Touching the ground – how?

For the past couple of years I’ve been proudly cultivating a theory of architecture and sustainability which I believed bridged all of the gaps between my various interests in the field and which could usher in a truly new way of seeing things to unite designers, engineers, and the inhabitant. In essence, it espouses physical closeness to nature and celebrates common building systems which mediate the relationship between natural resources and dwelling, all in order to elevate the status of ‘sustainability’ in our consciousness. One basic example that follows this instruction is a green roof, since conceptually, moving the ground that would be displaced by the building footprint up to the roof preserves the total surface area of the ground (if viewed from above, a house with a green roof would blend in with its surroundings). Another variation of this example is earth-sheltering, where instead the building itself is partially sunk into the ground to take advantage of the earth’s high R-value. Both of these approaches force the designer and builder to consider what they are displacing, and continuously strive for balance and homeostasis as nature does.

The Centre Pompidou in Paris does this as well, embracing the building’s lifeblood and turning it out for all to see. When we learned about this building in architecture school the upshot (to be memorized for the final exam) was that it’s the apotheosis of postmodernism, which may be true, but it’s much more than that. In light of the sustainability struggle, the Centre Pompidou takes the important first step of bringing us in direct contact with the elements that flow within the earth itself: water, gas, electricity. Forcing us to confront these elements directly will hopefully lead us to value them more– so rather than shoving them out of sight, we put the space allotted for them on equal ground with the space allotted for us. All this serves to bind our fate as a species with the fate of the planet. Therein, my core principle of what it is to be human.

Image via centrepompidou.fr.
Jacobs House II; Frank Lloyd Wright; 1948; the berm on the right side of the photo is evidence of earth sheltering. Image via columbia.edu.
A temazcal, the traditional bathhouse of the Pre-Columbian people of Mesoamerica. These were typically designed as domes or small hills with very low ceilings. Inside was pitch dark. Entering a temazcal is symbolic of going underground into the core of the Earth, of burial and rebirth, and of a mother’s womb. Inside, one chants to the god Mother Earth. — Particularly after the arrival of the Spanish and the persecution and destruction of the indigenous population and their traditions, temazcals had to be built quickly and surreptitiously, often being half-buried in the ground to avoid being identified. Image via Sputnik Mundo.

But in April in Mexico I picked up a book of Buckminster Fuller’s lectures, and my mind was changed. There are other ways to be sustainable– in fact, there are situations in which the act of ‘digging in’ and immersing oneself into the earth does more harm than good. In those situations, one has to do the opposite. Instead of assuming that he needs to directly contact the earth to dwell in it, Fuller instead is interested in “touching the earth lightly,” floating above it, creating space between us and it (like the inevitable gaps you get when you fill a jar with marbles). In Fuller’s worldview, the next stage of human evolution will discard the old violent instinct of displacing earth in place for a more aerodynamic lifestyle, controlled by those invisible forces that we’ve learned to manipulate like magnetism and gravity, closer resembling the greater cosmos itself. He also predicts we will have prefabricated houses installed by helicopter and that our resources to be used for the benefit of 100% of mankind.

And what follows that? The cosmos, naturally. Buckminster Fuller sees no reason why humans shouldn’t begin inhabiting other planets once technology allows it. He is binding humanity to scales both atomic and cosmic.

Buckmister Fuller’s chart showing the relationship between world population and its percentage of slaves, or, “have nots.” Image via grahamfoundation.org.
Buckmister Fuller’s done home in Carbondale, IL. Image via architectmagazine.com.

I mentioned this flip in my mind to Justin, and he said that his structural engineering firm is becoming more and more interested lately in design for disaster relief. He traveled to Kathmandu shortly after the earthquake in 2015 and was struck by how the overwhelming majority of houses were built of unreinforced masonry (practically the worst construction type to resist the lateral forces of earthquakes). Simply switching to lighter timber frames with moment connections would make the population a degree of magnitude more resilient. Furthermore, if an when a disaster does strike, the first thing most relief organizations do is air-drop food and shelter. Touching the earth lightly suddenly becomes a most valuable asset. I’m unsure if Buckminster Fuller specifically had disaster relief in mind, but it’s certainly becoming a reality for a wider and wider range of people than ever. Geodesic relief domes, delivered by helicopter, assembled in two hours by two people, may by necessity become the dwelling place of the future.

Garrison Architects; NYC Emergency Housing Prototype. As visible in the photo, the entire house sits on small concrete spot footings, as minimally invasive to the ground as possible. Image via garrisonarchitects.com.
A Geodesic Dome being transported by helicopter. Image via smithsonianmag.com.
Assmebling a Geodesic Dome. Image via phaidon.com.

The new warming principle

This may be half-cooked conjecture, due mostly to its scary simplicity, but it bears notice.
To begin with, the reason our hemisphere is colder during winter months is not because the sun is further away than during summer (in fact, due to the ovular shape of Earth’s orbit around the sun, we may in fact be closer in winter) but because of the average angle of the sun normal to the Earth’s surface. As one may notice, the sun doesn’t rise as high into the winter sky. This is because of the Earth’s angle of declination. We do not spin upright as a freshly released top, but at an angle of close to 23.45 degrees. Here’s the perfect animation we’ve always wanted to see. Due to this angle, we in the Northern Hemisphere are tilting away from the sun from October till April. As we have all accidentally experimented at some point in our lives, blowdryers exponentially decrease in effective heating power the further from perpendicular you tilt them. Maximum heat gain occurs when the direction of radiation waves are perpendicular to the incident surface (same is true, by the way, for magnetism). But before I move on to the next paragraph, I remind you that one of the best strategies for passive (that is, without the need of mechanical distribution systems) solar heating is to locate all glazing and heavy materials such as concrete on the south facade of a building. This side gets the most direct sunlight and heats up the most in the daytime.
Until recently, Earth’s surface has remained primarily horizontal. This is an assumption we base the above evidence on. However, the past 5 years that have witnessed the beginning of an urban majority (the percentage of people living in cities as opposed to rural areas has crossed the 50% mark) bring to some the vision of a planet covered completely with cities. What would that mean? Well, it would mean many things. Many scary things. But singling one of those out: it would mean that a majority of the Earth’s surface would now be vertical. Think of the reason our livers are so bumpy on the inside, why cells have cilia, or why trees grow leaves. It’s all to increase surface area. Now imagine the net surface of the city-blanketed Earth. Most of that surface is going to be vertically oriented. Suddenly, the surfaces incident to the rays of the winter sun are more perpendicular than they were 200 years ago (or, closer to 90 degrees), and those areas are actually getting hotter in winter. That would then mean, of course, the opposite in the summer when the sun is high. Most solar radiation is hitting the surfaces at a very low angle, resulting in very little heat gain. Add to that a building’s thermal mass and you have one screwed up season cycle.

Before:

After:

This core concept of the sun’s angle relative to a majority of the surfaces in our microclimate adds spice to the already-proven and maligned urban symptom of heat island effect.
There’s my morbid hypothesis.

We’re onto something here…

Something very disturbing.

It pains me to see birch wood– [oh, the beautiful birch! Jewel of the subarctic! It serves me peaceful reminders of cooler days with its snow-white bark when I look upon it from behind a cloud of June-horny blackflies. It burns hot and easy (I like my women like I like my birch wood), and is a sauna’s perfect match. I can peel thy skin and answer the thrush on your branches. After the rains you exhale the very embodiment of “aroma”, and I go a-roaming. oh, the beautiful birch…..!]– reduced to this. You see what’s going on here? First it was books, now it’s wood! The bookends of the timber industry have been fetishised. And indeed, Marx knew it was going to happen long ago.

Logging is my father’s new favorite hobby. Let’s see how he reacts to this.
This actually leads me to a general problem I have with globalization. We were on the road to instant gratification far before the internet. Many centuries ago, we began exchanging goods heavily as trading routes opened up between the larger civilizations. Today we move a lot of shit. By wing, wheel, or hull. Either us to the product/good, or the product/good to us. Both consume massive amounts of energy. In the short run, the benefits may seem great. But is it sustainable in the long run? One numbnuts step, at least for us architects, towards significantly cutting costs is bringing in materials from as close to the worksite as possible.
What is embodied energy? Here’s Sustainablog. (Be sure to check out the video.) The big idea: cutting down on shipping costs means that we strive to “control all aspects of our lives.” More abstractly speaking, a physicist would say that of all processes involving Work (aka energy expended in using a Force to move a Mass), the human body itself is among the most efficient in the long run. Inevitably, because we do not live in a vacuum (which I until recently could not remember how to spell until I realized it’s being pronounced wrong– if you pronounce it like a word of the same suffix, like continuum, the spelling becomes obvious), ALL work done and energy produced involves some “loss”. Usually it’s through friction. There is a long and still-unsolved history of finding the perfect machine. But this waste can come in many forms, from sensible heat to sound. One could calculate the waste produced in walking 10 meters there and 10 meters back– a theoretically zero-sum exercise, and compare it to driving 100 meters there and 100 meters back. Assigning as many tasks as we can to that which we can achieve with our own bodies is a very clear definition of sustainability. This is a call to immediacy.

I digress. We used to have to wait till summer to eat our avocados and peaches and bananas. Now we can get them year round. In sidestepping spoilage of our food, we have spoiled ourselves. Let’s hope the small-but-growing trends in support of localization can become… well, global.

Designer firewood brings to mind an incident I was present for several years ago at an old friend’s brownstone in Kips Bay. Her grandmother and uncle had just flown in from London and the hosts (my friend and her mother) decided to light a fire in the fireplace. I gave a “Eeeeeeh” but the only response was “Don’t be silly.” Somehow they light some wood that’s been sitting there, immaculately arranged (almost edibly arranged), and we all take a seat around it and chat. Smoke starts rising into the room. Hm. Soon the mantel (or where the mantel normally is) is completely black with soot, and smoke is filling up the room. The uncle keeps insisting, “No, no, don’t open the door. No, no, don’t put the fire out. I like this smell. It’s nice and… woody. It’s supposed to smell woody, isn’t it?” The fire alarm begins howling. By the time the fire department arrived, I could stand on one side of the living room and not see anyone at the other end (which I think I did intentionally to disassociate myself with them as much as possible). I think the firemen were dumbfounded and just didn’t have the heart to tell us “Next time, you should check if your fireplace has a flue. You know what a flue is?” Instead they told us not to ever use that… unusable… fireplace again.

For now I’m not complaining about the cold, and instead I’m enjoying the excellent oranges. Oranges often play a pivotal role in my feeling good during wintertime, partially because since orange juice is so sugary and the fruit is disgustingly dry in warmer months, my anticipation builds.

What is your favorite season? As kids the answer was obvious. But as I’ve learned to give trivial matters more and more unnecessary thought, fall has emerged as the new frontrunner (it’ll stay my favorite so long as it continues to support color diversity). Especially in New York, the weather gets dryer and cooler, right into that long-sleeved sweetspot. People all return from the holidays. And of course fall is the season of the harvest, the season of the fire, and the season of homecoming and storytelling. To come full circle here, fall is when we remember to work with our hands, together, and reap the rewards.

Share this at your own discretion. Do you have this word, discretion?
Share this at your own discretion. Do you have this word, discretion?