30 October 2007

Bamboo is awesome.

Fresh off an inspiration dry spell over the past few days, I want to take this post to extol the virtues of bamboo. I'm sure I've mentioned it before, since I think it's such a great product, but yesterday I found an article on MSNBC that reviewed it very positively and made it a little more accessible for the general public. Softer sheets, harder floors, and all from a very renewable resource? Why, I think I might start growing some in my non-existent backyard.

image courtesy of EcoSherpa.com

The article mentions a couple of outlets where you can purchase clothing or linens made from churned up bamboo fibers, but I also wanted to point out a great product that keeps calling to me at the grocery store: Bambu kitchenware. Perhaps you've also seen them at the end of the aisle in your local grocery - they are the really well-designed kitchen utensils made out of bamboo. The whole line is still a little pricey (as you could expect any new high quality product to be), but eventually the price will come down a bit as more and more people buy the products, because let's face it....they are probably superior to the plastic kitchen utensils we are used to using. I have a half-melted plastic spatula at home that agrees with me.

In the US market, we are starting to see a backlash against products created with nasty chemicals that might cause us health problems, many of which are produced in China. As a result, some people are calling for a boycott of Chinese products. The irony of it in this instance is that Bambu is manufactured in China as well....let's not forget that China is the largest source of bamboo in the world. So I doubt that we can blame all of our toxic worries on one place....if we want to take responsibility for our own health and consumption, we need to start with our brains and act with our pocketbooks. Products made with bamboo are a great place to start!

25 October 2007

Is it better for the environment to be vegan?

Slate.com had an article a couple of days ago about the merits of being vegan versus vegetarian. The question is, when taken from a strictly environmental standpoint - meaning, not taking into account other reasons such as health or love of animals - is it really better to be a vegan, which is above and beyond the vegetarianism of close to 5% of the American population? The answer is, perhaps no. If greenhouse gases are valued above all else, then veganism is surely better than "lacto-ovo" vegetarianism. However, there are probably other factors involved:

....direct carbon dioxide emissions are only part of the story when it comes to food's eco-impact. You also have to look at the issue of land use—specifically how much and what sort of land is required to sustain an agricultural enterprise. In a region with poor-to-mediocre soil, for example, it may be more efficient to operate a well-managed egg farm than to try growing vegetables that can't flourish under such conditions. And animals are handy at consuming low-quality grain that isn't necessarily fit for human consumption. (Rather than going to waste, that grain can help create nutrient-rich dairy products.) In fact, a recent Cornell University study concluded that modest carnivorousness may actually be better for the environment than outright vegetarianism, since cattle can graze on inferior land not suitable for crops. Squeezing more calories out of the land means that less food needs be imported from elsewhere, thereby reducing the burning of fossil fuels.

So, although this is not an excuse to keep consuming meat at our current rate (as meat processing constitutes a huge drain on resources and accounts for massive amounts of greenhouse gases)....it certainly makes me feel better about eating cheese. Mmmmmm, cheese.

23 October 2007

Fire. Water. Air. Earth.

Mother Nature and human beings have had several very intense run-ins in the past few years. In 2004, we saw the tsunami affect every country around the Indian Ocean, where scores of people were lost; in 2005, we saw Hurricane Katrina cripple a fully functioning metropolis for the first time in modern history; and now, here in California, we have raging, population-displacing wildfires. From a seemingly normal day on Saturday, October 20 to today, Tuesday, October 23, Southern California has gone from warm and extremely dry to incinerating; at this moment, approximately 900,000 people have been evacuated from their homes, over 420,000 acres have burned, and almost 1200 homes have been destroyed.

Numbers like those are staggering. They were mind-boggling when we tried to understand how a single wave could wipe out over 200,000 people, and they were baffling when we realized that a city was being submerged before our eyes. But to realize that almost a million people have been mobilized in just the past two days....bravo to the institutions in charge of this operation, and my thoughts are certainly with those in harm's way.

What's most startling to me is that it all comes down to four very basic elements: fire, water, air, and earth. Whereas the victims of the Asian Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina would have done anything to escape the water, Southern California cannot get enough of it. It is a somber reminder that humans need to find a balance in their habitat. As an environmental designer and an eternal optimist, I, for one, think that any area is capable of sustaining human activity - if we build on it properly and take into account environmental conditions. However, if you think about it, the houses that are being destroyed North of San Diego tonight are not much different from those that were inundated by Hurricane Katrina. Where's the balance? Should a house that sits on a sun-scorched hill in a dry climate look and act like a house that sits below sea level in a hot, humid climate?

The answer may be "no" but humans don't seem to have figured out how to really say it yet. It's like we found a way to conquer the "earth" part, and we stopped trying very hard after that. Until we do, we are going to continue to see images like these...

all images courtesy of the NY Times

22 October 2007

Finding Your Footprint

For those of you who sometimes find yourself thinking, "Gee, I wonder how much my lifestyle really impacts the environment", you should know that there are plenty of ways to find out. (For those of you who never think that, please humor me for a moment.)

The very first time I calculated my "ecological footprint", I did so through MyFootPrint.org. It's comprehensive and it takes into account things like climate and city size. It's also really annoying because no matter how good I think I'm doing, I still require at least two Earths every time.

If you prefer a little more flash when you're finding out just how wasteful you are, may I suggest the Consumer Consequences game by American Public Media. In this exercise, you get to create a character and pick a cute little neighborhood before you destroy the Earth. Great graphics, too....check this one out.

Believe it or not, the US Senate's committee on the Environment and Public Works has also come up with a Global Warming Footprint calculator of its own. It's a little simpler than the other two, and really only deals with transportation and household emissions. But, it is a good "starter calculator" for those who have not heard of an ecological footprint before. Also it makes it seem like the US Senate is not completely useless, which is encouraging.

Last but not least, I actually just found this amazing and elaborate calculator at Zerofootprint.net, by way of Facebook. It covers pretty much all of the bases, and the graphics are quite clear although the interface is a tiny bit confusing. What's great about the Zerofootprint Calculator is that you can actually customize it to fit your lifestyle, which can only result in a more accurate footprint. It's also collecting data from urban centers around the world (information here) to show how even the smallest actions can reduce your impact on the environment.

So, there you have it. You can't say you don't know how you are impacting global warming. Now if we could only figure out how to fix it....

21 October 2007

Nature called....she's not happy

Last week, an e-friend of mine published an ode to Los Angeles that really captured the essence of this city in a way that I couldn't quite put my finger on. I've sent it to many people at this point but I thought it was worth another mention.

Meanwhile, it's another beautiful evening in Southern California, just a stone's throw away from out-of-control wildfires. The picture below is the view from my roof. On the right, downtown's tallest buildings. On the left are what I can only assume are plumes of smoke, drifting out to sea from Malibu Canyon in the north, where the fire started. What never ceases to amaze me in this City of Angels is how close everyone constantly is from either total success or complete disaster. A wildfire in Malibu Canyon means a confluence of both.....people who have achieved great wealth faced with the loss of all they own. It's a remarkable place.

16 October 2007

Midterms? What midterms?

It's about mid-semester here at USC's School of Architecture, and I'm taking it easy. I'm definitely having a hard time adjusting to "college without design studio" since that's all I know; 6 years of architecture school for my undergraduate Bachelor's of Arch., and I had studio every single quarter that I was in school. I have been living vicariously through my friends in the MArch program as they go through their midterm critiques, however.....and by that I mean, I am watching crits, and wishing I was designing something, and making sure they don't somehow hurt themselves from lack of sleep.

Although I do not have an architecture studio that involves designing a building, I have 3 other classes with design projects that have been keeping me busy. The first one is a Materials & Methods class, in which we study, uh, materials and methods. I posted my first project in the class a while back, and this is my most recent:

The goal was to create a "cube" using nothing but plexi-glas and a favorite material of mine called 3-form. Originally I was hoping to use it as an end table in my apartment, but after I finished making it, it was structurally unsound and now sits on its side above my desk. I think I will just put a top on it and keep it like that.

Beyond the cube project, I have a case study in the same class which I am doing on a building just down the street from my school. It's called the Science Center School, and it's an interesting building with a dual-use program and an interesting tension between historical and new elements. I've gotten a lot of information on it thus far, and I took a tour, where I took the following pictures:

More pics of this building on my Flickr page...

Another class I am taking is called "Advanced Structures" and is less scary than it sounds....actually it is kind of fun. I have weekly assignments in this class and a term project that I am doing with a classmate, which is to redesign the structure of a train station. We selected Glasgow Central Station in Glasgow, Scotland, a beautiful old station which we thought was prime for an update. We have to make a model for this project eventually, so for now, I will just show you the original:

The last class I am taking is "Advanced Environmental Systems" which for this semester is essentially lighting design. I have nothing of interest to show in this class at this point. At the end of the semester I will be entering a competition, not sure which one yet, but at that point I will put up some images of my work.

Lots to do yet! But for now, I'm still just planning.....

15 October 2007

Solar Decathalon 2007: The Future of Living is Now

In honor of Blog Action Day 2007, I wanted to highlight another event happening this week that is very important to those of us interested in sustainable living: the Solar Decathalon competition. From the website:
The Solar Decathlon is a competition in which 20 teams of college and university students compete to design, build, and operate the most attractive, effective, and energy-efficient solar-powered house. The Solar Decathlon is also an event to which the public is invited to observe the powerful combination of solar energy, energy efficiency, and the best in home design.
This is a very exciting event for me this year because my alma mater, the University of Cincinnati, has entered the competition for the very first time, and this morning they won 4th place in the "Architecture" category. This category is scored on three main factors: firmness, commodity, and delight (which is archi-speak for "how good does it look"). Observe:

The judges will go on to score teams in 9 other contests, which include Engineering, Market Viability, and "Getting Around", a contest in which teams charge street-legal electric vehicles purely on solar power derived from their house and then see how far they can go.

My friend 765 wrote a constructive critique of the Solar Decathalon competition, which essentially states that while the competition is great, it shows how far we've come and how far we need to go. I think that this is an important point to think about: I think we need to find a middle ground where we can design a living machine that performs like a spaceship but looks as good as a Modernist's house.

In the meantime, Bravo to all of the teams participating, and for putting so much time and effort into showing us how much we can really do with the technology that is available. With persistence and patience, perhaps we can work towards making the solar house a standard.....rather than an anomoly that shows up on the National Mall every 2 years!

14 October 2007

Fashion Dos and Don'ts at USC on Game Day

1. DO wear comfortable, sturdy shoes. This is important not only for walking to and from the Coliseum but also for kicking the flagpole for luck.

2. DON'T wear anything blue, unless it's blue jeans. If they tell you to wear a previously unrealized color like "cardinal", find something cardinal.

3. DO wear a USC-logo skirt that your mom made you. (Only if you are under 10 years old)

4. DON'T wear a big fluffy Trojan hat unless you are in the band and have the outfit and cape to match. Oh, who am I kidding.... I want one of those hats too.

5. DO ride to the game on your giant white horse. There is no more appropriate fashion accessory!

11 October 2007

Getting excited about trash, or, The Reason I went back to grad school

I have been invited to participate in a grant-funded research study at my school entitled "The Environmental Management Systems and Indicator Baseline Research Project of the School of Architecture". In layman's terms, this means that the School of Architecture is being given money to study itself. We have, as a school, committed to the 2010 Imperative, so in the next 3 years, we are charged with not only achieving ecological literacy in our design curriculum, but also with making our building carbon-neutral. Not an easy task in 3 years, but a task we are willing to undertake, nonetheless.

So, why study ourselves? Well, in order to eventually achieve carbon-neutrality, we first need to know how much energy, product, and water we consume and/or waste before we can understand how to reduce, reuse and recycle. As you can imagine, there are many different aspects to this study, including energy usage, air quality, water management issues, electric vs. daylighting, and waste management and recycling.

This last one is where I come in. I have volunteered to take over the portion of the project which involves waste management and recycling. This may be a good time to mention that I am completely fascinated with how much trash Americans produce. I believe that one of the biggest hurdles we face in becoming a more sustainable society is how to create and consume products that don't eventually contribute to landfill or pollute in some way. Sure, we all know that to be "greener", we should change our light bulbs, adjust our thermostats, and ride our bikes. But where do our light bulbs, thermostats, and bikes go when we are done using them? Do they biodegrade or do they contribute to an already overflowing landfill somewhere?

I will be writing updates on my work with the study eventually, but right now, I am really excited....this kind of project is the reason that I wanted to go back to grad school, not only to learn how to make buildings work better, but to educate others on the topic as well. Even if it does involve trash!

09 October 2007

Musings on Urban Living in Los Angeles, Pt. 3

1. Pigeons are disgusting, resourceful little creatures. I passed this scene the other day on my street and had to chuckle. I mean, everyone needs a bath, right? Even if it's in dirty street water....

2. La Salsa on the PCH in Malibu really wants you to know that Mexicans were involved in the making of their food. Giant, plaster Mexicans.

3. If you ever want a break from "urban living" in Los Angeles, may I suggest a hike on any of the area's many trails in the hills surrounding the city. Granted, a hike in Southern California doesn't at all resemble a hike in the gentle rolling hills of the MidWest. Here, you could see the ocean, and a house that looks like it just flew in from Pluto, all on the same outing.

4. Of course, if a real hike in the hills isn't in the cards, you could go visit the California Science Center where they have a bamboo forest growing in the middle of a renovated 1913 armory building.

5. Finally, if it's peace, quiet, and luxe comfort that you are searching for, might I suggest my new roommate for your interior design needs. Before she moved in, I was coping with my sad futon and coffee table in an otherwise drab, empty living room. Now the place looks outstanding AND it's party-ready. I should know, I took it for a test drive this past weekend!

08 October 2007

"But not a real green dress, that's cruel..." *

If I had wished for anything upon blowing out the candles on my birthday cake today, it would have been this: that everyone I know would do something significant in their lives to reduce their carbon footprint. I realize this sounds a bit idealistic, but I am nothing if not hopeful about humanity's ability to change the way we impact the earth.

Now, if I had a million dollars, I would certainly use it to help further this goal of making my family and friends more earth-friendly (after I bought a hybrid-biodiesel Mini Cooper Convertible). Fortunately, there are options besides me winning the lottery. Like this: the Federal Government wants to pay you to go green. Yes, I know, I find it unbelievable myself. But apparently, until December 31 of this year, the Feds will give you a consumer tax credit of up to $500 for purchasing such things as high-efficiency furnaces, water heaters, and insulation. And the tax credits for solar upgrades of up to $2000 will remain in place until December 31, 2008.

In addition to this, there are many other credits and incentives available through local and state governments that are just waiting to be found. And beyond doing things around your home, there are plenty of other ways to support a more environmentally sensitive lifestyle, like using alternative transportation, recycling, and generally trying to be more efficient. Joining positive organizations that support legislation in favor of environmental regulation isn't a bad idea either. However, be wary of what group you support. I actually got approached by someone trying to recruit me for Greenpeace today. I respect Greenpeace as an organization but I've never felt compelled to join it, for various reasons which include sometimes questionable tactics. What I found rather amusing was how the recruiter-dude went on and on about how we should boycott some company because they are clear-cutting forests for paper....then he offered me a piece of paper to sign up on, and pledge like $20 a month to the local group. When I told him I couldn't give that much and that I may just sign up online later, he said they didn't have an online sign-up form. Confused, I said, "So you're wasting paper with your sign-up sheets instead?" He never really came back from that, and I went back to studio.

So, those are my "green" thoughts for the day. Another year of trying to save the earth has passed, and I'm one step closer to a clearer perspective on what it means to design buildings that exist in harmony with the earth.

*10 points if anyone figures out where that line is from.

07 October 2007

Birthday Brunch: Tiara Cafe, Downtown Los Angeles, CA

It's been quite a while since I've written about brunch, mainly because I haven't really had time for it since I moved to LA. I can usually find a better way to spend the two hours that I used to devote to this most cherished Sunday afternoon activity....lately it's involved going to Home Depot or grading papers. But Monday is my birthday, so it was fitting that I revisit the "brunch topic" by celebrating with my favorite meal at what is already my new favorite brunch locale - Tiara Cafe on 9th Street, east of Main, in Downtown Los Angeles.

Quality of food: 4
Quality of coffee: 3.5
Service: 4.5
Atmosphere: 4.5
Overall value: 4.5
Alcohol: Mimosas are gorgeous, but pricey

So as the scores suggest, I really, really like this place. Let's break it down. First, the food is great. The pancakes melt in your mouth, the salads and breakfast meats are fresh, and the vegetarian options are savory. Plus they put mint in their water, which makes it 10x better than normal water, much to our surprise. The coffee is fine, from what I remember, but the Mimosas are a work of art....champagne with blood orange and ginger! Genius!

The service at Tiara is delightful, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I think it's still under the radar and the growing population of downtown hasn't really found it yet, so it's easy to get in and get a seat. Secondly, the owner seems to be one of the happiest, gentlest souls I've met in this city so far, and he always takes care of us with abundant compliments and frequent check-ins. However, it's hard not to be happy in Tiara...it's beautiful in there! (See photo below) It's bright and happy and spacious and perfect for brunch. Also the light fixtures are gorgeous, but that's a design-nerd thing for me.....

Anyway, overall value is as close as I give to a perfect score. Really Tiara is just great and most of the entrees are below $10, which makes it not only tasty and pretty, but affordable as well. AND it's within walking distance of my apartment building. Score! I might rename it "Happy Brunch Land". Keep your fingers crossed that I don't have to wait until my next birthday to return!


Postscript: Birthday Brunch 2007 was not nearly as eventful as Birthday Brunch 2006, which took place at Vinyl in Cincinnati before it started to suck. I am missing everyone in this picture, and thinking about last year, and giggling....and they all know why.

03 October 2007

Biggest _____ West of Chicago

Soon, in the midst of all the urban renewal taking place in Downtown Los Angeles, the historic buildings in the city core will have a very tall, very fancy new neighbor.

image courtesy of Wikipedia

Park Fifth is a $1 billion double tower luxury residential high-rise condominium complex which is planned for the block just north of Pershing Square, at Olive and 5th Streets. At first when I saw the advertisement for this complex, I performed the requisite eye-roll that every architect is prone to when they see a new luxury development in the works. But upon closer examination, I have to say.....this tower is quite sleek. It is simple and eye-catching and seems to offer lots of natural light to its inhabitants, in addition to state-of-the-art amenities and roof gardens....with fire pits!

I later found out that the architect for this building is KPF of New York, which explains why it is so classy. They are a top-notch firm with a history of great buildings....and I used to work there! The building is scheduled to break ground in 2008; it will certainly be interesting watching it go up, from my standpoint as a designer and an urban resident. Gotta love construction sites....

01 October 2007

Tired of your job?

Go green! This week's issue of Newsweek discusses how the search for renewable-energy sources is making clean-tech jobs hot, and some are popping up in unexpected places....like Toledo, OH. An excerpt from the article:

With oil prices near record highs and more companies concerned about their carbon footprints, workers are finding job opportunities in the emerging green economy. Companies are hiring scientists to work on renewable-energy technology and business people to market earth-friendly products. Even if some of these nascent companies falter, there's widespread conviction that this sector will become one of the country's hottest employers. "This is the challenge of the 21st century ... and it's not going away," says Kevin Doyle, founder of the consulting firm Green Economy.

When I graduate in 2009, I will certainly be trying to create jobs for this market!