Wednesday, March 20, 2013

New York's Green Roofs Are Crawling With Fungi

Demand for green roofs might plummet if they became known as "fungal roofs." But that is what they are, at least in New York – and contrary to what it may sound like, it's not a bad thing.

The world just became a little more aware of the hidden-but-teeming biomass of green roofs thanks to the intrepid work of researchers from Barnard College, Columbia University, Fordham and the University of Colorado. Recently, these guys found themselves wondering if the gardens in the sky might support different kinds of life than the stuff at dog-pee level. It's a realm into which few scientific minds have tread. While green roofs as heat-island dampeners and rainwater-runoff plugs have been widely discussed, the extent to which they serve as urban "biodiversity reservoirs" (in the researchers' words) is something of a mystery.

So in the summer of 2011, the team set out to test the soil composition of 10 green roofs stationed at recreation centers throughout the five boroughs: Using soil corers, they hunted for fungi, because fungal communities play a key role in a roof garden's health and longevity. For comparison's sake, they also took samples from five city parks near some of the roofs, including Central Park and the High Line. A little magic from "inductively coupled plasma atomic emission spectroscopy" at Alabama's Auburn University Soil Testing Laboratory, as well as a dollop of phospholipid fatty-acid extraction and Illumina-dye sequencing, and they had their results, which were published this month in the journal PLOS ONE.

So what were the conclusions? For one, these sun-kissed carpets of gray goldenrod and smooth blue aster are absolutely crawling with fungi. The researchers logged an average of 109 types of fungi per roof, such as Glomus, Acaulospora, Rhizophagus and Funneliformis, suggesting that green roofs can indeed contribute to urban biodiversity. As they explained:

"We found that green roofs supported a diverse fungal community, with numerous taxa belonging to fungal groups capable of surviving in disturbed and polluted habitats. Across roofs, there was significant biogeographical clustering of fungal communities, indicating that community assembly of roof microbes across the greater New York City area is locally variable. Green roof fungal communities were compositionally distinct from city parks and only 54% of the green roof taxa were also found in the park soils."

In other words, the roofs are home to fungi not typically given to squelching around in normal parkland. They also seem to be better for growing stuff you might, you know, put in your mouth: While the soil in New York's parks showed a greater biomass of microbes, it also tested higher for heavy metals, a scourge of urban gardens that can be unhealthy if consumed in larger quantities.

Here's a comparison the researchers put together illustrating how the roofs stacked up against the parks, in terms of the abundance of fungal phyla:

Needless to say, this is hardly the first news of green roofs supporting life. The elevated gardens are routinely patrolled by insects and in some cases much larger fauna. In Australia, for instance, the Adelaide Zoo maintains several grassy roofs that are designed as homes for urban plants and wildlife, like reptiles, insects and bats.

And an immense green roof in the U.K., mounted on a wastewater treatment facility near Brighton, attracts seagulls and crows that pluck at its quaking grass in search of food. To fight those hungry birds, the roof's overseers have released even more animals over the roof – ferocious goshawks, a golden eagle and even a great horned owl.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Net Zero Water Introduction

Learn basic technical and economic information on the design and performance of a fully integrated site and building water management system based on the "Net Zero Water" concept by Jeffrey L. Bruce FASLA, LEED, ASIC, GRP. This approach promises to significantly reduce the consumption of potable water in buildings, reduce discharge to municipal waste water systems, and save on municipal energy by reducing the amount of potable water treated at municipal facilities.

Beneficial Use: Toward Balancing America's (Sediment) Budget

Newly created marshes near the mouth of the Mississippi River, West Bay, Louisiana

Of all the anthropogenic transformations occasioned upon the North American continent, few garner less attention than the shift in the dynamics of sediment transport: in essence, in the large-scale movement of huge quantities of earth. Yet the impacts of this profound alteration are all around us — literally, around the North American littoral — and what is at stake is nothing less than the survival of coastal places and spaces, and the peoples and processes that depend on them. Some background, both historic and technical. For millennia the movement of sediment was governed by natural processes; wind and water would erode and mobilize mineral particles across the topographic surface, and then deposit a share of these particles into the currents of rivers. The coarsest sediments would settle out upstream, while the finer particles would either disperse along the rivers' broad meander belts, forming rich riparian zones in alluvial valleys, or else would move downstream suspended in the water column or tumbling along in the bedload. As the rivers disembogued into the seas, their currents would slow, lose kinetic energy and dump their sediment load at the continent’s edge. There, the billions of tons of sand, silt and clay particles would accumulate in the form of deltaic lobes and coastal wetlands, or get swept sidelong by offshore currents to accrete on beaches, dunes, salt marshes and barrier islands along curving bights. The pedological loss of the continent’s interior thus begot the geomorphological and ecological gain of its edge. The resulting littorals — including the delta of America's greatest river — have long ranked among the most productive environments for an extraordinary range of life forms, including humans. Fast-forward to modern times, and much has changed.

We came to view the natural tendency of rivers to store surplus water laterally as an intolerable problematic — “flooding,” we called it — and so we strait-jacketed the channels within levees and floodwalls. We denuded forests, broke prairie sod, replaced biodiversity with monoculture, and augmented the fluvial and aeolian erosion of fertile topsoil. We routed water from wet to dry places via aqueducts, canals, pipelines and reservoirs, to be used for hydroelectricity, irrigation, municipal and industrial purposes, and upon these systems we built the world’s largest economy. Getting this abundance to market required efficient navigation, and that meant straightening and stabilizing key arteries like the Mississippi and its tributaries, building locks and canals to allow vessels to step-ladder upriver, and dredging constantly to maintain requisite depths. And on deltaic plains such as that of the Mississippi River in southern Louisiana, we scored and scoured the landscape to enable vessels to call more efficiently at ports, and to extract fossil fuels more effectively.

America’s sediment budget did not get knocked off balance by sinister or incompetent forces, but rather as an unforeseen consequence of promethean engineering projects that have produced great wealth for American society for generations. No more can we decommission dams and locks for the sake of increasing sediment supply than we can remove levees from the lower Mississippi for the sake of fast-tracking coastal restoration; millions of Americans rely on these engineering structures, and they are here to stay. Nevertheless, we should recognize that they come with a cost, and strategically augmenting the sediment load of rivers as they flow to coasts, particularly by maximizing the beneficial use of dredged sediments, is a good way to reduce that cost. Human intervention skewed North America’s sediment dynamics, and only human intervention can rebalance them.

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Interstitial – Between Architecture and Landscape

Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre by Renzo Piano

The nexus between architecture and landscape – the interstitial space – is a fascinating place for a designer. It is the very edges of things; in nature, in objects and in buildings that are always the most interesting places to me. In the natural environment, it is that fuzzy boundary where the ocean meets the sand, the estuaries where freshwater meets saltwater or where the open forest turns to open grassland. In nature, edges are typically the most rich and fertile areas as resources are available from two different environments.

With this in mind, what I’d like to focus on is the interstitial both at the edges of buildings and site as well as the spaces immediately adjacent. Sometimes there’s a clear visual and physical delineation between the building and the related external space, in other projects they tend to overlap and combine, however most commonly we find they tend to inform each other.

Many years ago in a volume of the magazine Places – by the way, the archive is available to download – there was a great definition of these three approaches, or ‘modes’ as the author (Reuben Rainey) called them, in the relationship of architecture and landscape that captures a way of considering the interstitial space.

These modes are: Contrast, Merger and Reciprocity.

I’ll just briefly explain them and then you may want to consider these modes while viewing the selected buildings below. The first mode, Contrast, is fairly obvious and is considered where architecture is juxtaposed with the natural or cultural landscape. Acting as a counterpoint, the building exerts an visual and physical influence of the immediate context through a combination of scale, profile, colour and finishes. There is no transition into landscape at all so that the intrinsic qualities of each are accentuated via Contrast.
The next mode, Merger, is the polar opposite and is where architecture blends or appears integrated with the natural or cultural landscape. Reuben notes that in this mode the building form may reflect the surround topography or even be placed underground to entirely merge with the landscape.
Reciprocity is the third mode and most commonly found. Architecture influences, modifies and shapes the landscape and landscape influences, modifies and shapes the architecture. Each mutually benefits which tend to lead to richer, more complex buildings and spaces. The Reciprocity strategy may be as direct and formal as an extension of the building grid into the landscape or more subtle where the external space transitions into the building and interlocks the interior and exterior.
Of course, in the complexities of design there are contradictions. These three approaches often appear together in one building to accentuate each element in response to formal considerations or perhaps react to functional or climatic conditions. From the examples illustrated above, it could be argued that Fallingwater simultaneously merges and contrasts with the site context. Nevertheless, these modes are readily identifiable if you pause and look closely.

Further Reading

Sunday, March 3, 2013

A New Humanism: Part 11

 “The battle for life on earth will be won or lost in cities.” United Nations 2008

Experience tends to take place against a background of expectations.  In his studies of perception in the arts, E. H. Gombrich describes how our responses become shaped by what he calls a “mental set,” a form of selective attention – a filter to avoid being overwhelmed by an inescapable mass of sensations.  In practice, it primes the senses and frames perception until much of what we see is what we expect to see.  Our minds are predisposed to mobilize past experiences and often years of study – or just as often, visions aroused by advertising language and judgments of peers – to prepare for identifying the “distinctive features,” the characteristics of a place that are most likely to be relevant to our immediate intentions for advancing a “personal project.”  With different levels of intensity, propensities to plan or to improvise – differing by age, gender, health or intent – we often enjoy surprises, but we still crave the pleasure of a basic predictability, to anticipate what a place – like a person we encounter – will do to us or for us.

In other words, we naturally bring into play another basic survival skill, the ability to think ahead.  We draw on both our literal “explicit” long-term memories and the momentum of “implicit” ones that fill our conscious mind to imagine a future experience in a place. And we often find as much pleasure, or anxiety, in the structured anticipation as in its actual, complex, challenging presence.

Because a “mental set” tends to create a context for responses, naturally it may become self-fulfilling. And because it’s shaped by the places where we live and the biases built into the languages we speak every day, the mental images we’ve formed can fill the brain’s networks until they override an on-the-spot experience with easy habitual patterns of judgments or stereotypes. But just as often the preconceptions are repeatedly penetrated and updated by feedback from the qualities of the place itself, and the mental set, for better or worse, is re-primed by the design. In the end, the mind that remembers a place is no longer the one that encountered it.

Looking for evidence

Many of the most effective designers are the ones that have educated themselves about, and analyzed the likely expectations of their intended audiences. Thoughtful research into the likely stresses and fears brought by people to hospitals and schools is now a routine part of many design processes and has produced pleasing, welcoming – more “humane” – user-friendly, child-friendly places. Sophisticated architects and landscape architects have learned how to design convincing first impressions and sequences of experiences, composing signs and symbols, light and color, scale, soft or warm places, the presence of non-threatening sounds or people, and the presence of nature – all in ways that tell a story of empathy, understanding, and security – offering a sense of refuge, and neutralizing “perils” and fear – in advance, almost like the refuge of home.

It works. But using “research” in to human feelings in this way has been so unusual that it’s even being called a “movement” and given its own name, “evidence-based design,” as if it were a breakthrough. It’s hard to believe, but in large sectors of the design professions “evidence” of deep human responses has simply not been in the mainstream of practice. Again, we tend to work with a narrow kind of humanism.

It’s another obstacle raised by our inward-looking professional pride. All around us, our publics’ intentions and expectations – their innate propensities and motivations of the moment — are clearly expressed and precisely measured everyday in billions of transactions in commercial marketplaces. Of course, we expect and educate design professionals to apply their artistry to projects that exceed those market-bound ideas – places that haven’t even been imagined. But for virtually every design team producing today’s great places, their creativity is built on a respect for and understanding of the evidence-in-action of human experience and responses out in the field. It’s not difficult. We apply well-researched evidence when our own interests are at stake: designers and artists competing for recognition and awards naturally study and respect the anticipated mental set of design juries, critics, and patrons, and respond with great care and often success.

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The Adapters: Indigenous architecture provides some important lessons in building with nature rather than against it.

STILT HOUSES Chong Khneas, Cambodia. Nearly all traditional houses in Cambodia are built on stilts, so that they can adapt to the extreme difference in water levels between the dry and rainy seasons. Although they tend to vary according to region and wealth, common building materials include bamboo, straw, tile, and slate. dataichi - Simon Dubreull/Getty Images

Resilience is everywhere. Do we see it? Or do we conceal this essential component of our survival in clever engineering and hidden dynamics out of some cultural embarrassment? Contemporary features of structural resilience are known to builders, but must be taken on faith by citizens who find themselves more concerned with the fresh failures enabled by our digital age. We learn of the unanticipated vulnerability of urban residents who find themselves as alone and imperiled by a wireless network outage as they once were by fire and smoke.

The oldest human structures carry their message of resilience on the outside. Outward fragility guarantees flexibility in the face of the elements. Ease of construction ensures a quicker rebuilding and recovery. The diminutive scale contains the risk at the low end of potential casualties while always retaining the possibility of escape. These are structures built not to a code based on probabilities but dedicated to the certainty that while our earth delivers forces that cannot be withstood, it also always provides us with higher ground. Tides have lines, fires burn themselves out, and the ground eventually stops shaking.

We have serious challenges to our well-developed human resilience in a seven-billion-person world that finds itself concentrated in cities close to the water’s edge. It may require enormous energy and investment to retool our collective sense of resilience, to scale our expectations, and to be more ready than ever in human history to embrace sudden new realities and alternatives. But if we look carefully at the record of human success, it is our adaptations that distinguish us more than our loyalty to ancient traditions and inflexible values. The greatest monuments are the ones that vanished, succumbing to the narrative of erosion and change while humanity moved humbly forward. Despite the challenges of our era and the potentially grim mathematics of changes perhaps already in the cards, resilience, it can be said, is alive and well. Mostly, it is alive.

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Coding Urban Metabolism

Urban Reef. Kyle Belcher, Dylan Barlow and Geoffrey Gregory, 2009.

As we struggle to bring population density and energy consumption back into alignment, a new ecological code and framework is needed to drive design decisions and to strengthen the connection between energy consumption and renewable energy production. Yesterday’s models of zoning and planning are outmoded. Perhaps it’s time for a new ecological urban framework.

Rethinking Zoning as an Urban Ecology

A response to the conditions of contemporary urbanism must be prepared to address present cultural, economic and environmental challenges with solutions that combine tectonic and performative aspects of design. As we struggle to bring population density and energy consumption back into alignment, a new ecological code and framework may be needed to drive design decisions and to strengthen the connection between energy consumption and renewable energy production. In the fields of urban planning and design, traditional zoning restrictions and ordinances have remained rooted in limitations and regulations rather than guidelines for enhanced performance.

Traditional zoning emphasizes public rights to resources (light, air, or services and infrastructure, for example), rather than productive initiatives or other transformative strategies. Current initiatives, such as the Solar America Communities Program initiated by the U.S. Department of Energy have begun establishing foundations to build sustainable solar markets, and increase the demand for renewable energy through policies and incentives. However, these strategies are currently not linked to citywide ecological frameworks and codes that can support design strategies.

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