If we look to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the process rooted in the principles of evolution by which variations of organisms are constantly adapted and adjusted to their surrounding environment as character traits become more or less prominent, due to contingencies upon survival and reproduction, we can discover clues about the role that design has in the practice of architecture. In the process of natural selection, organisms are “tested” against their environment, and natural genetic variation within a population causes some individuals to survive and reproduce more successfully than others. The most fit amongst the population pass on their character traits. Those character traits persist within the species and are perpetually honed and refined; hence the phrase coined by Herbert Spence, “survival of the fittest.” Charles Darwin used the term artificial selection to describe the process in which domesticated animals and plants with desirable characteristics were being bread, while those with less desirable characteristics were not, thus mimicking the evolutionary process found in nature to achieve the desired results.
The natural ability of a species to adapt and adjust its various “parts” to its surroundings and circumstances that is firmly rooted in a biological and evolutionary foundation can also be applied to the circumstances surrounding an architectural design problem. The perpetual act of adaptation, modification, adjustment, and refining that takes place in every realm of human existence can be considered a mimicking of the biological evolutionary process found in nature, and an act of artificial selection, or it can be considered a natural act unto itself, not artificial at all, found in the creation of everything manmade, an inevitable phenomenon that is extended to everything that human beings touch, that can be traced back to the earliest biological origins of man. Philip Steadman wrote, “The essence of Darwinian theory lies in the concept of trial and error; the trials being provided by variation, and the errors being detected by and removed by selection.”
Steadman talked about the factors, cultural and environmental, that result in variations of the form of artifacts and buildings. He attributed such variations to the genotype-phenotype distinction. A phenotype is “any observable characteristic or trait of an organism: such as its morphology, development, biochemical or physiological properties, behavior, and products of behavior (such as a bird's nest). The genotype of an organism is the inherited instructions it carries within its genetic code. Not all organisms with the same genotype look or act the same way because appearance and behavior are modified by environmental and developmental conditions. Similarly, not all organisms that look alike necessarily have the same genotype.”
The behavioral phenotype of all human beings is to seek shelter. It can be said that the genotype of all human beings carries the genetic code that instructs us to seek shelter. We seek shelter because we are cold and we are genetically predisposed to seek warmth. We seek shelter because we don’t want to be wet because we are genetically predisposed to being dry. All shelters created by human beings from the beginning of time can be said to be inspired by the same inherit variables. Norman Crowe, in his book, Nature and the Idea of a Man-Made World: An Investigation into the Evolutionary Roots of Form and Order in the Built Environment, observes the changes in artifacts and buildings over time in relation to their environment and cultural influences. As Crowe points out, the form of the shelter will be contingent upon the materials available in a particular region, the environmental conditions in the region and the cultural influences that dictate daily ritual and habits, all of which will inspire countless variations of forms and styles.
In his exploration of the origin and evolution of the calendar, Crowe observes that, “Time and one’s position on the surface of the earth are revealed as intricately related qualities of existence. The length of a shadow at a given moment on a given day is different from one place to another along a north-south line on earth.” Crowe points to Vitruvius, the Roman author, architect, civil and military engineer during the 1st century BC, and his awareness of his surroundings. He refers to Vitruvius’s observation of the siting a building “to the inclination of the circle of the zodiac and the course of the sun,” meaning that a house designed in 1st century Rome would satisfy the basic inherit need for shelter, but would have characteristics specific to its place and time. Vitruvius was not only aware that the design of such buildings were predicated on those built before, he used historical precedent as a basis for his own designs. He looked to the mythical early hut as an earlier rendition of the Greek Temple. The Morgan translation of Vitruvius, 2.14-5, reads, “What could not happen in the original would have no valid reason in the copy. For in all their works they [the ‘ancients’] proceeded on definite principles of fitness and in ways derived from the truth of Nature.” Regardless of what we think about Vitruvius’ reliance on precedent to justify his architecture, we cannot deny the evolutionary roots in his work and the precedent that he himself set.
To more specifically define the role that design plays in the architectural profession, one can look to William Hubbard’s Book, Complicity and Conviction: Steps Toward an Architecture of Convention, written in 1981. Hubbard’s book was a response to Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, written in 1966 that encouraged architects to break away from the simplistic and restrictive parameters of modern architecture. Venturi wrote, “I prefer “both-and,” to “either-or,” black and white, and sometimes gray, to black or white. A valid architecture evokes many levels of meaning and combinations of focus: its space and its elements become readable and workable in several ways at once.” William Hubbard argues, “we still aren't there yet, we have not yet found a way of making architecture that fulfills both the needs of the public for a style they can understand and respond to, and the needs of the architectural profession for a style it can feel has advanced the state of its art.” William Hubbard believed that the era of post modernism had brought us no closer to meeting the needs of society than modern architecture had and that in order to bring more meaning to architecture, a more definitive design approach needed to be articulated.
To aid in the establishment of a baseline theory and parameters for the design process in architecture, Hubbard looked to the use of legal precedent in judicial law that is used to develop supporting rational for judicial rulings. He sites that other art forms, such as poetry, can employ a similar practice, such as that used by literary critic and poet, Harold Bloom. Bloom identifies what he calls “misreading” in which, in order to understand a poem, one must go back and re-read other poems and draw on the meaning and substance of the older works in order to fully grasp the meaning of the work at hand. In essence, Bloom theorizes that patterns of imagery in poems represent both a response to and a defense against the influence of precursor poems. William Hubbard writes, “he (Bloom) points out that a new poem will appear worthy to us only when we can see it as having something in common with poems that we already know.”
Hubbard explains how judges cite an older decision, emphasize the point of the decision, and use it as a basis to establish a decision on a current ruling that builds upon the previous decision. The judge reconstructs the previous decision so as to address a new set of conditions. In the end, the new decision may or may not be closely related to the old decision that it was based on. It may only give the appearance of being related. The public accepts it because it is rooted in convention. A lay person may view it as groundbreaking because it is unfamiliar to them, because it is rooted in the past. A final ruling that originates in the past, that has been reconstructed to accommodate the present, and will be reconstructed yet again in the future to accommodate a future decision, is established and becomes a link in the chain of evolution. A new history is recorded, the chain grows, and over time, gradually, new conventions of thought are established. Ideally, the judicial process dictates that this effect be contingent upon the historical precedent being fair, reasonable, and just, although we know that is not always the case. Sometime the judicial process goes awry.
Hubbard sees the architect like a judge. He writes, “We appoint him the person who makes up and manipulates the conventions of form, the rules of good building. In return for that privilege, we expect a scrim of such conventions, specifically constructed with us in mind, seamless enough to thwart our own peculiarly modern skepticism.” Hubbard might say that the architect can and should look back in history to find a basis on which to build his argument for his current design. He should look at particular conventions that are rooted in the past and build upon those rather than start from scratch. This insinuates that anything created from scratch, without the benefit of precedent, will surely be inferior, because it does not stem from a previous incarnation and therefore will not be fully realized in form, texture, and content. This is why modern architecture is often lacking. It simply is not fully realized, because it is wedged in between the past and the future, with no association with either. A present day design that is linked to the past will become the next link in the chain of time for future incarnations by other architects. It’s the architect’s job to know his place in the evolution of design, to know when to reach back and grasp a link to the past and to know when to thrust forward a link into the future.
The Evolution of the Old, the New, and the In-between by: Melissa Meyer
In his essay Architecture as Environment: Architecture as Habit, Paul Tesar ponders an architecture that is an integral part of a greater whole and an intrinsic piece of a naturally evolving transcendental composition inspired by the common good, as opposed to an arbitrary, self-determining architecture that exists solely for its inhabitant. Tesar considers a public, civic architecture of community that he refers to as “Architecture of Environment” versus a private, personal, subjective and idiosyncratic architecture. The tautological “authentic reproduction” in architecture is an oxymoronic and unnatural attempt to compensate for what should be allowed to evolve naturally.
Tesar asks, “How should we think about architecture if we want this environment to be our environment, not just an accidental sum of personal statements, but a collective expression of who we are?” And he asks, “How should we think about architecture if we want this environment to embody meanings we share, rather than those that tend to separate and divide us?” An architecture that expresses the tendencies of a naturally evolving culture, addressing the needs of society along the way, using naturally occurring construction methods that took centuries to evolve, will inevitably produce an architecture of integrity, high quality buildings that stand the test of time and represent a cultural identity. The compulsory urge to reject the natural progression of the built environment over the course of history represents the egocentric impluse to innovate for innovation’s sake and will likely result in a curious if not shocking outcome, hence the architectural one-liner.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his essay, The Relentless Cult of Novelty and How it Wrecked the Century, writes that “no new work of art comes into existence (whether consciously or unconsciously) without an organic link to what was created earlier.” The act of defying the precedent created by that organic link in time in an attempt to create something new is itself an acknowledgement that it existed and rejection becomes the foundation for the autonomy that robs society of a cultural identity. Solzhenitsyn writes that, “Nothing worthy can be built on a neglect of higher meanings and on a relativistic view of concepts and culture as a whole.”
But Solzhenitsyn points to a happy medium, “remaining equally sensitive to the old and to the new, to venerable and worthy traditions, and to the freedom to explore, without which no future can ever be born.” He acknowledges that without “a responsible organizing force” the structure, meaning and value of a work of art are diminished. The master plan and definitive architectural design guidelines can provide a unifying framework in which scaled, proportioned, and well-crafted artistic innovation can occur. Such a framework can become a uniting force in which multiple cultural identities can be expressed, resulting in an engaging aggregate of forms and textures; perhaps a viable response to Tesar’s inquiry about how we should “think about architecture if we want an environment that radiates a beauty that speaks to us on the level of our shared humanity, rather than merely to that of our personal preferences and tastes.”
Solzhenitsyn, proclaims that, “art has not grown toward the highest achievements of craftsmanship and of the human spirit.” He writes of “the disintegration of art into a frantic and insidious novelty. To decorate public spaces we put up sculptures that estheticize pure ugliness – but we no longer register surprise.” Paul Tesar’s “Architecture of Environment” gives the negative space “in-between” equal footing with the architecture itself, denotes it as “public,” and reserves it for an inception that can aspire to the level of civic art. A well designed negative, in-between space can raise the expectation of a work of art that might occupy that void. The ordinariness of a traditional master plan that consists of repetitive and uniform patterns provides opportunities for unforeseen creativity to emerge.
N.J. Habraken, in his essay The Appearance of the Form – One: Sharing, Habraken reminds us that most towns in history came about without designing. He writes that, “Many just grew incrementally following paths that in turn found their way among riverbanks and slopes. It is a long way from the organic growth of settlements, via preconceived layouts, to the idea of professional town design.” Habraken conveys that the first “designed” town plans, early renaissance Florentine towns, were layed out by surveyors who took instruction from town officials. These early repetitive and uniform patterns were extensions of earlier organic, naturally evolving compositions, but they nonetheless provided a framework for public and civic activity to take place and to flourish. They also provided a physical base from which a social structure could grow and organize itself, where the production of artifacts could occur, and where knowledge and expertise could be cultivated. As knowledge and expertise in crafting artifacts was passed down from generation to generation within this solid framework of social structure that was firmly rooted in a physical, patterned, geometrical core, high quality conventional forms emerged. According to Habraken, in order for the successful cultivation of conventional form to occur, “there must be time for knowledge of the form to take root in the social body that shares it.”
May 03, 2009 (The Miami Herald - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Outraged preservationists are rallying to stop the impending demolition of what they believe to be Miami's oldest standing church building, the original 1912 Mission-style chapel at St. Stephen's Episcopal in Coconut Grove, which the congregation plans to replace with new classrooms and a commercial retail building. Story continues below ↓
From Adversity to Predictability By: Melissa Meyer
Rafael Moneo, in his essay, On Typology, acknowledges that to question typology in architecture is to acknowledge the nature of its existence and its significance relative to each new generation of human beings. It is the nature of each new generation to analyze, question and ultimately form its own theories about typologies in architecture. The very act of using language to describe an architectural object is in itself an act of typifying that object. At the very moment that the architectural object is given a name, and that name is uttered by a human being, it is destined to enter the evolutionary stream and is condemned to an eternal life of repetition and refinement, repetition and refinement, repetition and refinement and it becomes a family of objects that become the basis for other objects, other families, forever linked to the origins of their conception. The inherit desire to ignore the lineage of the object, in an attempt to disconnect it from its origins and create something new, represents the natural process required to produce the next generation of the object. It may be altered, manipulated, transformed, converted, radicalized or bastardized, but it can never escape its heritage. Anonymity is but a mirage, a gimmick. It is the quest for anonymity that becomes the genesis for evolution.
Turning ones back on history and the act of reducing architecture to its most basic elements of point, line, plane and volume is itself an acknowledgement of the past. To reject something is to affirm that it exists and to defying its existence is to testify to its importance. Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand’s act of freeing classical architecture from the “tyranny of the Orders,” gave him the opportunity to re-examine the changing needs of the society. Architecture was no longer just a display of cultural power, a way to pay homage to the gods, and a demonstration of skill and artistic ability. The changing needs of civilization required architecture to become more versatile, more functional, and more economical. Durand’s response was to expand Quatremere’s notion of type. In Durand’s broader translation, type became genre. Form was broken down to its essential elements; the elements were categorized and reassembled into a composition that responded to the new demands of the culture. Durand’s new organizational tools, the grid and the axis, became the framework in which the essential elements could be composed, based on functional needs. “Style” became separated from structure and form and was a luxury that could be imposed on the composition later. The evolution of the grid and the axis was a direct result of Durand’s rejection of order as seen by Quatremere. The rejection of the grid and the axis gave rise to subsequent theories.
Garth Rockcastle, in The Value of Types: A Debate, affirms the contradictory nature of typologies, sighting that typologies can “liberate or oppress, condone or reject, instruct or blind.” He proclaims that, “The value of a type depends more on how, why, when, and where it is used and who uses it, than on the fact that it was used. Paul Tesar, in his essay, The Other side of Types, provides insight, by citing Knotig’s Principle, as to why an attempt might be made to blindly choose a typology to artificially inject a place with meaning and order. Knotig’s Principle characterizes the nervous system of all higher forms of life as inheriting a tendency to achieve the highest degree of predictability of the environment with the least amount of information processing effort. Predictability feels safe, the unexpected is threatening, and so it stems to reason that the organizing of one’s environment to keep it familiar and to make it manageable and convenient enables the evolutionary process to continue on a steady path with minimal effort. The quest for predictability is a direct response to adversity. Adaptation to the environment or adaptation of the environment is an endless path that takes us further from adversity and brings us closer to predictability, but the only truly predictable state of being is found at the end of the path, in death.
Paul Tesar tells a story by linguist, S.I. Hayakawa, in which four men perceive different characteristics, based on their frame of reference and on their particular interests, of the same two groups of animals and bestow different names upon the two groups, none of which are superior or inferior to the other names and none of which are deemed to be correct or incorrect. Hayakawa concludes that there is no “real name” for anything and he questions what we might mean by the notion of a “real name.” Who gets to decide what the name of something should be? Who decides what characteristics are superior? Based on what? Garth Rockcastle attributes types, i.e. the naming of objects, to cultural manipulation. “Types sanction conformity and homogeneity. Why does Leon Krier argue type as a populist tool? Who controls the formula and who benefits from its use? These are the questions criticism has the responsibility to ask,” he writes.
Paul Tesar looks to a project by Viennese architect Jan Turnovsky which demonstrates twenty different ways to sew on a button, each representing a different meaning from “conservative”, to “undecided”, to “frustrated,” with the “conservative” button at the top, representing the “conventional way” to sew a button and the subsequent buttons representing various degrees of deviation from the conventional. Systems of meaning and the many variations of the conventional can be found at all levels of society. Garth Rockcastle asserts that, “type relates a thing to other things or reasons for being, killing our chance to truly know it for itself.” Perhaps the only way to truly know the true nature of anything, including ourselves, is to resist our inherit desire to subscribe to a system of classification.
Tom Wolfe, in his essay, The Worship of Art, highlighted two different ways in which people express the rejection of the world, through religion and through art. Wolfe submited that religious prophesies that condemn non-believers and set well-to-do church goers apart from the general masses, assuring them that their spot in heaven is secure, represent a form of self justification; the justification of one’s wealth, which is used, in part, to support the church and those delivering the message of salvation. Wolfe goes on to explain that today we have a hierarchical endowment system for the arts which exists to legitimize the well-to-do and make them look glamorous to boot. Salvation, legitimization, and status are on sale at our religious and cultural institutions. Corporations, such as Philip Morris and Bank of America, are hip to this concept, hence their elaborate corporate art programs that coincide with the level of their misdeeds.
It is easier to move art as commodity when it is released from all societal and cultural obligations and responsibilities. Autonomy in art makes it universal, allowing it to forgo any ties to a single group or tradition, thus making it readily available to anyone, anywhere, for a price. Dematerialization of art releases the artist of utilitarian duties. As Suzi Gablik indicates in her essay, Art for Art's Sake or Art for Society's Sake, art is no longer a “precious object” to be cherished. It is something to look at that you don’t really need. Fine craftsmanship is no longer an expectation and a throw-away society can emerge.
The International Style, mentioned in Mashe Safdie’s Private Jokes in Public Places, reiterates the notion that modernism, when watered down for importation to America, defies cultural and social barriers because it is not tied to or obligated by anything except the few basic rules that define it. This makes it ripe for the picking by narcissists and those possessed by a superiority complex. As Gablik points out, “the artist saw himself as a kind of priest who divined the inner soul, or spirit.” Exactly the kind of self-perception that is required when one is in engaged in the rejection of all historical, social, and environmental contexts in which they inhabit. And what better perspective to adopt when searching for a way to justify one’s disregard for civic duty and social and environmental responsibility? Especially when your local religious institution is always there for you, making it all okay, in the name of god.
When Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson wrote The International Style in 1932, they knew what they were doing. What better way to turn a legitimate movement into an international commodity than to strip it of the very social and political connections that gave birth to it in the first place? Only then can it be bastardized and exploited. And what better place to do it than America, where we are void of an historical identity and desperate to legitimize our lifestyle? It’s no wonder the modernist style (not the modernist movement, as Safdie points out) has served us so well in the justification of the environmental, social and civic degradation that is a by-product of the American suburban drive-in utopia and the corporations that perpetuate it.
Can post-modernism, in combination with the beginning of the end of the oil era, and the financial crisis of 2007–present, or the Great Recession, as it is being called by some, eventually result in the restoration of civic, social, and environmental responsibility in our communities? Or, are we poised for a new cultural movement to emerge from the chaos?
Prototypes: Trends, Pros, Cons, and Concerns by: Melissa Meyer
Proto, from the Greek, Prōto, means first in time, earliest, first formed, primitive, and original. It contains the superlative pro, meaning before. Type, from the Latin, typus, means figure, image, form, or kind and refers to a set of characteristics that causes something to be regarded as a group, defined by a class, or designated into a category. When an original or model is considered for or deserving of imitation, it is a pattern. When an original pattern or model of which all things of the same type are representations or copies, an original or model may be considered a prototype. Innovation refers to the introduction of something new. When architects seek to address a problem, need or deficiency, by innovating an original model that will be repeated, they are creating a prototype. An architectural prototype is conceived as a model that is tested, refined, and tested again, until a final version is worthy of repeating.
The design of site-specific, original buildings requires communication and coordination across several disciplines and requires site-specific, original detailing, increasing the cost of construction documents and specifications. Construction is overseen by a general contractor who delegates most of the work to heavy construction and specialty trade contractors who have no responsibility for the structure as a whole. The process of completing a building is a long, drawn out, and expensive process. Prototypes on the other hand, can be mass produced, using standardized materials and construction methods that minimize material and labor costs and maximize production and profit. Prototypes can be “assembled” rather than constructed using a minimal amount of manpower, tools, and machinery. The components that make up the prototype can be manufactured in a factory or warehouse and brought to the site already assembled, partially assembled, or ready to be assembled. Prototypes can also be designed to be disassembled and reassembled in another location. Materials used for a prototype are influenced by environmental, historical, geographical, and economic, conditions.
The prototype may be fabricated as a singular form or it may be modularized and consist of separate components that are interchangeable. A prototype that is modularized consists of a sum of parts that make up the whole and it is possible to rearrange the parts or modules to respond to the environment and to reflect the needs of the user. Architects and structural, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineers can use an integrated design approach that incorporates all of the buildings systems into a fabricated singular form or into the modules of a prototype so that when assembled, the prototype is a fully functional building. This integrated design approach is challenging conventional construction industry standards. With advances in computer modeling software that allow for sophisticated analysis of building geometry and spatial relationships that can instantly use geographic information and building material properties and quantities to create, analyze, and refine prototypes in 3-D, in real time, the only limit is the architects imagination.
Prior to World War II, Bill Levitt joined his father’s real-estate company and later with his brother Alfred Levitt, an architect, began building high-end custom homes on Long Island in New York. The family business was successful until an embargo on the private use of raw materials during the war put a halt to new construction and led to a housing deficiency. Bill Levitt went to serve in the Navy where he perfected the use of interchangeable parts to mass-produce military housing. After the war he was able to purchase one thousand acres of onion and potato fields on Long Island and he set out to capitalize on the government assistance that returning soldiers were receiving under the G.I. Bill, which amounted to a surplus of low-interest mortgages.
In 1947, Bill Levitt began mass producing pre-cut building materials in a factory in California and shipping them to the site in Long Island where already poured concrete slabs on grade awaited and an assembly-line approach was used to erect 150 (16 per minute in an 8 hour work day) 750 sq.ft. Cape Cod style houses. In 1989 Bill Levitt told the New York Times that, "What it amounted to was a reversal of the Detroit assembly line. There, the car moved while the workers stayed at their stations. In the case of our houses, it was the workers who moved, doing the same jobs at different locations." The national need for new and affordable housing led to a demand for larger “Levitttowns” in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and began a national trend. Bill Levitt became known as the godfather of suburban sprawl.
Western European architect and planner Léon Krier, known as the godfather of the New Urbanist movement in America, was among the first to identify and articulate the problems associated with the concept of the disposable, adaptable, plug-in, modularized systems of architectural prototypes. He cites historical precedents and American trends that teach us that the faster-cheaper-more scenarios of standardization and mass production used to create low-density housing in rural areas, such as Levittown, are often economically, environmentally, socially and culturally unsustainable. Low-density housing in rural areas requires higher per-person infrastructure costs and higher per-capita use of energy, land, and water. Social and cultural needs are neglected as connectivity to transportation networks that provide access to social, cultural, and civic institutions and access to daily goods and services are often non-existent. Increased auto-dependency instigated by suburban low-density housing is commensurate with an increase in big box retail establishments and strip malls and a decrease in the economic infrastructure and social fabric that supports the urban core of towns and cities, ultimately resulting in a diminished quality of life for suburbanites and city dwellers alike. The faster-cheaper-more scenarios of standardization and mass production associated with architectural prototyping are often equated with poor craftsmanship and the unsightly use of products that simulate natural building materials.
The financial crisis of 2007–present, which has resulted in the collapse of large financial institutions, the bailout of banks by national governments, the downturn in stock markets around the world, and the worst crisis in the construction industry in ninety years, as well as millions of foreclosures, has slowed suburban sprawl for now. A new national trend towards the renovation and “greening” of existing buildings and a newfound respect for the inner core of towns and cities has begun. Can architectural prototyping be used to revitalize neglected urban cores and create a healthy urban effect? Can architectural prototyping be used to counteract the environmental, social and civic degradation that is a by-product of the American suburban drive-in utopia? And finally, can architectural prototyping be used to create value in architecture via the resurgence of fine craftsmanship to create places that history will respect? Today’s architects, planners, and civic leaders will decide.
Using Natural Ecosystems As Our Guide By: Melissa Meyer
Less than two-tenths of one percent of the planet's water is drinkable. In many developing countries the majority of the population does not have access to clean, safe water. Out of desperation people drink contaminated water, even though it carries deadly diseases and heavy metals that are toxic to tissues and organs. Open sewers ensure that contaminants reach the water table and remain in the water supply. As Americans we are privileged to live with the luxury of being able to turn on a tap and have clean, fresh, potable water (water that is safe for drinking and cooking) that is enriched with fluoride for dental health.
We use potable water to drink, cook, bathe, and to wash our dishes, to flush our toilets, water our landscaping, wash our cars, hose down our driveways, fill our pools and fountains, and we use it in our heating and cooling systems. Eighty percent of our nation’s potable water is used in the construction and operations of our buildings. We need potable water only for drinking, cooking, bathing, and washing our dishes. Harvested rain water and reclaimed gray water (domestic wastewater composed of wash water from kitchen, bathroom, and laundry sinks, and from bathtubs, showers, dish washers and clothes washers) can be used to flush our toilets, water our landscaping, wash our cars, hose down our driveways, fill our pools and fountains, and in our heating and cooling systems. If a community can recycle and reuse eighty percent of the water it uses, it can increase its’ water supply by four hundred percent!
In urban China, where water scarcity, contamination and pollution pose great challenges, a dual piping system is used to supply both potable and reclaimed water to homes and businesses. A separate tap delivers the potable water. The system prevents the mixing of the two water supplies and allows for the recycling and reuse of gray water. With proper planning, beginning in the early stages of the design of the landscape, architecture, and engineering processes of a community, the recycling and reuse of gray water can be commonplace. The problem of black water, (water that contains animal, human, or food waste) can be mediated by the use of composting toilets that allow for the use of harmless humanure as fertilizer for landscaping and vegetable gardens.
Water purification occurs in nature as rainwater, flood waters, and runoff move through estuaries, swamps, marshes, bogs (areas of soft, marshy land where moss and rare plants thrive), and riparian areas (the zone between a stream or river and the adjacent land). Infiltration occurs as water soaks into the ground and flows through soil, rock, and gravel. Tightly packed particles that make up the soil filter out impurities and absorb excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous while pollutants and waste are filtered out. Water is also absorbed by the roots of specially adapted plants and moves up through the xylem of the plant and is transpired into the atmosphere as vapor, leaving waste particles behind to be broken down by the plant. By the time the water flows into lakes, streams, rivers, and oceans it is often cleaner than tap water.
However, the earth’s ability to purify its water is being severely compromised by humans. Overdevelopment is causing a loss in acreage of wetlands and an increase in impervious surfaces such as roads, highways, and parking lots, accelerating runoff, increasing flooding, and funneling contaminated water directly into lakes, streams, rivers and oceans, completely bypassing natural filtration systems. The natural flow of surface water and groundwater is being altered by hydrologic modifications and the reconfiguration of waterways, increasing invasive plant and animal species, disrupting entire ecosystems, and thus destroying nature’s water purification systems. Periods of heavy rain or snow melts intensified by global warming are overwhelming the natural filtering systems that we have left.
Storm water is rain and snow melt that runs off surfaces, such as, rooftops, paved streets, highways, and parking lots. It does not infiltrate the ground and flows into trench drains and storm sewers where it is usually routed directly into lakes, rivers and streams, taking harmful toxins and pollutants with it. The first step in managing storm water is reducing the amount of paved surfaces. Alternative paving materials are porous asphalt, porous concrete, block pavers, and plastic grid systems. Each of these products is designed to allow percolation and infiltration of storm water through the surface into the soil below where pollutants are removed through natural processes. If storm water is properly managed, the need for trench drains and storm sewers is eliminated.
Storm water can be directed to a permeable surface or rain garden (a collection of plants that can survive on the rainfall and do not require watering), via a bio-swale (a mechanism for directing the flow of storm water) where it can be naturally purified and filtered down to replenish the ground water supply (any subsurface water that occurs beneath the water table in soil and other geologic forms). Storm water can also be harvested, using rain water barrels or cisterns, and reused to flush toilets, water landscaping, wash cars, hose down driveways, fill pools and fountains, and in heating and cooling systems.
Gray water from wash water from kitchen, bathroom, and laundry sinks, and from bathtubs, showers, dish washers and clothes washers can be collected in an internal tank or external container and, after mimicking water filtration and purification processes that occur in nature, can be reused to flush toilets, water landscaping, wash cars, hose down driveways, fill pools and fountains, and in heating and cooling systems. Green cleaning products should be used so as not to taint the gray water supply. Garbage disposals should not be used. Garbage disposals dispose of food waste into gray water, making it more complicated to treat. Food waste should be composted and the compost should be used to fertilize landscaping and gardens.
Harvested storm water and collected gray water can be combined and the two water sources can be naturally treated and reused simultaneously for non-potable uses, vastly increasing the water supply. Gray water from kitchen, bathroom, and laundry sinks, and from bathtubs, showers, dish washers and clothes washers, can be directed into the same cistern that is being used to harvest storm water from roofs. Storm water and gray water from the cistern can then be directed to a contained, below grade or above grade sandbox, where waste particles are filtered out.
Gravity or an adjacent pump, which can be run with electricity generated from solar panels, can move the water to the next station, a planter box, where water will percolate through vegetated soil and gravel filters, removing more pollutants such as phosphorus and nitrogen, as microbes in the plants' roots capture chemical toxins and release them as harmful gases. Sustainability can be maximized by using plants that produce fruits or vegetables in the planter box. Next, gravity, or a secondary pump, running on electricity from solar panels, will then direct the clean water to another cistern. The cleaned water can then be routed, with the assistance of gravity or another pump, back to kitchen, bathroom, and laundry sinks, and to bathtubs, showers, dish washers and clothes washers for reuse. It can also be used to water landscaping, power wash decks, hose down driveways, etc.
Planter boxes can be designed to create courtyards and outdoor rooms. Cisterns and sand box containers can be placed out of sight, under the house, on the roof, or in enclosed quarters, situated in such a way so that the use of pumps is minimized and the use of gravity to move water through the filtration process is maximized. Black water can also be treated and reused as gray water, but additional steps are required. First solids must be trapped, removed and stored for later use as humanure. A retention pond can be added and designed to mimic natural wetlands where aerobic conditions can be sustained and the breakdown of organic nitrogen can occur. The ponds can be integrated into the landscape. Fish can be added to aid in the particle removal process. Waterfalls and recirculating fountains can also be used as addition cleansing mechanisms and can enhance the built environment. Storm water, gray water, and black water recycling and reuse can be simple and affordable if we use natural ecosystems as our guide.
I had the privilege of having Gail Lindsey as my professor for two architecture studios at N.C. State while earning my Bachelor of Environmental Design in Architecture. I was her student in the early 90's while she was developing her ideas and organizing her thoughts about green building standards, technical criteria, and the rating system that later became LEED. I benefited directly from her enthusiasm and pioneering spirit.
Gail introduced me to Cohousing. One of our studio projects was to do a master plan for the Arcadia Cohousing Community in Chapel Hill, N.C. under the direction of lead architect, Giles Blunden. We learned to carefully analyze the site and incorporate key green, sustainable planning strategies into the master plan. Arcadia later developed into one of the best examples of sustainable community oriented design in the southeast.
Another studio project assigned by Gail was the first green, sustainable, passive solar house at the Potluck Community Farm, an intentional community of 13 families in Rougemont, North Carolina. Gail taught us to consider sustainable design solutions and green building practices from the early stages of master planning to the final touches on the building. She encouraged us to view green design as the norm and not the exception.
Gail was born in Miami, Florida. She disliked it there because she felt that overdevelopment was destroying the beautiful South Florida environment. She attended Columbia University, where her passion for everything green flourished. Gail later settled in Wake Forrest, N.C. where she founded the green consulting firm, Design Harmony. After three successful rounds of chemotherapy for breast cancer, Gail died on February 2, 2009 due to complications from a recurrence of liver cancer.
Gail Lindsey was the co-creator of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, and a founding member of the American Institute of Architect’s Committee on the Environment. She was among the first LEED trainers, and she helped create the AIA’s Top Ten Green Projects program. She headed the greening of the White House, the greening of the Pentagon, and the greening of Habitat for Humanity.
Gail was also responsible for the Sustainable Design Initiatives for the National Park Service, the International Green Building Challenge and companion GBTool, and the interactive CD ROM known as the Green Building Advisor. She also developed the Department of Energy’s web-based high performance case study database, the Department of Defense’s Sustainable Design Training Program, and the U.S. EPA’s Energy Star Program.
These are just a few of Gail Lindsey's many achievements. She was without a doubt, the godmother of the green building movement.