190: Post-Occupancy Analysis – Montreal

I’ve been on North American soil for exactly a month today. After leaving my home of one year in Madrid, I haven’t stopped traveling for more than a few days, bouncing between Connecticut, Washington DC, New York City, Ithaca, Philadelphia, Ottawa, and finally Montreal. This last stop has really charmed me and now that I’ve been out of the woods for a few days (we’ve been camping) and have an internet connection for the moment, I’ve got a reflection for you all. This is an introduction to a project I’d like to do about why Montreal is such a great city. The idea is to analyze how healthy it is on social, economic, and infrastructural levels in order to influence the design of now-developing cities. Anyone have an idea where I can get a grant to do something like that? Here’s the reasoning why. But first, some photos of the music, people, and places that make this city great.

 

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Post-Occupancy Analysis

Over the last fifty years, designers of the built environment have come to recognize the need for post-occupancy analysis and the benefits of post-construction reflection. The most thorough architects put their work to the test, revisiting the site in its intended state, not the austere people-less building in the architecture magazines but rather its most alive state.

The post-occupancy analysis questions the efficiency of the building that once seemed perfect on blueprints and computer screens. The experts analyze the functionality of the spaces, materials, and infrastructure in a way that can only be achieved with real world variables. They verify the assumptions and hypotheses made during design of the building and calculate the results of risks taken like the use of new products or compromising on materials for the sake of a tight budget. The goal is to understand the outcome of such risk taking and to arrive at an educated conclusion for the benefit of future designs. Architects engaged in the act of designing and not merely building, are constantly looking for feedback in order to inspire their creations to the next level of perfection.

However logical and reasonable this practice seems on paper, it is the most obvious place to cut corners in a capitalistic society that pushes architects and artists into the “star or starving” extremes. The clients who finance the architecture are often unconcerned with the qualitative facts and figures relating to the performance of their building. Once all is said and done, they are eager to fill it with tenants and customers, forgetting the annoying design meetings and expense reports.

So what is to become of this often-forgotten most important step of design? Does one sigh, “Oh well, maybe in a perfect world,” and carry on with the profiteering? Is there a way to make this feedback looping profitable and therefore important to those who see through the filter of their bank statements? The answer should be yes, resoundingly. Here’s why:

1. Heating and cooling costs are the architects’ legacy to their clients. Whatever orientation and glass the building uses are likely to have as much impact on the cost of climatization as the thermal insulation and ventilation, either intended or accidental. A client who is proceeding with a new design would be wise to consider the post-occupancy utilities costs related to scorching-hot atriums and thermally leaky wall systems which can be huge liabilities over time. Architects have the ability to predict some climatic phenomenon but not all.

2. Technology is the greatest legacy of the 20th Century. Every day new ways of doing old things are being designed and manufactured exchanging quality and reliability for testing and assurance. Architects, like any designers, are always eager to employ the newest materials and fittings for their clients but to the end that often they must call upon unreliable sources. New windows, for example, can be specified for their higher insulation values and recycled materials but upon final installation and a few rainstorms might be revealed to be leaky and inferior products costing twice as much to remove and replace. Equally, the cheaper floor system installed might transmit intolerable quantities of noise while a space just might not be bright enough.

3. Socioeconomic functionality is something that architects parallel sociologists in their eagerness to study. Few other professionals spend equal time observing both the flow of pedestrian traffic and electrical current. The architect is more than happy to speculate on the attractive nature of their public gathering spaces and appealing finishes but until their construction goes up, there is little to be done besides predict. New York City is filled with plazas designed to provide man access to his greatest luxury – space, with the unfortunate reality that they are more dead than alive. The wise office building manager knows that a productive staff needs a healthy environment, something that architects attempt to achieve by a multiplicity of different means. Light, sound, views, fresh air, human circulation, adjacency; all of these impact the socioeconomic functionality of a commercial or office space.

It is clear now that post-occupancy analysis should be a fundamental part of a growing and prosperous American architectural tradition. So why isn’t it? When it comes to business, the only tradition in America is competition. New networks of businesses and intellectuals centered around sharing and collaboration are popping up called “innovation districts,” revolutionary in a country that has been based for so long on isolated camps of secretive development. The age of the feedback loop is coming and a period of childish “me first” and “that’s mine” capitalism appears to be coming to a close.

It has been said that the 20th Century was the age of technology and that the 21st Century will be the age of biology. The most fantastic development included in this change will be the shift from linear, hierarchical systems to collaborative communities more closely resemble ecosystems where each member has its own niche, eliminating much need for competition. The agency of post-occupancy analysis facilitates this shift with its emphasis on iterative design, a learning through experience akin to the process of evolution which Mother Nature is so famous for perfecting. Build humans with appendixes and over time follow the feedback loop to modify the design and make them more efficient; build cities one way and over time follow the feedback loop to modify the design and make them more efficient.

Our bodies are our homes in this life and our buildings will still be homes when we’re gone. It’s time to put some thought into the legacy we’re leaving behind.

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119: One Job Could Change My Life

poopThree Steps

I don’t want this architecture degree,
the $60,000 debt and 90 hour weeks
just so I can get the job
that will change my life.

No.

I want the job
that will change their lives.

Why am I scared to admit the truth?
I want to change the world!
They get nervous when I say it
but I’ve stopped hiding.

I went to school.
I designed “sustainable” hotels.
I followed all their rules
And still I wanted more.

I went to Lima,
I met people in the slums.
“Human settlements”
they’re so elegantly called.

I cried with all my body,
paralyzed by the sight
of children walking home from school
through dust they had no way to escape.

Step one: design them showers.
I used Nature’s own designs
to recycle the costly water
children carried home on foot.

I hear poetry in the screams
of Our Great Mother
whose children are wasting
her gifts and their lives

while their buildings scrape the sky
and architects forget to ask
where do the showers go when
there’s no fresh water left?

And who will rent the offices
when people are scrounging for food
because the temperature’s too high
and the farms are all too far?

Mr. Politician, I can’t hear your ignorance
over the screams of OUR planet.
Nothing drowns them out and I can’t stop,
my body sobs along.

Hey, are you listening?
Do you know what’s up in Bangladesh?
Did you hear how millions are drowning
because of your addiction to oil?

My dream job doesn’t exist yet.
I know the why but not the how,
the what but not the when.
Step two: MS in GeoDesign.

Sustain-ability,
that’s step three.
Uniting people, buildings and nature,
building holistic communities, together.

Societies of living systems,
cities that are resilient, people
that are healthy and strong, that
is my dream.

Architect: it’s not a job.
It’s a call to the power of the universe.
The power to inspire change,
to build hope.

REDUCE stupidity and arrogance;
realize freedom and equality
and design a world where we all
have water to shower, clean air to breathe.

REUSE profit and power;
prioritize community-welfare
and remember we are all
children of the same Earth and stars.

RECYCLE laziness and complacency;
live up to those ideals and values
about which we talk the talk because
now, my friends, it’s time to walk.

Day 74: If I Ruled The World

Christopher Alexander

Christopher Alexander

Architects! Who needs ’em?

No one really. That is, if we just want structures that stand alone and do nothing to improve our quality of life. Engineers and property developers have had the American economy by the balls with an increasingly tighter grip, eschewing those crazy designers on the pretense that it’s just not economical to go around talking about “space” and “light” and even worse… feelings. It’s a building, for heaven’s sake. No need to get all emotional about it.

Or is there? Raise your hand if you think back to the house you lived in at nine years old without one shred of emotion. *chirp, chirp* That’s what I thought.

The truth is, buildings create communities and communities create people.

A city is not a tree.

A city is not a tree.

Skyscrapers have been critiqued by members of the architectural community for years because of their isolating nature and their tendency to prevent residents from creating roots.

“High buildings have no genuine advantages, except in speculative gains for banks and land owners. They are not cheaper, they do not help create open space, they destroy the townscape, they destroy social life, they promote crime, they make life difficult for children, they are expensive to maintain, they wreck the open spaces near them, and they damage light and air and view.”
Architect Christopher Alexander proposed a four-story limit to all housing in 1977 which sounds pretty ideal if creating community is the focus. But I’m not so sure this is the best case scenario. Many six-story buildings create communities just fine, why is that? The answer is:
  • Internal semi-public space: A protected, personalizable space for the building or neighborhood creates a sense of co-ownership. Kind of like that club house you and the other neighborhood kids hung out in.
  • Temporary interstitial space: Street vendors are a good example and so are the wide sidewalks that collect them. Benches outside of a building can provide a place for neighbors to interact as well as a cafe or fruit stand can.
  • Proximity to other similar nodes: One good building does not a city make.

There’s a lot to be said about the connectedness cities should enjoy. Stay tuned for more details as the 365 Day Creativity Challenge continues!

What do you like most about the city you live in? Where have you enjoyed living more? What makes a good city in your opinion?