Category Archives: Design

Embrace decay

Oudolf Garden - New York Times

Things grow, and things fall apart. One often neglected aspect of ecological design is embracing decay. The New York Times writes about Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf who does embrace decay in A Landscape in Winter, Dying Heroically. The article also includes a photo gallery.

“Normally, people who garden would have cut this back by now,” he said. “The skeletons of the plants are for me as important as the flowers.”

For Mr. Oudolf, in fact, the real test of a well-composed garden is not how nicely it blooms but how beautifully it decomposes. “It’s not about life or death,” he said, admiring the dark, twisting lines of the fennel. “It’s about looking good.”

Over three decades, Mr. Oudolf’s sometimes unconventional ideas about what looks good have helped make him a star in Europe — where his work has inspired an “ecology meets design” gardening movement called New Wave Planting by its followers — and have also begun to win him fans and jobs in the United States. He has done the planting design for important new gardens in Millennium Park in Chicago and the Battery in New York, and for the park that will cover the elevated High Line rail bed in Lower Manhattan when it opens in September. These landscapes, like all his projects, embody and advertise his fundamental aesthetic doctrine: that a plant’s structure and form are more important than its color.

“He’s gotten away from the soft pornography of the flower,” said Charles Waldheim, the director of the landscape architecture program at the University of Toronto. “He’s interested in the life cycle, how plant material ages over the course of the year,” and how it relates to the plants around it. Like a good marriage, his compositions must work well together as its members age.

via Pruned

Reinventing nails: increasing efficiency via technological finesse

nailSometimes the efficiency of resource use can be increased through technological that uses understanding to improve technological finesse. The redesign of the nail appears to be a great example of this situation. PopSci picked a new nail as its innovation of 2006. Research on nails has lead to better nail designs which has produced nails that hold things together much better, but that are not much more costly to manufacture. From PopSci’s Best of What’s New 2006

Hurricane winds rip apart nailed-together walls, and earthquakes shake houses so violently that a nailhead can pull straight through a piece of plywood. Since we can’t stop natural disasters, Bostitch engineer Ed Sutt has dedicated his career to designing a better nail. The result is the HurriQuake, and it has the perfect combination of features to withstand nature’s darker moods. The bottom section is circled with angled barbs that resist pulling out in wind gusts up to 170 mph. This “ring shank” stops halfway up to leave the middle of the nail, which endures the most punishment during an earthquake, at its maximum thickness and strength. The blade-like facets of the nail’s twisted top—the spiral shank—keep planks from wobbling, which weakens a joint. And the HurriQuake’s head is 25 percent larger than average to better resist counter-sinking and pulling through. The best part: It costs only about $15 more to build a house using HurriQuakes. $45 per 4,000;

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Traffic Safety: Regulation vs. Self-Organization

Drachten picture from spiegel nov 2006 European traffic planners are moving away from signs and regulations to increase traffic safety. Rather than legislating space for cars they are requiring drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists to think about what they are doing rather than obeying signs. This approach appears to fit many resilience principles – for example – allowing many small disturbances makes the overall system more resilient.

In a Nov 2006, Spiegel magazine article Controlled Chaos: European Cities Do Away with Traffic Signs:

“We reject every form of legislation,” the Russian aristocrat and “father of anarchism” Mikhail Bakunin once thundered. The czar banished him to Siberia. But now it seems his ideas are being rediscovered.

European traffic planners are dreaming of streets free of rules and directives. They want drivers and pedestrians to interact in a free and humane way, as brethren — by means of friendly gestures, nods of the head and eye contact, without the harassment of prohibitions, restrictions and warning signs.

A project implemented by the European Union is currently seeing seven cities and regions clear-cutting their forest of traffic signs. Ejby, in Denmark, is participating in the experiment, as are Ipswich in England and the Belgian town of Ostende.

The utopia has already become a reality in Makkinga, in the Dutch province of Western Frisia. A sign by the entrance to the small town (population 1,000) reads “Verkeersbordvrij” — “free of traffic signs.” Cars bumble unhurriedly over precision-trimmed granite cobblestones. Stop signs and direction signs are nowhere to be seen. There are neither parking meters nor stopping restrictions. There aren’t even any lines painted on the streets.

“The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior,” says Dutch traffic guru Hans Monderman, one of the project’s co-founders. “The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.”

In 2004 Wired Magazine had an article about Hans Monderman:

Hans Monderman is a traffic engineer who hates traffic signs. Oh, he can put up with the well-placed speed limit placard or a dangerous curve warning on a major highway, but Monderman considers most signs to be not only annoying but downright dangerous. To him, they are an admission of failure, a sign – literally – that a road designer somewhere hasn’t done his job. “The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something,” Monderman says. “To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

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WorldChanging Book

WC bookBill McKibben reviews five recent books on ideas on the ecological futures of humanity in the New York Review of Books. He discusses books on climate and energy, and what we can do about it.

His review includes his descrption of the new WorldChanging book – Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century:

It is precisely this question — how we might radically transform our daily lives — that is addressed by the cheerful proprietors of the WorldChanging website in their new book of the same name. This is one of the most professional and interesting websites that you could possibly bookmark on your browser; almost every day they describe a new technology or technique for environmentalists. Their book, a compilation of their work over the last few years, is nothing less than The Whole Earth Catalog, that hippie bible, retooled for the iPod generation. There are short features on a thousand cool ideas: slow food, urban farming, hydrogen cars, messenger bags made from recycled truck tarps, pop-apart cell phones, and plyboo (i.e., plywood made from fast-growing bamboo). There are many hundreds of how-to guides (how to etch your own circuit board, how to break in your hybrid car so as to maximize mileage, how to organize a “smart mob” (a brief gathering of strangers in a public place).

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Pop-up seasonal housing: adaptive architecture

tideaways planeBuilding long last durable buildings is one way of approaching green building. Another approach, which was discussed in the TechnoGarden scenario of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, is designing ephemeral buildings that are there when needed and removed when they are not, allowing other uses of the land.A new adaptive architecture approach to the design of Irish seasonal houses has been developed by MacGabhann Architects. The project called Tideaways is part of Ireland’s contribution the Venice Biennale architecture exhibition. They propose houses and develops that are designed to respond to changing seasons and housing use.

In a Guardian article Vanishing trick for Ireland’s second homes (Sept 6, 2006) Owen Bowcott writes about the project:

The Tideaways designs refined by the MacGabhanns envisage rows of three terraces on the coast located inside existing communities. The first row would float on pontoons and could be towed to a harbour when unoccupied. The row behind would rise and fall, on hydraulic rams, with the tide; in winter they could be sunk down to ground level, disappearing into the landscape.

The third row would be permanent and would provide homes for long-term residents of the village. The houses, timber or metal-framed, would be mainly two bedroom bungalows.

“Our model would ensure there was less impact on the landscape and better planning in villages. We have not built these yet but the Irish government has been very supportive.

“The proliferation of holiday homes has the potential to destroy the very landscape that attracts people in the first place. Despite being in use only 10-20% of the year, these buildings are visible 100% of the time.”

Why green building has spread

The built environment is a major part of humanity’s ecological footprint. The design of buildings, the materials they use, their interaction with their environments, and how they shape human behaviour have substantial impacts on urban ecology. The growth of the human population (7-11 billion by 2050) and the reduction of household size (fewer people per house) combine to suggest that people will need to build a huge number of new buildings (perhaps the same number as those already built) to house humanity in the coming decades. In this context the spread of green building has the potential to have a major impact on humanity’s ecological footprint.

The Harvard Business Review (June 2006) article Building the Green Way explains why green building practices have entered the mainstream. This article is interesting both for its location, and that it speculates on why green building has entered the mainstream. Hopefully, other green design and consumption approaches can learn from the normalizing of green building.

In June 2005, mayors from 50 large cities around the world met at the United Nations World Environment Day conference in San Francisco and signed the Urban Environmental Accords, which set out 21 sustainable-living actions for each city to complete by 2012. As part of the accords, the mayors pledged to mandate green rating standards for all new municipal buildings in their respective cities.

Before 2000, companies generally regarded green buildings as interesting experiments but unfeasible projects in the real business world. Since then, several factors have caused a major shift in thinking.

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Urban ecology & the World Urban Forum – Planet of Slums?

In 1978 the first meeting of UN Habitat occurred in Vancouver. Thirty years later, Un Habitat’s World Urban Forum runs from June 19th-23rd 2006 in Vancouver. During the time between these meetings the world’s urban population has grown rapidly, in particular in developing countries. Both these trends can be seen in a last of the world’s biggest cities in 1975 and 2005.

Largest cities 1975 Population (Millions) Largest cities 2005 Population (Millions)
Tokyo, Japan 26.6 Tokyo, Japan 35.3
New York-Newark, USA 15.9 Mexico City, Mexico 19
Shanghai, China 11.4 New York-Newark, USA 18.5
Mexico City, Mexico 10.7 Mumbai, India 18.3
Osaka-Kobe, Japan 9.8 Sao Paulo, Brazil 18.3
Sao Paulo, Brazil 9.6 Delhi, India 15.3
Buenos Aires, Argentina 9.1 Calcutta, India 14.3
Los Angeles, USA 8.9 Buenos Aires, Argentina 13.3
Paris, France 8.6 Jakarta, Indonesia 13.2
Beijing, China 8.5 Shanghai, China 12.7

In 1975, 5 of the largest cities were in developing countries, in 2005, 80%. In 1978, about 1/3 of the world’s population lived in cities, today it is 2/3. Indeed most of the world’s net population growth in coming decades is expected to occur in developing world cities.

Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, Under-Secretary-General and executive director of UN-HABITAT, reviewing Mike Davis’ book Planet of Slums identifies the vulnerability of slums:

Slum dwellers are more vulnerable than most to hazards such as volcanos, floods, earthquakes, landslides, fires and road traffic accidents. Their health is constantly under threat from inadequate sanitation and low-quality drinking water. As Davis writes: “The most extreme health differentials are no longer between towns and countrysides, but between the urban middle classes and the urban poor.” This conclusion is echoed in the State of the World’s Cities report, which describes how the poor are forced to pay an “urban penalty” that encompasses poor health, early death and vulnerability to both natural and human-made disasters.

UN Habitat has released State of the World’s Cities Report 2006/7 (which annoyingly isn’t available on the web). From a BBC article Report reveals global slum crisis

Slum-dwellers who make up a third of the world’s urban population often live no better – if not worse – than rural people, a United Nations report says.

Worst hit is Sub-Saharan Africa where 72% of urban inhabitants live in slums rising to nearly 100% in some states.

Some states, the report notes, have already taken significant action to improve conditions, notably in Latin America where about 31% of urban people are classified as living in slums (figures for 2005) – down from 35% in 1990.

Of the urban population of South Asia, 57% live in slums though this is down on the 1990 figure of nearly 64%.

A slum is defined by UN Habitat as a place of residence lacking one or more of five things: durable housing, sufficient living area, access to improved water, access to sanitation and secure tenure.

Slums have existed in what is now the developed world since the Industrial Revolution and 6% of its current urban population also fall under Habitat’s definition.

However, the growth in slums is unprecedented, Habitat finds, and the nature of the problem has also changed.

Dr Tibaijuka told journalists that urbanisation in itself was not the problem as it drove both national output and rural development.

“History has shown that urbanisation cannot be reversed,” she continued.

“People move to the cities not because they will be better off but because they expect to be better off.”

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has a set of resources – Slum Cities – on the state of urbanization in the developing world, including articles on Bombay, Cairo, and an interview with Mike Davis, along with a good set of internet links. They are also have a variety of special coverage of WUF.

From Science Fiction to Viridian Design: Guardian Interview with Bruce Sterling

The science fiction writer turned design theorist, Bruce Sterling is interviewed in the Guardian (June 1/2006) about the future of green design.

TG: In your book Shaping Things, you describe climate change as the result of technology pioneers like Edison and Ford. Yet you say the only solution is to press forward with technology and shift to a new type of society.

BS: Not many science-fiction writers write industrial design manifestoes, but I was commissioned by Peter Lunenfeld of Arts Centre College of Design in California, where I was visionary in residence. Why do you want a sci-fi writer in a design school? You want someone who’ll think outside the box. The book talks about a new tech phenomenon with six or seven terms attached: the Internet of Things, Ubiquitous Computation, Everyware, Ambient Findability, Spimes (my term).

My own theory, which has gone into Shaping Things, is the key element is the identity for objects. It’s putting tags on things that allow them to interact with digital networks. That is the key concept around which other things accrue. My goal in this is sustainability. I want us to invent a better way to put our toys away. We are emitting too much junk. Google is good at sorting garbage. We could do something similar if we tagged our garbage, basically, everything we make.

Ideally, we need to tag an object before it exists. We need to tag the blueprints and then the manufactured object. Then, when it’s junk, we need to read it, know where it goes, have it ripped apart and recycled.

TG: Where does the concept of Spimes come from?

BS: Spimes was one of those spontaneous neologisms I came up with at a conference, a contraction of “space” and “time.” The idea is you no longer look at an object as an artefact, but as a process. A modern bottle of wine in one sense does exactly the same as the clay jug and stopper that the ancient Greeks used. On the other hand, it is now mass produced industrial glass, with a machine-applied label containing a barcode and a host of other information, even an associated web page. These invite you to do more than just drink the wine. These innovations link this product into a wider relationship.

Yet the moment the bottle is empty, we make a subtle semantic reclassification and designate it “trash”. The logistics of manufacture and distribution will already have tracked the bottle from factory, to warehouse, to store. But the relationship is not a closed loop. The moment you buy the wine, it’s your responsibility. The onus is on you to recycle it, or it’ll spend eternity in landfill. We really should be thinking about the trajectory all this stuff follows. We are in trouble as a culture because we don’t have a strong idea of where we are in time, and what we might need to do to deserve a future., for instance, allows you to study lots of information about physical products (books) without needing to consider the physical artefact itself. Or, a site where you can track physical books from reader to reader. does the same with dollar bills. Spimes are both the physical object and the metadata related to that object. Then, as with Amazon’s reviews, we can start adding correspondence on the nature of objects, creating a forum to discuss all our stuff and what to do with it.

TG: So how do RFID (radio frequency identification) chips relate to this?

BS: To study spimes we need to be able to track them. RFID chips are the next evolutionary step from bar codes. They allow objects to have an identity that can be easily read. They were invented by the Pentagon’s shipping, tracking and logistics agency, and Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, inspired by some work at MIT. Unlike the barcode, which needs to be scanned up-close, you can just ping a whole warehouse, or delivery truck or cargo container, and an RFID scanner will simultaneously detect and log everything in there. You also see them in swipe cards. These tags make it extremely easy to assign identities to objects and connect them to databases.

Designing Resilient Software?

Daniel Jackson has written an article, Dependable Software by Design, on how software design tools can be used to improve the resilience of software. In Scientific American he wrote:

An architectural marvel when it opened 11 years ago, the new Denver International Airport’s high-tech jewel was to be its automated baggage handler. It would autonomously route luggage around 26 miles of conveyors for rapid, seamless delivery to planes and passengers. But software problems dogged the system, delaying the airport’s opening by 16 months and adding hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns. Despite years of tweaking, it never ran reliably. Last summer airport managers finally pulled the plug–reverting to traditional manually loaded baggage carts and tugs with human drivers. The mechanized handler’s designer, BAE Automated Systems, was liquidated, and United Airlines, its principal user, slipped into bankruptcy, in part because of the mess.

…Such massive failures occur because crucial design flaws are discovered too late. Only after programmers began building the code–the instructions a computer uses to execute a program–do they discover the inadequacy of their designs. Sometimes a fatal inconsistency or omission is at fault, but more often the overall design is vague and poorly thought out. As the code grows with the addition of piecemeal fixes, a detailed design structure indeed emerges–but it is a design full of special cases and loopholes, without coherent principles. As in a building, when the software’s foundation is unsound, the resulting structure is unstable.

…Now a new generation of software design tools is emerging. Their analysis engines are similar in principle to tools that engineers increasingly use to check computer hardware designs. A developer models a software design using a high-level (summary) coding notation and then applies a tool that explores billions of possible executions of the system, looking for unusual conditions that would cause it to behave in an unexpected way. This process catches subtle flaws in the design before it is even coded, but more important, it results in a design that is precise, robust and thoroughly exercised. One example of such a tool is Alloy, which my research group and I constructed. Alloy (which is freely available on the Web) has proved useful in applications as varied as avionics software, telephony, cryptographic systems and the design of machines used in cancer therapy.

Daniel Jackson has also recently written a book Software Abstractions: Logic, Language, and Analysis. The book’s website describes the book:

Daniel Jackson introduces a new approach to software design that draws on traditional formal methods but exploits automated tools to find flaws as early as possible. This approach–which Jackson calls “lightweight formal methods” or “agile modeling”–takes from formal specification the idea of a precise and expressive notation based on a tiny core of simple and robust concepts but replaces conventional analysis based on theorem proving with a fully automated analysis that gives designers immediate feedback. Jackson has developed Alloy, a language that captures the essence of software abstractions simply and succinctly, using a minimal toolkit of mathematical notions. The designer can use automated analysis not only to correct errors but also to make models that are more precise and elegant. This approach, Jackson says, can rescue designers from “the tarpit of implementation technologies” and return them to thinking deeply about underlying concepts.

via ThreeQuarksDaily

Tomorrow’s frontier – the wreckage of the unsustainable past

In Metropolis magazine, Bruce Sterling writes about his time as a Visionary in Residence at Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, California.

It doesn’t take visionary genius to spot tomorrow’s frontier. It’s not the virgin sod of the American West because there isn’t any now. Tomorrow’s frontier is the wreckage of the unsustainable past. There is no place for us to start over clean, except through cleaning what no longer works. And that frontier is colossal because so little is working. I’ll put on my visionary hat for one last time and predict: you’ll know it’s working when you see the rust bloom.