acre site in Salem, New Hampshire. Designed by Touloukian Touloukian, the project reverses the conventional, inwardly focused commercial model by implementing a flexible layout and an indoor/outdoor program that advances human health and wellness. Lumber cut from the site is harvested and brought to local sawmills to create structural CLT panels that lower the project’s carbon footprint. Wooden structural bays provide tenants with an open floor plan that includes large, uninterrupted views of the outdoors. Tenants can come together at a ground-level cafeteria that faces a large lawn space with outdoor seating. Honorable Mention Project name: Cooling Tower for Chicago Spire site Designer: Greyscale Architecture Location: Chicago
Placeholder Alt Text

Passive Progressive

Harvard’s HouseZero is a live-in lab for sustainable renovation
The Harvard Center for Green Buildings and Cities (CGBC) at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) have completed the conversion of their 1920s-built home into a live-in living lab that offers a perpetual post-occupancy evaluation. Designed by Snøhetta and energy engineers Skanska Teknikk Norway, HouseZero, as the building is now known, requires zero energy for climate control, zero energy for daytime lighting, and zero carbon emissions. And in addition to generating more energy than it will ever use, it will also generate extensive data about its own performance. HouseZero is the ultimate tool for the CGBC researchers to tackle the building crisis in America. No that crisis, the other one. No, the other-other one: the inefficiency of the country’s existing building stock. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, residential and commercial buildings account for nearly 40 percent of the country’s energy consumption. The CGBC is dedicated to using design and technology to create a more sustainable built environment, and HouseZero will help them develop new designs and systems for retrofitting existing buildings to significantly reduce America’s architectural carbon footprint. The renovation combines low-tech changes like larger windows to let in more light, concrete slabs to store thermal energy, and a solar vent that looks like a glass chimney, with high-tech solutions like hundreds of embedded sensors and computer-controlled actuators that automatically open and close the aforementioned larger windows to maintain the optimal internal temperature. Manual operation is also available for those times when individual comfort levels don't fall within computer-controlled optimum, and a combination of geothermal and solar heating will ensure the house stays warm during even the coldest days of a Cambridge winter. HouseZero's sensors aren’t just being used to adjust internal temperature; they’re collecting millions of points of data on the building's performance—daily—and will be used to analyze the effectiveness of its energy-saving features. The valuable data collected by HouseZero will inform “further research that demystifies building behavior,” said CGBC director Ali Malkawi. Because the building is located in the Mid-Cambridge Conservation District, the designers were limited in how they could impact the exterior of the building. This limitation ultimately benefits the project, not only by because it just makes the design more innately interesting, but also because it invites people to imagine how they could transform their own home into an energy efficient version of itself. Like Coke Zero, which promises the same great taste, with zero sugar, HouseZero promises the same great place, with zero energy. While average homeowners probably aren't going to add hundreds of sensors and a basement supercomputer to their 1923 Sears Roebuck and Co. mail-order bungalow anytime soon, they might consider adding on some larger thermal windows and maybe even some custom-designed sunscreens if they’re feeling inspired. As the CGBC aims to prove, these changes are good for the pocketbook and the environment. HouseZero is about challenging building conventions and finding new solutions to old problems. In time, the research collected by this smart house may help us building smarter towns and smarter cities across the country.
Placeholder Alt Text

Farm to City

Van Alen's Climate Council takes a road trip to study climate change
The hot July sun hit the grooves of the farmland barreling past our bus windows as we approached Bowles Farming Company in Los Banos, California. Envisioning sunburns and muddy hikes through the furrows, we—the two dozen landscape design, engineering, and architecture professionals that make up the Van Alen Institute Climate Council—were about to visit the farm as part of a three-day expedition in Northern California to consider how design thinking could impact the way this farm and farms like it plan for climate change. Van Alen launched the Climate Council in 2018 as a platform for practicing design professionals and climate change aficionados to convene for twice-annual, three-day expeditions in regions across the U.S. Through tours, discussions, social gatherings, and hands-on charrettes, our trips provide members with a congenial setting for learning and reflection away from the hectic pace of everyday business. Right at the beginning of this inaugural trip, the Climate Council’s expectations contrasted dramatically with the realities of modern agriculture. Instead of weathering watermelon fields, we found ourselves in a comfortable boardroom. Farm executives welcomed us with cut melon samples and a PowerPoint presentation of the farm’s history, challenges, and technology. Over the soft hum of air-conditioning and with his adolescent son beside him, Cannon Michael, the farm’s president and CEO, shared the impressive facts of his large-scale operation: 11,000 acres, 14 crops, and six generations. Bowles has an advantage that it shares with a small group of farms in the area: Their history of utilizing water from the San Joaquin River provides senior rights to surface water. But with that seniority comes an increased responsibility and stewardship. Their on-staff agronomist schedules crop irrigation daily with care for every drop, logging and adapting to changes in climate on the spot. Michael proudly told us of the precision and care that Bowles uses to manage its water supply amid California’s mounting water crisis. “In times of drought, farmers are often blamed for overusing water,” Michael said. “The reality is, it’s not in a farmer’s best interest to waste water, as we only want to use the exact amount that the crop needs—improper water management has a negative impact on crop production. California is an expensive place to do business, and we must carefully monitor all our inputs and costs, water being a primary one of them. It is also a fact that producing the food and fiber we all rely on every day takes water. Where these products are produced is of critical importance. Not all farms are held to high standards of environmental and ethical production—California leads the way in the world.” Bowles’s commitment to precision and innovation unraveled the Climate Council’s anticipated mission and sent us on a new track of questioning in the days that followed. After visits with a strawberry farmer, a food distribution company, a tomato processing plant, and more, we started asking: What if cities had intricate systems dedicated to tracking inputs and outputs as accurately as these farms? We had set out on our trip thinking we would consider how design could impact the future of food production and distribution, but instead, we realized that cities had at least as much to learn from modern agricultural practices. Van Alen Climate Council Twice a year, the Climate Council travels to the same region—the first visit for exploration, the second for strategizing and discussing pressing climate issues using an interdisciplinary, systems-based approach. We offer professional advice to our partners and hosts, and aim to share lessons learned with other regions, both through further council travel and via members’ professional practices. The council’s purpose is rooted in Van Alen’s mission as a design organization that seeks to understand and demonstrate how design can transform cities, landscapes, and regions to improve people’s lives. The council also provides support and funding for Van Alen’s broader climate-related work. For more than a decade, we have created cross-disciplinary design and research projects that investigate issues of climate change across the country, from the sinking Lower Mississippi River Delta to the hurricane-battered eastern coasts. We are presently working in Greater Miami to help communities protect themselves from rising sea levels, using a design approach to make the region more socially equitable and economically resilient. In selecting the inaugural topic for the Climate Council to explore, co-chairs Claire Weisz and Mark Johnson commented, “We wanted to look at food as the first subject with this council. It’s all-encompassing. It’s something designers don’t get to talk about very often but that ultimately impacts us.” Even designers who work in cities have a vested interest in learning more about the role of agriculture in our society. At a panel conversation during our program, Mary Kimball, the director for the University of California, Davis’s Center for Land-Based Learning (and a partner in developing the council’s California program), reminded us that more than two-thirds of Sacramento’s regional farmland specialty crop jobs are in urban environments. Even though we typically associate agricultural jobs with rural labor, food distribution and packaging centers require resources that are almost always located in urban environments. So much of the food economy surrounds people in urban spaces every day, but we just don’t see it. Similarly, many of the challenges that farmers face in today’s economy are relevant to city dwellers. Time is of the essence On our first day in California, council members met David John, the business strategist at General Produce Company, a distribution center located 10 minutes from the central business district of Sacramento. As we walked through dozens of icy storage rooms, John told us that from the time of arrival to the time of departure, almost all of the fresh fruits and vegetables are present in the facility for less than 48 hours. The center runs 24/7, with days off only on Christmas and New Year’s. When asked about the built environment of the facility, John said that many of the workers adjust rooms or shelving as needed with changes in supply, but that it is difficult to allow for changes because they take time away from moving product. This distribution center, like a vital transit system in a big city, cannot take a day off. We surmised that systems thinking, like that used in transportation engineering, could be used to create more flexible environments in food distribution centers, along with more adaptable storage facilities. The berry farmer’s dilemma Following a brief meeting with the president of the Strawberry Commission of California near Salinas, our council climbed through coastal strawberry fields owned and operated by Tom AmRhein of Naturipe, Inc. AmRhein presented us with a pressing issue that berry farmers are facing in the area: The median home value in Salinas is more than $400,000. With minimum wage for farm laborers at $11 an hour, an enormous gap exists between the incomes of berry pickers and the supply of affordable housing in the area. As a result, AmRhein said that as many as five different families may share a home together in the valley, bringing housing density to the level of some of the nation’s biggest cities. As we downloaded our findings from Tom, the council considered what kind of affordable housing solutions could designers, working with migrant communities, dream up for rural laborers and their families. Moreover, with climate change making weather patterns and farming yields more unpredictable than ever, what kind of housing solutions would provide stronger, more stable, and adaptable shelters in this harsh environment? What’s next? When asked about innovation in agriculture, our program collaborator Kyeema Zerbe, deputy director of the UC Davis Innovation Institute for Food & Health (IIFH), said, “The IIFH prides itself on making uncommon interdisciplinary connections to catalyze innovation across food, agriculture, and health. Collaborations like those with Van Alen help facilitate exploration of systemic issues and view prevailing challenges from new local and regional perspectives. By delving into the intersections between design, agriculture, and innovation, we can begin to imagine a safer, more sustainable and secure food system.” Van Alen believes that climate change is an all-encompassing phenomenon. In such politically divided times, the organization seeks opportunities where designers can work under the partisan radar to generate true collaboration between cities and their surrounding regions, inviting professionals from all backgrounds to innovate. The Climate Council’s experience in Sacramento is an example of how nontraditional collaboration and open-mindedness can lead to enlightened discovery. And it’s just the beginning. On its third day in California, Climate Council members huddled pensively around drafting tables at the UC Davis Department of Landscape Architecture. Over the hours of charrette that followed, they revisited the issues that arose during this trip: How could farm feedback loops inform urban design? What role does governance play in the lack of balance of inputs and outputs in major cities? How can interdisciplinary design professionals enhance the security and resilience of existing rural communities that support our farm industry? Together, we started envisioning answers to these and other questions and made plans to return to Sacramento in early 2019 with design concepts to address them. When we go back, we intend to continue our conversations with local farmers, community members, and other stakeholders. We know there are opportunities for collaboration and implementation; we just need time together. We are onto something.
Placeholder Alt Text

SCAPING up to Boston

Boston taps SCAPE for a resilient harbor vision
The city of Boston has unveiled a new vision for protecting the city’s 47 miles of shoreline and has used New York’s SCAPE Landscape Architecture to visualize the vision plan. The plan, "Resilient Boston Harbor," was presented yesterday by Mayor Martin J. Walsh before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. It builds off of the Climate Ready Boston 2070 flood maps and existing district-level plans, coastal resilience neighborhood studies, and the work done under the Imagine Boston 2030 initiative. The ultimate goal is to reinforce Boston’s public spaces, buildings, and infrastructure against the encroach of rising sea levels, the strengthening of storms that climate change will bring, as well as heat waves, drought, and worsening blizzards. With Boston’s population approaching 700,000 for the first time since the 1960s, catastrophic flooding would affect more residents than ever. “We’re not just planning for the next storm we’ll face, we’re planning for the storms the next generation will face,” said Mayor Walsh. “A resilient, climate-ready Boston Harbor presents an opportunity to protect Boston, connect Boston, and enhance Boston, now and for the future. As we enter a new era in our Harbor’s history, Boston can show the world that resilience is not only the ability to survive adversity, but to emerge even stronger than before. That’s the promise of a Resilient Boston.” To meet that ambitious goal, the city has broken down its plan into separate chunks for each neighborhood. The final goal involves opening up public access to the waterfront by raising portions of the coastal landscape, installing strategic flood walls, elevating infrastructure, and flood-proofing buildings, representing a synthesis and consolodation of the prior resiliency work done in the city. In East Boston and Charlestown, Wood Island and Belle Isle will be reinforced to prevent the loss of Boston’s only remaining salt marsh, and the most important transportation corridors will be elevated. The Schrafft Center waterfront will also be redeveloped to incorporate elevated parks and boosted economically by the addition of new mixed-use buildings. In South Boston and Fort Point, Fort Point Channel is currently a major floodway that will need to be redesigned, and a string of parks, dubbed the “Emerald Necklace,” will sop up excess floodwater along Columbia Road. In North End and Downtown, the Harborwalk and Long Wharf are slated for renovations, and the city is planning to kick off a Climate Ready Downtown study to pinpoint further optimizations. Similarly, Boston will launch Climate Ready Dorchester to study improvements to the Dorchester Waterfront. A redesign of Morrissey Boulevard to buffer it against flooding, and the opening of the waterfront along Columbia Point, have already been singled out as potential strategies. The cost won’t be cheap, but Mayor Walsh rationalized the expense as preventative. “In East Boston, we could invest $160 million in resilience or we could do nothing, and expect damages of $480 million," Walsh told the Chamber. "In Charlestown, we could invest $50 million now or pay over $200 million later. In South Boston, we could invest $1 billion or we could pay $19 billion in citywide damages, when Fort Point Channel and Dorchester Bay meet and flood the heart of our city. “We either invest now, or else we pay a much bigger price later. And we’ll pay that price in more than dollars. We’ll pay it in jobs lost, small businesses that never recover, homes destroyed, and families displaced.” The city will start by investing millions at each of the above sites and ten percent of all future capital funding towards resiliency initiatives. Still, the north-of-a-billion-dollar estimates will require funding from Massachusetts, the federal government, and private, non-profit, and philanthropic organizations. Besides hitting the goals outlined in Resilient Boston Harbor, the city is also committed to going completely carbon neutral by 2030.
Placeholder Alt Text

Power to the People

How an architect is using solar power to prevent Puerto Rico's next disaster
Like millions of other Americans, Jonathan Marvel, founding principal at Marvel Architects, remembers watching media coverage stream in from Puerto Rico in September 2017 after Hurricane Maria struck the island. The devastation was extraordinary. As later studies would reveal, an estimated 2,975 people died as a result of the storm and 3.4 million people lost power. It was one of the worst natural disasters to ever strike the U.S.  Now, one year after Maria, Marvel and his partners at Resilient Power Puerto Rico (RPPR) are building a series of solar installations that are bringing emergency power to community centers in informal settlements across the island. Using state-of-the-art Tesla Powerwall batteries, RPPR has enabled these centers to generate solar power during good weather and store it for the blackouts that follow hurricanes and other disasters. Local people can use the centers as shelters where they can charge their phones to find their loved ones, store perishable food, or power life-saving home healthcare devices. The goal of the group was not to rebuild the island's existing infrastructure after Maria, but to provide a new resilient system that would support informal communities when the next storm would inevitably arrive. “When Maria hit," Marvel said, "it hit home.”  Marvel had just returned from Puerto Rico when Maria arrived. He had been helping his mother, who lives on the island, recover from Hurricane Irma, which had blown through only two weeks before. Rather than just sending money to aid organizations, Marvel worked with friends and colleagues Cristina Roig-Morris, ESQ, and José J. Terrasa-Soler, ASLA, to do what architects do best: design a solution to a problem. “Architects jump in,” Marvel said. “We’re the first responders from the professional world. We’re trained to think comprehensively; we’re trained to put the social impact first and foremost.” Rather than tackling the entire enormity of the disaster, Marvel's team focused on power. Electricity, as Marvel put it, "is the basis of all things in the 21st century,” and according to CNN, the hurricane caused the worst blackout in U.S. history. The goal of the group was not to restore electricity to the whole island; that would be an enormous task and one that a slew of government agencies were already working on. Instead, they looked at how they could create supports in the electrical web to catch the most vulnerable when they fell. RPPR’s solution is straightforward but steps neatly aside of the established way of doing things. “We’ve been very deliberate to stay outside of local politics and federal politics,” Marvel said. Instead, the group looked for creative solutions permissible under existing laws. The sun being an abundant resource on the tropical island, solar power provided an obvious place to start exploring possibilities, but they found there were restrictions on what they could do with private generation. “Before Maria, there was a lot of solar power, but it was illegal to store with batteries,” Marvel said. “After Maria, batteries were allowed without permits, which allowed us to start our system legally. But we still can’t distribute past the property line.” Across the country, small-scale solar generation is tightly regulated by power authorities that have been accused of trying to squash home power generation so that utilities can maintain a monopoly on the electricity market. Puerto Rico allowed domestic power storage in Maria's wake, but still would not allow RPPR to create an alternative power network. RPPR would have to make the most of small-scale installations. Doing a lot with a little is a common practice in Puerto Rico, where resources don't always flow as easily as they do on the mainland. Marvel’s mother, the architect and planner Lucilla Fuller Marvel, had worked extensively with community centers in informal settlements across the island (her book Listen to What They Say presented a bottom-up approach to planning in Puerto Rico), and the group realized that they could focus on powering existing hubs. By installing solar panels and batteries, each community center was able to serve a broad population with relatively little effort. “Each site serves a population about 3,000–5,000 people because of the density,” Marvel said. Thousands of people are able to take advantage of the basic amount of electricity available at each installation during post-disaster blackouts when the central power grid collapses. The focus on informal communities also helped RPPR avoid federal bureaucracy, which, Marvel said, “was completely caught off guard.” While President Trump has recently insisted that his administration got “A Pluses” for their response to the storm, Marvel saw the situation differently: “The federal government does not have a great track record on the lower 48 when it comes to hurricane recovery…but states really help each other out." Puerto Rico, being an island and a relatively isolated territory in the Carribbean, is often forced to go it alone. "Puerto Rico doesn’t have anybody waiting to help. The governor of Puerto Rico was counting on the feds…but the feds didn’t step it up.” When it came to designing the installations, RPPR focused on efficacy rather than looking for a flashy, aesthetically-driven design. Panels are installed in prosaic rooftop setups, but Marvel said that he looked for lessons from what survived the storm when it came time for detailing, and the results have proved resilient. The project’s successes have won new backers and collaborators, and enabled it to broaden its ambitions. Tesla joined the project by providing their home storage batteries, and a variety of foundations have provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in support. Now the project has 28 installations across the island, with 30 more in the pipeline. RPPR and Marvel’s work in Puerto Rico tells the story of a resilient network of communities, badly battered but bouncing back from catastrophe. It’s far from the narrative perpetuated by the current presidential administration, which maintains that the federal government saved a helpless island from impending doom. The project also presents a model for how architects can engage with their communities aside from multimillion-dollar cultural projects or philanthropic endeavors in remote countries. “I think it is very easy for architects to jump into these disasters and think of these solutions. Architects are really well equipped and we do it all the time.” The design’s success comes not out of formal gymnastics or phenomenological effects, but from the social and political structures the project engages and builds on. Ultimately, Marvel credited the served communities for the project’s success. “It’s a generous population,” he said. “They open up their hearts and their houses to each other.” The project shows that when people are willing to lend a helping hand, powerful resilience is possible.