Friday Feature: Lorenzo

Who are you and what do you do?
I'm a British Architect working in the field of Transit Architecture (aka station design) with VIA Architecture

What made you decide to go into your field?
I originally wanted to become a pilot but my parents were frightened that I might be conscripted and be made to bomb people. Granted, it sounds ridiculous now, but at age 13 I looked through a careers book and didn't get past the letter A. I really enjoyed drawing and was fascinated by how things were put together so a career in Architecture appealed to me. I've worked in many fields from millionaire's mansions and mixed use projects to humble cabins. Transit Architecture I champion in particular as it helps improve the quality of life of so many people from so many social backgrounds every single day.

What did your family think of your chosen field?
"That'll be handy for renovations."

Who is the teacher who had the most influence on you and why?
Frank Lyons who was one of my Diploma tutors in the School of Architecture of the University of Plymouth. He made it ok to move on from white modernism , to embrace materiality and to inject humanism into architecture.

What was the biggest hurdle you faced along your educational path? (academic, financial, motivational, family or peer pressure, outside distraction, etc.)
The death of both my parents while I was still completing my schooling.

What inspires you?
Making a positive impact to people's lives

What schooling is required for success in your career?
The traditional architectural education system in Britain is somewhat different to North America. The 'fast track' requires three year's study for an undergraduate degree specializing in Architecture, followed by a two year post graduate qualification in Architecture. Then there's at least two years of internship (although four is preferred before the professional qualifications which take another 6 months.

What kind of people are the most successful in your field? Are there any specific attributes?
A mix of artistic and analytical skills is important, as are a good people skills.

What is the best advice you were ever given?
Get on and draw it.

Is your field growing? (ie. is there room for new entries and is there career growth?)
Absolutely. North America is now realizing the importance of mass transit systems to the long term viability of its cities. Ridership figures continue to go up. I expect to see an increase in expansion and improvement projects as well as the implementation of completely new systems across the world.

What advice would you give someone considering a career like yours?
It demands a lot of hard work and long term commitment from the start. Spending some time working in a practice is essential as an Architect's daily work is not the same as Hollywood may make you believe, though it can be a very rewarding career for the right person.

Monday News Roundup

ARC - International Wildlife Crossing Infrastructure Design Competition
Competition that blends transportation and bio-cultural networks with a much needed architecture.

Take this quiz: are you addicted to oil? (Simple Steps)
Like other addictions, our addiction to oil has made us heedless of the damage it causes ourselves and the world around us. Take our quiz and find out if you're ready for change.

Vancouver: family friendly city (Vancouver Sun)
Take a bow, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Kitchener and Guelph, Ont.: you're the most family-friendly cities in the country, according to one new ranking.

Portland mayor wants 20-minute neighborhoods (Grist)
Newish Portland Mayor Sam Adams wants to build more "20-minute neighborhoods" in his fair city.

Local power – tapping distributed energy in 21st century cities (Grist)
Residents of Hammarby Sjöstad, a district on the south side of Stockholm, Sweden, don't let their waste go to waste. Every building in the district boasts an array of pneumatic tubes, like larger versions of the ones that whooshed checks from cars to bank tellers back in the day. One tube carries combustible waste to a plant where it is burned to make heat and electricity. Another zips food waste and other biomatter away to be composted and made into fertilizer. Yet another takes recyclables to a sorting facility.

Who says what's livable (American City)
Per Infrastructurist, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says that livability means “being able to take your kids to school, go to work, see a doctor, drop by the grocery or post office, go out to dinner and a movie, and play with your kids in a park, all without having to get in your car.”  But what, precisely, makes them “livable?”

Upcoming Lecture:
July 29th Jarrett Walker (Human Transit), 5:30 - 7pm at Space at the Steps, sponsored by Great City

Seattle wants urban farms, more chickens (Seattle PI)
The city of Seattle wants to make city agriculture easier and more productive by allowing taller greenhouses, more chickens per household, and the existence of large commercial food farms near neighborhood homes. 

Vancouver’s backyard chicken revolution (Vancouver Sun)
Hundreds of clandestine urban egg farmers and thousands of illegal chickens can rest easy. Vancouver city council passed a bylaw amendment Tuesday to make it completely legal to keep laying hens in backyards. 

London Underground goes greener (Guardian)
Liverpool Street, Victoria and Bank among 10 tube stations to cut carbon emissions through energy efficiency measures

Seeing past the BP spill: Fixing our systems instead (World Changing)
Yet, while the BP Spill is the biggest single oil spill we here in America have experienced, in terms of overall impact, it's just a drop in our pollution bucket. Thousands of major spills happen around the world each year. Even in terms of oil spilled in North America, this disaster is small compared to business as usual: more than 90% of all the oil spilled in North America comes from oil leaked from cars (or poured down drains) finding its way to the sea

Neighborhood amenities influence risk for child obesity (KUOW)
A few years ago a Seattle study came out that used zip codes as a way to predict obesity. Neighborhoods with higher property values had slimmer residents. People living in zip codes with lower property values were more likely to be overweight or obese. A new study expands on that research. Scientists at Seattle Children's Research Institute have more evidence that communities, including physical environment, contribute to obesity.

Thinking about the economics of sustainable communities (Kaid at NRDC)
Last week, I spoke to the annual convention of the American Institute of Architects in Miami Beach, as part of a session on neighborhood density.  We had a sizable, knowledgeable and attentive audience, and I was struck by the fact that most of the comments and questions after our session were about what we need to do to craft sustainable urban economies, not the facts and figures we had presented regarding the market for walkable neighborhoods, how to design for environmental sustainability, and the dividends that urban densities can bring to their communities.

Friday Feature: Amanda

Who are you and what do you do?
I’m an intern architect, working in the transit and urban design sector, an area I never would have imagined myself while in school. And yet I find myself loving it!

What made you decide to go into your field?
After graduating high school, I only had a vague idea of what I wanted to do. I figured I would go into engineering since I knew I had a fairly analytical mind but it just didn’t get me all that excited. So I went to community college at BCC for two years where I took an architecture history course as an elective and absolutely loved it. I was fascinated by how much personal and artistic expression went into architecture and I enjoyed hearing about the unique stories associated with every building. After that, I was sold – and off to architecture school I went.

What did your family think of your chosen field?
My family was pretty happy about it actually. They felt like it would be a good blend of engineering and art. Coming from an apparel designer (my mother) and an artists/sign-maker (my father), it’s funny that being an architect hadn’t dawned on me earlier.

Who is the teacher who had the most influence on you and why?
That is really hard for me to answer because I feel like I had a number of really good professors who each taught me aspects of who I am (as a designer). However, there is one professor from my graduate studies, Paul Hirzel, who taught me that being passionate about my work is what truly opens the door to good design. Without a personal connection to your designs, a building will remain merely raw material without soul.

What was the biggest hurdle you faced along your educational path? (academic, financial, motivational, family or peer pressure, outside distraction, etc.)
I have a tendency to get extremely absorbed into whatever I put my mind and efforts toward and while this is great for accomplishing educational goals, it puts a huge strain on your ties with family. So for me, my hurdle was and still is learning to let go sometimes so I can enjoy my family.

What inspires you?
A lot of things inspire me - beauty of the landscape, the underdogs of the world, the bond within communities, good books, music, painting…the list can go on forever.

What schooling is required for success in your career?
A bachelor’s in architecture is all that is really required but a master’s degree is even better. However, if we aren’t talking about just qualifications and certificates, then I would say taking an art or sketching class and getting outside the United States and doing some traveling.

What kind of people are the most successful in your field? Are there any specific attributes?
People who are capable of working as team members and who are capable of walking the fine line between art and the reality of function.

What is the best advice you were ever given?
It is better to have one simple but strong idea than to have a million weak ones.

Is your field growing? (ie. is there room for new entries and is there career growth?)
Of course there is! This is perhaps one of those rare times in our country where we will see leaps and bounds in many professions as they struggle to collaborate in order to be more efficient and unique than the rest. And that means using the knowledge and new ideas of students just coming out of school that can bring their energy as well as dreams with them.

What advice would you give someone considering a career like yours?
If you find yourself going through the motions but never really finding any passion in what you are doing, it's time to get out. Architecture, more than many other professions, is not worth the time, energy, and stress if you don’t love both the process and the outcome. It’s brutal but true.

Universal Design: Keeping Life Accessible

by Wolf Saar, Director of Practice for VIA Architecture

The other day, I was going through my normal weekend routine of picking things up, and as I was making my way downstairs with my arms full of laundry and various other items, I noticed I hadn’t hung up a shirt that was laying on the bed. Instead of putting the stuff down, or getting to it later, I decided to try and hang up the shirt with my free hand.

Like an acrobat I repeatedly tried (ultimately unsuccessfully) to place the shirt on the hanger without the hanger swinging away. I finally dropped my pile of stuff and hung it up properly. Then I started thinking: what would I have done if my arm was in a sling? What if I had suffered a stroke and lost the use of my arm? As an architect and designer, what could I do to remedy that type of situation? This is a great example of what the aim of Universal Design really is: to make all things accessible and able to be manipulated, regardless of ability.

Less ridiculous than my Saturday morning act is what my dad faces every day as an 89 year old experiencing the progressive diminishment of his abilities due to Parkinsons Disease. He currently lives in a 35 year old Burnaby, BC high rise condo with my mother; narrow hallways that hinder his passage with a walker, a standard tub that he cannot negotiate without complete assistance and doors with knobs that are difficult to turn. And then there’s the toilet which, because he basically falls onto it, we fear will ultimately become irreparably dislodged from its mounting.

Thankfully, at 85, mom is relatively fit and can provide the care and assistance he needs so he rarely has to deal directly with the barriers that are designed into the space he inhabits. But this condo creates difficulties even for her; until I added a second one, the door peephole was mounted at “standard” height and, being short, she couldn’t actually use it.

I can excuse a 35 year old design on the basis that we were not as sensitized to these issues back then. But, as a 51 year old who can now visualize a future of “aging in place” for myself, I am still amazed at the way we often take the expeditious approach to the design of the places we live in.

As an architect with a passion for designing spaces for elders, I make it a point to look at the way senior housing is designed and am repeatedly disappointed in the number of “independent” living facilities I’ve seen that comply with ADA but don’t take the next step to design universally. Combo microwave/kitchen hoods positioned up high above a stove are my pet peeve because they're hard to reach and potentially a burn hazard. It’s also evident in elements such as ranges without front controls, dishwashers that aren’t raised so the resident doesn’t have to stoop down and standard bathtubs you have to climb over the edge of to get into.

Several years ago, I went to a presentation by Valerie Fletcher, Executive Director of the Institute for Human Centered Design in Boston. The Institute is an international non-governmental educational organization committed to advancing the role of design in expanding opportunity and enhancing experience for people of all ages and abilities through excellence in design. That talk was a turning point for me because it clearly showed me how I could influence design in a very real way and contribute in a positively to the experience of aging. 
Valerie introduced the notion that, besides accessibility, Universal Design advances “Social Sustainability.”

When we discuss sustainable design, we consider three broad facets: environmental, financial and social. In considering the concept of “Aging in Place” and the social aspects of Universal Design, the goal of independence can be expanded to be “Aging in Community” by promoting the design of accessible and maneuverable environments in the public realm. Universal Design promotes socialization of seniors as contributing members of society by breaking down barriers while placing less of a burden on social services. There is nothing “greener” than being able to continue to live in your own home or community.

Despite the challenges that their living unit presents, my parents do live independently and, in a broad way their location next to a Skytrain Station and a few blocks from their primary doctor, dentist, grocery store and a full-service mall serves them well. Basic needs in the public realm are met, such as curb ramps and adequate lighting but being next to a large shopping center means that, in this case, the car is still king and navigating their neighborhood is both daunting and a bit dangerous due to discontinuous pedestrian ways and drivers that seemingly ignore them. More and more, I see my parents retreat into the condo and limit their forays outside.

There are a number of excellent resources available to designers and the public. In the Seattle area, the Northwest Universal Design Council was formed in an effort to help advance Universal Design thinking in the Puget Sound region. This organization is exceptional in that it brings together people concerned with providing universally accessible environments and advancing the mission of an enlightened approach at all levels of design. This is an energetic and steadily growing group consisting of members of the public, government officials, architects, designers, students and builders with a common goal: to advance the design of “Environments for All.”

As another valuable resource, Aging and Disability Services of King County provides a particularly good clearing house of Universal Design links and resources. In the Lower Mainland, check out Citizens for Accessible Neighborhoods’ website at

And, bringing it back to how to hang a shirt with one hand? Maybe give up on the hanger and look at that old alternative: the coat hook.

Tuesday News Roundup

Janine Benyus using Biomimicry to Design Cities (Treehugger)
Janine Benyus helps design cities the biomimetic way

Apartment Therapy's 'Small Cool Kitchens' contest yields interesting observations (Apartment Therapy)
Treehugger -- lessons from apartment therapy kitchen competition

The Way We Design Now (NYTimes)
Allison Arieff - Design now exists less to shape objects than to produce solutions.

Denver Urban Farms (Grist)
Denver busts urban farming’s yuppie stereotype

Good neighborhoods have lots of intersections (Grist)
It's a little counterintuitive, but it turns out that having lots of intersections is really important for neighborhood walkability and transit use

A Growing Concern (Earth Island)
Can urban farms translate popularity into profitability?

The variety of American street grids (Discovering Urbanism)

Seattle’s waterfront streetcar – not coming back? (Human Transit)
Ultimately, if Seattle loves the Waterfront Streetcar enough to pay for it, or get its tourists to pay for it, then by all means Seattle should have it. My job as a transit planner, though, requires me to ask, now and then, if the proposed service is going to be useful as transit.  Will this thing actually be useful to people who just want to get to where they're going?

Blame it on the Train (NY Post)
Late for work? NYC offers excuses via email

Friday Feature: Chris

Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Chris Wanless. I am currently a third year architectural masters student from the University of Toronto completing a 6 month internship at VIA Vancouver.

What made you decide to go into your field?
Growing up in a family of engineers, I have always wanted to build; to be involved with the possibility of changing the world around me.

What did your family think of your chosen field?
My family is quite proud of my pursuits and the passion I have for them.

Who is the teacher who had the most influence on you and why?
Scott Sorli. He taught me how to see.

What was the biggest hurdle you have faced or are facing along your educational path? (academic, financial, motivational, family or peer pressure, outside distraction, etc.)
The biggest hurdle I continue to face in design is to be able to feel at the same time as thinking; to supress the overly rational in favour of the phenomenological.

What inspires you?
Simplicity and beauty.

What schooling is required for success in your career?
A masters degree in Architecture is required to work for yourself, which is my ultimate goal.

What kind of people are the most successful in your field? Are there any specific attributes?
In my experience, those architects that are equally talented, knowledgable and personable have the best chance to suceed. I say chance as fortune and fate are inseparable as in any case.

What is the best advice you were ever given?
Blur your eyes in front of a design. If it still speaks of it's purpose and beauty then it is a success.

Also, never pick a fight with a drunk or a fool.

Is your field growing? (ie. is there room for new entries and is there career growth?)
It ebbs and flows with the global economy as it always has.

What advice would you give someone considering a career like yours?
Always sleep plenty if you wish to be original.

What was that about roads paved with good intentions?

by Peg MacDonald, VIA Architecture

In Alec Applebaum’s apt Op-Ed column in the New York Times for the opening of 1 Bryant Park, the first LEED Platinum office tower in the US, he warns:
“But while the [LEED] standard is well-intentioned, it is also greatly misunderstood. Put simply, a building’s LEED rating is more like a snapshot taken at its opening, not a promise of performance. Unless local, state and federal agencies do their part to ensure long-term compliance with the program’s ideals, it could end up putting a shiny green stamp on a generation of unsustainable buildings.”
This really isn’t news. (Same paper, last August.)

It is encouraging, however, to see a growing chorus in mainstream media calling for more demanding standards and continual monitoring of our built environment. Energy usage is probably among the easiest data to collect, but there’s so much more that I, as an architect, want to know.

At a recent seminar about an ongoing study of energy usage in multi-unit high-rise buildings, the presenter tossed out an anecdote about a Vancouver-area resident who had to move her bed into the hall during the summer to find relief from the heat. This is a horrifying proposition - that a resident, probably an owner who had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in her home, found that space seasonally unbearable – even in Vancouver’s mild summer - to live in.

This story raises all kinds of questions – what way does her unit face? Are there any overhangs, openable windows, air conditioning? Most critically, what design choices led to that situation? And equally important – has anyone told the original design team?

Every building has its quirks. So many ideas and systems interact – sometimes in surprising ways. From a 1950s 3-storey walk-up to a high-rise with a fresh Occupancy Permit, there are and will be funny little things that might be called ‘character.’ Over time, maybe they’ll blend into a comfortable patina. Hopefully, they don’t become sources of horrible discomfort.

Designers are quirky, too. There are moves each of us push for, based on our own experiences and lifestyles (higher showerheads and uninterrupted wall space for bookshelves, for instance). But if there’s anything that significantly affects the lifestyles of the users – tell us! Then we can repeat the idea (if it’s a good one) – or adjust it, or avoid it altogether. In large projects where the user group is known as ‘Buyer’, direct feedback is far too rare – and often only had when things go really wrong.

It is better to know that some element does not perform as intended or expected – whether it’s a missing or ill-placed sunshade, an interior layout, or an energy system – than to unwittingly repeat a folly for the next several decades.

Friday Feature: Krystal

Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Krystal and I am a junior designer straddling the VIA worlds of architecture and urban design.

What made you decide to go into your field?
I used to draw the floor plans for my dream houses when I was a kid… some of them were even dimensioned (albeit arbitrarily and probably without a lot of math behind it). In high school I took technical drafting classes and attended art school for half the day. As it turns out I was obsessed with urbanism and the built environment as a subject and incorporated it into most of the work that I did in ceramics, photography, painting, drawing and sculpture. Everything from Skylines, buildings, bridges, windows, and streets all made their way into my creations. I was really excited when I made my decision to help create cities.

What did your family think of your chosen field?
They were pretty happy about my decision, not happy about the cost of my decision.

Who is the teacher who had the most influence on you and why?
Aristotelis Demitrikopolis (that is not a made up name). He was my 3rd year studio professor who insisted that the Greeks pretty much invented everything including architecture, civilization, outer space, telephones, pc computers, pencils etc. He was really hard on everyone, but he taught me the importance of designing in context and I had a major breakthrough in understanding scale in his class. Our project was to create an office building on a site in the middle of nowhere in Texas. I ended up having to design an entire city because I was so stumped as to how you inform design decisions with nothing but sand and tumbleweeds. Needless to say… I got an A and pretty much stuck to the urban realm after that.

What was the biggest hurdle you faced along your educational path? (academic, financial, motivational, family or peer pressure, outside distraction, etc.)
My biggest hurdle was Hurricane Katrina. The summer before my thesis I went home to New Orleans to research my project which was going to be a short transit line between New Orleans and the north shore. When the hurricane came, not only did we lose our house and all of my research, but I also lost my project’s theoretical ridership (since over half of the city’s residents had left). I adapted my thesis however and expanded the network to the suburbs to the north and created TOD’s everywhere. It’s really funny now to read my thesis… I had no language for what I just described. Thanks VIA ;)

What inspires you?
Music!!!!! Art. Technology. TED. Nature. Music.

What schooling is required for success in your career?
Bachelor’s degree in Architecture although a master’s would probably be desirable.

What kind of people are the most successful in your field? Are there any specific attributes?
Oh wow, that’s a tough question. It takes a whole lot of people with a lot of different attributes to make a successful team. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

What is the best advice you were ever given?
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Thanks Bucky ;)

Is your field growing? (ie. is there room for new entries and is there career growth?)
Growth is a funny word. There is always room for people who want to develop their skills and push forward for what they believe is positive and influential change.

What advice would you give someone considering a career like yours?

Slow down. Take time off to think about it. I fast tracked through my masters in architecture, but if I would have slowed down, I realize I would have chosen a different path. Urban Design would have suited me better, but thanks to VIA I get to do both!

Thoreau’s Coffin

by Craig Hollow, VIA Architecture
“Formerly, when how to get my living honestly, with freedom left for my proper pursuits, was a question which vexed me even more than it does now, for unfortunately I am become somewhat callous, I used to see a large box by the railroad, six feet long by three wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night; and it suggested to me that every man who was hard pushed might get such a one for a dollar, and, having bored a few auger holes in it, to admit the air at least, get into it when it rained and at night, and hook down the lid, and so have freedom in his love, and in his soul be free.
This did not appear the worst, nor by any means a despicable alternative. You could sit up as late as you pleased, and, whenever you got up, go abroad without any landlord or house-lord dogging you for rent. Many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box who would not have frozen to death in such a box as this. I am far from jesting.”
-Henry David Thoreau
Last week, at a dinner party with a group of the most dedicated proponents of density I know, I took an informal survey of how many of us actually live in multifamily housing. Out of eight hardnosed urbanists, I was the only one who could claim the righteous mantle of walking our talk, living in a 650 sq. ft. studio apartment in a multifamily…mansion? Ok, even I don’t rate as a purist given that my ‘dense, urban’ living situation includes a front and back yard, a two car garage, and is actually a grand old Capitol Hill manse divvied up into five surprisingly spacious if quirky apartments.

At this point, it’s a well-publicized fact that for all of their grime dense, walkable cities like New York are the greenest developments out there. Freedom from cars is part of Manhattan’s green story, but there are many other beneficial by-products of density: the energy efficiencies inherent in larger buildings, the critical mass necessary to support robust transit options, neighborhoods with enough amenities that they are worth hanging out in, infrastructure that serves more people per dollar, no lawns asking for constant doses of pesticides, the long list goes on and on.

The efficiency of the city is underlined when we look at the numbers comparing the net energy use of density and sprawl. The cowhands of Wyoming, the least energy efficient state in the Union, produce 124.11 million metric tons of CO2 and consume 937.9 trillion btu’s of energy apiece while driving 44,080 miles a year, from the ranch to the steakhouse and back no doubt. Meanwhile, the accidental environmentalists of New York produce only a tenth the CO2 and consume less than a quarter the number of btu’s than the average Wyomingan. Even compared to the latest and greatest utopian experiments in zero-energy ecotowns, the city comes out ahead. No matter how you cut it, single family housing just isn’t sustainable.

We know these facts and many of us repeat them like parrots. But given a choice, the best-intentioned among us often are not trading our single-family homes for multifamily living, even in the Pacific Northwest, a veritable hotbed of eco-activity.


This is an important question because as Saul Griffith pointed out in a recent New Yorker article by David Owen, it’s extremely unlikely that we will come close to meeting minimal global goals for carbon emissions reductions if we count on new infrastructure and green power to do the job. The problem of climate change is primarily a problem of over-consumption and while the magic of carbon neutral power sources will help us consume cleaner if they ever materialize, we simply need to consume less. Choosing to live more densely is a key to consuming less.

When gently chided for living the All-American single-family dream, the responses of my urbanist friends ranged from open-mouthed, blinking silence to apologetic stammerings about the pastoral requirements of raising children. The most cogent and disturbing response, however, was simple and distressing, “We can’t afford it.”

This was shocking to me. Aren’t condos and apartments cheaper than single family houses? How can less cost more? The answer is complex and says much about the challenges to increasing density in our region. On a dollar per square foot basis, a single family home is often cheaper and that’s the plea my delinquent friends made to me. “Try finding a condo with two bedrooms in a decent building that isn’t a million dollars or more,” they complained. But when you factor in the costs of owning a car, utility bills, and the costs of maintenance the numbers tend to flip.

If we try to account for the difference between the price of housing and its cost by factoring in the infrastructure of roads and utilities and remediation it quickly becomes apparent that the market isn’t working to bring price and cost into alignment. For the moment, because a buyer’s options are driven by financing and purchase price, it’s often true that you have to pay more to get less if you opt for a condo rather than a single family house.

The challenge to creating density today is that when even its cheerleaders add up the numbers they find that choosing to forego a single family house in exchange for a condo in an urban, walkable neighborhood is too often like choosing to live in Thoreau’s three-by-six foot box when for the same price you can afford to live at Walden.