A Note on Green Building Aesthetics

Earlier this week Lance Hosey stirred up some debate with his Huffington Post piece called "Architecture’s Great Divide."  He was responding to Aaron Betsky's provocation in Dezeen: "There should be no top 10 prizes for sustainable architecture."

Briefly, Betsky says that the AIA-COTE Top Ten consists of banal, mediocre buildings.  Hosey rebuts Betsky's points one-by-one, concluding that it's "a false dichotomy" to pit aesthetics against performance. (Additionally, Lloyd Alter weighed in here.)

And similarly a few weeks ago, there was some heavy debate on Twitter after Alexandra Lange called the Cornell Tech tower "so blah."  I basically agree, but I made this point: "At least 80% in every category/genre is ugly or compromised but for efficient buildings this is, somehow, always seen as an inherent, defining problem..."

What I usually find absent from these discussions is the acknowledgement that aesthetic judgments are conditional, not absolute.  This often happens to me: A building (or work of art) might be "blah" or ugly on first view, then I find it beautiful when I learn more about it and revisit it.  Sometimes, someone else shares an insight that I missed.  My initial aesthetic reaction is superficial, but then with more perspective my appreciation changes. 

For green buildings, this is particularly germane because many 'sustainable' features are not immediately apparent.  It's likely impossible to see indoor air quality, or radically low plug loads, or zero waste, in architectural photography or a quick visit.  Do these things contribute to beauty?  Of course!  Beauty is more than skin-deep; it includes character.  We form judgments about people this way; Mother Theresa was beautiful, right?  In the same way, for me, a building's low energy use (or other unseen green feature) is an aspect of its beauty.

That said, I think I understand and sympathize with Betsky's complaint.  He has sensed, correctly, that most green building award-winners share a style: bland corporate modernism with a small dose of high-tech.  This style is not, by now, visually experimental or risk-taking.  And for those who aren't engaged by this style, or who are oriented to the next avant-garde, it's easy to understand that the awards are not going to be rewarding.


Solar Jobs, 1978

In March 1978, a Congressional Subcommittee chaired by Senator Edward M. Kennedy held hearings on the subject: "Creating Jobs Through Energy Policy."

Some of the most provocative testimony came from William Winpisinger, the President of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers:

"We have a tremendous opportunity to dovetail the development of the new energy sources such as solar, cogeneration, biomass, small hydro, and wind with a national manpower policy and full employment program."

"We must be wary, however. The giant energy companies, already vertically and horizontally integrated, are casting covetous eyes upon the alternatives, particularly solar, and I guess staking out a claim on buying the sun. I don’t think we can permit that to happen. Of all sources, solar power must be the people’s power."

"It remains for public spirited and progressive citizens to remind the nation’s policy makers and the public, that the sun and solar energy belong to the people, not the energy companies; that the waters of the ocean and rivers belong to the people, not the monopolies; that the children of the ghettos have as much claim to ownership of pubic lands, oil shale and offshore oil deposits, as do a few private investors."

The next month, in April 1978, Winpisinger led the founding conference of the Citizen-Labor Energy Coalition (CLEC), with Heather Booth.  CLEC promoted energy-efficiency and solar jobs, based on the larger belief that "the energy crisis ... pitted the well-being of workers and consumers against corporate power and profits" (Andrew Battista, "Labor and Liberalism: The Citizen Labor Energy Coalition," Labor History, 1999).  CLEC gained a bit of political power in the early 1980s.  For a critique, see the 1984 Heritage Foundation report: "CLEC: Hidden Agenda, Hidden Danger" (pdf).  CLEC also gets mentioned in pieces such as "Obama’s Radical Past." 

Winpisinger was known as "Wimpy."  When he died in 1997 the New York Times said he called himself a "seat-of-the-pants socialist."


Also in 1978, a group called the Mid-Peninsula Conversion Project in Mountain View, California, issued a report called "Creating Solar Jobs" (pdf).  It estimated 66,300 direct solar jobs in the United States by 1985.  This study also estimated the costs for a statewide program to build and retrofit passive solar houses in California in the 1980s, and the construction jobs which would be created.  "We can assume conservatively that 10% to 20% of the single-family homes and 5% to 10% of the multi-family homes could be retrofitted by 1985 with a south-facing greenhouse or solar wall."  The nascent PV industry was also analyzed.


Tools: Libbey-Owens-Ford's Solarometer

In The Solar House, I included a picture of Libbey-Owens-Ford's Solarometer being demonstrated at the 1950 MIT Symposium.  In that photo (p. 128 of the book) we see Lawrence Amderson, Maria Telkes, George Fred Keck, and W.J. Arner of Libbey-Owens-Ford.

"Solarometer" was Libbey-Owens-Ford's brand.  In general, this type of tool is called a heliodon, and the heliodon is still produced today.  (See here.)

Here's an earlier photo of the Solarometer, from 1949. 

The notice on the back reads:
SOLAR METER DETERMINES SUN'S ANGLE
CHICAGO: Ralph Sherwin shows Joan Farrell how to operate the Solarometer, developed to help architects and home builders figure roof overhang for solar houses.  The Solarometer makes it possible to determine the angle of the sun in any city in the world at any time of day.

Solar Form: Self-Shading

Solar architecture takes many forms.  A common form for solar houses, especially prevalent in the 1970s and 80s, included a south-facing sloped glass wall, to collect solar heat.  I trace the history of this type in The Solar House.  In the book I also discuss some ideas about solar aesthetics from that period.

Here's more evidence (not in the book) that solar architecture matured in the 1970s.  Where the opposite environmental need predominated---cooling rather than heating---the inverse formal strategy took hold.  I've collected some examples, where the architectural form is clearly meant to provide self-shading so heat gain would be minimized. 

Note that the self-shading form may be oriented to the south or to the west, depending on the site conditions and the needs of the building.

Tempe City Hall
Michael & Kemper Goodwin (Tempe, 1971)

https://www.flickr.com/photos/79682775@N02/7165658438/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/79682775@N02/7165658438/


Blue Cross and Blue Shield headquarters
Odell Associates (Chapel Hill, 1973)

https://carrboroman.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/hq.jpg

https://carrboroman.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/hq.jpg


National Housing Center
Vincent Kling (Washington, DC, 1974)

http://i.ebayimg.com/images/g/ThkAAOSwFdtX0BGW/s-l1600.jpg

http://i.ebayimg.com/images/g/ThkAAOSwFdtX0BGW/s-l1600.jpg

In a 1963 talk called "Solar Effects on Architecture," Vincent Kling said:
"it is obvious that the esthetics of any building design come as much from a mature, realistic approach to the sun effect as from almost any other single force affecting design concepts. As the architect solves the problem of sun effect, he is putting his stamp and flavor on the architecture."


Hartford Building
Ellerbe & Company (Woodbury, MN, 1977)

http://x.lnimg.com/photo/poster_1920/fafd1184e1a64df18ba3a17047904bd9.jpg

http://x.lnimg.com/photo/poster_1920/fafd1184e1a64df18ba3a17047904bd9.jpg


Dallas City Hall
I.M. Pei (Dallas, 1978)

https://commons.wikimedia.org

https://commons.wikimedia.org

These are but a few.  Do you know of other examples?  Please include them in the comments!

House of Tomorrow: Restoration Team

George Fred Keck's House of Tomorrow, built for the 1933 Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago, will soon be restored.  The structure, which now resides in northern Indiana, has been in shambles for years.  It's a major building in the history of passive solar heating, as I explain in The Solar House.

Yesterday, the restoration team was formally announced by Indiana Landmarks.  Here is the full press release.


For immediate release
March 15, 2017

House of Tomorrow restoration team announced

CHICAGO – At a monthly talk sponsored by AIA Chicago’s Historic Resources Committee, Indiana Landmarks and the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced the team that will lead the rehabilitation of The House of Tomorrow. Designed by Chicago architect George Fred Keck for the 1933-34 Chicago Century of Progress World’s Fair, the building sits in a dilapidated state atop a sand dune in Northwest Indiana.

Todd Zeiger, director of Indiana Landmarks’ northern office in South Bend and House of Tomorrow project manager, introduced the team after the talk on Tuesday, March 14. Jennifer Sandy, senior field officer of the National Trust, also spoke at the AIA session. Last fall, the National Trust named the site a National Treasure and with Indiana Landmarks launched a $2.5 million campaign to restore the house.

The design team working to rehabilitate America’s first glass house includes the following Chicago-based firms.

bKL Architecture taking the lead in architecture and interior design with a team led by Charles R. Hasbrouck, FAIA; Bauer Latoza Studio, led by Edward Torrez RA, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, providing historic preservation consulting services; Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc., providing structural engineering services with a team led by Senior Associate Michael Ford; Willoughby Engineering, led by Thomas Willoughby, supplying mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineering services; HJKessler Associates, led by Helen Kessler, FAIA, LEED, providing sustainability consulting services.

Staff from the National Park Service and State Historic Preservation Office will ensure the project meets preservation standards.

In the midst of the Great Depression, the House of Tomorrow offered 39 million World’s Fair visitors an optimistic look into the future of residential architecture and modern technology, with a focus on how advancements in science and technology could improve daily life. Indiana Landmarks, a nonprofit preservation organization headquartered in Indianapolis, aims to restore the House of Tomorrow while sharing Keck’s goal of making it a visionary dwelling, this time for the twenty-first century.

In his design for the House of Tomorrow, Keck underscored the fair’s theme by showing people a new way to live in what the media called “America’s First Glass House.”  The glass curtain-wall structure predates Mies van der Rohe’s 1951 Farnsworth House in Illinois and Philip Johnson’s 1949 Glass House in Connecticut.

The large expanses of glass introduced the concept of passive solar energy as a sustainable heating technique for the first time. Four years later, Keck developed Thermopane glass with the Libbey-Owens-Ford company. In his long career—he died in 1980—he designed 300 passive solar houses, most in the Chicago area.

Keck also introduced new inventions and modern conveniences in the House of Tomorrow, including an “iceless” refrigerator, the first-ever General Electric dishwasher, and an open floor plan—an innovation in 1933.

To create the twelve glass sides, Keck designed a central hub of posts connected to girders that radiated like the spokes of a wheel. A central steel core contained mechanical equipment. The cantilevered girders provide support for the concrete-slab second and third floors, along with slender steel columns, allowing clear spans for open interior spaces. The rehabilitation will peel away deteriorated surfaces to reveal the original wheel-and-spoke steel structure, and restore the house using smart glass and other cutting-edge technologies and products.

When the World’s Fair closed in 1934, Chicago developer Robert Bartlett used barges and trucks to ship the House of Tomorrow and other Century of Progress structures to Beverly Shores, an Indiana town he was attempting to develop as a vacation destination for Chicagoans. Five Century of Progress houses were sold and remained in private hands until the land became part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore between 1966 and the early 1970s.

All five were listed in the National Register of Historic Places in the 1980s, but by the mid-1990s the homes were in alarmingly poor condition. Since there was no public money to restore the houses, Indiana Landmarks proposed a solution that hadn’t been previously considered:  long-term leases.

Indiana Landmarks leased the Century of Progress houses from the National Park Service, and over the last 15 years has subleased four of the five to individuals who restored them in exchange for a long-term residency. The restoration cost for each house—borne solely by the sub-lessees—reached over a million dollars. The House of Tomorrow, however, posed unusual challenges and led Indiana Landmarks to tackle the rehabilitation itself.

“With help from the National Trust, we’ve put together a stellar team of Chicago architects, engineers, and preservation and sustainability experts, all of whom are enthusiastic to work on restoring this important Chicago landmark that happens to live in Indiana,” says Todd Zeiger.
To contribute to the restoration of the House of Tomorrow, a rare World’s Fair survivor that will burnish George Fred Keck’s legacy, visit https://www.indianalandmarks.org/about/special-projects/house-of-tomorrow/.

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About Indiana Landmarks
Indiana Landmarks revitalizes communities, reconnects us to heritage, and saves meaningful places. With nine offices located throughout the state, Indiana Landmarks helps people rescue endangered landmarks and restore historic neighborhoods and downtowns. People who join Indiana Landmarks receive its bimonthly magazine, Indiana Preservation. For information on membership in the nonprofit organization, call 317-639-4534, 800-450-4534, or visit www.indianalandmarks.org.

About The National Trust for Historic Preservation The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded nonprofit organization, works to save America’s historic places. www.savingplaces.org

About National Treasures
The National Trust for Historic Preservation mobilizes its more than 60 years of expertise and resources to protect a growing portfolio of National Treasures that are threatened buildings; neighborhoods, communities, and landscapes that stand at risk across the country. Our National Treasures program demonstrates the value of preservation by taking direct action to protect these places and promote their history and significance.

About Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is one of 413 units of the National Park System ranging from Yellowstone to the Statue of Liberty. Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore includes 15 miles of the southern shoreline of Lake Michigan and 15,000 acres of beach, woods, marshes, and prairie in the northwest corner of Indiana. For more information go to: www.nps.gov/indu

JTPR, Indiana Landmarks 1201 Central Ave., Indianapolis, 46202 Indiana, United States
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