Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Architecture & Stories

I have been aware for a while that all verbal and written communication is about telling stories - even when it takes the most simple form. This is also clearly true in other areas, such as music and visual arts.

Whether we are aware of it or not, our communications always contain stories. These are stories about our culture, about our personal experiences, and the human mind and experiences of the world. Beyond this, they are stories reflecting the evolution of our species and the structures and processes of this universe.

I am becoming more aware of how true this also is for architecture.

When we present a project, either verbally or visually, it is obviously about telling a story. We tell the story of the background of the project - the people who are going to use it, the physical conditions, and the physical and cultural context. We also tell the story of our own approach to the project, what we see as important, and the processes that led us to the current design.

And we tell stories that goes far beyond this. These are stories about our personal worldview, the worldview of our culture and subcultures, about the history of building that we are part of. We also tell stories about our biology and our planet.

There are no absolute boundaries, and all scale levels reflect each other.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Project Oriented Learning

It seems that project oriented learning (and teaching) is far more effective than many other approaches to learning.

It gives you a (close to) real life project to work on, where you must integrate (and learn) a wide variety of skills and pieces of information and knowledge. It shows how these aspects all come together in real life, why it is important to know them and how to apply them, and it gives a concrete and interesting result.

This approach is useful not only for design, but any topic (math, geography, language etc).

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Pattern Language

In our age of abundant (often overwhelming) information on a wide range of topics, it becomes increasingly important to organize it in a way that allows for (a) comprehensive information and (b) easy access to a particular aspect of the information.

I have found two approaches that seems to each allow for this. One is the pattern language approach (applied to design and sustainability. See also WikiPedia). The other Ken Wilber's all-quadrants, all-levels approach (Ken Wilber, map).

There seems to be several similarities between these two mapping tools: (a) They use a holarchical approach, including all scales from the largest to the smallest. (b) They look at patterns as they apply to each level, and in the various areas within each level. (c) They look for similarities and differences in the patterns that emerge at the different levels and areas.

I had a conversation tonight about a "best practices" book that may be written about intentional communities. It seems that a combined pattern language and all-quadrants, all-levels approach may be a very useful organization. It would allow for just what I hope to find in these types of books - comprehensive information, and simplicity in identifying any particular piece of the information (thorugh logical, holarchical, organization).

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Design Strategies

Many or all of the strategies below are obviously specific to certain design goals and philosophies (and a specific culture/time). They are by no means "universal".



1. Keep it moving, avoid static cycling. Add something new to the idea each time. Shift scales (e.g. between focus on whole design and specific details).
2. Identify implicit assumptions, and question them.
3. Systematically explore and change each aspect of the situation (turn around, upside down, change numbers, etc). Also identify, question and explore the implications of changes of the underlying assumptions (your, your client's, your society/culture's assumptions).
4. Choose to let go of every/any idea. If it returns later, then explore further.
5. Saturation > gestation > illumination. Gestation: Explore as many aspects of the situation as possible. Feed your mind information from a variety of sources - including (systematic and/or intuitive) visual (e.g. drawing) and tactile (models) exploratios. Allow your mind to sit with the problem, and come up with a solution (often unexpected and/or out of the blue). Cycle through until satisfied or the deadline.
6. Develop a clear hierarchy of organizing principles. These are limited in number (keep it simple and manageable). Integrate each aspect of the design into the top level principles, and many into the lower level principles.
7. Solutions work at specific scales, and some at many scales.
8. Draw an abstract representation of the situation (from your direct experience), and explore the drawing. What does it tell you? What happens when you change aspects (upside-down, angle, change proportions, edges etc). See Drawing on the Artist Within by Betty Edwards.
9. Systematically apply a set of rules throughout the design, with variations. Explore different balances between recognizeable order and variations/randomness/playfulness.
10. FL Wright: Tartan grid and interlocking (interpenetrating) spaces.
11. Look at movement, rhythm, transformations and tesselations (variations on tile patterns). Take a known design (nature, graphic, built) and transform it - explore its possibilities.

Specific to 2D/3D Design

1. First design space that supports human activities, then use architectural elements to define that space.
2. Look for what is unique with the site, client, program etc.
3. Use organizing principles or lines (datum lines).
4. Look at figure/ground interactions.
5. Suggest space rather than fully define it (let the user's/viewer's mind fill in the rest).
6. Layers of meaning and discovery. Designs that keep the interest of the users. Allow the person using the space to continually discover something new (layers of discovery).
7. Roof height and shape reflects activity below (Seating, individual space, or storage - low. Standing, group space, or need for a certain light - high).
8. Design from (a) "inside - out" and (b) "outside-in". (a)Look at the spaces that will support certain activities and how they may be connected, then design the architectural elements that will define this space. (b) Design from outside-in by looking at the natural and built surroundings. Adopt the unwritten "rules" set up by these in the public face of the design (or do something different if there is a good reason for it. Allow the building to contribute to the fabric of the neighborhood.
10. Exlplore the edge-to-central space ratios that may be appropriate for a certain use of the space, then forms that embodies this ratio. (Central space most important - then cube or circle. Edge space more important, then narrower spaces and more convoluted edges).
11. Look at how buildings define open space (figure-ground). Connect inside and outside public spaces.


1. Use broken lines to suggest form
2. White spots in the shades gives shimmering effect.
3. Decide on a particular focus. Creat focus through higher contrast and/or more details
4. Vary the lineweight. A darker lineweight can indicate (a) foreground (atmospheric perspective), (b) depth of space behind outline (architectural line drawing), or (c) shade.
5. Use accents. Emphasis (heavier lineweight) on corners and edges.
6. Use atmospheric perspective. Higher contrast and/or more details in the forground.

Thursday, July 17, 2003


I am helping with setting up a green design review for architecture students at University of Oregon. We plan to include local professionals, instructors, and students.

Here is the beginnings of a checklist:

1. Systems thinking
- integration of systems and elements, causality loops taken into consideration
2. Elements
- energy, heating/cooling, water, waste treatment, materials
3. Social impact
- local and global levels
4. Lifecycle considerations
- Cost, maintenance, reuse of building and/or materials
5. Attractiveness
- aesthetics, ease of use, cost of building/operation, match with user wants and needs, overall attractiveness
6. Feasibility
- technology, cost


More in depth:

1. Systems thinking
Integration of systems and elements. Causality loops taken into consideration.

a. Systems view (does changes in one element/system lead to opportunities in other elements/systems?)
b. Multiple functions (do the elements serve multiple functions or combine functions?)
c. Relation to a more sustainable society (How does it facilitate a move to a more sustainable society? How may it fit into a more sustainable society of the future? )

System changes with new opportunities: Super insulation lead to reduced size or elimination of furnace/air conditioning (Rocky Mountain Institute).
Multiple functions: Roof serving as shelter, shade, solar energy collector, water collection, garden, habitat etc.

2. Elements
Sustainability of the elements and systems.

a. Site location/impact (integration into local ecosystem, site restoration)
b. Energy (in/storage/out, heating/cooling, day- and artificial lighting)
c. Water (in/storage/out)
d. Waste treatment (foodscraps, greywater, human waste)
e. Materials (origin, transportation, toxicity, opportunity for reuse)

Use of local, non-toxic, and less processed materials.
Designed with climate and microclimate in mind.

3. Social impact
Local and global social impact.

a. Equity (is it affordable?)
b. Social interaction (what type of social interaction does it facilitate?)
c. Quality of life (how does it facilitate well-being and/or productivity?)
d. Educational element (does the building offer opportunities for ecological learning to its users?)


4. Life-cycle considerations
Life-cycle view of building and materials.

a. Reason for existence, size (does it need to be built? can it be smaller?)
b. Existing vs. new building (adaptive reuse)
c. Impact on site (integration in local ecosystem, site restoration)
d. Operation and maintenance
e. End-of-life (flexibility, ease in converting to different use, ease of deconstruction).

a. Source (embedded energy, degree of processing, local or not)
b. Operation (nontoxic, lasting)
c. End-of-Life (reusable, compostable)

5. Attractiveness
Overall attractiveness. Will people use it?

a. Aesthetics (will they like/want it?)
b. Ease of use (will they be able to use it?)
c. Match with user expectations, motivation, their perceived needs, and (sub)culture (will they accept it?)


6. Feasibility
How realistic? Can it be done?

a. Technology (is it available?)
b. Cost (is it affordable?)


Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Ecological Design

I find it astonishing that ecological design is not more widespread - both in society and in design education.

It is such a vital area - to our quality of life and ultimately our survival. What can be a stronger motivation for engaging in any type of practice? Our ecological situation is critical - with toxins in our air, water, and food, soil loss and depletion, depletion of natural resources, unravelling ecosystems, and more. We are in an ecological crisis. A crisis that is already dramatically influencing the lives of many of us (through diseases, hunger etc) and will dramatically impact all of us (through unravelling ecosystems, social unrest, and more).

I also find ecological design immensely attractive. It offers a partnership approach with the Earth community and future generations. It facilitates a sense of well being and increased quality of life of the inhabitants (daylighting, nontoxic materials, air quality, indoor living ecosystems, social interaction). It requires innovation and whole systems thinking (looking at feedback loops and how the components in the built, social and natural systems interact) - going beyond fragmented and shortsighted considerations. It is a design grounded in real and urgent needs. Most of all, it is fun!

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Design Beyond Ego

Design is, as so many areas of human life, an area where our limited experience of the world is clearly manifested. When we experience ourselves as separate from the larger whole, design often becomes in the service of the ego of the designer - focusing on aesthetics, style, and/or the extraordinary - not on what is appropriate in the situation.

Here are two paths that may help us beyond ego.

1. Ecological design. This approach requires us to be flexible, not attached to one particular approach. It also brings a partnership approach to design - an intimate partnership with the larger Earth community and future generations.

2. Fluidity. Letting go of attachments to certain ideas and apporahces, and see what is appropriate in the situation. Design is similar to acting in that we are required to explore and express something that goes beyond our regular life. We need to go into the worldview of the client, and also explore and experience the needs of a multitude of clients (paying, human and Earth communinity, future generations).

Saturday, July 05, 2003

Architecture Studies

I am at the end of my second week in the Option III architecture program at University of Oregon, and am so far impressed with the overall quality of the program.

I am also struck by a few things. One is what seems as a tendency to servility and wanting to please the instructor. We are after all paying them good money to learn (a) the skills needed in later professional work, and (b) what aligns with our personal passions and interests. We are not here to please anybody except ourselves and possibly future employers. If we have a strong interest, that should take priority - not the personal interests of the instructor.

The other - which I knew about in advance - is the absence (for the most part) of an emphasis on ecological design principles. The rationale is that we can include it later, which is to some extent true. Still, it gives the impression that aesthetics and responding to the "program" (the design specifications) takes priority, and ecological principles can be attached as an afterthought. A large number of students here express a strong interest in ecological design. To me, the rationale above - expressed by some instructors - appears to be a (poor) excuse for their lack of competence in that area. An area vital to humanity in our critical ecological situation.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Integral Design

An ecological approach to design is also a profoundly integral approach to design. It combines a wide range of disciplines and considerations, including long term ecological sustainability (impact on local/regional ecosystems, nonhuman species, future generations), local conditions (sun, wind, water, terrain, material availability), culture and traditions (including local building traditions and that of similar ecoregions), environmental and social psychology (how our physical surroundings influence our behavior, quality of life and well being), and many other areas. It is also a profoundly humble approach to design, taking the cues from the local and regional surroundings, nature, and vernacular traditions. It is human and Earth centered (rather than designer or idea centered).

Thursday, May 08, 2003

Design & Humanure

It is often what is closest to us that offer the best lessons. In the realm of design, looking at how we deal with human output (aka shit) reveals our thought patterns and how our designs follows our views.

The current situation: In our culture, we operate from several assumptions - all revealing a fragmented and dualistic worldview. We think there is something called "away". We have phobias regarding our body functions. We operate from an idea of unlimited inflow of essentials. All this makes up our current system: We take purified water, deposit our feces and urine in it, flush it down through a intricate system of pipes, into a wastewater plant (in the best case), then into the ocean. In the process, we take a valuable resource (clean drinking water) and soil it, we make ourselves dependent on an expensive infrastructure, and we let go of an invaluable resource.

How it can be: Operating from a different view of the world - one that acknowledges interconnections, we arrive at different solutions. The Earth is a closed loop system, there is no "away". It is more efficient to close our loops as locally as possible. We can set up simple composting toilet system - odor free, low in cost, and simple in operation. These allows us to keep our water clean for drinking and food. They also provide us with invaluable nutrients for later growing foods. We close one of the many loops we are part of - nutrients flow into plants, our bodies, our feces and urine, into compost, and back into plants. A beautiful and efficient system.

Monday, May 05, 2003

Patterns & Flow

Patterns and flows connects everything with everything else. We all share in the same patterns (born from the characteristics of the Universe we are part of) and matter flows through and binds together all phenomena.

The patterns of emergence and dissolving (life and death), flow and disruptions, compaction and expansion, gathering and dispersion, are shared by all phenomena - at many scales.

Andrew Goldsworthy is one who understands how immersion in the patterns and flow of nature can give us a deep understanding of our own life - intimately tied to the processes of the Earth and the Universe.

Saturday, May 03, 2003


Pattern Languages
The term Pattern Language has been applied to several different areas. Here are some.
(a) Architecture - Christopher Alexander
(b) Sustainability - Stewart Cowan
(c) Programming

Patterns in nature serve certain functions. A branching pattern indicates distribution or collection. Explosion patterns indicate distribution. Cracks indicates expansion or compaction (function is to release energy).

When we explore and familiarize ourselves with these patterns and the functions they serve, we (a) have an idea of what function an existing pattern in nature has before exploring the particular instance in depth, and (b) can apply these patterns in our designs depending on the function they are to serve. The patterns can be applied on any scale - regional planning, cities, communities, gardens and buildings.

Sensitive Dependence
Sensitive dependence on initial conditions is a central idea from complexity, and specifically chaos, theories. It is also known as the butterfly effect. The terms applies to complex systems, and refer to small variations in initial conditions having large effects on the trajectory of the system. Initial choices has large effects on the final outcome.

Some examples: Deer trails becoming highways. Spacing between wheels of roman carts, becoming the standard train guage. Assyrians prison camps (straight lines, easy view and access + dividing people from each other), becoming the grid system of modern cities.

Friday, April 04, 2003

Innovative Solutions

There are a large number of tools and techniques to help us find creative solutions to meet our needs. Many of the basic tools have to do with awareness and choice. As lack of awareness leads to habits, awareness leads to increased choice.

Needs & Strategies
A central tool from Nonviolent Communication is to differentiate needs and strategies. When we are clear about our own needs and those of others, it is easier to creatively find solutions that will meet the needs of all involved.

It does require the following realizations: (a) We have needs and then strategies to meet those needs. (b) For any need, there are are innumerable strategies that can help us meet the need. (c) Our strategies may become habitual, and (i) not meet our needs well anymore or (ii) conflict with the strategies of others. (d) Our needs and the needs of others rarely conflict, but our strategies often do. (e) We can collaboratively and creatively find solutions that will meet all our needs when we (i) are clear about our own needs and those of others, and (ii) let go of our attachment to specific strategies.

Assumptions & Rules
Bringing assumptions and rules into awareness gives us choice. Exploring our assumptions may lead us to the following realizations: (a) They are not useful in our current situation, and we can let go of them. (b) They can be modified or refined to be more useful. In the first case, we open up to a wider range of possible solutions. In the second, we focus of search for solutions.

We have an infinite number of assumptions and rules, and it may be very useful to make a habit of (a) bringing some of them into awareness, (b) explore them (their origins, how they connect to some of our other assumptions, and how they relate to cultural assumptions), (c) and play with them (reverse them, exchange them for others). Especially playing with them may yield a sense of freedom and valuable insights. If we reverse or change one of our basic assumptions, what consequences would it have? How would it open up for new possibilities? How can we apply those insights into our own life or the project we are playing with/working on.

Activity: Take one of your cherished opinions, views or strategies. Then explore some of the assumptions behind it. Which ones are they? How do they relate to your other assumptions? How do they relate to our cultural assumptions? How can they be changed (reversed, exchanged for others)? What would the consequences be of changing them in different ways? Take one assumption, or conglomerate of assumption, at a time. Note that the assumptions/rules can range from those unique to the individual to those shared among humans in different cultures (gravity, eating, breathing).

There are many benefits from generating multiple theories, ideas and/or goals. Generating multiple theories (in daily life or in science) reduces our attachment to any one of them, keeps our view fresh, and help us stay open to other theories/interpretations. Generating multiple ideas and strategies for any project similarly helps us stay flexible. Having multiple goals for any project helps us stay inspired.

See the website and books from Roger Van Oech for more ways to free our thinking.

Sunday, January 19, 2003

Terroir & Buildings

I talked with Cynthia, another student at ProtoTista, last week. She is exploring an expanded meaning of the term terroir, and asked me how it could be applied to buildings. Here are some early ideas on the topic:

First, some definitions of the term:

Terroir: The overall environment within which a given variety grows. Derived from the French word for earth, terre.

Terroir, "soil" in French, takes on considerably more meaning when used by the French wine trade. It refers not only to the soil but the subsoil, drainage, precise geographical location, topography and microclimate of a vineyard. "Terroir" then includes things like the vineyards sun exposure, slope, proximity to a river or stream, etc. The vines "must see the river" is a famous saying in Médoc. Simply stated, "terroir" refers to the obvious, that every vineyard (and for that matter, every vine) exists in a unique environment. It is therefore impossible for a wine such as Mouton-Rothschild to be produced elsewhere in Médoc, or the world, because no other place in the world has the same "terroir" as Mouton. "Terroir" is an argument of exclusivity.

Then how it can be applied to buildings:

Materials / Nutrient Cycles
Use of local, natural and less-processed materials, and also local cycling of the natural/technological nutrients through composting and reuse. This contributes to a sense of connection and belonging to the place, and reduces need for transportation.

Use of a design that reflects and fits in with local traditions (including the pre-columbian traditions).

Use of a design that fits in with and reflects the forms of the natural landscape.

A design that reflects and is appropriate to the local climate.
Ex: Tick and heavy walls in hot and dry climates. High surface-to-space ratio for good cross ventilation in hot and humid climates. Low surface-to-space ratio (compact) design in cold climates. Design for solar gain in cold to moderate climates.

Natural Elements
Design with the local natural elements. Channel/focus or disperse/divert natural energies.
Ex: Solar for energy and heating/cooling. Wind for ventilation. Blocking of strong/cold winds and warm season sun.

Rootedness / Connections
Facilitate a sense of rootedness and connection to the place through all of the above.

Thursday, January 02, 2003

Timeless Buildings

I am reading Christopher Day's Spirit and Place - a wonderful book by one of my favorite designers.

It reminds me of an intuitive sense I have about timeless buildings. They seem to share several key characteristics.

Timeless buildings tend to be close to nature - in materials and design. They use natural or less processed materials. Their forms often reflect/mirror organic forms - including those of the local landscape. They draw attention to community and nature (not to the design/designer).

For these reasons and more, we are likely to experience these buildings as nourishing and appropriate to place.