Trying to revive wood skyscrapers

The idea of constructing high-rises out of wood and other sustainable materials may just be gathering steam:

This week, an ambitious proposal for the world’s tallest wooden skyscraper was unveiled in Vienna, Austria. The 275-foot, €60M timber building will be built next year, and follows in the low-carbon footsteps of recent timber structures in Canada, Australia, and England. The idea of fashioning tall towers from the earth’s natural materials, and not concrete or steel, first began gaining traction in 2013, when the Canadian architect Michael Green introduced the concept to the wider world via a TED talk that has now been viewed more than a million times. “I believe that wood is the most technologically advanced material I can build with,” Green said in his talk. “It just happens to be that Mother Nature holds the patent.”…

Unlike concrete and steel, synthetic materials that together represent eight percent of man’s greenhouse gas emissions, wood has the opposite effect: it takes in massive amounts of carbon dioxide, an obvious upside when cities are growing ever denser. “One cubic meter of wood will store one tonne of carbon dioxide,” Green explained in his TED talk…

At the time when Green gave his talk, the world was home to at least two existing timber structures that could have been considered towers: the Stadthaus residential building by Waugh Thistleton Architects in London, which has nine stories, and the Forté apartment complex in Melbourne, Australia, designed by Lend Lease developers with ten floors. Both buildings were made from panels of cross-laminated timber, which is a form of engineered wood that was originally developed as an alternative to stone and masonry. Unlike typical 2-by-4s, these panels made from many pieces of wood glued together are enormous, around eight feet wide and 64 feet long…It’s also fairly difficult to get cross-laminated timber to catch fire, which appears to be the main concern of supervisory bodies in cities where architects are attempting to use the material in their buildings. Vienna, which will soon have the tallest structure of this sort, has instructed its fire service to conduct special tests on the new building, which will already be required to install more sensitive sprinkler system than those required for other towers.

As the article notes, the main feature appears to be the reduction of carbon use compared to construction with cement and concrete. But, this might also draw the attention of architects less interested in the sustainability but intrigued by another medium with which to innovate. It could be fascinating to see the mix of mediums within a single skyline – imagine the glass skyscrapers of today next to wooden structures that have a entirely different feel.

Micro-housing that is too expensive to solve the problems of affordable and sustainable housing

Micro-housing may lead to some cool design opportunities but it may not solve important problems: providing more affordable and sustainable housing.

Which is, of course, the problem with zeroHouse: Nobody needs micro-housing in places where plots of prairie, mountain, and sea (!) are available in plenty.

Now, the zeroHouse might not be designed for the urban dweller at all. Several of the home’s signature features seem as though they’re meant for another type of buyer altogether. The design specs note that the house is entirely secure, with tempered “Sentry-Glass” windows, Kevlar-reinforced doors, and fully mortised locking systems. (Shocking that a house that looks like a Transformer could double as a bunker!)

Given the design features, land-parcel requirements, and other aspects of the building’s design—it can go into an energy-conserving “hibernation” mode for extended period of times—zeroHouse sounds like it might be better suited for Cliven Bundy country than for downtown infill construction. But then, that Manhattan Micro-Loft isn’t a much better model for addressing the lack of affordable housing in major U.S. cities.

I don’t mean to pick on Specht Harpman Architects, a New York- and Austin-based firm that’s mostly in the business of designing interiors and elegant single-family homes. Tiny-house offenders are everywhere, from the pages of any shelter magazine to the real-estate section of the New York Times, where per-square-foot costs and land allotments are out of sync with what (say) most New Yorkers need from micro-housing.

From what I’ve seen, much of the interest in tiny houses is driven by two market segments: (1) architects, designers, and other creative types who relish a new puzzle (how do you fit a lot of desirable features into a smaller amount of space) and (2) “downshifters” (to borrow a term from sociologist Juliet Schor), people deliberately trying to limit their consumption by limiting their living space as well as how much stuff they can accumulate.

Of course, there are some interested in micro-housing for its ability to address affordable housing and sustainability issues but several things still hold the micro-housing market back: zoning issues, a lack of large-scale building of these units thus far which would make them appear more normal and more practical to build with economies of scale, and price points that may not be cheap enough for the affordable market.

Home swapping about community life, sustainability

A new study about people who swap homes are motivated by several factors:

‘My House is Yours’ is the first in-depth study of people using home exchange to travel the world. It was carried out by the University of Bergamo and based on a survey of 7,000 members of the HomeExchange.com website…

Researchers Francesca Forno, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Sociology of Consumption, and Roberta Garibaldi, Assistant Professor of Marketing and Tourism Marketing concluded that “people are turning more and more to models of consumption that emphasise community over selfishness”, and that home exchange “may help to make our societies work better towards a sustainable future”.

“Swapping houses is one of the most significant boundaries of modern tourism, because it incorporates some of the dynamics that characterise the tourist of the new millennium: the increasingly felt desire to travel several times a year, even with limited budgets, the need to organise tailor-made trips as personalised as possible and the desire to make the trip an authentic experience … not only to know a new country with all its attractions, but also to immerse yourself in a new culture,” they said.

The tourist of the new millennium also has a home to swap in the first place.

Additionally, it sounds a like more “ethical tourism” where the tourist seeks to not contribute to the inauthenticity of a place (tourist traps/hotels/resorts, menial jobs, etc.) and would rather move in and out unobtrusively. The 21st century tourist wants to soak up an authentic location and leave it the same or better than when they came. This could have quite an impact on places with lots of tourists, possibly aiding a resistance to a globalized/Westernized set of tourist experiences.

It’s too bad we don’t have a reaction from the tourism industry in this article. Are hotel chains worried or is this something that be marketed and commoditized?

Sprawling suburbanites are out of touch with nature

The author of a new book about sprawl and wildlife describes the connection suburbanites have to nature:

Sprawl in my book consists of suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas where people reside but don’t farm for a living. They live in all kinds of houses, in or out of developments, in small dwellings or McMansions on five acre lots, in second homes, weekend places and recreational farms. I call the latter group “toy farmers.” They dabble at growing things, raising chickens or a few sheep. They keep a horse. They shop at Agway and Tractor Supply. They hire Hispanics to mow and trim and weed. Most sprawl dwellers are on the landscape but not of it.

Q: What do you mean by “on the landscape but not of it”?

A: From baby boomers forward, we’ve become increasingly disconnected from the natural landscape, even the adulterated one where we live. Unlike our grandparents, most of us no longer have the stewardship skills needed to manage the ecosystems around us. Many of us don’t want them managed at all. These people want nature to take its course — even though they are managing the landscape around them like crazy by living in it. And we don’t have the time to deal with it. We spend 90 percent of our time indoors — in houses, offices or cars. We get our nature from movies and TV, now piped into digital screens. We see films that have been edited to make wild creatures behave like pets or people.

Q: What’s the connection between sprawl and wildlife?

A: The 19th century conservationists didn’t conceive of sprawl. How could they? No one had lived like this before. Some people say that in sprawling out, we encroached on wildlife habitat and, therefore, the problems are the fault of us not wild creatures. It’s true, we encroached, mainly into old farm land. But that’s only half the story. In fact, wildlife encroached right back. Lots of species adapted with surprising ease to life in the sprawl, to living around people.

Sounds about right: nature via televisions, iPads, and looking out the window.

There is a complicated history behind the suburbs and nature. In the 1800s, the suburbs were seen as a place where residents could return to nature. Cities were seen as anti-nature with their dense collections of people, factories, and infrastructure. In contrast, the suburbs offered lawns around single-family homes set back from the streets, nearby parks, and winding streets that minimized the visual impact of development. A classic example of this is Llewellyn Park, New Jersey. Yet, the nature in the suburbs was carefully controlled. Lawns were manicured and landscaped as were many parks.

In the mass suburb era after World War II, nature took a backseat to development. You can find many pictures of subdivisions being prepared for construction where the ground has been flattened and trees flattened. Starting around the early 1970s, new planning techniques tried to reclaim more land in subdivisions by clustering development. New planning paradigms like New Urbanism have incorporated talk about sustainability and responsible development. However, having more suburban open space also means this space still tended to be highly controlled. For a good read on connections between suburbanization and the environment, check out Adam Rome’s The Bulldozer in the Countryside.

Argument: Phoenix is world’s least sustainable city

I recently ran into an overview of a 2011 look at Phoenix as the “world’s least sustainable city”:

Phoenix, Arizona is one of America’s fastest growing metropolitan regions. It is also its least sustainable one, sprawling over a thousand square miles, with a population of four and a half million, minimal rainfall, scorching heat, and an insatiable appetite for unrestrained growth and unrestricted property rights.

In Bird on Fire, eminent social and cultural analyst Andrew Ross focuses on the prospects for sustainability in Phoenix–a city in the bull’s eye of global warming–and also the obstacles that stand in the way. Most authors writing on sustainable cities look at places like Portland, Seattle, and New York that have excellent public transit systems and relatively high density. But Ross contends that if we can’t change the game in fast-growing, low-density cities like Phoenix, the whole movement has a major problem. Drawing on interviews with 200 influential residents–from state legislators, urban planners, developers, and green business advocates to civil rights champions, energy lobbyists, solar entrepreneurs, and community activists–Ross argues that if Phoenix is ever to become sustainable, it will occur more through political and social change than through technological fixes. Ross explains how Arizona’s increasingly xenophobic immigration laws, science-denying legislature, and growth-at-all-costs business ethic have perpetuated social injustice and environmental degradation. But he also highlights the positive changes happening in Phoenix, in particular the Gila River Indian Community’s successful struggle to win back its water rights, potentially shifting resources away from new housing developments to producing healthy local food for the people of the Phoenix Basin. Ross argues that this victory may serve as a new model for how green democracy can work, redressing the claims of those who have been aggrieved in a way that creates long-term benefits for all.

Since the population of the United States has shifted in recent decades to Sunbelt cities like Phoenix, tackling sustainability in these more sprawling and hot places seems like it is important. I wonder how much this sustainability push would require curbing sprawl and if there are some critics who would argue places like Phoenix (or even the metropolitan regions of cities like Chicago and New York) can’t really be sustainable unless they severely limit sprawl.

In two trips to Las Vegas in recent years, I was struck each time by the landscape when flying into the city. I always enjoy seeing cities from above but Las Vegas (and presumably Phoenix as well) shows stark contrasts between deserts which suddenly turn into subdivisions, lawns, golf courses, and then opulent casinos. It is a quick reminder that some of these Sunbelt cities are carved out of the desert and this requires a lot of resources to maintain and expand.

Correlation found between less decline in sustainable city transportation and wealth, required state planning

A new study suggests sustainable city transportation declined less in the last three decades in cities based on two factors: wealthier populations as well as cities located in states that require certain planning measures.

Overall, transportation has become less sustainable across the country over this period, but some communities have slowed the decline more effectively than others.
Among the best at slowing that decline were Seattle, Las Vegas and even Los Angeles, which owes its success to fewer-than-average solo commuters and relatively high public transit use, the research suggests. In contrast, transportation sustainability declined more quickly than average over those years in such cities as Pittsburgh and New Orleans…
“The findings suggest that planning efforts are worthwhile, and that higher real per-capita income enhances the benefits of community planning, possibly through better implementation,” said McCreery, also a lecturer in sociology at Ohio State.

Could be an interesting story but I wonder if this isn’t simply masking the bigger picture: transportation sustainability is down across the board. Here is the reason why:

“Almost every city has declined in transportation ecoefficiency because we have become more automobile dependent and more spread out so people tend to have to drive farther,” said McCreery, author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher in Ohio State’s Mershon Center for International Security Studies.

People can talk about becoming gas independent to help deal with issues like high gas prices but focusing on sustainable transportation might lead in another direction: planning in such a way that people don’t have to drive as much to start with. Even though rising gas prices may lead to less driving, we still have a lot of communities that require certain amounts of driving. But, this is probably a harder sell or issue to deal with given the American love of cars, space, and local government…

Argument: we need to question today’s economic equations that are based on the suburban experiment

Here is an interesting argument regarding the American suburbs: Charles Marohn suggests the economic equations behind suburban development need to be questioned.

I’m struck by how strongly our culture associates growth and prosperity with highway construction and expansion. Tom Friedman, a respected left-of-center columnist with the New York Times, had an entire chapter in his most recent book, That Used to Be Us: How America fell behind in the world it invented and how we can come back, devoted to the concept that “our winning equation” is, in part, to invest in infrastructure and then watch prosperity flourish, just like it did in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Of course, this ignores that fact that our investments during the first generation of America’s Suburban Experiment (1950-1975) were higher return investments that generated a lot of positive cash flow. I like to point out that, when we built the 35W bridge here in Minnesota for the first time, it connected far flung areas of the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan region in a way that had not been done before. Following that investment, new commercial real estate was developed, new residential housing went in and the resulting influx of tax receipts made us feel wealthy. When the bridge fell down and had to be rebuilt, we didn’t experience all that new growth, just the costs of construction and delay. Maintenance has an entirely different set of financial metrics than new construction…

Unfortunately, we base this belief on the illusion of wealth that was created in the early years of the Suburban Experiment, where the first life cycle of horizontal expansion had produced growth for our economy and that pesky overhang of maintenance was still a decade or more away. We should know better by now, but there are few in a position to change the system that don’t benefit, at least in the short term, from it being perpetuated…

Now let me drop the bomb I’ve been alluding too: Those “benefits” that we kind of think of as prosperity, wealth or GDP; they really aren’t. There are derived from a set of narrow correlations between time saved and prosperity that we witnessed in the early 1950’s when we built those initial highways. We connected these far flung places — places only served by railroads or poorly constructed roadways prior — and we saw all kinds of economic gains. We then used that knowledge to build equations to justify expansion of the system. Nobody ever questions those equations today (why would they) and nobody stops to consider the diminishing returns of the system.

So there is not actually any money here, just a few seconds of saved time here and there that economists and engineers equate with money when they are trying to justify a project. Do you take home more money, generate more wealth for the economy or spend more of your income when you can arrive at work 45 seconds more quickly? Not me either. These equations are a joke. (If you want to learn more, read our 2010 series on Costs and Benefits.)

An interesting update to an old argument: the suburbs are unsustainable in the long run because they are based on new growth and continuous reinvestment. In the end, there won’t be enough money left to sustain it all, even if we could keep the infrastructure up to date.

Is Marohn really saying that the economic growth of the United States since the 1950s is largely an illusion? I’d like to hear about more of this aspect of the argument…

This reminds me of some of my research on suburban communities that are approaching build-out. In their earlier growth phases, these communities could expect a certain amount of money to flow in from new development and fees. However, once this stopped (and combined with the recent economic crisis), these towns are left scrambling for money. Without a good amount of new development, the budgets aren’t increasing much even as residents continue to push for equal or increased levels of service plus everything is aging (infrastructure, housing stock which makes it less attractive, municipal buildings, etc.). Is this an analogous situation?

Bonus: you even get a financial analysis of a diverging diamond interchange!