Architects Who Blog: A grand time at AIA 2012 in DC

If you have never read Life of an architect by Bob Borson (@bobborson) or Coffee with an architect by Jody Brown (@infillnc), you are in for a treat. Visiting their sites inspires me every time. They reveal what it’s like being an architect, what we do, how we think, and what matters. I’d say they tell stories about being an architect, the culture of the profession, more than blogs about architecture.

In other words, it’s the life of an architect. Or like having coffee with an architect. Aha!

Architects Who Blog #AIA2012

Even more thrilling is the chance to present with them, as I did last week at the American Institute of Architects national convention in Washington DC. We called it: “Architects Who Blog: Connecting Online for Influencing, Educating, and Inspiring about Architecture.” Here’s the slidedeck.

Besides their passion, Bob and Jody are smart, funny, and authentic. They are in short the real deal.

Now why is that so amazing? As architects, we are visually-oriented. That’s cool, maybe obvious, and frankly it simplifies life in many ways. Being surface-oriented is encouraged. (Now I sound like Jody, whose byline is “Architecture + Angst.”)

Architects use images more often than words to express ourselves. Bob and Jody use both. Neither claims to be a good writer (although they are). They in essence write like they talk, which always draws me in. When I read their blogs, I feel like I know them. I want to talk with them, as do many others judging by the comments.

Don’t let that humble spirit fool you. They are both heavy hitters in the architecture blogging category, with millions of visitors to their sites, and thousands of followers on twitter and facebook.

What did we talk about? First, Bob Borson…
Bob showed his world headquarters (his couch), his reach (every country except Iceland, it seems), his progress over time (2 million+ visits, up to 200 comments on a post), and his topics (advocacy, career, personal, humor, community outreach.) He recreated the story of his presentation here.

Two stories stuck with me. Bob interviewed his young daughter about what her dad did for a living. Roughly, being an architect is fun because we draw and talk all day. It takes a long time to design a house, about five hours, and about five days to build it. And it’s expensive, say $300. She would like to be an architect because it’s a good job.

Bob also uses his blog for another passion, the Architect Playhouse Design Competition, an offshoot of Dallas CASA. The charity benefits abused and neglected children. He received entries nationally and internationally. His jury selected two winning submissions, and he is seeking support for construction.

Jody Brown made us laugh a lot… at ourselves

Jody is fearless. For instance, a recent post is entitled: “that awkward moment when I show you my portfolio.” This week, it’s “Shit architects say.” If he’s not killing architecture’s sacred cows, he’s at least making us laugh at them.

Jody explains that initially when he played it straight, his mom was the only reader. So he showed his true self, in all his awesome ideological snarkiness and took dead aim at the culture of being an architect. The clothes, glasses, fussiness, insular snootiness, and starchitects are favorite targets. The sillier it gets, the more I identify with it. Jody helped me see how truly hilarious we are. Need a kick? Read this blog.

Here’s two images that completely broke up the crowd, huge laughs.

According to Jody: Architects need to be part of the conversation. Period.

The crowd and how we get it done
Fellow architects who came to our presentation were the best, thank you much. Your questions were thoughtful and your prolific tweets extended our reach far beyond the convention center. I think we got as many tweets as some of the general sessions. People asked about advertising (Bob has done just enough to cover his direct costs), images (use your own or creative commons images), platforms (wordpress, but you can start at tumblr or posterous), and how we fit it into our lives.

Instagram Photo 
  • Folks waiting on us to start, via Jody’s view from the dais.

All of us struggle to find time to post. I know you have things to say. I want to tell you that it’s important for you to speak up. Architects have left too much open territory online, we are far too quiet. When we do write, it’s usually marketing or one-directional, rather than building relationships, a network, or a reputation as a clear thinker. It is now, folks, time to claim that space. We can’t just talk via design, we need to speak with our voices too.

Jody and Bob post more often and manage to write much faster than me. I’ve taken breaks twice, at great cost to my site traffic. Bob is slowing down. Jody is thinking about it. It’s hard.

I think we can do a tag team. You write a while, I’ll pick up the next stage, and some others can join in. Eventually, we will get a critical mass of architects who blog. Leave comments when you read. Your thoughts keep us writing, and make us better.

One more bonus, I’ve been saving social media sites at my diigo site for urbanverse, aia-sm. That’s over 70 links. There’s another 700 under socialmedia, 80 or so on blogging, and try key words: twitter, social networking, bloggingtips, and blogginghowto, which start in 2009. The most recent ones are aia-sm.

Closing thoughts

I can only say that the AIA convention was far richer because of my online colleagues. Seeing many of you in real life for the first time was the best reason to be there. Genie, Gena, Laurie, Neal, Collier, John, Tara, Cormac, Jonathon, Andrew, Bryant, Craig, Mark, Sybil, Susan, and so many others, I was thrilled to meet you. Especially thanks to Steve Mouzon for making the effort to come by the convention just to say hello. What a delight!

A grand week, folks… people, places, and ideas, a feast.

  • Pictured: Jody @infillnc, Bryant @turnageb, Genie @ebarchdesign, Collier @collier1960, Jonathan @mondo_tiki_man


Welcome to the Real Urbanverse. To start: the future of architects

Welcome to the real Urbanverse

This week, I’m presenting at AIA national convention along with two of my esteemed architectural colleagues, Jody Brown @infillnc of North Carolina and Bob Borson from Texas. We’ll be sharing our best blogging and social media tips. There’s a huge flaw in this scenario: I have hardly been posting during recent months.

In honor of the event (which frankly got me in gear), welcome to the new location for Urbanverse. Thanks for stopping in.

Similar to the posterous urbanverse, my trouble-free starter blog, I’ll cover the intersection of architecture and architects, cities and sustainable design, especially with an eye to the future. Sometimes I’m in the story. Most of the time, I’m an interpretor, part-guide, part-scout exploring the urbanverse, an unlimited zone of ideas, images, and people.

Let’s get going. Here’s a topic near to my heart that deserves a closer study, the future of architects (and professions, experts, creative fields, built environment, design schools, they are all related).

An intelligent conversation about architects

Over the past couple of years, an avalanche of criticism slammed architects. We are whiny, navel watchers, the worst profession for getting hired, fetish-driven egomanics, and cheap (even cheating) employers. We’ve created unhealthy, unwelcoming car-obsessed cities full of oversized, energy guzzling ugly buildings. The architecture profession is a place of haves and have nots, frequently practiced for passion more than profit.

Actually that last line is true.

Too much of what is written about architecture combines sensationalism with short-term thinking and amounts to whining or piling on or both. When does the fact that the architecture profession is changing become old news? When do we get bored with one more essay on

  • terrible experiences (low or no-pay interns, disconnected architecture education, stuck in the backroom, lack of respect), or
  • terrible design (starchitecture superficiality, bland buildings which are not architecture, unwalkable districts as unlivable, unhealthy, and un-green)

before we make serious changes? Before we agree to resolve and act or agree to shut up, quit reading or producing these truly unnewsworthy pieces, and move on? When can we say enough of this limbo-land of public thrashings?

Are we stuck?

No profession can advance if it clings to entrenched topics. Either we act to improve by exposing our conversations as ideological, chronic debates with no attempt at movement or solutions, and then agree to collective misery. Or we make changes at the heart of the problem. We pull things apart, look at the environment and technology which we can expect in the next 10, 20, 50 years, and figure out what we bring to it.

Because what I see beyond short term negativism is equally poisonous denial. Let’s call it self-preservation of the status quo. Case in point: recently I heard three deans whom I respect deeply describe the future of architecture schools with a completely optimistic outlook: high demand for their programs, attracting the best of the best students, and offering inspirational projects and travel. While they acknowledged resource limitations and a lack of jobs for graduates, their programs, they could say with certainty, are safe. They saw no imminent danger (or at least none that they were willing to confess in this public forum).

Frankly academics are not any more to blame than any single person or group among us, nor do they alone have the cure. It’s a collective situation that we have accepted and even promoted. When does the way that we have fashioned our roles become the ticket to our demise? Where is the acknowledgement of the sea change the profession faces? Moreover, the built environment and the planet? How can we hope to lead if we are so myopic, so focused on baseline scenarios? Or do we imagine that the threats are just so mindboggling that the only option is to forge ahead as planned?

How do we contribute to the creative universe? Do we consider the range of alternative conditions and influences? Are we ready to see emergent possibilities, and invent the most relevant, poignant, beautiful, resilient solutions? Have we taken assessment and made a conscious choice to shape the function of the architect in the 21st century?

Or are we accepting these cheap punches as though they didn’t happen, as though they didn’t matter? Are some of them more poignant and urgent than others?

Isn’t it about time for some intelligent conversations? Not doom and gloom, and certainly not a bed of roses. But the ability to look at the territory ahead and see how we can most fleetfootedly adapt and contribute.

“When one faces the fold [of transformational change], one is relieved of the intellectual dishonsty involved in holding either branch of the fold as a single-point forecast. One is relieved of the naivete of callow optimism, even as one is spared the amoral defeatism of the all-knowing cynic.

“You have looked at the dark side; you have seen the very real risk; and stil lyou are able to move ahead constructively.” Jay Ogilvy (2011)

What’s my proposal?
Architects are a gentle, genteel group, as a rule. And we’ve come a long way based on society’s need for our services. I’d say that comfortable platform is in trouble. Automation and a massive recession gave all corporations the right to not hire while still staying afloat. Architecture is even more paralyzed, at the extreme, I think it’s fair to say. (and statistically verified.)

Here’s a few ideas about practicing architecture, primarily from a western-centric perspective. I’ll supply more detailed back up eventually.

  1. There may be half as many traditional architects in the next fifteen years.
  2. Contrary to much conversation, you can become reasonably wealthy as an architect.
  3. Licensing and the accreditation process are becoming irrelevant for most practitioners.
  4. When people complain about cities, they blame architects, among others.
  5. There are people who are practicing as future architects today.

I’ll use futures methods to reconsider the profession of architecture, and include some of my experiences and those of many colleagues. By the time we move through the analysis, you might agree with the statements above. Or we will know where we disagree. Eventually, none will surprise you.

At that point, you and I will be looking ahead. We might even be ready to act. Most critically perhaps, we will be more comfortable with the unknowable and uncertainty of the future. The future architect is comfortable with a universe of constant change and able to act responsibly and creatively.

Urbanverse at AIA
First, I’m heading for Washington DC to chum around with some 20,000 of my colleagues at the American Institute of Architects annual convention. If you are there, please come look us up:

  • Thursday 17 May 2012, 2:00-3:30 pm. Architects Who Blog, Room 204A

Be there!

Speak Your Mind

In the meantime, chime in. I’ll welcome long and short posts.

What are the biggest problems in architecture and for architects? Do you have the career of your dreams? What opportunities will emerge? What do you care about? Does architecture matter?

I’ll be responding to ideas, and incorporating in the next postings.

  • Use #futureofarchitects on twitter.

Thanks much for reading the entry blog on Welcome!


The future of harmony and cities #architecture

During the past month, Venezuelan architect Ana Manzo @anammanzo hosted a series about harmony on her blog The Place of Dreams. Mine was the 14th post. Who knew that architects, designers, contractors, and related folks could find so much richness in one word? You can read the entire series here.    

What is harmony?

My blogging friends defined harmony beautifully onAna’s blog. They found harmony in rock and roll, poetry, nature, relationships, ancient sacred ground, and architecture. Diverse elements cooperate into a completely new sound, different and more complex than the individual notes. Harmony is not a state or condition; it’s a perfect balance achieved by coordinating diversity. Through complexity, we find unity.

Ana said harmony is love. I think that’s right. Love sees us and accepts us as we are. The Greeks agreed. They invented the word – harmonia – to mean joint agreement or accord. It’s compromise, joining, and fitting together. 

My question is: are we becoming more harmonious? And how do we find harmony in cities? First, I want to add one more idea to harmony – rebellion.

Is harmony always good?

Are there times we prefer life beyond accord?  Foucault fretted over harmony, which he saw as oppression, pressure to conform. That’s the rebel’s voice. I would call that pushing limits, testing the edges of conformity. In harmony, the notes desire each other, respect difference, and create a new sound, unlike any single note. They seek a community of notes, joining the most extreme, and all are transformed, transcendent, into a richer, more complex voice.   

We need single notes too. They come first, the ingredients of harmony. And the further they push, the more complex, varied, intriguing harmonies emerge. Individual notes must be celebrated. Sometimes I wantMonk.   

How does harmony work in architecture?

Architects argue about harmony. Christopher Alexander believes that great towns and cities blend the parts into the whole. “When you actually get all those elements correct, at a certain point you begin to feel that they are in harmony.” Peter Eisenman claims that disharmony and harmony exist in the cosmos; we need both. He fights for individual expression.

Is it possible that these opposites are two sides of the same coin? These modern lions fight over the same terms. Disharmony and incongruity aim at order, as does harmony. Some choose to conform and others fight. That is a mindset, the either/or way of 20th century thinking.


Here’s true harmony to me – both/and.

Both compatible buildings and buildings that contrast. Exceptions prove the rule. Are Bilbao’s historical buildings more memorable next to Calatrava’s Zubizuri footbridge?


Do you

feel greater attraction to the Nelson-Atkins Museum thanks to Holl’s ultra-modern addition?


Does the

Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial open your eyes to the heroics of the neo-classical monuments? To me, thats the role of harmony to celebrate difference. And we still need powerful, single notes.

Too much conformity, you get suburbs or Disney-fake, like a one-dimensional painting. Too much clashing, you get single notes competing, Las Vegas-style. If single voices are never heard, if remarkable buildings are never seen, the city goes flat. 

What is harmony in society?

Harmony, you might say, begins inside of us and informs our relationship with the universe. It works through me to we, to things, to nature, to cosmos.

Claire Graves invented a developmental model of humans, societies, even civilization calledSpiral Dynamics. The nine tiers of self-awareness (color -coded) ormemes move towards greater harmony and connectivity – instinctive (beige), animistic (purple), egocentric (red), authoritative (blue), achiever (orange), consensual (green), integral (yellow), holistic (turquoise), next? (coral).

With more people, interconnectivity expands – or needs to. So we learn and adopt better models. It’s also what gives us hope – belief in a better future. With environmental problems and planet limits, our technological and social developments are barely staying ahead of our need to live together, our urge for harmony. Sometimes we fail catastrophically.

Plus you never forget those former memes; you incorporate them and add more parts, more skills and choices. You become more fully human. As societies, we are more connected than we possibly imagined. In short, we continually strive for greater harmony.


What is greater harmony in cities?

We started with caves and we ended in suburbs? Be still my heart! Surely we can improve on that. These one-note communities were just a stop on the way, an orange meme. Sometimes we really blow it, given too much power too soon, a baby with matches. And then we are forced to fix our errors, where the hardest part may be admitting it.

Jane Jacobs claimed, “Designing a dream city is easy; rebuilding a living one takes imagination.”

Here’s how I see these memes in cities. Beige – caves. Purple – primitive tribal villages. Red – Ancient Greece, Rome. Blue – fortressed cities, castles, cathedrals. Orange – industrialization, skyscrapers, suburbs. Green – new urbanism, sustainable design, revitalization. Yellow – living cities, restorative. Turquoise – adaptive, co-creating, biomimicry. Coral – too soon to know; biogenetics, nano, neurotech, transhumanism, singularity?


Harmony Tattoos

We are re-calculating, re-examining our lifestyles. How to become more harmonious, to live with seven, eight, or nine billion people? How to be in balance with the planet, to replenish resources rather than deplete them? And how to cultivate quality.

How do you love life? How do your clothes, home, city, your tattoos express that and feed your spirit?

The moderns (not in design, but in thinking) believe in an oppositional blue/orange mindset. My way or no way. Green thinkers want to cooperate, create communities, and build sustainably. Yellows adapt on the fly, see wholes and parts, and are comfortable with constant change, in other words, harmony. Different notes combine to express entirely new sounds while still celebrating you. 

Our cities need to be that way. I’d say the first harmonious cities will be yellow.  

Harmony is love and we grow towards it. Not harmony all sugar and sweet, pastoral utopias, but with all the tangs and twists of human nature wound together as separate strands for resilience. It’s the tattooed city, visibly expressing who we are and who we want to be.

  • What color is your city? What’s harmony to you?

Images, videos:  Thelonious MonkRound About Midnight; CalatravaZubizuri Foot Bridge, Bilbao, Spain; HollNelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, USA; Maya LinVietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington DC.


Where do you find happiness? Holl’s Museum Add’n in Kansas City, guest post for @Antony_DiMase #architecture

Antony DiMase of DiMase Architects  in North Fitzroy, Australia invited me to sharea place that makes me happy. Their blog series  Places That Make Me Happy was inspired by my Hilarious Cities essay. His firm does beautiful work, check them out. They constantly explore ways to help people see architecture differently and be a bit braver about design. You can find my original post here.


For decades, I grumbled about the complete lack of world class modern architecture in Kansas City. Great places make us better humans. When we see it and experience it every day, we become more creative, even visionary. Excellence breeds more excellence.  Call it the reverse of the “broken window theory.”

When the Board of Trustees for the 1933 Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art initiated an international competition to select the architect for the new Bloch addition, I leaped for joy. Of the six star architects, only Steven Holl defied the committee’s instructions to connect with the broad Beaux Arts entrance façade. Instead, his addition attached to the short eastern end of the building. Even more compelling, instead of an above-grade structure that would diminish the park-like setting, Holl buried the addition and mounted five channel glass “lenses” on the roof for daylight. His radical originality springs from these two acts of rebellion.

Those five lenses are among the most ingenious inventions of the last decade. Holl defines their counterpoint with the existing building as the stone and the feather. The massive heft of the original limestone structure sits solidly on the ground while the white channel-glass boxes seem to dance lightly down the sloped landscape. Their glow at night is pure architecture magic.

My favorite space, the Naguchi Gallery near the extreme end of the building, opens directly onto the main lawn. After experiencing a series ramps and underground galleries, a panorama of the original building bursts into your view, framed by an expansive window panel. The effect is sublime; it always brings tingles to my skin.

When I seek inspiration, I skip to the Nelson and visit Holl’s masterpiece. I am happy now.

  • What places make you happy?  

Images: interior, south lawn, distance shot Steven Holl Architects; connection detail Goldberger inThe New Yorker; at night w/ trees Washington Post. 

An Extraordinary Year of Blogging: an Architect’s View #letsblogoff

This week, Let’s Blog Off asks: “Are blogs as important as bloggers think they are?” I think my colleagues have answered the basic question. Paul Anatar gives statistics. Veronika Miller and Saxon Henry merge blogging, travel and design. Architects Steve Mouzon and Bob Borson talk about the importance of blogging; Steve to build sustainably, and Bob for insights as a residential architect. All agree: blogging is important, especially for designers.

So let me rephrase it: “Why blog?” More specifically, why should architects, designers, engineers, contractors, or anyone in the construction industry blog? and what I’ve learned from blogging.

Why Blog?

Seth Godin and Tom Peters, blogging and publishing giants, praise the life changing effects of blogging. Blogging makes us think. And, it’s FREE!

I have blogged for about a year. It’s my 50/50/50 milestone. Over 50 blogs in 50 weeks for over 50,000 people. I didn’t have a clue what to expect, and I humbly say, thanks to all that read and comment! The best moments are when you leave some pithy remark, exuberant cheers, tell me I’m full of crap, or extend the ideas.

One thing I assure you is: it’s not free. It takes time. It takes effort, commitment, ideas, organization, focus, and consistency. It’s a substantial investment, both personally and professionally. And it pays dividends. You sort through ideas, you take risks, engage with people. And you learn enormously.

Yet, blogging takes courage.

Not the kind of courage that makes you charge in battle, pull a child from a burning building, or climb Mount Everest. Yet still utterly risky.

Exposing your ideas shows you have gumption, plenty of it.

No one forces you blog, or even asks you to. You blog because you have an urge to contribute beyond your normal duties. You have more to say, something to share. You want to engage people and influence memes. Blogging builds ideas and stretches our thinking, our beliefs. It’s creative, experimental, at times uncomfortable and even a bit crazy.

But when you write a blog,  it’s your choice, your creation. The entire burden rests on your shoulders. That’s brave. and also thrilling.

Frankly I have at least as many posts in my “void” file as those posted. They’re incubating for future use. I learned from every one of them. These posts are not yet ready for you to invest your time in them. Attention is the new currency.

Why architects need to blog (and all design/build pros)


We simply don’t learn to write or even to communicate well in architecture school, and perhaps not in the field either. We practice designing, drawing and modeling. We learn by making things, not necessarily by speaking and writing, except for marketing and specs (yes, I said specs, thoroughly lacking in readability.)

Blogging cures that gap. When architects blog, we practice explaining our ideas, what we think about, and most importantly perhaps, what we believe. Rather than every few weeks to a client, we have to do it regularly, sitting at a computer, and then put it out there for you to respond: “Aha! Now I get it.” Or: “That’s crap, no way!”

Mostly design pros and contractors talk to each other. Isn’t that true? Think how much of your week is spent talking to people outside the industry about the industry? Blogging goes well beyond our everyday communications; we actually have to cut out the jargon, or at least explain it. (A client cursed me roundly for calling a drawing of the building exterior an elevation. whew, a stinger.)

Why do I blog?

I blog to rev up the idea chain, engage in conversations, and learn. Some of my blogging looks to the future, like “Twitter for Futurists,” my series on 21st century cities, and my current True Green series. Other posts focus on my opinion laced with some facts, such as last week’s outrage about the US pavilion at the World Expo in Shanghai. From my blog, it looks like opinion posts get more comments, while informative pieces get more views. Maybe when my voice is more front stage, so is yours? It’s one thought.


I wonder why we still ask about the value of blogging? Then I imagine, the Cistercian monks probably argued against the Gutenberg press for years too, maybe centuries! “Who will read all those Bibles?” doh! Eventually blogs will be accepted as a central part of the communication media chain, the part that gives each of us a megaphone.

Surely every blog post changes the world, some far more than others.

You can find more of my blogging colleagues responses to “Are blogs important?” here.

And for your amusement, Jon Stewart skewers blogging, or rather, eviscerates it.


The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
The Blogs Must Be Crazy
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook


Michelle Kaufmann Studio’s New Line of Net-Zero Prefab Designs #LEED #architecture


For forty years, architects have predicted prefab would become a major housing option. So far, it’s always sidelined by the flexibility and quality of stick-built. This month, Residential Architect features architect Michelle Kaufmann’s three new net-zero models.

Katy Tomasulo, Deputy Editor for EcoHome, writes in RA:

The Zero Series homes—Vista0, Ridge0, and Contours0—are designed to produce as much energy as they use, along with being healthy, efficient, and comfortable through the integration of efficient design and healthy, durable, and resource-conscious products. At the same time, the units, which range in size from 422 square feet to 2,643 square feet and start at $66,500, fill a need in the industry for more affordable options for architect-designed green homes.

“They make it more accessible to have thoughtful, green homes,” Kaufmann explains, adding that widespread acceptance of green modular housing means they can’t take more time to build, cost more than regular green homes, or be difficult to buy.

After permitting, the units can be built and installed in about four months. Building permit barriers have long been the fly in the ointment because city inspectors want access into wall and ceiling cavities. Once the drywall is installed at the factory, inspections of wiring and plumbing is impossible. Now factory certification programs are accepted in many jurisdictions, paving the way to prefab.

The houses are said to be less expensive than site built and offer some flexibility in configuration, size, and product selections. The basic models meet LEED certification, with upgrades such as solar panels in order to qualify for higher levels.

After seven years in business, Kaufmann’s prior Oakland CA venture fell victim to the recession last year. An established industry frontrunner in green prefab, Michelle Kaufmann Designs is now a subsidiary of Blu Homes, an east coast prefab home manufacturer.

Will prefab ever go mainstream? If so, is that time now? If not, what holds it back?

True Green: What’s Wrong with Green Building, Sustainability, and Especially #LEED? #green #architecture


During the July #aiachat, architects sang the praises of sustainable design and green building. Kyle Lee @KyleLEED says, “Green design is not only ‘good’ but a necessity.” @tomorrowsproject says, “67% of our poll respondents say sustainable design is already synonymous with good design.”

Others cite difficulties with increased costs of construction and persuading reluctant clients. In other words, according to this group, ‘why’ we build sustainably has been answered. Consensus reached, amen to that. And then we continue to stumble on the ‘how,’ the pragmatics of execution. Increased initial costs and unwilling clients have long been the one-two knockout punches for sustainable design.

In fact, beyond the community of sustainable design experts, you can hardly miss the frequent challenges. Particularly fierce shots target US Green Building Council’s LEED certification system, the reigning model for green design.

What are the problems with sustainable design?
Here’s a brief recap of the major complaints.

  1. Poor Performance. Some buildings are not living up to their promised energy efficiencies. Legal ramifications of de-certification are flying.
  2. Credibility. The ever-present bugaboo, greenwashing, undermines the credibility of the entire green tech industry. As The Atlantic said, being green is just too easy.
  3. Conflicting Standards. The myriad of green codes, regulations, and standards such as LEED, state or city energy codes, and BREEAM confuses clients and experts. Sometimes the criteria conflict. Which should we follow?
  4. Low Standards. LEED isn’t strict enough. For instance, according to recent report by Environment and Human Health, Inc., the highest level of LEED (platinum) does not mandate clean air quality and allows toxic materials. Does LEED actually protect human health?
  5. Weak Design. Frank Gehry continues to profess allegiance to sustainability while condemning the methods, specifically LEED. Why don’t we simply let A/E professionals use their judgment?
  6. Lacks Vision. LEED doesn’t inspire designers. It fails to represent true sustainability in a holistic sense including social justice, beauty, spirituality, quality of life, and education. It’s simply a checklist, not a transformational concept.
  7. User Complaints. Most recently, people that live in LEED buildings have started their own anti-sustainability campaign.

Gives even the most devoted believer pause, doesn’t it? What happened to the magic? Where’s the spirit of enthusiasm that inspired a movement? Are we truly building sustainably? Is LEED completely inadequate? Is there a fundamental lack of public support?

How should responsible, environmentally-concerned AEC professionals respond?

From this list of attacks, I see a pattern of three significant types of problems.

  • Is LEED the best option for sustainable design? Several of the items (performance, user complaints, and conflicting standards) confront LEED. Does it need tweaks or a major overhaul? Or should we throw it out and move on to a better system?
  • Why is there a war between sustainability and design excellence? Can green building and good design co-exist? Gehry gave it air, but believe you me, he’s got a whole cadre of cheerers. Lines are drawn.
  • In terms of sustainable buildings and cities, where do we go from here? Is there support for sustainable design in the long run? And frankly, exactly what is sustainable design? (You might think I’d start here, but I’d rather jump into the middle instead, grapple with some particulars, build some context, and see how those situations influence the abstract idea of sustainable design.)

Sustainable design is after all the single most critical problem that the modern building community has ever faced. Rather than the promised upward trend of endless new technologies and progressive growth, we have discovered epic mistakes, some that are irreversible. Our buildings make people, ecologies, even the planet sick. We abuse energy, waste resources, and destroy natural systems.

So where do we start? How do we learn a new way of thinking? Watching the tsunami of environmental catastrophes aggregate, brilliant people have pondered the problem for decades. We have practiced many new ways over the past ten or fifteen years.

More than that, environmental damage represents the first massive step backward that the industrialized construction industry has ever faced. We don’t even have the patterns required for identifying, analyzing, and solving problems at this scale. It’s nothing short of a new way of living; a new way of being.

If in fact, we shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us, are we sick too?

A True Green Series
I have my ideas. And I bet you do too. I plan to tackle this list, and perhaps a few other stray topics, over a series of posts.

I hope you’ll read, and more than that, I hope you’ll join the conversation – here or on twitter where you’ll find me as @urbanverse.

Because I sure don’t have all the answers, or know everything. I know what I know from my experiences and study. And thanks to the joy of internet and research methods, I can gather a lot of data.

I believe it’s important to open the conversation. Complaints deserve fair analysis. And I believe the more we challenge our practices, values, and solutions, the better our work.

Are we true green? Are you creating truly sustainable environments? Are we giving future generations a reasonable chance?

Hang on, bumpy road ahead.

Smog Santiago | Flickr – Photo Sharing!

FTF Architects, New Media, and New Brains: #AIA2010 Highlights


Here’s one paradox of online friends. I know an incredible community of people via social networks. Now, thanks to the generous tweets during AIA2010, I realize I have far more reasons to actually BE at the convention.

I experienced an oddly compelling separation anxiety. Why wasn’t I there, dancing in the street with Tabitha Ponte @designstudio26 and Susan Welker @ladyaia? How did I miss @stevemouzon’s presentation? Or Mike Plotnik @somechum, Ned Cramer @architectmag, and Marc Kushner @architizer’s panel?

In other words, paradoxically, online engagement makes real life ftf meetings more essential. Next year in New Orleans, I’ll be there. A tweet up, anyone?

Best Session 1 – Dan Pink
Two sessions stood out via tweets. These sessions just so happened to begin and end the convention. Some folks weren’t there yet on Thursday at 8 and others were gone by Saturday afternoon. Too bad.

The convention formally opened with Daniel Pink’s keynote Thursday. I own several of Pink’s books so his topic “The Role of Right-Brain Thinking in a Modern Economy” grabbed my attention. “People need to teach children to think like an architect.” Well, what self-righteous architect would argue with that? He suggested the US economy should be concerned about Asia, automation and abundance. By abundance, I think he means watch out for scarcity thinking. There’s not just one pie to divide up; make more pies. To take advantage of our right-brains, we need to think in terms of design, stories, and symphony.

Best Session 2 – New Media 
At the Saturday afternoon New Media panel, the dynamic trio of Mike Plotnik @SomeChum @HOKNetwork, Ned Cramer @Architizer, and Marc Kushner @architectmag covered all the bases– architecture firm, print/online media, and architects’ social network.

  • Ned Cramer @architectmag says that online media tries give the feel of the print experience, its materiality. You can see that’s their goal in Architect Magazine’s page-flip format; it even mimics page flipping. To avoid the sins of pure eye candy (as much as we architects appreciate gorgeous buildings), they balance culture, technology, practice, and design.
  • Marc Kushner @architizer set out to create a new model of information exchange for architects. They want to be what LinkedIn can’t be for architecture – a purely open sourced network. I would say Architizer operates a lot like a wiki; part firm brochure, part resume, part architecture culture, part social. The amount of material is exploding.
  • Mike Plotnik @SomeChum of @HOKNetwork made the statement that stuck most in my mind: social media should be more about sociology than technology. Isn’t that true about architecture and urban design too? Shouldn’t we be considering a human approach?

Mike described HOK’s process of setting up HOKLife in 2008. Because of a dearth of prior architecture models for social blogging, they visited the new media lab at the University of Virginia. HOK’s site now has what he refers to as a “living room AND a family room;” meaning the formal marketing portion and the blogging portion. He sees the two merging in the future. Their social media component has helped “solve a true business challenge,” that is, recruiting new talent.

His final thought: “It’s important not just to be on social media nodes, but to have a point of view.” You bet it is. That’s always been true about architecture. I’m seconding that.

[Mike recently invited me to write the first guest post for HOKLife, an excellent experience for me. including a couple of new friends.]

Architects Social?
With social media, we have to express our philosophy in words AND in buildings. In a social world, people can judge our words better than they can understand our architectural designs. We lose the mystical veil of expertise and have to simply talk with people.

I’m hopeful we can make the shift to the new sociability; are you?

See you in New Orleans May 2011? I’m thinking about a social tech session. Who would you want to hear? What should we cover?

Gratitude and resources:
Photo credit @liraluis posted “one of the more innovative booth designs” Let her explain that one. It confused and amused people all week. Hint: Rhino modeling.
Daniel Pink’s Keynote — thank you Susan Welker @ladyaia and @archaerie!
New Media Panel – thank you @stevemouzon, @GinaRMiller, and @Architizer!
You can see handouts online: (Thank you, Heather West @heatherwestpr).
I was intrigued by WorldViz’s booth on virtual reality, always looking towards next innovations.

Architects, Cities, and Virtual Reality at #AIA2010


Thanks to the WorldViz booth, architects at the American Institute of Architects Convention in Miami can experience virtual reality through heads-on display goggles. I have extreme virtual/augmented reality envy! (thank you Lira Luis @liraluis for the twitpic!)

Virtual reality creates a whole new world – such as Second Life. Augmented reality overlays digital images and data in the real world.

We will love these functions, I think. Imagine the things you can see on your computer screen but now they will appear as overlays in real life. Eventually, the headset will be smaller, lighter. In the future, you’ll just wear glasses or contact lenses.

So don’t imagine wearing a clunky headset when you visit a job site. That  s purely 2010.

I did a presentation for London architects and engineers on augmented reality; here’s my slideshow  . Notice there’s several ways to experience augmented reality, from using mobile apps to heads-on display. There’s even rooms where the images create the sense of space, they surround and envelop you. For instance, your body actually believes going down stairs.

Yesterday, Design Observer   featured a two part article titled “Sense of Place: A World of Augmented Reality.” It’s a theoretical look at the changes AR makes to our understanding of cities.     

BTW, I have more than a passing interest.  I am researching and writing a book on social tech, architecture and cities that will feature augmented reality. Already people are using Layar and other apps to change their experiences of cities.

How soon will we be using it in our offices? Good question.

WorldViz says it’s today. Universities look to be a target market with discounted pricing. Large firms and early adopters can jump in.  

Think of VR/AR as more than a presentation tool – it’s an experience. We can involve people instead of making them spectators at our table. Truly, a technology to celebrate.

Image Credit: Lira Luis @liraluis twitpic at AIA convention

Architects, Designers, Planners, Are You Change Agents? Lessons from KCMO School District


Perhaps you’ve heard of the Kansas City Missouri School District’s decades of struggles? This spring, the district leadership shocked the nation when they announced the closure of twenty-one schools. Despite dozens of desperate public school districts in America, none ever closed 21 schools at once. The last students walked out this week.

Eight of the closed schools are mine. Around twenty years ago, my architecture firm designed, renovated, or added to eight schools now closing (8 others are still in use). A sad day indeed.

Where Architects Messed Up
In the 1980s under a deseg order, KCMSD adopted a theory of magnet schools to curb the tide of white flight. Create buildings that match the suburbs with unique programs to attract white students. Does that make sense? The district spent one billion dollars in capital improvements.

They didn’t ask architects to think strategically. We were technical experts and designers, not experts at learning environments in the broader sense. Not offering was our fault; not being asked reveals the limits of our siloed profession.

Human-Centered Design Process
We shape buildings and then they shape us, right? It’s Churchill’s famous quote.

When we design, build, and use an environment, we participate in an ongoing interactive process. Imagine a constant state of design; we change the place, it changes us, and so on. So long as we engage with a place, it remains relevant and vital. When we stop, it dies, becomes a relic, an historic artifact.

Buildings are relatively straightforward to construct; difficult but we know exactly what it takes. Communities are not; they’re dependent upon the right mix of people sharing enough commonalities to cohere. Building excellent cities means we know how to develop both synchronically. If we want to be consulted on comprehensive decisions, then we must think beyond technical and design issues. We have to think full spectrum in terms of integrated holistic systems, cultivate our beliefs, and articulate persuasive narratives.

Are You A Change Agent?
To create human-centered solutions, the most important questions you have to ask are not “What to build?” but “Why build?”

1. Who is being served? Who should be?
2. Are you trying to build a legacy or serve an immediate need? Which dominates?
3. How will your work transform the community? The neighborhood? The city?
4. Are you building a completed project or will it grow with the students and community?
5. Are you leading the process or performing a duty as requested?
6. Does this solution figure into larger learning systems? And larger community needs and beliefs?
7. Is the solution student-centered, community-centered, building-centered?
8. How will you define excellence and failure? How long will you wait to claim victory or defeat?
9. How risky is the solution? Does it meet, stretch expectations, or redefine ideas?
10. Are you willing to make mistakes? Does the community allow mistakes?
11. Will you challenge their beliefs and assumptions?
12. Are you prepared to share your beliefs about learning, education, city and community building? Can you articulate excellence?
13. Do you care about the long-term future of the community? And the building?
14. What does the solution say about the students? The community? You?
15. How will the story of the project be told?
16. Who cares about what? Who cares about whom? How does your solution address, extend ideas of, cater to or engage these constituents and their affiliations?
17. How do you imagine the future in five years? In twenty years? Does that match, stretch, or diverge from the community’s?
18. How will your solution change the students’ lives? How will you know?
19. Are you prepared to grow and change with the project? What ideas are you willing to shed? Are any absolute?

Why Build?
Frequently architects move directly into programming using a linear process, missing out on the overall question of “Why Are We Building?”

Have you been asked to imagine ideas before there’s a defined building project? Have you developed knowledge and articulated philosophies beyond technical and design domains? Are you considered a trusted advisor regarding social systems, cultural beliefs, political alliances? Or the larger issues of learning and education? (Fill in the project type.)

Are you engaged in the community and/or project type so that others will seek your advice early? What do you and your team bring to the table?

In short, what questions are you asking?

So Long, Old Friends
Goodbye to: Moore Elementary 1916, Pinkerton Elementary 1931, Woodland Elementary 1923, Franklin Elementary 1961, Longan Elementary 1955, Kansas City Middle School of the Arts 1993, Douglass Early Childhood Center 1952, and Fairview Alternate School 1957. Best wishes in your next life.

Kansas City and its most beleaguered neighborhoods inherit a gaggle of empty buildings. If folks focus on vitality and communities, then these buildings again become relevant.