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Lecture given for the SMU-in-Taos / UNM-Taos Lecture series.
Visit our website www.archinia.com to see more of Firm Principal Rachel Preston Prinz' presentations or like us at https://www.facebook.com/ArchiniaDesign
Hi I’m Rachel Prinz. I am a historic preservationist and architectural designer, as well as a speaker, teacher, tour guide, and writer. I study the intersections of the architectural past and present… I try to evolve ideas from the former, and learn from the mistakes of the latter, to develop a better approach to architecture in the future. My degrees are in Environmental Design and Architecture with emphases in Design and Architectural History. I also have a Certificate in Historic Preservation, and am a few hours shy of degrees in business and psychology. From all this, you can probably glean that I love architecture, and also how it relates to its place, and that I want it to be affordable, practical, and also deeply personal…
My professional career really took off fifteen years ago, when I received several fellowships to complete my Master’s in Italy and France to document historic structures and research their vernacular and bio-climatic qualities - or, more simply put - the way they respond to their unique time, culture, and place. My career in preservation and design is a natural outgrowth of that. I don’t just log the details of old buildings. I study them and try to discern how they work, or not, in their unique time and place. Then I apply that knowledge to creating modern designs that use the best of what is old in entirely new ways that represent the world we live in… and are functional for any user. Like this slide, which shows some fieldnotes from a recent project I did for a friend – we look at wind, rain, view, lot size, flow rates and direction, what plants grow well somewhere, solar orientation, locally available materials… I like the idea of living truly sustainable lives, and I am curious about the many thousands of years of architectural evolution happened before the industrial revolution - when our ancestors were intimately connected with the seasons, the weather, and their unique place in the world – and I like to study how their architecture reflected that. I think there are powerful lessons in this earlier time. .
What we’ve proven since taking over the world with manufacturing… is that wholesale application of industrialization is not a sustainable model. It takes too much from the earth, and has a horrible payback, including: decreased creativity, dislodged ideas of place, a reduction in available resources, increased trash production, toxifying our environment, and a belief that we can outsmart nature. Where before, the rule of architecture was “Form FOLLOWS Function” since we materialized our process, we’ve replaced that with an emphasis on “Form OVER Function.”
What results… is this. Hundreds of like-boxes that are too big on too small a plot to provide enough land to grow food to sustain the inhabitants, made of materials that are made in and often shipped from China, and that sometimes have a pseudo-New Mexican finish. But none of the finish is real - we’ve stolen all the FORMS but forgotten that once, they provided a FUNCTION. Basically, we are using our resources in ways that are not designed for the long-game that will support life and living for our children’s children. In this model, we HAVE to get in our cars and drive miles to the grocery to pick up foods that have often been shipped from across the world, then we have to get back in that car and drive some more to get to work, to school, to church… wherever we need to go… we are dependent on, and in some ways… are guaranteeing the continuation of our being, as the song says… “slaves to the machine.”
Last year, in conjunction with a newfound appreciation for true sustainability caused by a developing commercial paradigm of rampant greenwashing, the (more progressive) Powers That Be started asking the question, “What is True Sustainability?” Asking this question began to shine a light on what I, and my peers in the profession, had been re-learning from all of our years of research on the past. This attention opened up a whole new world to me, and I was asked to do my first TED talk, about what we can learn from the past to design better buildings in the future – and especially buildings that work when the power and gas goes out.
Much of what I have learned about this subject, and re-learned, has occurred in the past 5 years since moving to Taos, New Mexico. Before that I was busy designing $10 million houses for the ultra-rich in Vail, Colorado. I was part of the elite architectural machine that thinks design was something that got better the more money you threw at it. Sustainability was irrelevant. But deep down inside, I realized that this wasn’t sustainable, and started having a change of heart about my work. So I took myself back to basics, and started again, at the beginning... by digging into the architecture of some of the oldest civilizations in what is now America. I moved to Taos, and started hanging out with preservationists and archaeologists. I started really getting into the past, and not for the sake of memorizing and being able to call forth names and dates - that not my skillset. I wanted to understand the underlying causes and effects of design through the ages here in NM
I immersed myself in studying everything I could learn about the architectural evolution that has been going on here for the past 1,000 years : Passiv Houses, earthships, hippie communes, the architecture of the American West, Hispanic Vernacular architecture and 400 year old homemade adobes, Puebloan design and Pre-Puebloan design… ethnobotony and how it’s been used in traditional building… whatever I could learn – I read it, I went to it, I stayed in it, I even tried my hand at building it if I could. I retrained myself in everything I knew (and a lot I had forgotten.)
In my TED talk, the thing that got talked about the most afterwards was my statement that in today's modern architectural world, that which calls itself green isn't really all that green. Like this award-winning green gas station… when several of the hardest people to fool decided to factcheck me and dug deeper, they found out I’d been on the right track. Greenwashing is rampant. We come to depend on things like LEED, and stickers on appliances, and advertising of things which were only slightly more green than their “evil” predecessors… which are only baby steps to real sustainability. No checklist can make “greener” really be “green”. True sustainability has to come with a change of heart - of values. What does that mean architecturally? Hopefully by the end of this talk, we’ll get to some ideas about that. But first, let me give you a little background on how this talk came to be.
Some friends and I were having lunch earlier this spring… chatting about the state of the world. Within our conversation, there was an air of disappointment. It wasn’t anything too pronounced. It just was. Maybe we all felt that and were trying to add some levity to the moment to break the tension, or maybe there’s a deeper part of us that was curious about the question on an intellectual level… but one or the other of us brought it up: “ What if what they say about the Mayan calendar was right.” There was a collective chuckle, then a deep, reflective silence. When I left the meeting, I could NOT stop thinking about it. I realized we’d hit upon something so stirring… so powerful… Unlike a lot of people, I love those moments when my assumptions are questioned, and I went “all in” to get to what that question caused to brew inside me, as I thought about the potential of an apocalypse. How could we ever start over, and do it better this time?
Then, I picked up the letter inviting me to speak here today. In it was outlined the schedule of the lecture series’ topics, which included Disaster Planning, Water and Food Needs, Public Health, Sustainable Shelter and Design, Renewable Energy, and Cultural Preservation. I realized I’d been given a sort of blueprint that suggested to me ways we could approach the question, and in a way that looks at shelter much more holistically. Which MIGHT just get us to an achievable answer. So, let’s start at the beginning. Disaster. Which makes sense, actually, and is something I can identify with easily. Almost 10 years ago, I was living in Cheyenne, Wyoming , and I was a Disaster Action Team member for the American Red Cross. I’d just been appointed to a Field Coordinator position, which meant, basically, that when disaster struck, I and my team would mobilize and address the immediate needs of those affected. If it was a house fire, we’d get a hotel room for the family and some clothes and toothbrushes and such. If it was a flood or tornado or winter storm that left the town without power, we’d commandeer local schools or churches or whatever we could find that would provide shelter, and we’d set one (or more) up. Disaster is one of the ways we can evaluate the way we do things during “business as usual” versus in the way we do things in a pinch…. and there might be lessons for us in that
And disaster isn’t such a bad place to start, in fact… because more than 200 Million people around the world have been displaced in disasters in the past decade. That number is expected to increase exponentially as more people are forced to leave areas prone to drought, flood, and tsunami. It’s become enough of a concern that they’ve already named those that are going through it: eco-refugees. When I started doing research for this talk, I found out that we aren’t far from becoming them. And whether it be Hurricane Katrina, Fukushima, massive fires here in the west... all these events share certain qualities: community in crisis - with little or no infrastructure remaining, no Home Depot to run to for supplies, homes and businesses destroyed... and no quick fixes. Yet, the communities DO rebuild. And in many ways - towards a much more sustainable way of being. How is that accomplished?
To get life back to normal as quickly as possible, three architectural elements must be dealt with immediately in disaster areas: Housing – which includes shelter, food, and access to water – on the bottom left here are one example – the Katrina Houses then clinics to help the sick and injured -on the top right here is a FEMA temporary clinic in Alaska then schools to keep the kids safe, fed, and supervised while the parents start the work of rebuilding – on the bottom right here is a temporary school built in the Middle East after an earthquake…
Then comes planning, and hopefully not just for the ‘right now’, but for the transition from shelter to home, as well as disaster risk reduction so future users are protected. This planning includes cataloguing what remains, combining remaining materials and processes with what tools are readily available, modifying values to reflect what is actually needed, and working with nature instead of against it. We, as they, start with one idea: provide shelter from the storm. So, let’s do what a first disaster responder would do – and examine what tools we have before us, which ideas we might borrow from our past, inquire how we might evolve with the modern means we have available to us, so that we can begin to define what sustainable shelter might look like.
Hopefully I’ll be able to weave all of those together in a coherent line. Let’s see… As we said before – the first thing we need to do is establish shelter – which includes food and water. So, lets start with that. Location Let’s just for the sake of simplicity, say that the concept of property doesn’t exist anymore. We can build wherever we want to, because, if we are looking through the lens of disaster, nothing remains…so we are starting fresh, with unlimited opportunities. Just like we would do if we wanted to start a new community outside of the types we know now… What qualities will we look for in a place we wanted to live in? Proximity to year round water If we were learning from the people of Taos Pueblo, we’d look for a place with year-round running water. I love how this photo from National Geographic captures the importance of water for the Pueblo. So many times we are so caught up in the unique building forms, we forget why they built there. If we were looking to the Spaniards and indigenous Mexicans who settled here 600 years after, we’d look for place with multiple sources of water. The first settlement in New Mexico, near Okhay Owingay or San Juan Pueblo, was specifically located at the confluence of two rivers. So, easy access to water is established as a design criteria. It solves the water part of the shelter equation, and lead towards solving the food part of the equation. Because we need shelter NOW - and if we keep working in the disaster scenario - because we don’t have cars, or a Randall’s or Ace Hardware to go to, we’d want to be where the building materials are relatively close by. So, we’d probably want to be close to the hills. The hills and the mesa have very different things to offer in the forms of opportunities for shelter. And environmental scientists will tell us that the intersection of two ecosystems tends to also have a microclimate that is slightly more forgiving.
The nice thing about rivers and streams, is that they also provide foodstuffs and medicines in the form of berries, plants, fungi, roots, fish and wild game – so now we are well on our way to solving the food part of the shelter equation, and getting closer to providing one of the secondary aspects of community rebuilding – a means of healing. Its not such a strange idea, either. In fact, if you are friends with or study the Puebloans, you may know that they traditionally forage within a 3 mile radius of their Pueblos for these foods and herbs. If there happen to be wetlands on our streams, we can also learn from the past and collect and use cattails and reeds and use them in construction.
Local Construction Then, we need to make shelter. To do that, we look around. What materials are already available? Where are they? The earliest settlers to this land used earth sheltering when they could – they found or even dug out caves at places like Bandalier and Tsankawi. They partially dug out soft earth and used trees and early forms of puddled adobe to build pithouses. In the case of Taos, we have earth. And, we have some trees in the mountains. There’s also clay in the riverbeds and on the sites of old dried up springs. Both the Puebloans and the Hispanic settlers used adobe – and there are intact examples of buildings that are almost 1,000 years old right up the road at Taos Pueblo. We know in Chaco, they used stone in the same way. We also KNOW that adobe and stone construction works for the long term when cared for… because we can visit these places today.
Simple Design If we want a great example of what’s sustainable, we can look in our own back yard, again… to the Pueblo, and build the smallest footprint building we could, so we could cut down on the number of materials we’d need to shelter everyone. Sharing walls is one of the fastest ways to build and uses the least material possible. And, their rooms are exactly as wide as the local trees are tall. Interestingly, this doesn’t waste as much wood as framing does. It minimizes the work involved to prep the materials for use, minimizes the amount of waste, and is structurally sound. Like the Puebloans, and the Hispanic settlers after them, we’d probably start with one room, and add rooms as we could. If we could imagine ourselves post disaster, we wouldn’t have so much stuff, anymore, so we could probably be comfortable doing more with less. We’d just do really cool stuff with what we had. That’s a great lesson for sustainability too. I have friends with so much stuff they need entire other houses to collect all their files, clothes, and collections… But, the reality is that our consumerist ways aren’t just non-sustainable… if you read current research on people’s satisfaction in life… or watch Dan Gilbert’s or Malcolm Gladwell’s TED talks… it seems all that stuff isn’t actually making us happier either. Likely, each space would need a wood stove, or something similar, so we could stay warm and heat tea, and maybe even make something for dinner.
And we’ll pay attention to the way our forefather’s built, because they lived in a world without heating and air conditioning. So if we copy the principles of how they build-- and let me be clear here: I am NOT talking about not the exact form, but the principles as in the case of New Mexico, like, for instance, how we build ON or IN the earth instead of up above it like you would in a hot/humid environment. We might consider our building’s solar orientation so we could have warm spaces along the south for winter living, and cool places to hang out in the north in summer. Once upon a time, a portale wasn’t something you slapped on the front door of a building. You placed both the portale and the door towards beneficial directions. Unlike, say in 90% of what you see being built now, when they put a front door on the north or west sides of the house. In Taos, the west is where the hot summer winds come from, and they bring with them all the heat and dust of traveling across the desert across California and Arizona with them. A door facing west pretty much guarantees a dusty, hot house in summer. The north is where the cold artic air comes from. It crashes into our homes and slams us with cold air which steals out heat. A door facing north guarantees that you’ll be shoveling snow and ice all winter. Here’s a tip for those of you with doors facing those directions… wind and dust issues can be slightly remedied with a vestibule. Obviously, the snow part is another thing. Taos Pueblo is oriented with the main façades, and thereby its great ceremonial plaza, open towards the Southeast. This is the best solar orientation possible. It’s sheltered by the western buildings from hot summer winds and be the northern buildings from the cold winter wind and snow. Facing southeast, it gathers the first heat of morning, and uses the southern exposure of the winter sun to its advantage for natural heating in the winter. Small openings, in both Puebloan and Hispanic design, weren’t necessarily designed just for security either. I enjoy the suppositions that the short openings were because people were short or they were designed to make you bow to come in the door and make a home more defensible. While that’s true for Japanese Teahouses, it’s actually not true here. While enhanced security may have been a side-effect, the small openings served two purposes: they were easy to close in with skin because there was no glass at the time, and they allowed physics to work on the inhabitants behalf: In that, I mean… heat rises. Keep the openings below the bottom half of the wall and you naturally keep the heat in your space. Make the ceilings not so high, raise your beds and work surfaces above the floor, and you might actually be able to live within the “warm spot” or layer. How’d they know to do that? They paid attention. It’s not rocket science. It’s 10,000 years of human history and development at work.
One of the criteria disaster responders look to provide is (interestingly) a 3-mile radius - or 10 minute walk – from home to transportation, schools, and markets. This might be our goal for the size of our new community. This is an equally appealing criteria for people who want walkable neighborhoods and a sustainable lifestyle. Its also one way an aging population can still stay young – by staying active in a community with easily walkable destinations.
We’d probably need to invest some time thinking about multi-purpose uses for spaces, since space would be at a premium – for home, of course, which follows recent design trends in combining use… but we combined original footprints too, resulting in gigantic spaces… and in reality that’s just not sustainable. It takes too much energy to heat and cool huge spaces. What we NEED to do: is more, with less. This standard also should apply to community spaces. And maybe we challenge the people inhabiting them to go beyond basic design- like a creative system for collecting rainwater off the roofs. Maybe it could even be something like this musical rain gutter in Dresden, Germany whose story went viral on the internet earlier this year… Maybe we can even use these kinds of projects for another purpose: to teach: imagine how cool school would have been if you’d got to do a project like this musical rain gutter – and learn about music, art and engineering all at the same time.
Another great example of a multiple use space is from right here at home… with our Spanish Haciendas. IF we also used their ideas of courtyards, we could have places of gathering… AND we could collect rainwater off shed roofs pitched into the courtyard’s cisterns like the Spanish did, and the Romans before them… and we could protect our water source. AND we could the space and the water to grow our own food and it would be secure. Part of sustainability is making sure we don’t need to get in that car and drive to the market. In this model, we don’t need the market at all. and it also just so happens to be a really easy to provide a type of natural air conditioning. We could even use that open cistern and pools of cleaner plants to clean the water so it could be used for drinking. We could even integrate modern ideas like grey and blackwater functionality to our benefit… We could collect the drinking overflow and use it in sinks and showers, then take that water and use it in toilets… and we could pump the blackwater into outside landscape berms, swales, and ponds where it could be converted again and again, decomposing into composts, soils, then through water filtration ponds that eventually provide fish for eating and even possibly building materials (reeds and cattails), and eventually gets delivered back into the stream as pure, clean water.
We’d probably have to have a community kitchen and share communal meals for a while too. We’d probably separate this function, and any other functions that required fire – like the blacksmith shop - from the living spaces so we could reduce the chance of fire. That’s how many “disadvantaged” communities are rebuilding around the world. They use the space between the hot building with its kitchens and restrooms and the cool building, with its bedrooms, living, etc… as a private shaded courtyard, like the one shown here on the top right with architect Sergio Palleroni, who designs like this NOW. They separate hot and cool spaces… because it works great. And every room has outside access and natural light because of abundant windows! If we were rebuilding the future, we’d allow for things like natural ventilation – which is as easy to capture as having windows on each side of a space - or we could borrow ideas from similar construction shown here in the middle east… and use stack effect to capture air and funnel it up to a chimney at the top of the structure, which can be capped at the top with operable windows, so we can both control the direction and velocity of air flow, as well as provide each space with a source of natural (and indirect) daylighting. We can pump water to cisterns in towers on each corner of the building, so gravity can do all the work of moving it down through our structure and out to the ponds.
And one last thing I’d like to talk about, because its important on both a micro (home) and macro (community) scale, and that’s psychology of space. In the case of a disaster, if I were setting up a shelter, we’d make a rule for lights out in communal spaces and set quiet hours - let’s say between 9pm and 9am. Agreements like this help everyone to know what’s expected of them and what they can expect. And, like some of the other design criteria we’ve talked about this evening, it helps to provide some sense of security and safety – which, according to the latest research coming out of studies all over the world – are THE most important factors to happiness. This suggests that another critical part of what we need to be truly sustainable in today’s world… is a sense of community and interconnectedness.
Right now we are suffering in a culture of privatization. The fences we build, literally and figuratively… provide a false sense of security… and they mess with the natural flow of things we no longer see, including water and animal migrational paths. Fences around your home also guarantee that your neighbors can’t look in, but the less advantageous aspect of this is that they can’t see who is breaking into your house either. If we really want to deal with our sustainability, we have to face the psychological criteria we have imposed on architecture, and see it for what it really is. And we need to COME TOGETHER and approach the solution in not the typical “us vs. them” approach, but coming from the place of “we can all thrive here.”
So: hopefully now we have determined that: We can learn from our past… … use local and natural materials and processes with tools that are readily available… … modify our values to reflect what is actually needed … and work with nature instead of against it.
If I am brutally honest with myself, living sustainably in this model is a bit overwhelming to me. I’m a very private person and I treasure that. I treasure my things too. It’s hard, if not impossible to imagine life as it would be without all of the things I surround myself with, or in community like the one we just created here. Being communal is really not in my nature. However, investigating and integrating these ideas may well allow me to be part of the “solution” instead of part of the problem. And in fact, I’ve remodeled my entire design practice to do just that. It’s really fun to use the lessons of the past to define the future. When I started down this road, I thought I’d be able to make a tiny dent in changing the world. Unfortunately, it seems these ideas are more important than I realized…. It seems, and all the research points to: these changes are going to be necessary… soon. Like NOW. This is an overview of how we can start to entertain the idea of truly sustainable shelter, and community. Our next speaker, Illac Diaz, will be sharing the story of how’s he’s put ideas similar to these, and a passion for recycling… into practice. It may not be our nature to go for radical sustainability…. but it may well be necessary. If we don’t so something, who will? Our kids’ kids certainly won’t be living in a world as beautiful as what we have, if we don’t. I think we have a responsibility to figure this out sooner than later. I think we need to do like the last slide there, and shake hands and all agree to do something about it. If I got to choose what kind of apocalypse we were going to have, I’d certainly choose one where we got a choice in how we came out of it. Thank you!
2012 - Creating a Sustainable model of Shelter at the End of the World (as we know it)
creating a sustainable
model of shelter
at the End of the World
(as we know it)
or… planning for a better tomorrow, TODAY
SMU-in-Taos / UNM Fall Lecture Series
September 26, 2012
Image from website: http://www.baesis.com
FEMA temporary clinic image from www.wikipedia.com
Temp. School in Pakistan after disaster image by Kaukab Jhumra SmithHurricane Katrina temporary Housing image from www.newyorktimes.com
How do we get there?
• Where are we?
• What do we have to work with?
• How’s it been done before?
• Can we improve on any of these?
Walkability offers surprising benefits to our health, the environment, our finances, and our communities.
• Health: The average resident of a walkable neighborhood weighs 6-10 pounds less than someone
who lives in a sprawling neighborhood.
• Good public transit and access to amenities promote happiness.
• Environment: 82% of CO2 emissions are from burning fossil fuels. Your feet are zero-pollution
• Finances: Cars are the second largest household expense in the U.S.
• Communities: Studies show that for every 10 minutes a person spends in a daily car commute, time
spent in community activities falls by 10%.
What makes a neighborhood walkable?
• A center: Walkable neighborhoods have a center, whether it's a main street or a public space.
• People: Enough people for businesses to flourish and for public transit to run frequently.
• Mixed income, mixed use: Affordable housing located near businesses.
• Parks and public space: Plenty of public places to gather and play.
• Pedestrian design: Buildings are close to the street, parking lots are relegated to the back.
• Schools and workplaces: Close enough that most residents can walk from their homes.
• Complete streets: Streets designed for bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit.
Adapted from WalkScore.com