Tag: climate change

Barns to Bauhaus: Aspen’s Significance in Architecture

I have moved from San Francisco to Carbondale, Colorado. As I have explained to my California friends, it’s not in a howling wilderness.

This fine Queen Anne style house, built in 1888, now houses the Wheeler / Stallard Museum and the Aspen Historical Society. Photo by Samantha Toberman.

It’s just down the road from Aspen, home of the famed Aspen Institute, Aspen Music Festival, Aspen’s International Design Conference and the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Once a silver mining town, Aspen was reborn after WWII as a retreat that sought to nurture mind, body and spirit. That’s the “Aspen idea,” and it made the little mountain town an international crossroads for ideas, arts and architecture. I have long felt called to come back here.

And so I returned to my home state just in time for Colorado Architecture Month.

I can almost hear my West Coast friends chuckling. Colorado architecture? What the heck is that?

I recently listened to some bright folks wrestling with that very question. The occasion was an American Institute of Architects (AIA) event called “Aspen’s Significant Architecture, Past, Present and Future.”

Aspen Interfaith Chapel, designed by architects George Edward Heneghan and Daniel Gale, pays homage to Frank Lloyd Wright in its use of natural materials.

During the evening, Aspen architects Willis Pember, Suzannah Reid and Harry Teague gamely picked out a number of Aspen area buildings that could warrant that “significant” moniker. While applauding their choices, I also found myself fretting over a major omission. Since I couldn’t very well climb onto the stage and add my two cents, I will use this post to nominate a few buildings of my own – and to point out why Aspen and its little Colorado valley have a golden opportunity to play a significant, and even crucial role, in contemporary architecture.

But bit of background is in order first.

A Climate for Change

Christ Episcopal Church, designed by Francis Stanton. The church’s renovation, by Studio B, received three regional awards and will receive a fourth national award in May, 2011. Photo by Raul Garcia.

As Harry Teague told the AIA’s audience, a distinctive regional architectural style usually arises out a combination of cultural influences and climate. Traditional, pre-architectural buildings around the world provide plenty of examples.

For example, Islamic culture – specifically the Muslim prohibition against depicting the human form – influenced the handsome, geometric (and cooling!) tile that adorns homes in Morocco. A Zen aesthetic influences Japanese homes and temples.

Climate gave rise to New England’s salt box houses with their long, asymmetrical, wind-breaking roofs. It was also the impetus behind India’s bungalows. There, people do most of their living on deeply shaded porches that surround a central courtyard. The roofless courtyard creates a “stack effect” that allows sweltering heat to exhale upward and ventilate the home’s living quarters.

Back to the Future

Now, as human activities threaten to undermine the ecosystems that support us, architects who are interested in sustainable building have begun to plumb traditional, pre-architectural dwellings for inspiration. Before modern engineering harnessed fossil fuels and nuclear reactors, no one imagined creating buildings that would have to be scaled by elevators or lit by electric lights. Our ancestors couldn’t import exotic materials from afar, or fill their homes with electronic devices, or create landscapes that were alien to the local climate. With no option but to use local materials and to adapt to the weather, they built green and came up with some impressive passive heating and cooling strategies.

Amory Lovins’s energy-efficiency demonstration home at Snowmass. Photo courtesy of Judy Hill Lovins.

At the turn of the 20th century, cheap fuel transformed building technology and gave rise to modern architecture.

Today, residential and commercial buildings, taken together, use 76 percent of all electricity produced in the US. The architectural sector consumes “a whopping 48 percent of total US energy consumption,” according to architect Edward Mazria, author of a ground-breaking 2003 article called “It’s the Architecture, Stupid.” In that article, which was published in Solar Today, Mazria argued convincingly that it is architects who hold “the key to the lock on the global thermostat.”

Although still too few of them know this, one thing is certain: our use (and abuse) of energy will transform architecture all over again in the 21st century.

Considering the stakes involved in climate change, I was surprised that the Aspen architects neglected to include Amory Lovins’ green home at Snowmass in their survey of significant local buildings.

I was doubly surprised when the whole issue of sustainability – not just energy, but water, climate and air quality – rated scarcely a mention.

Aspen Influences: Buckminster, Barns and Bauhaus

As Willis Pember noted during the AIA event, Colorado’s vernacular buildings include mining structures, ranches and barns, log cabins, and the Victorians that were in vogue when the 1879 silver rush peopled the place with white folks. (Truth be told, Ute Indians settled the region eight centuries before all this happened. But the Utes lived a nomadic lifestyle and their wikiups weren’t meant to last.)

Given Institute. Photo: City of Aspen files.

Silver mining faded and Aspen, which was first called “Ute City”, struggled through the Great Depression. At the end of WWII, the town was a bit dilapidated, but it still had a newspaper, an opera house, a post office and the iconic Hotel Jerome. The west side was filled with Queen Anne and Victorian homes, and in 1941, a downhill and slalom championship breathed new life into the town. The east side and modern architecture got a big boost when architects Fritz Benedict and Bauhaus-trained Herbert Bayer arrived in the mid 1940s.

During the 1950s as the Aspen ski resort began to grow, a few Bauhaus-style modern residences were built. Among these avant garde structures were Frederick “Fritz” Benedict’s Hallam Lake residence, built for novelist John Marquand, and the “Waterfall” house he built for D. V. Edmundson. Both houses have been demolished.

Victor Lundy modern house. Photo by VRBO rentals.

A similar fate may soon befall another mid-century modern Aspen landmark, the Given Institute for Pathobiology, which was designed by distinguished Chicago modernist Harry Weese. (It’s owned by my alma mater, the University of Colorado, which wants to sell it – or more precisely, the land on which it stands – because CU is strapped for money.)

Aspen also felt the west wind blowing in from California, picking up influences that ranged from Yosemite’s famed 1927 Ahwahnee Lodge to Buckminster Fullerton’s geodesic domes, plus a dose of Haight-Ashbury-type weirdness in the form of buildings erected by Chip Lord’s Ant Farm avant-garde architectural and media group. They were the folks who planted all those Cadillacs in the ground. (Oh yeah, I’m right at home here!)

Aspen Music Festival tent designed by architect Harry Teague. Photo: Harry Teague Architects.

Among the modern buildings the panel named as being significant were architect Victor Lundy’s house (still standing and used as a vacation rental), the Aspen Interfaith Chapel, the Aspen Bank, the Institute for Physics and the Aspen Institute. The three tents used by the Aspen Music Festival, designed by Eero Saarinen, Herbert Bayer and Harry Teague, also merited nomination.

Among the as-yet-to-be-built modern buildings that promise to be significant is the new Aspen Art Museum. Plans for the 30,000 square foot building have been drawn up by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. (I’m happy to note that the new AAM will be built green, and it will exceed LEED standards.)

Nicolette’s Picks for Significant Architecture

No one asked me, but I’m going to nominate a few more buildings as being significant.

Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork, designed by architect Jeff Dickinson.

The first, already mentioned, is the Amory Lovins home. Located in Snowmass, about nine miles from Aspen, the Lovins’ residence was built in 1983 to be an energy-saving showplace. Judy Hill Lovins, who I met at the AIA event, told me that the house recently received an award recognizing it as the spark that lit the international Passivhaus movement. (Lovins’ house is now being remodeled with the goal of burning no fossil fuels.)

Another of my favorite local buildings is the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork, located about 25 miles from Aspen. As regular readers know, I’m a fan of straw bale building. The insulating quality of the walls creates a deep, contemplative hush inside the house while also providing thermal insulation. The walls can be shaped into curves or angles that hold deep-set windows, and they can be used to create stunningly handsome buildings. I love the Waldorf School’s roof line and the way its angles echo the mountains that surround it.

Rammed Earth house features zinc roofing atop the rammed earth structure, Japanese Zen gardens, eco fireplaces and gorgeous views. Photo via Huffington Post.

My third pick is a rammed earth solar house that captured my imagination when I read about it in a blog called Carrie’s Design Musings.  Designed by Studio B Architects and built by Quentin Branch, it’s the first – and only – rammed earth home in Aspen. Rammed earth building has been around for hundreds of years; to make rammed earth, the builder compresses a mixture of damp earth with sand, gravel, clay or cement.

The process was used to build the Great Wall of China and pyramids in Mexico, and this house is only slightly less humble. It has won three awards and has been featured in Elle Decor, as well as in Carrie’s blog. It’s for sale – for just $10.8 million. (Take a look at the photos in Carrie’s “My Aspen Love Affair” post; the interior by Larry Laslo is also stunning.)

My Own Love Affair with Aspen and her Valley

I have known and loved Aspen for decades. I grew up hiking and skiing in the area. In my teens, I graduated from the Outward Bound wilderness school in nearby Marble. After my first year at CU in Boulder, disillusioned and wondering what Beowulf had to do with the rest of my life, I dropped out to find meaning. I sought it in Aspen, and wound up living the Roaring Fork Valley for a year.

The Holden/Marolt historic barn, owned and maintained by the Aspen Historical Society, houses a ranching and mining museum. It’s available for event rentals. Photo: Aspen Historical Society.

What appealed to me about Aspen years ago is what appeals to me again: the stunning setting, the town’s walkability, its sense of history, its artsy feel and its scale. (The AIA panelists, who included local entrepeneur George Stranahan, builder Steve Hansen, and Amy Guthrie of the Aspen Historic Preservation Commission, were chuckling over whether three stories would be too much on Main Street!)

In many ways, Aspen reminds me of Mendocino, California, a small town perched prettily above the Pacific. It’s similarly filled with artists, artisans, hippies and holiday makers, and it has taken similar pains to preserve its Victorian-era architecture. Like Mendocino, Aspen is filled with folks who love the setting, and who by extension, want to preserve the natural environment.

But arguably, what has set Aspen apart is its devotion to ideas. Aspen, and by extension much of the Roaring Fork Valley, is a place where leading thinkers come to converse and solve the vexing problems of our day. It’s a cultural crossroads, a place where Albert Schweitzer, Arthur Rubinstein, Mortimer Adler and Ansel Adams have all come to speak and perform. The place has attracted presidents, statesmen, diplomats, judges, ambassadors, and Nobel laureates.

That’s why I think that it’s not enough for Aspen’s architecture to be attractive or avant garde. This is a place that matters, a spot filled with people worthy of taking on a significant challenge. And heaven knows, we certainly have one before us.

Sketch of a historic barn on Four Mile Road in the Roaring Fork Valley. I sketched this during a snowy visit at Christmastime. I was wearing gloves at the time!

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To Arms! Warm Your Fanny, Not the Climate!

Today is international Blog Action Day – a day when boodles of bloggers team up to write about various social problems. In solidarity of spirit, I’m issuing a call to arms on climate change and asking my loyal readers to “pack some heat” – literally.

we-can-caulk
Not long ago, I wrote Saving My Energy for a Greener Tomorrow, a post about how I harnessed the firepower of the lowly caulk gun to dramatically warm my house and cut my energy bill. I spent about $500 on the whole household warming-and-efficiency process, including the purchase of a low-power convection heater. I saved around $40 per month on my utility bill. Best yet, my humble caulking and sealing efforts added up to something very tangible that I could do to fight global warming.

Best Investment Around – Energy Efficiency!

Recently, I heard Panama Bartholomy, who works for the California Energy Commission, when he spoke at the West Coast Green building conference. Panama said something very witty and quite profound: he compared our attitudes about how to “green up” our energy use — and cut down on what we add to global warming — to the attitudes of teenage males looking at two teenage sisters. We focus on solar technology, the glamorous sister, he said, but don’t spend much time looking at energy efficiency, the smart sister!

The humble but powerful caulk gun
The humble but powerful caulk gun

The bottom line on Panama’s presentation was this: when it comes to curbing climate-changing energy emissions over the next twenty years, caulking and weather sealing will save $40 per ton and solar panels will cost $24 a ton!

To underscore the point, Panama whipped out a slide that showed the “McKenzie Curve,” an economic analysis of the costs of a whole passel of energy-greening measures. (That’s where the figures cited above come from.) The Wall Street Journal recently wrote an article about all this. It was provocatively entitled Packing Heat: The Firepower of the Lowly Caulk Gun. That article included a chart version of the McKenzie Curve; I encourage you to click this link and take a look at the price tags attached to our energy choices.

Act Locally: Start with Your Windows!

While thinking globally about the problem of global warming, I also encourage you to act locally – maybe in your bedroom. You could start by improving the performance of your windows. Most of the windows in our California homes were installed long before energy was an issue. They hold single (rather than double or triple) panes of glass. The glass is not coated for energy efficiency, and it has been stuck into the frame with no thought of sealing the drafts that come in around or through the frame. If those same windows were to be specified now, for a new building, the local housing officials would tell you that they are illegal under Title 24, the California energy efficiency act that applies to new construction.

Infrared image of a house leaking energy
Infrared image of a house leaking energy

As the image at left shows, most homes bleed energy. You can see the heat leaking around the windows here; it’s orange. There’s also a lot of heat leaking out of the attic, and that’s common too.

Federal figures show that US homes consume 21% of all energy used by the whole country — more than cars,  planes, or even offices — and they waste around 30 percent of that energy.

About one-third of that loss could be stopped by caulking and insulating! In addition, you can cut a good bit of the heat that is lost through window glass by adding an energy efficiency film to the window. These films are actually plastic  covered with a very thin, invisible layer of metal; it’s metal that causes the reflection of heat that gives newly manufactured glass for windows its energy efficiency quality. Here, instead of having the metal added at the factory, you smooth it onto the window yourself after the fact.

I did this myself recently. It was easy and fun. The process involved cutting a sheet of plastic so that it was about 1 inch bigger than my window (which is about 3 feet square), then wetting the window and applying the film with a squeegee. I used a laundry spritzer to apply the water, which was lubricated with a drop of dish detergent. The film slid right on, and I carefully squeegeed out the bubbles, then trimmed the margins with a very sharp Exacto knife.

A day later, when the film was dry,  the film was truly invisible. (I called in my neighbor Alexei, had her look at my filmed window and a twin window nearby, and then asked her if she could see any difference. She couldn’t even figure out why I was asking!) While the visual difference was imperceptible, there was a noticeable tactile difference – an absence of the customary blanket of cold air that hung around the inside of the window.  I could feel quite a difference when I did an unscientific test by placing my cheek about an inch from both the treated and untreated windows.

Ways to Warm Your Fanny, Not the Climate

NASA photo - the earth at night showing artificial lights in the USA
NASA photo - the earth at night showing artificial lights in the USA

There are, of course, sophisticated tools that can be used to find energy leaks in buildings: infrared “guns” and heat sensitive meters that measure drafts. When energy “commissioning” is done on commercial buildings, an engineer runs the HVAC systems with the windows all closed and then measures how and where the pressure changes, and s/he uses a truckload of gadgets to do it.

You’re not likely to try that at home, but I know of some simple low-tech ways to find leaks too. The most interesting one I have heard of was a fellow who rented a fog machine – the kind used in theatrical productions – and then used it to fog up the inside of his house. He kept the windows closed, and after an hour or so, he walked around outside and looked for the escaping clouds.

If you have bigger leaks, you may find them by walking around your house carrying a lit candle, standing here and there, and watching how the movement of air bends the flame. You can also hang lightweight gift wrapping ribbons over doorways and watch which way they bend, then track the breeze back to its source. You can track the breeze by licking your finger, the same way people do to determine which way the outdoor wind is blowing, and then walk toward the cool side of your finger. Not very scientific, but it all works.

Then again, you might just go to the likeliest leakage spots and start plugging away. Your local hardware store will have a variety of weatherstripping and insulation products. I suggest that after you’ve found the holes, you go ask your helpful hardware man (or woman) to tell you the best way to plug them. Here are half a dozen likely places to look for leaks:

Snuggies are in - there are big Snuggie parties and pub crawls here in San Francisco
Alexei and Nicolette model the ultimate in Eco winter fashion. Snuggies are in - there are big Snuggie parties and pub crawls here in San Francisco
  1. Around drafty windows
  2. Drafts around and under the doors to outside (seal and weatherstrip)
  3. Through internal doors from rooms you’re currently not heating or using (Use one of those little “draft dodger” cloth blocking devices and close the door!)
  4. Around plumbing penetrations (the holes where pipes go in and out of the house)
  5. The attic – it may be easy to blow in some insulation there
  6. Uninsulated walls  (it’s hard to add insulation to finished walls, but there are some insulating paints. Putting cork “paneling” on the wall can help. There are even insulated tapestries that you can hang on the wall in the winter; that’s something that was commonly done by people who lived in cold climates centuries back. It’s ancestral wisdom that we have forgotten.

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Meet the World’s Energy Hogs

Among the world’s nations, the United States uses by far the most energy per person. You’re not surprised to learn that, and neither was I when I first heard it.

Top Ten Nations:
Population v. Fuel Consumption

World rank & percentage of total

Country Population
Fuel Use
China 1 (20%) 2 (14%)
India 2 (18%) 5 (4%)
USA 3 (5%) 1 (22%)
Indonesia 4 (3%)
Brazil 5 (3%)
Pakistan 6 (2%)
Bangladesh 7 (2%)
Nigeria 8 (2%)
Russia 9 (2%) 3 (7%)
Japan 9 (2%) 4 (5%)
Germany 6 (3%)
Canada 7 (3%)
France 8 (2%)
UK 9 (2%)
Brazil 10 (2%)

But I was gob-smacked to learn that our nation, which holds just 5% of the world’s population, is using 22% of the world’s fuel.

The nations most prone to hog a disproportionate share of energy are the industrial nations. Populous developing nations that want to emulate the Euro-American lifestyle are crowding into the trough right behind them. The chart at right, which compares the world’s top ten fuel-consuming nations with the ten having the largest populations, clearly reveals these trends.

How do we in the US use all that fuel? Here are the top ten ways:

  1. Space heating 25%
  2. Lighting 14%
  3. Water heating 12%
  4. Space cooling 11%
  5. Refrigeration 6%
  6. Electronics 5%
  7. Wet cleaning 3%
  8. Cooking 3%
  9. Computers 2%
  10. Ventilation 2%

Adding up the subtotals, it turns out that our buildings are gobbling up 38.9% of America’s total fuel. That’s more than industry (32.7%) and more than transportation (28.4%)!

Grab your caulk gun and start packin’ some heat!