New Urban News
Edited by Barbara Kenda, Steven Parissien, Gloria Ohland, and Kateri Butler
Rizzoli, with the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, 208 pp., hardcover $45.
This beautiful, large-format book, which features a foreword by Prince Charles, first grabs a reader’s attention by virtue of the starkly contrasting photos on its front and back covers. On the front are houses in the Building Research Establishment’s “Innovation Park” in Watford, England. One has an angular roof with conspicuous solar panels. Next to it is a house with a partly angled, partly curving roof topped by an array of solar panels, with a strange glass-and-louver projection rising from its center.
The dwellings exemplify the design approach that architect Stephen Mouzon calls “gizmo green” or “gadget green.” They wear technology like a badge of pride — which might be okay except that badges are a poor substitute for an architecture possessing cultural depth.
The back cover shows a much different kind of scene: people strolling across a graciously planted public plaza at Del Mar Station in downtown Pasadena, California, while a Metro Rail train passes alongside. The buildings opening onto the plaza are in predominantly traditional shapes, their styling a soft mix of Mediterranean and other historical influences. Their windows are of normal human scale.
Probably most Americans would never guess that Del Mar Station is “green.” Yet Del Mar, a mixed-use development that architects Moule & Polyzoides built around the commuter tracks connecting Pasadena to Los Angeles, is in its own way environmentally progressive. It reduces consumption of resources — through dense living (buildings up to seven stories), access to transit, and a gathering of varied activities and services on a single city block.
My surmise is that the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, the sponsor of this book, selected the two photos because they challenge readers to ask what “green living” entails. What kind of design works well for the environment and communities, and reinforces human culture?
In his foreword, the Prince of Wales argues that sustainable design need not be dictated by “the operational requirements of photovoltaics, wind turbines, solar traps and the other trappings of environmental science.” It can be a “more holistic response,” one that learns from “previous generations of vernacular builders.”
A dozen liberally illustrated essays by writers in the United Kingdom and the US elaborate on Charles’s theme. James Hulme, policy and research director for the Prince’s Foundation, tells about the Foundation’s “Natural House” project — a residential structure that looks decidedly traditional but uses materials in ways that are especially kind to the environment.
Natural House — containing two units — has breathable walls made of an ingenious type of clay block. Each block contains an extruded grid of holes, which hold tiny pockets of air, for a high insulating value. “The holes also allow the block to be fired at lower temperature than traditional bricks, reducing its energy impact,” Hulme points out. The construction technique, which employs a thin layer of natural resin (instead of conventional mortar) to bond the courses together, is “easily mastered by a conventional bricklayer,” says Hulme.
The Prince’s Foundation has also investigated the use of Hemcrete, a mix of hemp fiber, lime, concrete, and binder. Hemp has the virtue of growing quickly and of being able to be interspersed with food crops in agricultural cycles, Hulme observes. A team of apprentices built a wall section of Hemcrete in less than a week. The rough-textured finished wall, quoined at the corners, has a thickness that conveys solidity. Either of these — the Hemcrete house or the block dwelling, plastered on the outside — would fit gracefully in a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood. Both seem attractive choices for a homebuying market that, in Britain as in the US, remains largely traditional in exterior styling preferences.
Cutting edge of tradition
In contrast to “gadget green,” the building systems from the Prince’s Foundation exemplify an approach that architectural critic Robert Campbell has called “innovating on the edge of tradition.” In a particularly thoughtful essay, Professor Norman Crowe of the University of New Mexico (and formerly of Notre Dame) delves into the frame of mind that a designer brings to a project. A strictly modernist frame of mind, Crowe says, favors “completely new and fresh approaches, based on state-of-the-art technological developments and the designer’s latest and most astute interpretation of contemporary culture and society.”
“Such an approach presumes, of course, that a singular designer is actually capable of incorporating the full range of criteria that may appropriately be brought to bear on the problem at hand,” Crowe observes. “It also presumes that multiple designers, responsible collectively for the fabric of cities, have a sufficiently coordinated idea of the appropriate expressive priorities of the architecture of a place.” Often both of those presumptions are false. Consequently, modernist forays in green design frequently disappoint.
“The tradition-oriented approach, in contrast, is evolutionary rather than revolutionary,” according to Crowe. Sometimes the forces of tradition inhibit innovation, especially when faced by problems that are immediate and unprecedented. Nonetheless, Crowe suggests, tradition has the virtue of progressing in the same way that evolution does in biology — “by incremental changes in response to new criteria” or conditions. Quoting the environmental educator David Orr, he argues that through generations of trial and error, knowledge eventually congeals into “cultural wisdom about the art of living well within the resources, assets, and limits of a place.”
The book’s other essayists — Hank Dittmar, Andres Duany, Bruce King, James Steele, David Mayernik, Victor Deupi, Tim Yates, June Tester, Richard Jackson, Barbara Kenda, and Mouzon — look at “sustainable refurbishment,” public health, the history of building, the market for green design, and other topics. This is an illuminating collection. Readers of Green Living will come away with a keen sense of how traditional architecture, with a degree of innovation, can deliver energy and environmental benefits — without sacrificing other things that matter.