KNOWLEDGE, DESIGNED

Arthi Suthaharan

We live in a world where information is easily accessible for many. Search engines like Google will tell you everything you need to know, with hundreds of sources and reviews. It’s become a common reflex and response to anything you want to know or learn. Just “google” it!

Google is a basic tool in our day-to-day lives, but where did it come from?

Back to Land

In the sixties, in the midst of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, there was a rise of a counterculture that favoured individual empowerment and self-sustenance. With this came the “back to the land” movement, where people moved to communes with the goal of slowing down and simplifying life. At the heart of this movement was Stewart Brand’s publication of the Whole Earth Catalogue

The Whole Earth Catalogue

In 1967, a NASA geostationary weather and communication satellite captured the first colour photograph of the whole earth. People’s perspective of the earth changed and for the first time, people could see the earth not as the world we live in but as the planet we live on. The earth was no longer our entire world; it was a thing of its own, both finite and delicate. It was a powerful symbol: regardless of who we were and where we were, we all lived on the same planet and with that, shared a common future and destiny. Brand used this picture of the whole earth as an icon for his publications, an image he used to help shape people’s views and way of thinking to see the earth as a finite entity that needed to be protected.  

The contents of the Whole Earth Catalogue were catered to people who were involved with the “back to the land” movement. It was a paper database of the skills, tools and information they needed to survive and succeed, all within the pages of a few catalogues. It was meant to empower individuals who were tired of being controlled by the government and big corporations and wanted to shape their environment and future.

To access this knowledge, you needed the physical catalogue. There was no internet, libraries were restricted by their size and television content was limited. The catalogue was a new concept, a place where anything you needed to know, find and learn about a single topic or idea was in one place. It was regularly updated and changed as the creators received reviews and feedback, just like the search engines we know today.

The Digital Age

Unlike the catalogues, which we can see in physical space filled with a finite quantity of knowledge, Google exists on the infinite digital plane of the Internet. We cannot see or even begin to understand all the information this entity can hold. It has no physical form; it is a space we cannot physically see nor touch. It is designed using computer code, using algorithms and sequences, to pull the information we are searching for from that infinite digital space. Today, the way we get our news, communicate with one another and share knowledge is via the digital plane. It is no surprise that the way we collect data and search for information happens the same way.

Information Overload

With unlimited access to information comes an overload. The abundance of information has created difficulty in understanding issues and making decisions around them, largely due to the uprising of “fake news”. Twenty-first-century libraries are evolving from primarily housing books on shelves to taking on the self-proclaimed role of “fake news debunkers”. Some modern libraries are also developing programs they call design thinking to promote creative processes for problem-solving, helping their clientele to develop the skills needed to process information in this “overloaded” climate.

Unlike the days of the Whole Earth Catalogue, libraries have gone from transactional to relational interactions with users. Libraries are no longer places where users simply come to consume information, they have also become places where the public comes to create their own content.

Described by Steve Jobs as the “paperback Google”, the Whole Earth Catalogue gave rise to the way we access digital information today. Understanding how the knowledge you are receiving has been designed and disseminated is arguably as important as the knowledge itself.

This is why libraries are so critical to our communities. They are bastions of democracy, making sure that the development of critical thinking and creation are available to all.

MICRO-HOMES: A SOLUTION

Wendy Yuan

micro-home plans by pinuphouses.com

Homeownership has long been the “American Dream”. Achieving this dream often requires people to put their entire savings into real estate. With housing prices skyrocketing and the threat of global warming, micro-homes or tiny houses have become a suitable alternative for some.

Micro-homes refer to any residential structure under 400 square feet (37 square meters). They can range from cob houses and shipping containers to buses and even boats.

I was first introduced to micro-homes in an Architectural Technology course, where students were required to design Net-Zero Energy tiny houses for single families. The main benefits of micro-homes that appeal to me, include:

Affordability

Because of their sizes, tiny homes cost much less than the traditional options. It is less likely for people to be handcuffed to long-term mortgage loans. For example, this Japanese Tiny House on Wheels cost $30,000 USD in construction. Aside from the small purchase price, micro-homes also demand a relatively low cost of upkeep and insurance fees.

Customizability

Customizing a micro-home is more manageable than renovating a standard single-family house. Many have built their homes from found materials, others have tailored their space to their needs through DIY projects. However, what fascinates me the most is the ingenious solution to the limited space: shapeshifting. With pulls on handles, the walls slide across this 344 square feet (32 square meters) Transformer Apartment in Hong Kong, to create more “room”.

Sustainability

Tiny houses are environmentally conscious. Often constructed out of recycled materials and converted from “undesirable” spaces, they have a significantly smaller carbon footprint. Some owners prefer an “off-the-grid” lifestyle, which means they must source their own water, electric and plumbing services. Introducing water recycling system, solar-integrated roofs and compost toilets!

micro-home plans by pinuphouses.com

Micro Homes in Canada?

Although interest in micro-homes is high in Canada, municipalities are slow in accepting them. Some set a minimum square footage requirement; some even specify the colour and type of building materials. No city yet provides adequate zoning description or building by-laws to encompass tiny houses.

Progress is slow but present. Some cities, such as Vancouver and Edmonton, are softening restrictions for secondary suites. There have been plans to build communities of micro-homes in towns such as Okotoks, Alberta. The City of Hamilton has recently shown it’s progressive side by approving a zoning by-law that permits the construction of laneway houses on inner-city lots containing a detached single-family home. In this case, the size of the units are limited to 50 SM in area and 3M in height, adding much needed smaller units to the mix. This allows residents to age in place, or simply add some more affordable units to the retail stock.

Micro homes can offer refuge to the homeless, improve social wellness and contribute to the fight against climate change. Most importantly, they offer some simplicity to life. We can live for ourselves, instead of living for our houses.

#CLIMATESTRIKE

In March 2019, the City of Hamilton officially declared a climate emergency (we wrote about it here). The declaration was necessary, but it’s not enough.

We are running out of time. As architects, we are uniquely positioned to change the way we design cities and buildings. It is the obligation of our profession to exert influence over our clients, consultants, and the authorities having jurisdiction to introduce new design and building practices into the market. Net-zero buildings are easily within our reach; it’s not rocket science. It comes down to better detailing, more insulation, careful design and renewable energy. The longer-term financial viability of a net-zero building is radically better than the kinds of buildings we are accustomed to building.

In response to the Global Climate Strike, the Canadian Architects Declare pledge was created, urging architects and designers to raise awareness of the impact of the built environment on climate change and take immediate action through their projects.

About 150 architects signed the pledge, committing to:

  • Raising awareness
  • Taking immediate (and measurable) action
  • Designing for holistic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions
  • Eliminating waste and harm
  • Adopting regenerative design principles and practices
  • Advocating for the rapid systemic changes required

As architects and designers, we can make a difference. According to Architecture 2030, the urban built environment is responsible for 75% of annual global GHG emissions: buildings alone account for 39%. 

We should never underestimate our impact.
Together, we shape the world.
  
#ArchitectsDeclare #StandwithGreta #DesignforFuture

GRIT AND KINDNESS DESERVE BETTER

Ralph Benmergui

When people ask me what it’s like living in Hamilton (and believe me, every time I return to Toronto, they ask), I usually say that it’s great. Hamilton, I tell them, is a human-scale city. “But why would you leave Toronto?” they ask. “Because it’s full,” I say.

When we were considering the move (or I should say, when I was considering the move, along with my reticent family), I asked a friend who previously lived in Hamilton and Guelph which she preferred.

“Guelph if you want to fit in, Hamilton if you want to make a difference,” she said.

Case closed, we moved to the Hammer.

This is a decision I have not regretted. Here, people and the city itself, seem a good mix of grit and kindness. The working-class ethos, the waterfalls and the casual conversations just about anyone will have with you. This is a pre-war city.

But I’m not starry-eyed on Hamilton.

The car has supremacy here.  Speeding is expected. Bike lanes are nominal and dangerous in almost all parts of the city. On Hamilton’s main drag, a red light is considered an affront, as the goal is to get the hell from one end of town to the other, tout suite. This is sometimes good for drivers, but for anyone thinking of starting a small business, opening a café or even living on these corridors, good luck. I see block after block of wasted opportunities.

I’m not a city planner or a traffic flow specialist, but I am a citizen who sees avenues of loneliness and disconnection. The unfettered five-lane roadways, particularly Main Street, downtown and east end, keep us isolated.  They make daredevils of those who want to ride bikes and strangle the creative energy out of small business people who could be welcoming us into their shops.

Whenever I mention turning these arteries into two-ways with parking and protected bike lanes, locals roll their eyes and say (like those once told that one day the Berlin Wall would fall) that this will never fly in Hamilton.

What does a former Torontonian like me know about such matters anyway? Tribal war paint aside, I am a citizen with a lived experience that tells me that this city should have two thriving grand boulevards with treed pedestrian and cycling paths running through the middle of the streets. LRT, cafes, local grocers and specialty stores all the way from Dundurn to Gage Park.

So, I ask, do we need to get somewhere or be somewhere?

If we dare to move, I’m thinking that all that grit and kindness that we love so much here in Hamilton can find places to pollinate, and we might not be quite so big-city lonely.

About Ralph

Ralph Benmergui is a Canadian television and radio broadcaster, strategic communications professional and spiritual counselor. Follow Ralph on social at @RalphBenmergui

THE GILETS JAUNES: A REACTION TO PROGRESSIVE URBAN DESIGN?

Nicholas Kevlahan

Gilets Jaunes meeting in Grenoble. (Credit: Coline Buch)

I spent the past year working in Grenoble, a city about the size of Hamilton (metro population: 452 000) in southeast France near the Alps.  As someone interested in urban design, I was particularly looking forward to seeing how Grenoble’s new Mayor, Éric Piolle, was implementing his bold plans to make Grenoble more environmentally sustainable, attractive and inclusive. 

These changes have included implementing a default speed limit of 30 km/h, shifting road space from cars to pedestrians, cyclists and public transit, and an effort to “green” the city by planting more trees and improving public parks.

He is also building a network of long-distance separated bike paths between downtown and the suburbs (“Chronovélo”: 44 km on four routes to be completed by 2020).  On the social inclusivity front, they will increase the proportion of geared-to-income social housing from 21% to 25% of all housing stock by 2025.

Park-like LRT lines in central Grenoble.

At the same time, however, France was being shaken by the weekly Saturday afternoon demonstrations and riots of the “Gilets Jaunes” (yellow vests). Although the Gilets Jaunes were protesting many different issues (including rising inequality and the reforms of the new centrist President Emmanuel Macron), at its heart the movement was a protest by those living in rural and exurban areas against those living in France’s cities. 

They were protesting not just against the relative success and wealth of the cities, but against their values.  And, in particular, the “green” environmentally sustainable values being promoted by people like Grenoble’s Green Party mayor. 

La Fête des Tuiles: a celebration of community and environmental groups on the Grenoble LRT lines last June.

It turned out that Grenoble was unaffected by the extreme violence and disruption that hit cities like Paris, Bordeaux and Toulouse.  The Gilet Jaune movement was relatively peaceful and rapidly decreased in size after the initial November and December “Actes”.

But the Grenoble Gilet Jaune protests did share one common feature with these others: they were almost exclusively driven by people who came in from the surrounding regions and neighbouring departments, not by the residents of the city itself.  They were coming to protest against their fellow urban-dwelling citizens, as much as against the government. 

Why did the protesters feel the need to drive for an hour or more to protest in Grenoble (or in Paris or Bordeaux or Toulouse) rather than protesting in their local towns?

One factor is that mid-size and larger French cities really are, in many ways, very successful attractive places to live.  And in many cases, they are becoming much wealthier than the surrounding rural areas.

Public transport is excellent, infrastructure is very well maintained and they are lively and liveable.  Outside of Paris, they are also relatively affordable: it is cheaper to live in Grenoble than in Hamilton, even though Grenoble is a very economically successful high tech hub that attracts a lot of international residents.  Even though Paris is becoming increasingly unaffordable for buyers, it maintains some socioeconomic diversity because it is required (like all French cities) to ensure that at least 20% of all accommodation is geared to income. 

The attractiveness and investment in cities has paid off, but it has also accentuated the contrast with rural and exurban areas which have seen steep declines in population and resulting cuts in services. 

For many rural residents, the cities are another country filled with residents they perceive as “elites” who look down on them and their values. Gilet Jaune protesters often spoke of city residents watching their protests with a look of disdainful amusement.  They felt that they were in foreign territory! 

This protest by rural residents (not all of them poor) against the cities is an entirely new phenomenon.  It is important to note that these protests were apolitical: spanning the spectrum from extreme left to extreme right with many politically unengaged citizens in the middle.  Although various parties on the left and right tried to capture them, the Gilets Jaunes remained outside traditional politics. 

They are protesting not so much inequality or elitism per se, as the urban/rural divide.  This divide in wealth and values has developed in many countries (especially the USA), but you don’t see rural Americans travelling en masse to protest in New York, Chicago or LA!

The aftermath of a Gilet Jaune riot Saturday 25 November 2018 on the Champs Élysées in Paris. (Credit: L. Nicollet)

One little noticed feature of the Gilet Jaune movement, especially outside France, is that it is in some ways a protest movement of motorists against policies that they feel disadvantage driving. 

The protests were triggered by two reforms: a small rise in the gas tax (to reduce carbon emissions) and a reduction in the speed limit on rural highways from 90 km/h to 80 km/h (to reduce injuries and fatalities). 

Neither of these changes would seem to be that significant (in fact the second should cancel the cost of the first), but they triggered a wave of outrage in the countryside.  They were seen as the unfeeling decisions of an urban elite who didn’t care that rural residents depend on their cars.

As we’ve seen in Hamilton’s two-way conversion debate, even in cities many motorists’ self-identity is closely tied to their cars.  An attack on easy and cheap driving is an attack on me! 

One of the unofficial leaders of the movement, Éric Drouet, is a long-distance truck driver and car tuning enthusiast who posts numerous videos and commentaries on Facebook while driving around the country.  Outside the big cities, the signature Gilet Jaune actions were to camp out on roundabouts, damage photo radars and block (or make “free”) autoroute toll booths.  (At one point about 75% of all photo radars were put out of action, which resulted in a big jump in motorist deaths that the Gilets Jaunes and motorist groups blamed on … the speed limit reductions.) 

The Bulgarian sociologist Ivaylo Ditchev has even claimed that the Gilet Jaune protests are essentially a protest by motorists against the efforts of urbanites to reduce the place of cars in cities (and in society as a whole). 

The “war on cars” does not just make their life more difficult and expensive, it strikes at the core of their identity.

He points out that driving is a largely solitary, private, activity and that a motorists’ movement will therefore necessarily be individualist and lack a clear focus or political structure.  It is a reactionary movement of individuals with a range of personal concerns and priorities, not a political movement in the traditional sense. Almost all the organizing was done at a grassroots level via social media postings (primarily Facebook), rather than actual meetings or through the formation of a political party.

This is clear from the central political demand of the Gilets Jaunes (decided via Facebook polls): the Référendum d’Initiative Citoyenne (RIC). This is essentially government by referendum, with the aim of bypassing political parties and members of parliament entirely and letting the people make all decisions directly and individually. 

For those interested in urban design, the most important lesson from the Gilet Jaune movement is perhaps that decisions about city structure and mobility are not just about engineering, protecting the environment or optimizing how we get around. Our feelings about where we live, how we live and how we get around are central to our sense of self and self-worth.  They define us.

When the Mayor of Paris or Grenoble states that their goal is to make their city more liveable by reclaiming space that has been given over to the automobile, many people (especially rural or exurban residents) see this as a personal attack on them and their way of life. 

When these urban design decisions are actually successful (despite over-wrought predictions of disaster every time a bike lane is installed), it actually increases tensions since cities become ever more attractive places to live and work.  Those who objected to the changes forget that the city has become wealthier and more attractive in large part because of the changes they opposed.

Here in Canada, the yellow vest movement is a very different beast.  But it does feed off some of the same anti-elite and anti-urban feelings of the Gilets Jaunes.  Somewhat shockingly, the yellow vest protesters at City Hall have even used vehicles as weapons, driving a school bus at counter-protesters.

This doesn’t mean that we should stop making our cities more liveable, economically successful places (and Canadian cities like Hamilton suffered decades of under-investment and decline before their recent tentative revival).  And it doesn’t mean that we should stop reclaiming urban space lost to motor vehicles for human beings.  But we should perhaps be more sensitive to the fact that many people see these changes as threatening attacks on their core values and sense of self. 

CIRCUS ACT

Photo from www.bexcarney.com, “Fire Jammers”

Bex Carney is a multitalented performer with experience in theatre, film, dance and circus arts. Bex spends much of her time with Circus Orange as the Artistic Director, actor, fire performer, dancer and choreographer.

dpai’s David Premi had the opportunity to chat with Bex to learn how she turns an idea into a circus performance, for the Strange Process podcast.

“With Circus Orange [it’s about] what kind of performance I can give the audience and where I can push boundaries.”

Strange Process is a series, by dpai architecture inc. and Mohawk College, where we explore and demystify the process of how multidisciplinary artists produce their work. Listen or watch below:

TAKING THE LONG VIEW

David Premi

In the investment world, short-term investments are generally associated with higher risk. If this is true, why do investors often fail to look long-term when constructing buildings?

Many investors, donors, developers, institutions and purchasing departments embrace the lowest initial cost for their buildings and designers while placing less emphasis on the life-cycle cost and the legacy that the built form will represent.

With the evolution of Building Information Modeling (BIM) we can calculate how much a building will cost over its lifetime, which can help investors decide where to cut costs and where to spend.

The initial investment of a building includes the construction cost plus “soft costs”. A significant soft cost is the fee for professional design services such as architects and engineers. Choices made during the design phase are critical because they will continue to impact future profitability, flexibility, operational costs and occupant health, happiness and productivity for the lifespan of a building. It is during the design phase of the process that a building owner has control over how much the project will cost in the long run. It is more accurate to refer to professional design fees as an investment rather than a cost.

With the current low-margin model, buildings of relatively poor quality often reach the end of their serviceable life after 50 years, before being demolished and replaced by new ones. What once seemed like a great investment is reduced to a pile of rubble in a landfill. We know that this trend is not financially nor environmentally sustainable – and there is a better way forward.

A more profitable and sustainable model exists, allowing us to construct better quality and more energy-efficient buildings. It’s now possible to build to a net-zero standard, where buildings produce as much energy as they consume. There is also a growing trend to perform deep retrofits to existing buildings, which is a renovation of an existing building which results in a substantial reduction in energy consumption. These approaches come with an incrementally larger initial investment in both design fees and construction cost but drastically reduce operation and maintenance costs over the building’s lifetime.

To better understand lifecycle cost, check out the video below:

Common sense and history tell us that investors who take the long view are the ones who end up on top. As designers, it is our responsibility to encourage our clients to see beyond the initial costs to gain an understanding of the true value of their investment.

CREATOR OF SOUND

We had the opportunity to sit down with internationally acclaimed recording artist Jeremy Greenspan to talk about his process as a creator of sound.

Jeremy, best known as half of the electronic pop act Junior Boys, says he became obsessed with music as a kid. Today, his creative process is still something he considers to be play.

“I’m a very equipment-based, hardware-based musician. I have a recording studio where I have a lot of gear and so for me, it’s about tinkering with a bunch of equipment, some of which I’m very familiar with or some of which I’ve just got. It’s a lot about play. It’s a lot of complete randomness – it’s literally like playing with toys.”

Strange Process is a series by dpai architecture and Mohawk College where we explore and demystify the process of how multidisciplinary artists produce their work. You can watch the full interview on Youtube. Or listen here:

Check out his band at their website juniorboys.net or on Twitter @JuniorBoys.

THE STRANGE PROCESS OF A THING MAKER

Photo by Hamilton Farmers’ Market

We are excited to share our latest podcast episode! This time we talk with Dave Hind, a local thing maker, visual artist and sculptor on his creative process and how he brings his ideas to life.

Strange Process is a series by dpai architecture and Mohawk College where we explore and demystify the process of how multidisciplinary artists produce their work.

“I’m a big fan of the process because it never follows a particularly straight line,” says Hind. Listen to the full episode to learn more about the methods of this local creator, whose collaborative and public art works can be seen around Hamilton.

Listen below or watch on YouTube
Follow Dave Hind @davehindthingmaker
Visit his website, davehind.com

CITIES AS A CANVAS FOR EXPERIMENTATION

Petra Matar

As architects and urban planners, we need to let go of the idea that we have complete control. Instead of thinking of our work in terms of a final product, what if we approached it as an ever-changing canvas, that both shapes and is shaped by people and the environment?

Architecture isn’t a linear process with a single vision of what is right, but rather an infrastructure of human life, within which users and their activities move, adapt and change. We don’t see our work as absolute – it is an intuitive collaboration of many inspired individuals overlaying their visions in a shared community. We need to employ intuition and encourage participation in modifying and creating environments that perform and inspire.

A disconnected design process

The making of structures and cities has become a disconnected process. Codes, regulations, minimum requirements, deadlines and budgets tend to reign supreme over intuition and thoughtfulness. These are crucial factors, but too often ignore qualitative conversations and considerations.

A property built by a developer is typically built to maximize revenue – an understandable requirement – however, its contribution to society cannot be ignored. The process of city building can and should give designers the opportunity to practice good intuition, and end-users the freedom to participate and modify their environment.

Hands-on growth

The organic formation of dense human habitation in many parts of the world holds intrinsic beauty and order, as a manifestation of immediate human need with a close relationship to materials, highly conditioned by scale.

Photo by Agung Raharja

Densely inhabited areas can inspire cities to grow according to need, employing experimentation and improvisation. They represent spaces that have been designed with human scale fundamentally considered. Cities are an act of human creation – why not design them to celebrate human participation, ingenuity and creativity?

Opportunities

Imagine a design process that sees beauty and opportunity in experimentation; design born of imagination, fully driven and supported to apply and experiment with its vision. Imagine a city that is a canvas of experimentation.

Our wish is for cities to invest in realizing bold new ideas – not for the sake of self-image, but for the sake of society. Despite our best efforts at planning, cities grow and change over time without end results being fully known. As city dwellers, we must be encouraged and empowered to participate in the creative evolution of our urban environments