Design Opportunity

Southeast view

I enjoy designing appropriately-sized homes in East Austin where I live—it’s an opportunity to create infill projects that add new vitality to our neighborhoods while respecting the people, history and scale of the surrounding homes. Often, however, there are particular challenges to East Austin. Soil conditions are difficult, lots are at times irregularly shaped or unusually small, and of course, City zoning and building ordinances restricting the size and shapes of homes must be followed. On the other hand, many of these sites—especially in the Holly Street area—have wonderful specimens of heritage trees, whose trunks easily outstrip the minimum 19″ diameter of the Austin Heritage Tree preservation ordinance. These trees are a valuable asset, and ordinance or not must be allowed to live and thrive. But designing around them can also be a challenge. It isn’t enough to protect the trunk and canopy; foundations must avoid intruding into the so-called half critical root zone.

E_aerialIn the case of this project being built by Newcastle Homes, a majestic 42″ diameter pecan sits near the side property line, and its half critical root zone pinches the maximum width of the house near the tree to about 15′. Moreover, the orientation of the lot creates a broad sun exposure for the east and west façades of the house, which would create a lot of heat gain in the summer. Our solution was to organize the 1-storey house as an “L” with an elongated stem. The “base” of the “L” was turned 90° to the lot’s orientation, maximizing desirable southern and northern windows and minimizing east and west walls in the living room and kitchen. By placing the media wall to the west, we also could reduce the amount of glass on that harshest of sides. By turning the roof into a series of parallel ridges running east and west, we could maximize solar-ready roofs.

NWThe long stem of the house—bedrooms and a generous gallery—were given angled walls with large glass sliding doors such that the east of the house was faceted around the lot’s huge pecan. What might have been a design drawback suddenly became the central focus for indoor and outdoor living. This is a critical lesson we strive to apply in all of our projects together: when the design-build team works together in the spirit of turning challenges into opportunities, the resulting outcome can exceed our expectations. Constraints aren’t just inconveniences to be worked around, they are the starting point of better design. If it weren’t for the constraints of the site, I’m confident the house would not have turned out as well as it did.

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Colonize the Colony Ship

Comet Hartley 2’s nucleus serves as a rough model for the Hitchhiker mission. Image NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD.

30 minutes ago my two co-authors (Constance Adams and Georgi Petrov) and I submitted our paper for the AIAA’s Space 2012 conference in Pasadena, held in September. Here’s out abstract:

Recent DARPA sponsorship of research on a hypothetical interstellar, crewed expedition has sparked renewed interest in multi-generational crewed spaceships. As a case in point, the Hundred Year Starship Study (100YSS) seeks to anticipate enabling technologies required to effect human ventures beyond the solar system. This paper examines the requirements, assumptions, and parameters of a multigenerational colonization mission. The complexities of such an interstellar mission are staggering, and given the current state of the art, are here outlined at the highest level. And while it may be commonly assumed that the primary challenges of such a mission are technological in nature, this paper takes up this problem as a complex “systems of systems”, not neglecting the architectural and social dimensions of such a mission. The authors suggest an energy-conservative, achievable mission architecture that maximizes in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) while assuming plausible technological advances in this century. The proposed Design Reference Mission (DRM) results in a ship that is scalable over time to accommodate a growing crew, proliferating skill requirements and increasing technological readiness levels. It is therefore anticipated that prior to the completion of the voyage to, and eventual colonization of, an exoplanet the starship itself is to be “colonized” by the initial and successive crews. In addition, a preliminary crew size predicated on an optimal steady-state ship population is proposed. The authors draw upon the scholarly and fictional literature addressing multigenerational starships as a means of underscoring social and ethical issues that will play significant roles in mission success.

Update: we weren’t able to attend the conference, but will be looking to get the article published this year if possible.

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Urban Core

Preliminary design of single family residence in Austin. Designed for climate, south and north glazing are maximized and controlled, while the house is oriented around a side courtyard centered on a heritage tree, protecting its critical root zone.

In the past few months I’ve been working on a handful of single-family homes in central east Austin. They all have certain commonalities. Appropriately scaled for their neighborhoods, they range from a thousand to around 1600 square feet—restrained in this day and age of McMansions. While not all the lots are cooperative with respect to orientation, I’ve managed to design roofs that are cost-effective, architecturally expressive, and which have some or all of their area optimized for best solar photovoltaic collection. Most, though not all, follow a decidedly modernist formal vocabulary. It may come as a surprise to many how the clean lines and spare detailing of modernism are challenging to build, and in many instances increase (rather than decrease) construction costs. With land prices in Austin steadily increasing, I’ve had to be almost parsimonious—or at the very least careful—with my detailing to achieve the desired aesthetic without having overall project costs get out of control. Much of that responsibility falls on the builder, of course, and it’s essential on these projects that we work together as a close-knit team. Finally, almost all sites for these homes have had serious constraints on them, whether the City of Austin’s form-based zoning for two-story houses, the presence of heritage trees and their protected critical root zones, narrow lots with relatively modest available buildable area, or in one case a significant drainage easement. But in the end, architecture can rise to the occasion when constrained.

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Orientation Matters

View from northwest of 2007 East 17th Street

View from the northwest of house under design for 2007 East 17th Street, to be built by Newcastle Homes.

Lately I’ve been working with Newcastle Homes on a couple of urban infill residential projects. Newcastle is successful at pairing lots in near East Austin with clients who want vibrancy, neighborhood character, and proximity to the central city. As a rule these old lots are narrower than in other parts of the city, and while East Austin has been “hot” for several years, land prices are still more affordable than elsewhere. Thanks to careful design and planning, the houses they build are modern, energy efficient, appealing, and affordable.

The problem with East Austin lots, though, is that almost all of them are oriented with their long axis running north-south (this is also the case in many other parts of Austin). Ideally, for our climate, homes should have more exterior wall facing north (where there is infrequent direct sunlight, except early in the morning or late afternoons in midsummer), or south (where the high summer sun is easy to control with a roof overhang). Too much eastern and western exposure and the house will quickly heat up in summer, costing more to cool, or being uncomfortable, or both (see my recent Design with Climate post, as well as this analysis courtesy of Dason Whitsett)

My solution for this lot was to organize the house in a C-shaped plan, with the two parallel main wings of the house oriented with their long axes running east and west, connected by a generous gallery that incorporates the stair. As a result, the compact square footage feels much bigger, thanks to the morning light-facing courtyard. The added outdoor space is a viable living space throughout much of the year, and fits well with Austin’s outdoor-oriented lifestyle. And because most of the house faces north or south, in spite of the lot’s being the “wrong way”, and with almost no glass facing east or west, it will perform much better.

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Design with Climate

Moonrise Ranch by François Lévy and Mark Winford. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.

Deep porches shade the living spaces and capture prevailing breezes, while a heat-shedding metal roof captures rainwater. The thermal chimney behind the trees passively cools the house.

We are all aware of the importance of conserving energy and natural resources, due to their growing scarcity, rising costs and the potential for permanent environmental harm to our world. Many people are surprised to discover that buildings are responsible for 40% of energy use in the U.S.—more than industry or transportation. That’s just for operating buildings; the number jumps to 50% when we count construction. Continue reading

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BIM in Small-Scale Sustainable Design

My book, BIM in Small-Scale Sustainable Design, recently became available at Amazon, and should be out in late November. I discuss in detail how building information modeling can effectively be used by small and medium-sized architecture firms to design more sustainable buildings.

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The Sublime

Kant contrasts the sublime (in whose presence the fundamental human response is awe) with the beautiful (which elicits attraction). For Kant, to be confronted with the sublime is to be made aware of one’s insignificance; it is a tonic to ego. Continue reading

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