Discover more from A Better Built Environment
Silver Linings 
The new year was ushered in with views of silent fireworks sparkling over the cityscape of NY. Looking out from our bedroom in Fort Greene, Brooklyn we can see a glimpse of Manhattan and the East River, Williamsburg and Long Island City to the left; Jackson Heights and Flushing are straight ahead in the distance; and Bushwick and Bed-Stuy stretch out to the right. Each was intermittently illuminated by fireworks as people celebrated the turning of the year. Although a quiet night at home was dictated by our attempt to stay safe and healthy and avoid crowds, our first new year in NY was still exciting as we watched the celebrations spread out from our windows. It marked the end of a busy year that won’t soon be forgotten due to both the global pandemic that dramatically changed how we all live, but also because of personal changes.
2020 started optimistically with getting married in January. I then left the company I helped start 7 years ago in February, watched the world shut down in fits and starts throughout March, moved from Portland to New York City in April, witnessed unprecedented protests beginning in May and stretching through June, found a new job in July (after a 6-month search), moved to a new apartment in September, sold our Portland home in October (finally!), voted in the election in November, all while trying to do my part to stay safe during a pandemic.
As much as we try to plan for the future, there was nothing that could have predicted or prepared us for such a transformational year. Although it was stressful, unpredictable, and devastating for so many people, we are coming out of the worst of it with hope for the future. New political leadership, a vaccine being rolled out, and days that are already getting longer gives us hope that 2021 will be a return to optimism that was too often lacking in 2020’s doom ridden news cycles.
Despite the hardships of 2020 it had many silver linings that we should remind ourselves of. The pandemic and shutdowns had positive effects on the environment. Worldwide carbon dioxide emissions declined 7% and some scientist predict we may have reached peak carbon emissions. More people are biking to get around than ever, creating cleaner air, safer streets, quieter neighborhoods, and healthier people. Cities worldwide have embraced this change and are transforming their urban environments to support and promote cycling as a better way of getting around. New bike lanes have been built, streets have been closed to cars (at least temporarily), and bike businesses have boomed (there are lineups outside every bike shop in NY and like toilet paper back in March, there are now Bike Shortages that will stretch into 2021). And despite articles spouting falsehoods about the demise of cities, the pandemic has caused median rents to fall significantly in high-priced places like San Francisco and New York, making cities more affordable.
All of these will have a positive impact on life as we move into 2021 and approach the end of the pandemic. As lockdowns ease and vaccines make it safe for people return to offices and gather socially again, it will be fascinating to see what the new normal will be for how we choose to live. Will working remotely be the new normal? Will people return to a car-centric lifestyle? Will some of the habits and changes that were forced upon us by the COVID-19 pandemic end up being how people decide they want to live going forward? I for one, hope that life doesn’t return to what was considered normal, but instead we decide to use this as an opportunity to reset and implement changes to make our communities healthier, more sustainable, and ultimately more enjoyable places.
Weekly Design Inspiration
Kerns Micro House designed by Fieldwork Design and Architecture
This is a small project by one of my favorite firms based in Portland. As someone who has found a niche in designing ADUs I love seeing this project type get elevated by great design. In this case, the project is so simple yet the materials and details make for a beautiful piece of architecture. The exterior seems to blend into the backyard garden while the interior is bright, light filled and elegant. I love how the small space gets transformed by the furniture and murphy bed, and the consistency of the wood accents ties the space together.
Things worth reading / watching
Building Cool Things Is Not As Easy As It May Seem
This is one of my biggest criticisms of most zoning codes: “It is perhaps easy to see why the fear of the things we don’t want has led us to sterilize our neighborhoods to the point where we no longer allow the things that we may in fact want.” This is quote and short blog post by Brandon Donnelly is discussing the challenges a small coffee shop had to open in a residential neighborhood of Toronto. A corner coffee shop would be a desirable use in most residential neighborhoods yet most single family zones prohibit it. And when most of our city land is zoned single family, as it is in Portland, we are mandating sterile urban environments. It is a huge failing of our land use policies and those that create them.
Trump Orders New Government Buildings Must Be Beautiful
A recent executive order signed by the current president states that new US government buildings must be beautiful. The order goes on the stipulate that classical and traditional styles shall be preferred. On the surface I can agree that buildings should be beautiful. I think beauty is something that isn’t discussed enough in the architectural profession and especially in design school. I think it is important to create beautiful buildings that will be loved and cared for over generations. However, beauty is somewhat subjective, and I am adamantly opposed to dictating style. Architectural styles should vary based on the local conditions, culture, materials, and labor expertise. There is no reason one style should permeate the entire country when climate landscape and local cultures vary so much. There are two other things I find quite ironic about his executive order. First, none of Trump’s own buildings would meet these requirements. His towers in NYC are mostly black glass clad monoliths. His hotel in Las Vegas is a gaudy rose gold atrocity. None of his projects are beautiful, nor are they classical or traditional styles of architecture. Second, for a political party that pretends to be worried about economics and the deficit, mandating classical or traditional styles of architecture can directly make all government buildings much more expensive. Construction techniques, materials, skilled labor, and technology has obviously changed tremendously over the past 100 years. It would be cost prohibitive to build like we did long ago. We should be designing projects that respond to today’s culture materials and technology. We should design to respond to local community needs, local climate conditions, and responding to the local context. We should be encouraging a diverse range of styles and aesthetics that reflect the diversity of our population. I will admit that I think public architecture should be beautiful. But there are beautiful buildings in all architectural styles.
"The Map": Making NYC's Live Subway Map
Film by Gary Hustwit/Work & Co.
This short documentary presents the process of designing a new map for New York City’s Subway system. As someone who loves maps, loves public transit, is interested in graphic design, and recently moved to NYC, this video is wonderful. Although I’ve heard a lot of criticism on this map, I think it is nicely designed. My only complaint is that a map that isn’t integrated into Google Maps (or Apple maps) who will really use this? Still, it is a fun piece of interactive graphic design.
Sharing the love.
a person/organization that deserves more attention
I find it troublesome that relatively large cities like Portland, Oregon don’t have a full-time architecture critic on staff at any local news organization. This is why I’d like to dedicate this space this week to highlight the work of Brian Libby. Through his blog, freelance writing for other publications, and a new podcast, he is actively filling the void left by local news. Brian is one of the few people writing about architecture and the built environment in Portland and deserves more readers and support. Follow his work here:
Every news organization in every city should have an architecture critic. The built environment is incredibly impactful on everyone’s day to day life that more people should be educated on it, aware of new proposals and changes, and a conversation about related topics should be more prevalent in news coverage and day-to-day discussions. We see sensationalized headlines about Trump’s tweets every day and they have very little direct impact on our lives on the local level. Yet we rarely see news reports on architecture, urban planning proposals, zoning changes, or benefits of new infrastructure projects. I think these things should be much more prevalent in our news cycles.
The benefit would be a population that is more knowledgeable about these topics and better engaged with the evolution of our cities. I want people to better understand and value design and how it can benefit our communities. Instead of only hearing about traffic congestion, lack of parking, and the homeless problems facing Portland, I wish people were talking more about quality of architecture, how urban planning can improve their lives and make a more equitable and sustainable city, and understand how development and architectural decisions are made.
Thank you Brian Libby for recognizing the lack of architectural news in Portland and filling in the gap!
Random thought of the week.
I found this quote on my weekly reading and it sums up why I started blogging over 12 years ago and why I started this newsletter this winter.
A Place To Write
One reason that successful and prolific singer-songwriters are prolific is that as soon as they’ve written a song, they can record it and publish it.
And a huge advantage of having a daily blog is that the software is always open, waiting for you to write something.
Your story doesn’t have to be a book, it is simply your chance to make a difference. “Here’s what I see, here’s how you can be part of it.”
When we remove the pre (finding the pen, the paper, the notebook, the software) and the post (finding a way to publish it), it turns out that we write more often, and writing more often leads to writing better.
It doesn’t have to be perfect, it can simply be the next thing you do.
The patterns matter. Streaks work.
All part of your practice.
-Seth Godin, https://seths.blog/2020/12/a-place-to-write/
My goal is to write more and build the habits to make this an ongoing initiative. Forcing myself to spend time thinking about the built environment, reflect on what I read, and experiment with ways to share information effectively seems like a smart investment of time. Especially in these times where options for how to spend our time are limited and the alternative to writing may be watching Japanese television shows on Netflix or mixing cocktails. Here is to week 4. Kampai to more writing.
Shameless Self Promotion:
The Sheltered Nook House in the hills northwest of Portland, Oregon.
Located on 5 acres of wooded land adjoining a 5-acre farm, the house sits in a natural clearing and is nestled into the hillside, carving a protected courtyard between the hill and the two wings of the home. A rhythm of floor-to-ceiling windows and Shou Sugi Ban (yakisugi) siding define the exterior while connecting the interior rooms to the landscape.
My career has evolved to focus on residential projects with a strong emphasis on designing sustainable homes that integrate into the natural surroundings. Taking cues from the site I aim to take advantage of the landscape, natural lighting, and siting projects to allow for strong indoor-outdoor connections. Meanwhile I look for opportunities to specify natural and locally sourced materials where possible, create high-efficiency homes that reduce energy and water use, and consider lifecycle costs and durability when developing the design.
Homes should reflect the values and lifestyles of their occupants. I work closely with clients to craft projects that are beautiful, functional, and respond to the unique needs of each family.
If you, or someone you know, is looking to build a custom home, I’m looking for new clients. Don’t hesitate to reach out or pass on my contact information.
You can still apply for the Small Project Design Grant Program.
And the Small Project Design Awards Program is open for entries.
If you haven’t already, click these:
My website for design and art: https://www.lucasgrayart.com/
My photographs of textures Insta: https://www.instagram.com/talkitect/
My drawings, design, and art Insta: https://www.instagram.com/lucasgraydesign/
My blog: https://www.talkitect.com/