The Original Green Blog
This blog discusses in plain-spoken terms various in-depth aspects of Steve Mouzon’s proposition of the Original Green, which is that originally, before the Thermostat Age, the places we made and the buildings we built had no choice but to be green. The Original Green is holistic sustainability, and broader than Gizmo Green. If this blog interests you, please subscribe to it by clicking the RSS button to the right.
Katrina Cottages were once the shining star of the New Urbanists’ work on the Gulf Coast after the storm, but they seem little more than a distant memory today. Much has been written about their failure, but that’s not the whole story. They live on today in unexpected ways.
The Katrina Cottage roller coaster began ten years ago right now, with the monster storm making landfall near the Mississippi/Louisiana border. I was on the road for several days before and after landfall, and came home thoroughly exhausted and emotionally drained from watching those events unfold that week in one of my favorite parts of the world. Wanda greeted me at the office door the evening of September 2 and said “you must call Michael Barranco right now. It’s urgent.”
Michael said “Steve, we’re assembling a Governor’s Commission to figure out how to rebuild the Mississippi coast, and we’d like you to come and speak to us about rebuilding according to the principles of the New Urbanism.” I said “That’s far too big a job for me; let me call Andrés Duany.” The next morning, I went to DPZ and met Andrés, and he said “that’s too big for me as well; we need to call in the entire Congress for the New Urbanism.” And so he picked up the phone and called CNU CEO John Norquist, setting in motion what became the largest planning event in human history, otherwise known as the Mississippi Renewal Forum.
I returned to DPZ the next day, and Andrés and I spent that Sunday afternoon laying out the next steps. He said that some of the emergency housing installed in Homestead after Hurricane Andrew had been removed just one year before Katrina. “Some children started first grade and graduated from high school living in the same FEMA trailer. We really must do better than that.” So our first conception of the Katrina Cottages was “FEMA trailers with dignity.”
It didn’t take long for that mission to grow. Early numbers suggested that a quarter-million homes had been lost in New Orleans alone. The New Orleans construction industry had been building roughly 1,000 homes per year before the storm, and at that rate, it would take 250 years to rebuild. Clearly, we had to be able to deliver housing through every means available: conventional construction, panelized houses, modular houses, and manufactured houses.
It also became clear that the FEMA trailers were more expensive than they seemed. Although FEMA wasn’t forthcoming with the numbers, the evidence we could gather suggested that the entire cost of manufacturing, commissioning, decommissioning, and disposal could be $50,000 to $70,000. If the Katrina Cottages fulfilled the first mission of having dignity, why couldn’t they be permanent as well? Weren’t we being good stewards of the government’s money if we could use that money to build cottages that would last for a hundred years, not just 18 months like a FEMA trailer?
I designed the first Katrina Cottage, then used it to illustrate the principles of the cottages in a call for designs to the members of the New Urban Guild. Designs began to pour in almost immediately. Thus began several years of pro bono work by Guild member on the cottages and other aspects of Katrina recovery. Six weeks after the storm, Guild members made up most of the architecture team, and filled slots on several planning teams as well, as nearly two hundred architects and planners gathered in a Biloxi casino to craft rebuilding plans at the Mississippi Renewal Forum.
My sister Susan Henderson led the architecture team; my role at the Forum was to manage FEMA, but it was almost hand-to-hand combat because they weren’t budging from their policy of only installing temporary housing. They said “if you want us to do something permanent, you’ll have to get an Act of Congress!” My response was “if that’s what it takes, that’s what we’ll do!” And so we did. Congress approved almost a half-billion dollars for the cottages, initially with instructions that they could remain permanently. But in the end, FEMA did what they always do, and pulled them out and auctioned them off.
During the Forum, architecture team member Marianne Cusato was one of several people designing cottages, and Ben Brown gave one of her designs to a newspaper reporter. In the ensuing stories, Marianne’s design got a lot of good responses. In early December, we had a stroke of excellent luck: one of the outdoor exhibition slots at the upcoming International Builders Show in Orlando opened up, and the promoters wondered if we might get a Katrina Cottage built in time. I debated whether to have Marianne or Eric Moser design the cottage. Eric had been published many times in Southern Living over the years, and was considered a star by millions of readers, but Marianne’s cottage had gotten a lot of good press since the Forum, so I asked her to do the design. The little yellow cottage stole the show at the IBS. Later, it won the People’s Choice Award at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Awards. I credit the cottages and in particular Marianne’s design with helping to turbo-charge the Tiny House movement, which had been largely unnoticed beforehand.
I published Emergency House Plans in early 2006; the designs were done by over a dozen Guild architects. But there was a problem with every cottage in the book. Because space was so precious in tiny cottages, the exterior walls quickly got gobbled up with baths, closets, and kitchen cabinets. In other words, things that are hard to move. So none of the first generation of cottages expanded very easily. And that’s a problem because someone is far more likely to buy or build a tiny cottage if it were obvious how it might grow than if it’s not, so the inability to grow easily was stifling the cottages. And that held back our idea that the cottages could be the first toe-hold back onto your lot, from which you could expand into a larger house later on.
I had the original idea for the next generation of cottages that could expand easily at the Forum, but was so busy doing battle with FEMA that I didn’t have time to develop it beyond just a quick sketch. I called the idea the Kernel Cottage, because it could sprout and grow from several places, like a kernel of grain. Its development had to wait until the summer of 2006, when Ben Brown asked me to design three Katrina Cottages for USA Weekend, which was USA Today’s weekend edition at the time. I did a vernacular, a mid-range, and a classical design, and USA Weekend published them and conducted a poll. The classical version won in a landslide. USA Today was trying to help jump-start the manufacturing of the cottages, so they asked us to find a manufacturer who would produce the winning design in a factory and bring it to Washington DC, making it the first cottage to venture outside the Gulf Coast. It was slated to be donated to a needy resident of Silver Spring, Maryland.
The effort to get the cottage built correctly was herculean; I even spent nights in the factory because nothing we were doing was “normal,” and the workers were working around the clock. Finally, the cottage shipped, and was put on display for several months in Silver Spring. It was during this time that I met Bobby Kennedy, Jr. and his family, who had a keen interest in helping promote the cottages. He later wrote the Foreword to the Original Green book. Unfortunately, this part of the story has a dark ending: after several months on display and after having gotten lots of great press, the manufacturer had an egregious ethical lapse and reneged on their promise to donate the cottage, and towed it away instead. I still wonder where that little cottage ended up.
The Act of Congress wasn’t working out so well, either, and much of it was our fault. To be blunt, we mis-managed the cottage initiative because we weren’t all on the same page, and the people managing Mississippi’s allocation of several hundred million dollars finally got tired of our infighting and decided to go their own way. The Mississippi Cottages bore many similarities to our designs, but we could have helped improve them had we handled it better. And the cottages always had one fundamental problem: so long as they resembled mobile homes, they were susceptible to the strong rejection of mobile homes that most communities exhibit. Like I told the mobile home manufacturers every time I spoke at their conventions, “it’s not good enough to produce homes as good as site-built homes. Your homes have to be substantially better. So much better, in fact, that instead of signing an ordinance banning your homes from town, the mayor is signing a check to buy one of your cottages.”
To date, we simply haven’t gotten there with any home produced on an assembly line. For a year or so after those heady days surrounding the Forum, I had high hopes that we would change the American home manufacturing industry, but it was never that simple. In the words of one CEO in the early autumn of 2008: “Steve, I can’t just start manufacturing these cottages in my existing factories. They are so different from what we build now that they not only require a different set of construction materials, but they also will require a different set of employees. We have a current culture of building mobile homes, not manufacturing architecture. And so we’ll need entirely new factories, with an entirely new workforce that has a different culture of building. That’s an investment of millions of dollars.” And in retrospect, he was right, as we were descending into the winter of the Meltdown, and the ensuing Great Recession.
By the time 2009 dawned, it seemed that all was lost. Not only were the Katrina Cottages looking all but impossible to produce, but the planning efforts on the Coast were meeting resistance as well. It seemed as if inertia might finally win out. I learned that year that even the name of the cottages was a mistake. Southerners are often much too polite for their own good, so it’s no mystery that it took four years for a New Orleans citizen to finally tell me “Steve, you made a huge mistake. ‘Katrina Cottages’ are ‘Losing Everything I Ever Owned Cottages,’ or ‘The End of My Life as I Knew It Cottages.’ How could you guys possibly name them that?”
But that’s when the cottages began to spawn new life. The New Urban Guild held a summit at DPZ’s office in Miami in January 2009 intent on launching Project:SmartDwelling, which sought to reinvent the American home at half the size and 60% of the cost of a typical American home by building radically smaller and smarter. In the years since, nearly every one of the SmartDwelling techniques turned out to be lessons we learned by figuring out the Katrina Cottages.
Shortly afterward, Lizz Plater-Zyberk did a characteristically generous thing for which she and Andrés are legendary: she called me and said that the Wall Street Journal was doing a Green House of the Future story for which they had asked DPZ to design a house. Because she knew I was writing the Original Green book, she said she would prefer for me to design the house. The article was published April 27, exposing SmartDwellings to a broad audience for the first time.
But it hasn’t yet gotten built. And for the next few years, SmartDwellings went dark, existing only as a great idea that had not yet been realized, as Guild members struggled through the Great Recession like most other architects. That began to change May 12, 2012. On the last night of the Congress for the New Urbanism in Palm Beach, I told my friends Eric Moser and Julie Sanford “if we don’t do anything radical, the SmartDwellings may forever remain nothing but talk and drawings. If we’re committed to seeing them implemented, we need to create a design firm dedicated to the implementation of these ideals. We founded Studio Sky shortly thereafter, and today, there are hundreds of SmartDwelling rising on distant shores. I hope some of ours get built in the US sometime soon. Not only that, but there’s now a high-quality manufacturer gearing up to roll SmartDwellings off the assembly line. I’ll have much more to say about that just as soon as the production goes live. After all these years of thinking all that effort was lost, it seems like it’s finally happening.
I know other Guild members have been working on SmartDwellings as well, but don’t yet know the details, other than Bruce Tolar’s heroic Cottage Square in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. For so long, nobody has had budgets for travel, and now that we’re busy again, nobody has time for travel. But we really do need to get together and compare notes at another summit. Anyone interested in listening in when we do?
The love debate continues unabated on several private listservs inhabited by some of the best and brightest architects and planners, but they’re making some fundamental errors. Some confuse “cuddly” and “cute” with “lovable,” for example. Neither buildings nor towns are often cuddly or cute. Those terms are usually reserved for small furry things. Maybe a Katrina Cottage or hobbit house might be cuddly or cute, but very little else. Lovable? That’s a very different matter.
For love of freedom, people rise up and throw off tyranny, even at the cost of everything they’ve worked for until that moment, and even at the cost of life itself. From the crucible of this sacrifice, nations are born or reborn.
For love of a country, young men and women get up and march, and lay their lives in the breach, risking maiming or death.
For love of a region, people forego many self-interests to say “that’s my homeland.” "American by birth; Southern by the grace of God” is but one example.
For love of a city, activists take hazardous stands and spend countless hours to stir the populace to make the better choice.
For love of a town, those with resources put them at risk because of the dream of the city that will someday emerge as a result of their risk.
For love of a neighborhood, citizens band together and spend countless hours to make their neighborhoods clean and safe.
For love of a building, people chain themselves to long-loved structures and stare down the bulldozers that threaten them.
These are things we all should know implicitly… they should be part of our DNA. How many New Urbanists have never said “I love this city?” How many times has the phrase “I love my country” been voiced, just in the USA? A hundred billion times? Maybe a trillion times in American history? Surely those words have been uttered many trillions of times in many languages around the globe in human history. A building, a neighborhood, a town, a city, a region, or a nation, are not things too big to love.
It is high time to end the architectural conceit that lovability is somehow beneath us and realize that this is a powerful tool… possibly the most powerful tool… in doing the good things we are trying to accomplish. That which cannot be loved will not last. Let’s build things that last. If not, then why do we build?
A prominent architect whose work I love and respect told me recently that the term “lovable” has “a... problem with pragmatists” that can’t be resolved. He also said “you’re the only architect I know who can say 'lovable architecture' with a straight face.” And so it has been, ever since I started shooting for the Catalog of the Most-Loved Places in the 1990s… time and again, it’s been obvious that architects find it impossible to use the word “lovable." This became more obvious in 2004, when lovability was proposed as an essential element of a living tradition, and intensified in 2007 with the proposal that lovability was the first essential characteristic of sustainable buildings.
Fortunately, that is increasingly not the case with people other than architects. Lloyd Alter alerted me recently to an article in Policy Innovations entitled "What Makes a City Great? It's not the Liveability but the Loveability.” The very next day, Kaid Benfield’s How to Make Smart Growth More Lovable and Sustainable appeared on the Huffington Post. Kaid’s article specifically referenced the Original Green, and I really appreciate that. The Policy Innovations piece, which was an interview of Ethan Kent, did not, but in some ways that’s more important because it means the idea is entering the general lexicon unfettered by an association with any one book, site, or person.
Let’s dig further into the pragmatic architects’ problem with lovability by looking at a completely different field. I recently saw this story on Bloomberg Business about the computer programming industry.
One would think that computer programmers would be about as pragmatic as they come, right? But they voted Apple’s new Swift programming language as “the most-loved language” in a survey of over 26,000 developers by Stack Overflow. Hard to find a more pragmatic publication than Stack Overflow. So how can programmers tap into the idea of lovability but pragmatic architects aren’t allowed to? Yes, the programmers also have their religious wars, as the Bloomberg article documents. But something, somehow, opens that door to pragmatic programmers whereas it is slammed shut to pragmatic architects. Why? What’s the difference?
My inquiry into lovable architecture began in a way I never planned. Wanda and I married in 1979, after my first year in architecture school. One evening in Third Year, she asked me “why do you refuse to design buildings that anyone else I love would love?” “Do I?” “Of course you do!” “How do you know they wouldn’t love what I design?” “Have you ever listened to non-architects talk about architecture?” “No, our professors tell us that we should educate the clients.” “Well, if you’d ever stop and listen to them, you might learn what they actually love.”
The point to this story of the origin of my use of the term “lovable” is that the term requires something many architects are completely incapable of demonstrating: humility. Listening to the untrained requires humility. The New Urbanism did this early on… Robert Davis’ legendary road trips across the South learning what the people love is but one example. And that’s the core reason, I believe, why so many in the academy hate us so: because we have the audacity to have enough humility to actually listen to the people. We really don’t need to lose that virtue.
I always hoped it would turn out something like this, although it was never clear from the beginning whether it would even work at all, and the stakes could not have been higher in the depths of the Great Recession. Last night marked the fifth anniversary of the release of the Original Green book. We had mortgaged everything possible to get it printed, and there was no Plan B.
The ideas at the foundation of the Original Green actually date back 35 years now, and the first presentation of those ideas was at West Coast Green in San Francisco in September ’06 and this blog began in April ’08. But the book was a watershed moment. Here are some things it might have helped to influence, and other things it clearly spawned by virtue of looking at sustainability through different and more holistic lenses:
The Original Green’s proposition that you should be able to look out onto the fields and the waters from which much of your food comes is part of a long-running call for local food dating back continuously to at least the 1960s. Before refrigerated trucking, it was simply a fact of life and not even discussed much back then, because talking about the importance of local food was much like talking about the importance of local air. What’s notable is that I don’t recall tightly-embedded agriculture being proposed as the first essential element of sustainable places a decade ago. And regardless of how it came about, it was gratifying to have local agriculture as the focus of CNU 19 in Madison, and to see the rise of Agrarian Urbanism.
Think back several years… how often did you hear lovability proposed as the most essentail element of sustainable buildings? “Lovable” has until recently been considered to be beneath serious discourse on either sustainability or architecture. Now, it has clearly entered the lexicon of both discussions. I’m also delighted that people are now talking about lovable places as well. I don’t recall for sure where lovability made the leap from places to buildings… it might have been Mike Watkins’ idea… but lovable places are clearly a useful construct, and deserve further development.
LEED & Gizmo Green
A clear proposition for true sustainability also brings into focus those things that claim to be sustainable, but aren’t. Gizmo Green is the proposition that with better equipment and better materials, we can achieve sustainability, but this misses most of what real sustainability is all about. 1 Bryant Park is a skyscraper that consumes massive resources, but is LEED Platinum. The reality is that skyscrapers in general have huge sustainability problems. And when people claim their parking garages are green, you know things have gone nuts. While the USGBC has done some good things over the years, its LEED system is a fair target because of its bloated Gizmo Green approach. And Gizmo Green infests the curriculae of most schools of architecture today, fitting students with Net-Zero blinders that shut out the view of real sustainability.
The Original Green calls for a common-sense, plain-spoken definition of sustainability: “keeping things going in a healthy way, long into an uncertain future.” The core act of sustaining is preserving. That which cannot be preserved will no longer be there to be sustained. But there’s a deeper problem to preservation today: are we merely preserving artifacts we love, or are we also preserving or reawakening those living traditions that created those artifacts to begin with, so that more of them can be created? Living traditions were the operating systems of true sustainability. Preservationists must also consider the unthinkable: when is a tear-down the more sustainable choice? If not, what are the ground rules for saving a building from demolition, and how can you assemble a cause to preserve the building?
Sprawl & Recovery
Sustainable places are possible only if they’re freed from the costs of sprawl. The need for speed burdens sprawling places with great inefficiencies, and the character of speedy thoroughfares cheapens the land around them precipitously. This impoverishes us both directly and indirectly. Fortunately, a number of colleagues are working on ways to retrofit or repair sprawl. The Original Green prescription is a 12-step program of Sprawl Recovery because sprawl really has been an addiction for reasons documented so thoroughly on StrongTowns. Sprawl Recovery is built on three foundations: The Transect gives predictability to sprawl’s extreme makeover. The Sky Method was developed as a radical new way of developing land but works equally well in redeveloping sprawl. And Walk Appeal is important enough to warrant its own paragraph:
It’s possible that Walk Appeal might be the most useful tool the Original Green has spawned to date. Walkability was a worthy goal 30 years ago when so many places were completely unwalkable, but it’s a low standard today. Do you want food that’s merely edible? Or a book that’s merely readable? Today, we need to transition to places people love to walk, not places where they are merely able to walk. Walk Appeal is the product of several factors. Some of them can be measured, and therefore coded. Others are immeasurable, but nonetheless play into whether people want to walk there or not. But in any case, the impact of Walk Appeal is very real, and is key to the viability of neighborhood businesses, making the difference betwen thriving and failing. It may even turn out to be a secret weapon for the best maker spaces.
The Luxury of Small
The Original Green calls for better instead of bigger, and as we learned during the Katrina Cottages initiative a decade ago, small cottages can be really endearing. The reason why has finally become clear, and it turns out it may actually be a biological survival mechanism: the Teddy Bear Principle. To build smaller, it is necessary to build smarter as well because nobody wants to simply have their life put in a vise. It has even influenced my own life, as Wanda and I combined our home and office into 747 square feet just over a year ago.
There are allied ideals: Sitting lightly on the land can save millions, and is based on the idea of “digging as if you only had a shovel.” Lean Urbanism is an important new initiative now brewing, and co-founder Andrés Duany regularly cites the Original Green as an influence.
There’s more, of course… and more on the way. I can’t wait to get the Original Green Scorecard built and running as a fast, friendly, and free alternative to LEED, for example. And to get the first Sky Method SmartCode in place. So if you don’t already have one, but want to see the foundation these ideas are based upon, pick up a copy and have a look. It’s an easy read with lots of pictures. As you know, I almost never ask you to buy something, but I think you may enjoy it. And please let me know what you think!
No new town being built today embodies Original Green sustainability principles more explicitly than Schooner Bay in the Bahamas, but the town stands at the crossroads today, and could go in either direction. Town Founder Orjan Lindroth has set an heroic slate of things in motion that goes far beyond normal place-making goals, but this fabulous foundation required such effort to complete that investors have grown impatient and it is now possible that ordinary things could be built on that extraordinary foundation.
The Ecological Dividend post described many of the assets built into Schooner Bay that will yield log-term benefits, and The Schooner Bay Miracle tells the story of how some of those principles and techniques allowed the town to emerge virtually unscathed from the wrath of Hurricane Irene at her strongest point.
Patient place-making was once the way that great places were built, but it declined as development morphed into something more akin to industrialization than town building, with every system geared to crank out as many units as quickly as possible. Never mind that building patiently is precisely how to make the greatest profit over the life of the project.
Seaside, Florida is the best example in part because it has been there the longest. If you talk to Seaside’s Town Founder, Robert Davis, he’ll tell you that he made more money on the last 5% of the lots he sold than the first 95%. This never could have happened had Robert blown Seaside out in the normal 3-5 years. Instead, he took 30 years and was able to retire a wealthy man on just the profits of one development rather than risking everything every few years on a new development. Schooner Bay could do precisely the same thing Seaside did, if the investors rediscovered the patience of townbuilders.
The worst thing they could possibly do now is ditch all of the effort and time that went into the original vision of Schooner Bay and sell the lots using the normal marketing fluff with which island properties are too often sold. Do this, and they will be competing on bells and whistles, and on cost per square foot. In other words, the lowest common denominators.
Does that sound like the best way of moving out of the shadows of the Great Recession, which has been the worst seven years for real estate than almost anyone alive today has ever seen? Or would it be a better idea to move beyond those dark years to better days ahead buoyed by great and sustainable ideals lots of people can get behind, and accompanied by arguably the best planners on earth, and numerous other nationally- and internationally-known creatives who have worked with Schooner Bay through the years?
The Bahamas and the Caribbean beyond are littered with half-finished projects sold on the lowest common denominator. Schooner Bay is based on the only model ever proven to work in the islands: true sustainable town-building. This is how Dunmore Town on Harbour Island was built. And Hope Town. And Green Turtle Cay. And Man of War. The places people have loved the longest and valued the most were all built as real towns, not housing built on the industrial model and sold with glossy marketing. In real towns, people come because of the town, and then buy a cottage. Places where people only come for the lowest common denominators of the housing aren’t towns at all, nor are they resilient in the long term. Schooner Bay could suffer that fate. But it doesn’t have to suffer that fate.
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I almost never go to bat for a new town, but there is too much at stake here to remain silent. I spoke two weeks ago at the World Congress of the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture, and Urbanism (INTBAU). My presentation, which you can read in its entirety here, lays out how Schooner Bay has been the starting point of so many advances in sustainable building practices along the Caribbean Rim. After the presentation, Prince Charles held a reception for the speakers and select attendees at St. James Palace where I had the honor of telling him a little about our work there, and why places like Schooner Bay are so important in spreading sustainable practices.
What can we do now? Please spread this story to anyone on your networks who might be interested. Then go there. Relax for a few days at the Sandpiper Inn or the Black Fly Lodge, and have a look around. I’ll be doing the same myself soon, then I’ll post the Unofficial Guide to Schooner Bay Secrets. It’ll point you to many of the really cool green things that wouldn’t be on a real estate agent’s tour, but which you should see. Yes, you really should see this place.
Here’s a great illustration of how frontages are the arteries of value in a city like we were discussing yesterday. Washington Avenue on South Beach is the color-coded street running left-to-right in the image above. When you walk down Washington, it’s clear that the bones are good, but the shops that aren’t vacant are typically t-shirt shops, tattoo parlors, greasy spoon lunch counters, liquor stores, smoke shops, sex shops, and a collection of clubs, bars, and bona fide dives. There’s enough concern in Miami Beach about Washington that the city has commissioned a study of how to improve it. Before we go any further, let me be exceptionally clear about my role here: I’m a citizen blogger who happens to live just inside the top of the map above, near the center, and my only interest is in putting out ideas that might help make my town a better place. The people actually doing the work are fully capable; I’m just hoping to put a bug or two in their ears, as we used to say back when I lived in the deep South. With that clear, let’s look at some things that should be considered:
Coding Existing Walk Appeal
The seven standards of Walk Appeal: W6 Great Street, W5 Main Street, W4 Neighborhood Street, W3 Sub-Urban Street, W2 Subdivision Street, W1 Parking Lot, W0 Unwalkable.
I’ve coded Washington and its crossing streets for its existing Walk Appeal. As discussed yesterday, Walk Appeal has measurable metrics, immeasurable characteristics, and these work together to have a great impact on a neighborhood business’ failure, survival, or success. That’s because people walk further when there’s greater Walk Appeal. You’ll find people walking 2 miles or more instead of driving on W6 Great Streets because it’s so enjoyable. On a good W5 Main Street, they often walk ¾ mile or so. W4 Neighborhood Streets is where people actually walk that ¼ mile instead of driving that the planners talk about. On W3 Sub-Urban Streets, the distance drops to a tenth of a mile, and on a W2 Subdivision Street, it’s down to about 250 feet. In a W1 Parking Lot condition, good luck getting anyone (including you and I) to walk more than a hundred feet if we don’t absolutely have to, because the experience is dreadful. And in W0 Unwalkable conditions like a sidewalk between a busy arterial and a parking lot, the only people you’ll find walking are those whose cars have broken down.
Analyzing Walk Appeal
You don’t need a specialist to tell you where to find Walk Appeal… just walk out and observe where the people are.
Places with low Walk Appeal usually attract fewer people; places where it’s higher attract more. Knowing why it works that way is eye-opening, as we’ll see shortly. And businesses reach out into surrounding neighborhoods for customers only as far as the Walk Appeal of the connecting streets allow.
Along Washington Avenue
You can’t properly judge Walk Appeal from one side of a street. Walk both sides, because Walk Appeal is largely influenced by things close by.
Looking at the map at the top of this page (click it and zoom in for a better view), it’s apparent that the East (beachward) side of Washington has fairly consistent Main Street character. Admittedly, several blocks reach that standard, but just barely. The other side of the street, however, is much spottier, with the longest stretch of the lowest rating being at the school just south of Española Way. Fortunately, there is no place on or near Washington Avenue that sinks to the level of a W0 Unwalkable place, even though some relatively short stretches approach that level. And the only places that rise to the level of a W6 Great Street are not on Washington at all, but are the crossing streets of Española Way and Lincoln Road.
Washington's Crossing Streets
Businesses can fail on Main Streets if the crossing streets' Walk Appeal isn’t strong enough to pull the customers in.
If Washington Avenue is to have any hope of serious improvement, the first thing to fix isn’t Washington, but rather the crossing streets. There are thousands of hotel rooms on Collins, running parallel to Washington just one block over, and thousands more on Ocean Drive just beyond that, yet few of those people get to Washington because the Walk Appeal of the crossing streets is mediocre at best and almost unwalkable in places. The only two connections Eastward from Washington with great Walk Appeal are Española Way and Lincoln Road.
It’s just as important walking inland as well. I’ve been told that almost half of South Beach residents do not own a car, so if Washington hopes to attract them as customers, Walk Appeal needs to be improved walking Westward as well.
The Tough Demographic Factor
Walk Appeal isn’t for everyone. Some people actually gravitate to places with low Walk Appeal.
This is a tough discussion to have, because some may consider it offensive, but it’s essential to talk about this if we want to change the character of Washington Avenue. We’ve all noticed how teen goths, punks, and the like tend to hang out in places their parents would never go. And it’s not just kids, either… the rougher side of the Bike Week crowd feels perfectly at home in tough places with little or no Walk Appeal. Think about all those crossing streets with low Walk Appeal that don’t entice the average tourist to walk to Washington. They’re perfect streets for the tougher crowd. So is it any wonder that the majority of people who make it through this filter of low Walk Appeal streets to Washington are the customers of the seedy shops that populate the street? Washington is only a block away from some of the biggest fashion names on Collins, but will never entice those people to shop on Washington until the crossing streets change dramatically.
Improving Walk Appeal
Improving Walk Appeal is neither art nor rocket science. Most measures are as simple as third grade geometry.
The four things below are all measurable. We’ll look at only a few examples of how to implement them on Washington, but it should be easy to imagine other places along the street where these principles would work as well.
No building makes a greater Walk Appeal impact for fewer dollars than a well-placed liner building.
Washington liner buildings should have retail on the first level with stairs interspersed that rise up to serve two living units each on the levels above. I’m familiar with many good thin house designs from the years working on the Katrina Cottages initiative.
Every parking lot on Washington should be lined with liner buildings, which need not be more than 18 feet deep. They can be as thin as 14 feet, however, or possibly even 12 feet. The worst frontages on Washington are all parking lots, but the longest bad frontage is at the school. Simply put, the school doesn’t want to be on Washington. Its tall metal fence is built of cheap aluminum tubes, with crude spear-tips curving out to the street, almost like a prison fence, except turned the other way to keep people out, not in.
If the school board sold the outer 12 to 18 feet of its property for a liner building, that liner building would serve as a completely secure wall, and Washington would get a very interesting block of shops on the street with customers living above. For that matter, it’s possible that the school board could keep the property and develop it themselves, if that’s legal.
Buildings along a street should be tall enough to enclose the street space as an outdoor room.
Ever hear anyone say “I’m too short for my width?” Washington has that problem as well. Most buildings along Washington are 1-story, with a few taller buildings sprinkled in. But it is about a hundred feet wide, building face to building face. The world’s greatest streets (make that W6 Great Streets) typically have street enclosure ratios close to 1:1, meaning that the buildings are as tall as the spaces between them. That’s tough to do in the US, where our streets are wider than most European streets. American Main Streets are doing well if they achieve a 1:3 proportion, and below 1:6 (like most of Washington), there isn’t enough enclosure to make the street feel like an outdoor room. So Washington definitely needs to grow taller. How much taller? The best urbanism in the world is usually 3-5 stories tall. Leon Krier says 3 stories for a number of good reasons; Christopher Alexander says 4 stories for other good reasons. Paris says 5 stories (often with an attic tucked above). Because Parisians love South Beach already, I’d suggest that we make them feel even more comfortable, and allow Washington to grow up to 5 stories tall, with any vertical addition taking a building up to at least 3 stories in height.
Getting the storefront right is a building's most important Walk Appeal role at the scale of details.
Measured walking along the sidewalk, glass should occupy no less than 60% of the wall at eye level, and ideally closer to 70%. The sill should be no less than 6 inches from the ground, and no higher than 30 inches. And the top of the glass should not be less than 8 feet from the sidewalk. People walking by can therefore see enough of the interior of the shops that it’s entertaining. But that’s only the beginning.
It’s really boring to walk past lots of the same stuff. This applies to both the stuff in the stores and the architecture of the exterior. So ideally, the shops should be narrow enough that your view changes ever 4 to 8 paces. That pretty much describes the shops on the East side of Washington as they exist today. So keep them that way. Any building height that is added should not change the storefronts, nor the width of the shops because what is there already are the bones of an awesome avenue of storefronts.
There is no greater barometer of vitality than sidewalk cafés, and no greater Walk Appeal role for the sidewalk.
Sidewalk cafés do great where traffic is very slow, or there is on-street parking to protect the patrons. Washington Avenue has both. Sidewalk cafés achieve close to silver bullet Walk Appeal status because humans are social creatures, and we love seeing other humans. Streets with thriving café scenes are almost guaranteed to get pegged as “vibrant” by everyone, and become many people’s favorite places over time. Today, the city tightly regulates sidewalk cafés, reportedly charging establishments a fee for every seat on the street. City Hall would come out ahead by stacks of cash if they allowed seats for free, because their other tax revenues would increase substantially not only from the eating establishments, but because the higher Walk Appeal would draw people to the other shops as well.
Obviously, the task at hand is greater than the scope of a single blog post, but if Miami Beach gets these things right, they will be well on the way to a fabulous Washington transformation. And I hope this illustrates how powerful a transformative tool Walk Appeal can be. What do you think?
They’re the thinnest and smallest of a city’s elemental parts, but “frontages,” a geeky planning word for the space between the front windows and doors of a building and a civic space or thoroughfare, do more to create or kill value in most cities than any other part of the city. Rarely more than a couple dozen feet deep, and often as thin as a few inches, the total acreage of frontages in a traditionally-planned town is less than that of thoroughfares, and is tiny compared to civic spaces and building lots, which are the other three elemental parts. Yet they make the greatest difference in the vitality and sustainability of the city.
Along a thoroughfare, the frontage is divided into the public frontage, which is located on the thoroughfare’s right-of-way (including sidewalks and usually street trees) and the private frontage, which is the part of the building lot between the property line and the front windows and doors of the building. When buildings front directly onto civic spaces (such as plazas), however, the frontage is simply the thickness of the front wall and cornice of the building. The frontage isn’t very tall, either; the part that drives vitality and value extends no more than three stories high.
Healthy frontages create value by building high
Walk Appeal; unhealthy ones do not.
Walk Appeal is that characteristic of a path which entices people to keep on walking, sometimes for miles, rather than stopping short. Enhancing Walk Appeal is a frontage’s primary job. A decade or two ago, achieving high Walk Appeal was considered an art form, but now we know it’s simpler than that. Much of it is simply geometry, and is therefore measurable. Other characteristics of Walk Appeal are immeasurable, but are equally real. And the impact of
Walk Appeal can be startling, meaning the difference between failure, survival, or thriving to neighborhood businesses. One other thing… as this image illustrates, places with great Walk Appeal typically have strong Bike Appeal as well, and allow each mode of transportation to coexist and thrive. Basically, Walk Appeal is a good indicator of a friendly place for all sorts of self-propelled transportation.
Thinner frontages create more sustainable urbanism and enhance Walk Appeal.
When buildings are placed closer to civic spaces or thoroughfares, several benefits accrue. But one word of warning: pulling buildings to the street brings screams of protests from the Landscape Urbanists, such as I witnessed at CNU19 in Madison, Wisconsin when Charles Waldheim proclaimed “whenever you insist on pulling buildings to the street, you lose!” I asked “you lose what?” several times, but he turned away and never responded. Waldheim and his colleagues want the freedom to place architecture wherever they want it in the landscape. They are masters at beautiful parks, but this is no way to build a sustainable city. He repeatedly cited Detroit’s Lafayette Park as a sterling example, but when we visited a year ago during the first Lean summit, nobody was there. Literally, there was not a single person on the streets other than us. It was beautiful, if you like Miesian architecture in a garden, but had very low Walk Appeal, as was evident because nobody was walking. But if you’re more interested in building sustainable urbanism, here are some of the benefits of thinner frontages:
Thinner frontages set the stage for more nourishable places by leaving more space in the rear.
Someday, we’ll build an agricultural aesthetic people other than gardeners will love. When that happens, we’ll be able to plant edible frontage gardens. Until then, edible gardening that enhance the nourishability of a place will likely be restricted by many cities to outdoor rooms hidden from public view. So the closer a building is to the front of the lot, the more room there is on all but the most urban lots for edible gardens behind the frontage.
Buildings closer to the sidewalk are more interesting to walk past than those further away, enhancing Walk Appeal.
Like Nourishability, this accessibility benefit is no more complex than third grade geometry. Walking close to a building is more interesting than walking further away for at least two reasons: your view changes more quickly, and you’re able to see more details of the building. Additionally, you may be close enough to speak with someone on the edge of the building. Making a walk substantially more interesting may make the difference between someone walking and driving, giving them more choices of means of access.
Why put any buffer between people on the sidewalk and businesses hoping to serve them?
The worst offenders are shopping malls surrounded by seas of parking, and they’re dying across the country. Second worst are strip commercial buildings with parking lots in front. When is the last time you’ve walked to a strip commercial establishment? A sustainable place must be serviceable, so that you can walk to the daily services of life in your neighborhood, and that works best when commercial or mixed-use buildings are pulled right up to the sidewalk, with nothing screening storefronts or signs from people walking by.
We’ve known since Jane Jacobs that “eyes on the street” make it more secure. Be sure they’re close enough.
Again, this is third grade geometry. The closer people are to the street, the better they can see and help supervise what happens there.
Thinner frontages allow buildings to be adapted to more uses over time.
Buildings pulled closer to a thoroughfare or civic space can be used for more things over time than those further back. Consider the two extremes: buildings built directly on the sidewalk can be almost anything: civic, retail, offices, residential (townhomes), lodging, industrial, or even storage in those inevitable low points all urbanism faces at some points in the future. At the other extreme, a building located at the end of a five-mile driveway is likely to be one of two things: either a very wealthy person’s estate home, or the chemical plant so located that it can blow up and not kill everyone in town. When buildings are adaptable to more uses over time, they usually last longer.
I could go on, as properly designed frontages can influence the lovability and frugality of buildings as well, but you get the picture. Just as a rudder can steer a ship many times its size, nothing steers the prosperity of a town or city like well-designed frontages. Simply put, they are the arteries of urbanism.
Ben Franklin was a Twitter master a quarter-millennium before the medium, as I wrote in the Foreword to Mark Major’s excellent new book Poor Richard, ANOTHER Almanac for Architects and Planners, but Franklin was also more skilled at describing true Original Green sustainability than anyone alive today. What follows are some of my favorite nuggets of Poor Richard wisdom. Read them, then ask yourself “does this help keep things going in a healthy way, long into an uncertain future?” More often than not, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
Here’s another question to ask yourself as you read these: “is this bit of Franklin wisdom more about consuming things or sustaining things?” Or, “is this more about using stuff up or handing stuff down?” And one more: “how many of these have been sticky enough to come down in some form to our day? Here’s Ben, in chronological order:
Hunger never saw bad bread.
The poor have little, beggars none, the rich too much, enough not one.
He that lies down with Dogs, shall rise up with fleas.
Without justice, courage is weak.
All things are easy to Industry; all things difficult to Sloth.
Fools multiply folly.
Hope of gain, lessens pain.
Necessity never made a good bargain.
Humility makes great men twice honorable.
Three may keep a Secret, if two of them are dead.
What's given shines, what's received is rusty.
Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.
To be humble to Superiors is Duty, to Equals Courtesy, to Inferiors Nobleness.
God helps them that help themselves.
Don't throw stones at your neighbors, if your own windows are glass.
Creditors have better memories than debtors.
I saw few die of Hunger, of Eating 100,000.
He that would live in peace & at ease, must not speak all he knows, nor judge all he sees.
He that can compose himself, is wiser than he that composes books.
Well done is better than well said.
The worst wheel of the cart makes the most noise.
The noblest question in the world is: What Good may I do in it?
Write with the learned, pronounce with the vulgar.
Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor Liberty to purchase power.
The ancients tell us what is best, but we must learn of the moderns what is fittest.
As we must account for every idle word, so we must for every idle silence.
Time is an herb that cures all Diseases.
Wish a miser long life, and you wish him no good.
Drive thy business; let not that drive thee.
Search others for their virtues, thy self for thy vices.
He that falls in love with himself, will have no Rivals.
Let thy Discontents be Secrets.
Promises may get thee friends, but Nonperformance will turn them into enemies.
When befriended, remember it: when you befriend, forget it.
Be always ashamed to catch yourself idle.
If you would keep your Secret from an enemy, tell it not to a friend.
There are no fools so troublesome as those that have wit.
He that sows thorns, should not go barefoot.
Death takes no bribes.
If you'd lose a troublesome Visitor, lend him Money.
A spoonful of honey will catch more flies than a Gallon of Vinegar.
Give me yesterday's Bread, this Day's Flesh, and last Year's Cider.
God heals, and the Doctor takes the Fees.
Keep thou from the Opportunity, and God will keep thee from the Sin.
He who multiplies Riches multiplies Cares.
A true Friend is the best Possession.
Beware of little Expenses; a small Leak will sink a great Ship.
He's a Fool that cannot conceal his Wisdom.
No gains without pains.
'Tis easier to prevent bad habits than to break them.
An ounce of wit that is bought, is worth a pound that is taught.
A quarrelsome Man has no good Neighbors.
It's the easiest Thing in the World for a Man to deceive himself.
Virtue and Happiness are Mother and Daughter.
Dost thou love Life? then do not squander Time; for that's the Stuff Life is made of.
A good Example is the best sermon.
He that won't be counseled, can't be helped.
Write Injuries in Dust, Benefits in Marble.
A slip of the foot you may soon recover; but a slip of the Tongue you may never get over.
Lost Time is never found again.
Liberality is not giving much but giving wisely.
He is not well-bred, that cannot bear Ill-Breeding in others.
Wise Men learn by other's harms; Fools by their own.
Content makes poor men rich; Discontent makes rich men poor.
Drink does not drown Care, but waters it, and makes it grow faster.
The wise Man draws more Advantage from his Enemies, than the Fool from his Friends.
All would live long, but none would be old.
He is Governor that governs his Passions, and he a Servant that serves them.
Genius without education is like silver in the mine.
Little Strokes, Fell great Oaks.
What signifies knowing the Names, if you know not the Natures of Things.
'Tis easier to suppress the first Desire, than to satisfy all that follow it.
Not to oversee Workmen, is to leave them your Purse open.
Cunning proceeds from Want of Capacity.
The Proud hate Pride – in others.
For want of a Nail the Shoe is lost; for want of a Shoe, the Horse is lost; for want of a Horse the Rider is lost.
Hold your Council before Dinner; the full Belly hates Thinking as well as Acting.
Ceremony is not Civility; nor Civility Ceremony.
If Man could have Half his Wishes, he would double his Troubles.
Success has ruined many a Man.
Many have quarreled about Religion, that never practiced it.
Haste makes Waste.
Anger is never without a Reason, but seldom with a good One.
When out of Favor, none know thee; when in, thou dost not know thyself.
You may give a Man an Office, but you cannot give him Discretion.
Speak little, do much.
Think of three Things: whence you came, where you are going, and to whom you must account.
There was never a good Knife made of bad Steel.
Love your Enemies, for they tell you your Faults.
Love, and be loved.
One To-day is worth two To-morrows.
Work as if you were to live 100 years, Pray as if you were to die To-morrow.
Plough deep while sluggards sleep.
Never leave that till to-morrow which you can do to-day.
It is hard for an empty bag to stand upright.
There will be sleeping enough in the Grave.
Silence is not always a Sign of Wisdom, but Babbling is ever a Mark of Folly.
Contentment is the Philosopher's Stone, that turns all it touches into Gold.
He that's content, hath enough; He that complains, has too much.
Hope you enjoyed these!
I’m at Greenbuild in New Orleans. A walk through the exhibits reveals a lot of manufacturers trying to prove that what they’ve always sold is green. That’s the definition of greenwashing. On the other hand, there is some really clever stuff here as well. I’ll be blogging about both on my Useful Stuff blog today and tomorrow because it’s better suited to quick, short posts with images than this blog. Check it out!
There’s a strongly-held view in some architectural camps that minimalist design is unlovable, but I believe that’s a misconception based on the famously-sterile architecture of the 1970s. I even railed in last week’s post against the dangers of pursuing minimalist design so hard that we get rid of essential things. So let’s take a look at ways clean design can achieve lovability.
Love and Respect
It’s hard for design to be lovable and therefore sustainable if it’s not respectful of its setting.
Wanda and I moved to Miami eleven years ago, buying a unit at The Dixon, a noted Art Deco landmark in the heart of South Beach. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I’m a long-time advocate of lovability as the first foundation of sustainable buildings because if a building can’t be loved, it won’t last, because we'll find some excuse to rid ourselves of the unlovable. But I’m also a huge advocate for contextual design that respects its surroundings, so it was a foregone conclusion that our renovated condo would not look like something we might have done in another setting. Instead, it became an intriguing exploration of a new part of the character of lovability.
The high standard of great minimalism is losing no essential thing while keeping no unnecessary thing.
Our bedroom is the simplest room I have ever designed, and I thought for a long time about what was really needed. A tent is exotic yet peaceful to me. The bedroom was almost perfectly square to begin with, so I began by encircling the room with a curtain that is precisely an eleven foot square.
The curtain runs across everything… windows, closets, yes, even the door. Come into the room and close the curtain and it’s very much like being in a tent. It’s also very quiet because the fabric absorbs so much sound. Andrés Duany said “this room feels better than any room I’ve been in for a long time for reasons I can’t quite describe.
The huge white ceiling fan indulges a bit of fancy with a nod to our island home: each blade’s spine is a fishing rod stretching sail cloth into a blade. The bed is a white leather platform bed with a white down comforter. There are only two other things in the room (other than us): two little floor lamps of a perfect height for reading in bed.
Other than that, what is really necessary? And editing all those other normal bedroom artifacts out creates a couple’s retreat so immersed with and peace and calm that it borders on the sublime.
A Chef's Kitchen
Visual simplicity in a kitchen hides all the tools from view. Far better to see everything, so cooking is simple.
Our kitchen is a very different room from our bedroom. It abandons the visual simplicity of the bedroom so that it can achieve simplicity of use. Our son Sam, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, calls this a “chef’s kitchen,” the opposite of which is a “show kitchen.”
A chef’s kitchen creates a different sort of lovability. By being quirky, engaging and warm, it invites others to join in and cook together, like Wanda is doing with her sister Janna here. Several types of lovability are delivered by the design itself, but in this case, the design merely sets the stage for people to have experiences they will recall in pleasant memories.
Things that Curve
No part of the body is without curve. We resonate with design that reflects curving human form in some way.
These shelves are soapstone slabs, cut in a gentle mirrored S-curve (or reflected cyma, if you prefer) to honor the Art Deco heritage of the building, as that language of architecture was well-stocked with repeated ribs of various shapes used for many purposes.
Most consruction materials and components are straight, from wood studs to concrete block to sheets of metal roofing. Curves, therefore, are usually quite expensive to achieve. A space composed only of curves would be so exotic that it might even seem psychedelic, as you might recall if you’ve ever seen any of the 1960s architecture that tried to do precisely that. So use curves sparingly, but don’t forget about them because well-designed things that remind us of our own form usually get points for lovability.
Things that Grow
Places that welcome living things, plant or animal, tend to be more lovable than those too polished to be bothered.
We’ve all seen rooms so visually sophisticated, whether classical or modern, that it seems as if any intrusion might degrade them. “Too perfect to live in” is a description I’ve heard countless times for places like this.
Because minimalism falls off this cliff faster than classicism, it’s really important for a minimalist space to be imperfect enough to accept various life forms. And a minimalist room arguably benefits most, because these two palm fronds arguably make a bigger impact in a room like this than they would in one already chock-full of decorative embellishments. Bringing the outdoors in can be a responsible thing as well… Wanda almost always salvages greenery that was trimmed or pruned away, giving it a few more days of life indoors as it delights us in exchange.
Lovable places frequently are built with at least one thing that brings you up short and makes you chuckle.
The most chuckle-worthy thing in our condo is probably the door casing. For reasons that are a story for another day, I needed the casing to sit very flat against the wall. And I wanted to honor the metal detailing found throughout our Art Deco building in some way. I was walking through one of those great old lumberyards in Miami one day… Shell Lumber, if you know the area. I was looking for something else, but then a piece of flashing caught my eye. It was precisely the right width, and quarter-inch drip crimp not only would hold the free-floating edge straight along its length, but it was a near-perfect metaphor for the edge band often found on classical wood casing. Delighted, I purchased my galvanized-roof-flashing-turned-door-casing and headed back to the condo, where my trim carpenter thought for a moment that I had completely lost my mind… but who still to this day occasionally brings people here to show them his most unusual casing job ever!
Head to Foot
Lovable design reflects the vertical arrangement of the human body, which has a top, a middle, and a bottom.
Most often, reflection of the body from head to foot is thought of as a head, body, and foot, like the capital, shaft, and base of a classical column. But there are other ways of reflecting us as well.
This room, for example, divides between middle and bottom at the waist, marked by a black soapstone belt. The tile wainscot reflects the legs and the black soapstone base (not visible here) reflects the feet, while the mirror and painted wall above the belt reflect the body and the painted coffer reflects the head. It’s a bit of a high waist, but that’s because I needed to align the band with the window sills beyond, as you can see from their reflection in the mirror.
Reflecting Our Faces
We resonate with things that reflect us, including the form of the human face.
It’s not essential for a design to have an abstracted face in order for the design to be lovable, but when you can make that happen, people almost invariably smile. Of all the ways of reflecting the human body, the reflection of our faces reaches us most deeply.
If you’re interested, I’ve posted a portfolio of images of our condo, including these and some other images, on the Studio Sky site. Studio Sky, in case you don’t know, is a design firm I run with two great friends, Eric Moser and Julia Sanford. Our goal is to build places and buildings that are highly sustainable according to Original Green and related ideals. I’m building a really interesting Original Green section on Studio Sky, where I step through each of the foundations of the Original Green, all the way to frugal buildings, illustrating each principle with a collection of patterns, some of which might not have occurred to you yet. You’ll find some of the examples from this post on the lovable buildings page, along with several others. I hope you find these Studio Sky pages useful… please keep coming back, as I’m adding stuff all the time.
Leading with principles that anyone can use for free instead of the normal sales pitch makes Studio Sky’s site a bit unique among designers and builders, but I believe this will be the future of designers’ and builders’ websites. If you’re interested in what the future may hold for us, I’m doing a New Media workshop for designers and builders November 8 in Celebration, Florida. Hope to see you there!
As for this post, it has just touched the tip of the lovability iceberg. Have you had enough, or would you come back for more? I’d be happy to do a series of posts on lovability if anyone’s interested… just leave a note below… thanks!