These entries present ideas about how buildings, cities, and landscapes can be made into better places for humans. Humane Design is published by Jeremy Fretts, and is committed to "improving the human habitat." Jeremy Fretts is a designer and project architect at Niles Bolton Associates, and a member of the Congress for New Urbanism.    RSS/XML

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Friday
Jun022006

Live from CNU!

I had hoped to post live updates from CNU, but I became completely overwhelmed with information and a full schedule at the Congress. 

Until I can get some additional content online, here are a couple other places to read summaries of the world's foremost interdisciplinary gathering of urban visionaries.

www.dailyNUws.com

Featured speakers were architects Christopher Alexander and Leon Krier, both of whom were presented with the Athena Medal for inspiring the founders of New Urbanism.  Here's a brief summary of Christopher Alexander's presentation.  Of course, "brief" and "Christopher Alexander" never belong in the same sentence.

http://massengale.typepad.com/venustas/2006/06/the_whole_makes.html

Also present was Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, of the United Kingdom.  John is an "old friend" of New Urbanism.

CNU invites folks who criticize or differ from our movement, too.  We welcomed Marilyn Taylor from SOM and the Urban Land Institute, and the architecture critic from the Boston Globe.

Wednesday
May242006

Favorite Pedestrian Places

I'm traveling in Washington, D.C., this week, and inspired to begin a list of my favorite pedestrian-friendly places.  Here's my list of cool places to walk around on a sunny day.  At present, they are presented in no particular order.

1) Alexandria, Virginia

From the riverfront and old town area, to the slick new development at the foot of the stunning Geo. Washington Masonic Memorial, Alexandria represents a beautiful combination of old & new.

Ancient (by US standards) buildings are inhabited by cool shops and restaurants. Old growth street trees shade the sidewalks.  And the King Street metro arrives in the heart of new development, yet in the shadow of the stunning Memorial Tower.  The tower is one of the finest "terminated vistas" I've ever seen, short of major monuments like the US Capitol and the Eiffel Tower.

 

2) Dupont Circle & vicinity, Washington, D.C.

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Walk from the National Zoo southeast on Connecticut Ave. Along the way, you'll pass cafes, and elegant residential towers.  Then, walk across the bridge overlooking the Rock Creek Park & Parkway.  On the other side, you'll pass the Chinese and Ethiopian embassies, and more stunning apartment homes.  Approaching Dupont Circle, there's a terrific pedestrian shopping district lining the overpass.  On Sundays, the area is home to a nice farmer's market at the top of the metro station.  And, the Circle itself is a beautiful park, where old men play chess even late at night.  The ice cream shop was open until midnight, last time I checked.

 

3) Chicago Lakefront & Lincoln Park

4) Santa Monica, CA - boardwalk, and Third Street Promenade

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5) Laguna Beach, CA

Approaching from the interstates, you wind through a valley, and then emerge in the tree-lined village of Laguna Beach's downtown.  The road terminates at a public basketball court overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  The downtown district is a quaint walk with a terrific sidewalk cafe & coffee shop - Cafe' Zinc.  North of the public park, on the hill, a rose garden leads to another park area, great for picnics overlooking the beaches and cliffs of the Laguna area.  

Newport Beach, Santa Barbara, and San Clemente are other favorite urban beachfront towns, where cozy towns and urban districts front the beach. 

6) New York City

7) Boulder, CO

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8) Spandau, Berlin, Germany

9) South Beach, Miami, Florida

Once again, where the city meets the beach--the best of all worlds, in my book.  Ocean Drive features art deco hotels with sidewalk cafes, with a view of the park and ocean beyond.  Collins Avenue is (now) a nice walk, filled with high end retailers and one of the prettiest vine-covered parking garages.  Lincoln Avenue is a successful pedestrian mall, with shopping and fine dining.  Dinner is served late into the night, and at midnight, plenty of folks are still out enjoying the evening...and not just the dance-club crowd.

10) Portland, Maine

Thursday
Apr272006

Pleasant places to work

dscf4373_web.jpgFor the first 7-1/2 years of my architectural career, I worked in offices with no windows.  Three different architectural firms, little or no daylight.  If architects work in such dismal conditions, is it any wonder the rest of the country suffers from oppressive work environments?

In the days before electric lighting, factories and offices all had ready access to daylight & fresh air.  Shallow floor plates, lightwells, transom windows, and good design provided these amenities. 

In Europe, a view of the outdoors is required in workplaces. (see related article)

I ask the same question of offices that I do of homes and towns: why do we pay large sums of money to "escape" on vacation to themed resorts and artificial reality, rather than just improving the environments in which we live and work most of the year?

Since starting Humane Design, I have radically improved my workplace.  I work inside with a view of my flower garden and pond, or sitting on the patio with my laptop.  And if that gets mundane, I go to Starbucks or other outdoor cafes.   Frequently, I walk there, since I live in the Town Center of Fishers.

In every project, I work to make sure that my clients have pleasant places to conduct their lives.  Even the lowest-budget church project features a sitting nook with a window for impromptu conversations, or curling up with a book...perhaps The Good Book.

At Hoosier Hills Credit Union (below), the President's office has ample daylight, and access to a roof deck shared with the adjacent training room.  An alternate design had a fully landscaped courtyard for employee use.

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Thursday
Apr272006

Office with a view required by law

Germany, and now the European Union, require daylight and a view in each workplace.  I had long known this to be true, but today was the day that I finally Googled it to get the facts....

The Workplace Ordinance (ca. 1975) requires "direct communication from each workplace with the outside world. The only exceptions from the rule are work areas where the nature of the work would contradict having daylight, certain workplaces in restaurants and bars and workspaces with an extension of more than 2000 square meters with skylights. . . . The German legislator [sic] does not require daylighting for all workplaces but visual contact to outside. Thus, skylights or windows over the line-of-sight are not considered sufficient. " (1)

European Union Directive EU-Directive Minimum safety and health requirements for the workplace 89/654/EEC has similar requirements: “8.1 Natural and artificial room lighting: Workplaces must as far as possible receive sufficient natural light and be equipped with artificial lighting adequate for the protection of workers´ safety and health” (1) 

It is noteworthy that most U.S. building codes require daylight OR artificial lighting.  What a difference a conjunction makes!

On a side note, Germans are also required to receive a minimum of 20 vacation days with pay each year. (2)

(1) http://www.healthylight.de/day.html

Friday
Apr212006

Affordable housing, mass customization: the next frontier

In the last 9 years, I have designed affordable YMCA's, affordable churches, and affordable showrooms.  Now, I am burning with the desire to design affordable housing.  It's not entirely out of charity, more born from personal frustration.

It amazes me that the only folks building affordable housing in the Indianapolis market ($110,000 +/-) are delivering a poorly designed and poorly constructed product-- what I have called "the slums of tomorrow." Meanwhile, townhomes priced at $250,000 can't offer me the simplest cabinetry customization (drawers instead of base cabinets).  And finally, working on multifamily projects with my own clients, I am stunned by the price at which we must sell them...and there's not even much profit.

God has blessed with the the opportunity to design every building type I've ever had an interest in...churches, community centers, banks, mixed-use...perhaps he's saved the best for last.  If I can find a client or investor, I plan to tackle residential design with the same obsessive compulsive drive for handsome affordability that has satisfied frugal clients across the state.   Stay tuned for more on Housing...

 

Saturday
Mar182006

Basics of Form-Based Coding

(Note: this is only an elementary primer.  For more resources, see the Form-Based Codes Institute.)

Conventional Zoning regulates land use, with little regard for the form of buildings or public spaces that result.  Fifty years of implementation have shown us the undesirable consequences of this practice.  According to Mary Madden, principal at Geoffrey Farrell Associates, “That micromanagement of uses has resulted in a huge number of unintended consequences, namely, suburban sprawl. Everybody hates sprawl, but the builders aren’t violating rules; they’re building exactly what the codes call for. Those codes are a blueprint for sprawl. Under the existing conventional codes, you can’t help but build it.” (1)

Form-Based Codes (FBC) start from the assumption that it is more important to define the spatial qualities of the place. 

At its most basic, an FBC depends at least two of the following three documents

  1. Regulating Plan. The plan that locates streets, lots, and building 'types. '   Rather than a map showing zoning uses, it shows the location of building types, which are further defined by the Building Envelope Standards.  The designer of the plan focuses on the public spaces (streets, sidewalks, etc) that are created by the assemblage of building types.
  2. Building Envelope Standards.  This is where the building shapes are defined...height, location on the lot, lot coverage. It is noteworthy that buildings are often REQUIRED to meet minimum criteria, rather than LIMITED to a maximum. Likewise, a build-to line replaces the set-back line.
  3. Architectural Standards. This is what Geoffrey Farrell calls the "dress code."  It is optional, but for communities desiring tight control of appearance, may be included.

 

Saturday
Mar182006

Suburban teen yearns for urban life

It does my heart good to hear a real person validate the statistical claims I've hung my career on.  On Wednesday, I was chatting with a 19 year-old college student who grew up in the suburbs.  He said he'd like to live in Indianapolis.  He was quick to clarify -- downtown, not the suburbs in which he was raised.  He described them as boring...nothing but houses. 

Even Gen Y folks raised in ignorant bliss of real community know they want it!

I'll also share a funny quote here that I just rediscovered.  Author unknown:  "A wise old man once told me, if you're looking for someone to have sex with, you live in the city; if you've got someone to have sex with, you live in the suburbs. Sometimes I think it may be as simple as that."

(Though I disagree...even many older folks want to live in quality urban environments.)

Thursday
Feb162006

Pay Toilets come to the United States!

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Recently spotted in Pittsburgh: an automatic, self-cleaning pay toilet!  I hadn't seen one since I was in Paris a decade ago (at the Cite des Sciences), and was stunned to see one in Pittsburgh's "South Side" bar district.  It appears to have been in place since 2003, (news article) and is managed by Clear Channel Adshel (subsidiary of the media giant)
In September 2005, New York City contracted for 20 of its own (news article), and San Francisco has a few already.  Each toilet typically costs $0.25 to use, and about $250,000 to install, and is funded in part by advertising revenue. 
If self-cleaning toilets can appear in Pittsburgh, could it be the start of a nationwide trend in the US?
Thursday
Feb162006

The Role of Iconic Buildings

I learned a decade ago not to be too critical of a building seen in photographs until you have experienced it in person, in context.  That being said, I will break that rule herein.

stata-center_SZALAI.jpg

Frank Gehry's Stata Center: hideous and dysfunctional shapes clad in marvelous materials.

Photo courtesy of Robert Szalai

Recently, "This Old House" toured the 2004 Gehry-designed Stata Center at MIT.  Even more recently, I read a review of Charles Jencks new text "The Iconic Building."  Iconic buildings seem opposed to the ideals of New Urbanists, who emphasize the importance of ordinary urban "fabric."  In architecture school, we called it Gestalt - the whole is more than the sum of the parts. 

Iconic buildings (anything by Frank Gehry, but also anything that stands out starkly from its neighbors) have their place, but everything can't be an icon.  Good urban design selects worthy places to put these "exclamation points." 

Think of the following examples

  • the Library rotunda at the University of Virginia,
  • the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.,
  • the church at the end of the street,
  • the courthouse in the square,
  • or the golf club at the end of the street in Celebration, FL. 

Generally, these are well placed as the terminus of a vista, and have some sense of civic importance.

Back to the Stata Center.  I'll buy the argument that the existing buildings at MIT were bland and equally dysfunctional for modern science, though I've only seen them on TV.  But is this unsettling monstrosity really the answer? I would describe it as "hideous and dysfunctional shapes clad in marvelous materials."  I think Gehry could use his beautiful materials, and even express whimsy, without the extreme gyrations of this apparently melting building. 

Further, in the video footage, storage boxes were stacked up the curved walls inside the oval building. No consideration was given for the needs of the users of the space.  It was art without function, which is the antithesis of good architecture.

 

Sunday
Feb122006

Meridian Park neighborhood charrette

I had the chance to help out Ball State students conducting a neighborhood planning charrette in the Meridian Park neighborhood in Indianapolis on Saturday morning.

The full results will eventually be online at www.bsu.edu/capic/ , but here's part of my small contribution.  I was charged with helping a student study what a "hard" edge would look like for some vacant lots in a residential neighborhood.  Another team was to create a "soft" version, namely a park. 

It's a bit crude, but for an hour's thought, and twenty minutes' work...not so bad.  And, most importantly, it will help the neighborhood evaluate the possibilities. 

meridian park_web.jpg

The proposed building on the left is a proposed condo adaptation of the "tall house" concept from Kentlands, Maryland.  Another possible concept is to create high density courtyards formed by Craftsman dwellings (common in the surrounding neighborhood). This could be similar to the Mission Meridian project in South Pasadena.

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Mission Meridian, Pasadena
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