Category Archives: architecture

Hasta Luego, Senor Calatrava

Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava recently informed the City of Denver that he and his firm are withdrawing from the design process for the proposed south terminal at DIA. His firm has indicated they doubt very seriously that the City has the money to complete the project to their standards. Which is probably true, considering that when I first posted the video below last winter, the City had just informed Calatrava that the budget for the project was shrinking, from something like $650 million to $500 million. Calatrava then placed his design on the copy machine and hit “reduce scale 80%”.

The City says it will move forward with the current design. Calatrava and his firm have been paid some $12 million thus far, and the City of Denver will likely shell out another $12 million in legal fees to defend using his design without him on board.



What’s Next in High Performance Building?

After receiving an invitation from an old professor at the University of Colorado to attend a webinar entitled What’s Next in High Performance Building, (link goes to Governor’s Energy Office, webinar will be available online in the weeks to come) well, my interest was piqued. Someone please tell me, what is next?.

And don’t say flying cars, I already fell for that one.

With an undergraduate degree in architecture and twelve years of construction experience, I consider myself more in tune with sustainability and green building than probably most other folks. However, the recent “dip” in the economy has pushed “green” aside in favor of “value” for most of our clients. In fact, its been three years since my design/build business has done a true green build. While my clients’ values may have temporarily shifted, I’m very much interested in maintaining a business that is green at its core, which means keeping current with sustainable trends in architecture.

So it was somewhat disappointing to hear that most of the concepts outlined in the Architectural Trends portion of the webinar are the same concepts that Fred Andreas had been teaching undergrads in his Solar and Sustainable Design course some fifteen years ago, though clearly the technology continues to evolve. High performance glazing, natural day-lighting, passive solar, photovoltaics, ground source heat pumps, greywater systems and eco-machines, to name a few. These have all been in the hopper for quite some time now, and they seem to have only become more complicated and reliant on technology. Somehow we need to find a balance between simple, functional designs and the abundance of technology available to us.

For instance, the most green, energy efficient, cost effective way to cool our house during the summer is really quite simple: we open the windows at night, and then close them through the heat of the day. In this climate, in our old brick house, it works great. Our neighbors run their central air twenty-four seven during the summer, maybe their windows are painted shut or maybe they aren’t around to open and shut them. In this case the problem is that the most efficient way to cool a house relies on human initiative, and we all know how reliable that is. So I think where we are really making interesting progress is with materials and technologies that require little or no human input to respond to changing conditions.

Case and point, in the arena of high performance glazing (otherwise known as really expensive windows or “smart windows” for short) there are now commercially available products such as electrochromatic glazing

and thermochromatic glazing that control solar gains while optimizing natural light. Phase change glazing can physically store energy throughout the day to be released at night. All of these products can act independently of humans, enabling a building to constantly respond to its environment. There are also new technologies being employed to develop predictive intelligence for buildings, using algorithms of human behavior coupled with weather forecasting to predict and respond to future needs, thus maximizing a building’s energy efficiency.

With out a doubt the most interesting part of the webinar was featured speaker Fred Andreas’ talk about the concept of “a living wall.” The National Science Foundation’s Emerging Frontiers Research Initiative recently awarded a grant to a team of C.U. faculty (Fred being one of them) to study living wall materials, which is essentially biomimicry of the human body’s thermal regulation systems. If the Living Wall can provide the 80-95% energy reduction predicted, it will go a long way towards meeting the lofty goal of net zero energy buildings by 2030.

As I understand it, the living wall is like a “thermal diaper”, absorbing and wicking heat either into or away from the contents of a building as needed. An interstitial wall system exchanges heat and light through a capillary matrix of hydrogels and phase change materials. Prototypes are still a couple of years out, so it will be even longer before we know if Living Walls can become a commercially viable part of the sustainability puzzle.

Until then, I’m left to contend with our 1909 single-pane double-hung windows. Which reminds me, I better go close them!

Tree House

Growing up, my sister and I would climb pine trees and establish tree forts where we’d stockpile pine cones and attack anyone who dared venture up our driveway. It was fun at times, but it turned out there wasn’t all that much traffic. Besides, being perched precariously on the rough bark branches with the sap balls oozing down your shorts meant that we didn’t last all that long up in the trees. We may be have been kids, but we were not uncivilized. What we needed, was a tree house.

It wasn’t till years later that I found a site for a tree house, by which point my sister had lost interest in climbing trees altogether. With the help of my neighbor we finally built a proper tree house. It was a simple L shaped structure that we nestled into a vine covered pergola. Ahh the memories…for a few summers there my neighbor and I would camp out in the tree house and then sneak out and roam the neighborhood through the warm summer nights. I’m sorry to say that very little good comes from adolescent boys after midnight.

Now that I have kids of my own I was thinking it’d be fun to build them a tree house, buuuut after recalling those memories I’m not so sure.

You know maybe we’ll keep it more of a “crow’s nest” type of tree house. No sleeping space, yeah, that’s what we’ll do, standing room only.

Check out Dezeen magazine’s recent archives of tree houses for an array of ideas.

Dreaming of Solar

For as long as I’ve owned a home I have dreamed of installing a solar system that would produce clean, renewable energy for our home (and possibly others). The only problem is the cost. Even with Federal and State tax incentives and rebates from the utility company the cost of a new solar system for our home would come in around $15-20k. That’s a large investment that would require a long period of time to recoup.

So how does one Go Solar without going broke? The answer has emerged before us in the form of partnerships between solar installers and financing companies that offer solar rentals for little or no money down.

This isn’t exactly a new concept. Some five years ago I signed a contract with a company called Citizenre. They were going to install a solar array on my property for free, I would simply pay my electric bill to them and they would sell power back to the grid when we weren’t consuming what the array was producing. While initially we wouldn’t benefit financially from the system, the contract locked our energy rate in for twenty years which promised big savings down the road.

Sounds to good to be true, right? Well at the time it was. I don’t know the full story, but I’ve been led to believe from some in the industry that the local power company would not budge on the rate at which it buys energy from individual producers, basically crushing Citizenre’s business model. Citizenre never reached the critical mass needed and soon thereafter disappeared.

Fortunately, the power company has since come around, realizing that clean renewable energy is good for all of us, even them. That, along with a decrease in incentives from the government to install solar systems has made the rental market that much more attractive. Now, local solar installers like Namaste Solar have partnered with financing companies to provide solar system “rentals”. With very little upfront cost you can have a photovoltaic system installed and maintained for less than your current monthly electric bill. You can lock in your current energy rate for up to twenty years, and yes, it is transferable should you sell your house.

There are limitations of course. We have a nice, big, slightly south facing flat roof over our garage with excellent solar exposure. So for us, it’s easy to get a system that produces enough energy to make it worth it for the financing company. Many older homes have small south facing roof areas, or chimneys or trees obstructing the sun, so they may not be ideal candidates for a rented P.V. system. For anyone that dreams of clean, renewable energy, this is definitely worth investigating in your area.

Rain Screen Beetle Kill Siding

The abundance of beetle kill pine here in Colorado makes it a very affordable and sustainable building material. Most pine species are considered soft and often are riddled with knots, so while it can be used untreated for rustic furniture or trim indoors, untreated pine is not known for its durability outside. Which got me thinking…

How could I incorporate this inexpensive, readily available material into my newly framed 7,200 cubic foot man cave as a siding application?

Traditional lap siding and vertical board and bat applications set the material directly against the building paper which leads to bending, warping, cupping and cracking as the siding material is weathered unevenly. Beetle kill pine, milled down to manageable lap siding thickness, would surely fall apart over time as knots pop out and cracks develop.

What if rough sawn 1×6 beetle kill was attached to furring strips to hold the material off the wall, with gaps between the boards it would allow it to breath on all sides, right? When it rains, the whole board gets wet. When the sun is out, the whole board dries out. The obvious drawback is the additional waterproofing and flashing needed to make the surface behind the “rain screen” watertight. But with the beetle kill being so cheap, and with an abundance of free labor, I decided to give it a try. Ladies and gentlemen…may I introduce to you…The Rain Screen Experiment.

After painted cement panel siding was applied over the house wrap, the rain screen areas were flashed with metal, then 6″ adhesive flashing with the black, 30# building paper over that.

With the 3/4″ furring strips anchored securely to the frame, the rough sawn pine boards were cut to length and sealed with two coats of a stain/sealer. It should be noted that the pine was originally purchased from the mill after a spring snow storm and the material was, shall we say, damp? So we stacked the boards on stickers and allowed them to dry for several months.

And here is the finished appearance. The cement panels cost about $1/s.f. for the material, the beetle kill pine was about $0.60/s.f. but with the flashing factored in it was also about a $1/s.f. The upside of this project is that I was able to side our garage for very little money. The down side was that it took an embarrassingly long time to finish. Oh well, as I tell my clients, there are three major components that dictate the course of any project, money, time, and quality. You can only control two of them, so choose them wisely! In this case I opted for a quality finish on a tight budget, the schedule flew out the window a long time ago.

With the siding complete the experiment begins, how will this material hold up over time?

South Terminal at DIA

Interesting to see in this video what the proposed South Terminal Project at DIA might look like. The new train terminal and hotel will cap a much-needed connection from the airport to Union Station in downtown Denver. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, this video shows little of the existing airport terminal “tepee village” which begs the question of how the old and new forms will relate.

A recent Denver Post article reveals that the South Terminal Project has been scaled back a bit. Budget concerns have reduced the structure’s volume by 30%, which may be a good thing. The first thing that struck me about Calatrava’s design is the sheer mass of the project, which will be exaggerated by the lightness of the horizontally stretched roof lines of the existing main terminal. I think most residents of Denver will be so excited to have a Fastrak connection from downtown to the airport that few will complain about the appearance of the terminal. Yeah right!

The Dancing House

The Manchester School of Architecture posted a film last year from a field trip to The Dancing House in Prague. I remember seeing images of this building when it was completed in the mid-nineties. This short film is an interesting look at the history of the site, the architect’s inspiration, and the building as it stands today.

When this structure was conceived, architect Frank Gehry was challenging the modernist notion that form follows function. Feeling constrained by traditional drafting software, Gehry adopted software (CATIA) used by aerospace engineers and ship builders to design complex curvilinear forms. Fifteen years later Gehry’s Deconstructivist influence is evident in cities around the world.