Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Blue Highways Revisited

I'm reading my father's copy of William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways. Early in the book he explains how the state of Missouri is perceived by the rest of the country: 'A Missourian gets used to Southerners thinking him a Yankee, a Northerner considering him a cracker, a Westerner sneering at his effete Easternness, and an Easterner taking him for a cowhand.'

As I am exhausted by the political season and sorrowful for the difficulties that face so many on the east coast it is good to be reminded of how special and human we can be. Let us all bring this to the fore.

The image below is from and shows the route of the author's 'journey into America.'

Here is a synopsis from wikipedia:

Blue Highways is an autobiographical book by William Least Heat-Moon, born William Trogdon.
In 1978, after separating from his wife and losing his job as a teacher, Moon, 38 at the time, decided to take an extended road trip around the United States, sticking to only the "Blue Highways." Heat-Moon had coined the term to refer to small, forgotten, out of the way roads connecting rural America (which were drawn in blue on the old style Rand McNally road atlas).
He outfits a green van with a bunk, a camping stove, a portable toilet and a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and John Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks. Referring to the Native American resurrection ritual, he christens the van "Ghost Dancing," and embarks on a three month soul-searching tour of the United States, wandering from small town to small town, often just because they have interesting names. The book chronicles the 13,000 mile journey and the people he meets along the way, as he steers clear of cities and interstates, avoiding fast food and exploring local American culture.
Well-researched and intriguing stories and historical facts are included about each area visited, as well as verbatim conversations with characters such as a born-again Christian hitchhiker, a teenage runaway, a boat builder, an Appalachian log cabin restorer, a Nevada prostitute, fishermen, a Hopi Native American medical student, owners of western saloons and remote country stores, a maple syrup farmer, and Chesapeake Bay island dwellers. Blue Highways also inspired the name of the Cocteau Twins seventh recording, Four-Calendar Cafè. In his book, Least Heat-Moon develops an apocryphal rule for judging the quality of the food being served in roadside cafès by counting the number of calendars affixed behind the counter--the number of calendars registered the amount of traveling salesmen who frequented the establishment,and an establishment with at least four calendars meant good, but not great food.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Sustainable Disaster Recovery

I finished up day one of SLU's Sustainable Disaster Recovery Conference. Lot's of good information I hope we never need to put into practice. Also, very strange to be doing this work/learning while Sandy rolls into the east coast. Some conference guests could not make it because of travel issues and some others cancelled to work on the  Sandy emergency response.

A solar outfit brought this trailer. It can be set up and produce up to 900kwh/month in a place with sun levels like St. Louis. Sustainable power to help in recovery and very portable - pretty cool.

The National Disaster Recovery Framework is published by FEMA and lists sustainability as a chief component of its processes. Bookmark this one.

The most compelling and inspiring presentations were from teams that worked in Greensburg, Kansas and Joplin, Missouri. They have survived and accomplished plenty. Their stories and knowledge are greatly appreciated.

The image below is by Larry Schwarm. It is of Greensburg, the day after it was wiped off the map.  links to the town. They have done some outstanding things - check it out.

Here is an online book for how the wreckage above was transformed back into a town: Tour Book

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis

I went to a view exhibits at the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) this weekend. From the realm of design and construction to that of conceptual art is a greater leap than many are willing to make, but I suggest that the effort will pay dividends to those who make it. The large 'photo-sculptures' of Leslie Hewitt are compelling from a first-look at the geometry of the compositions even before one deciphers the materials that make up the photographs. When I spent some time with the series and positioned myself in such a way as to align, in my eye, the floor line of the image and the floor line of the museum itself it is as if the piece is extended out of the frame and into the space. The placement of some of the lighting is such that when I positioned myself in front of the central square of wood in the photograph my shadow was cast front an center. Whether this is intentional or not - it made for a more mindful and engaging visit to CAM.

As a builder, understanding and appreciating the intentional, as well as the happy accidents, of line, space, use of materials in a structure is one of the great motivators to be involved in the industry. Training one's observational skills in art museums and in the natural world is great practice and translates well onto the job site in both actual and metaphorical ways.

For many without a background in the arts some work in contemporary art practice is not what one usually thinks of when 'art' comes to mind. I recommend that, if this is the case, put those thoughts on hold for a few hours and spend some quiet time looking, thinking and observing. It might even make a novice uncomfortable - but it is worth the effort because, in time, you will learn, not just more about the piece/exhibit, but more about yourself.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Design Matters

Design with the Other 90% - Cities is an exhibit at Washington University's Kemper Museum. I encourage all to stop by and see some design solutions, products and projects that deal with urban problems, issues and needs on a global basis.

from the exhibition website on the mapping project: Mapping is an important tool in exploring, documenting, and planning communities. Those in informal settlements cannot always depend on the government to map their territories, and so many are undertaking mapping efforts themselves. Grassroots Mapping is an open-source, participatory approach that enables communities to create their own maps using inexpensive equipment. Residents own the resulting images and maps, which they can use to support land-title claims or to aid in upgrading efforts.
Started by Jeff Warren as part of his master’s research at MIT Media Lab’s Center for Future Civic Media, Grassroots Mapping consists of a digital camera with continuous mode shooting lofted by a kite, balloon, or inflated trash bag to snap aerial images. Snapshots are geographically referenced, stitched together, and overlaid on Google Maps, but with a resolution one hundred times higher than existing Google imagery. In Cantagallo, an informal settlement in Lima, Peru, Warren partnered with local residents and Shuawa, a Cantagallo art collective, to generate maps with the community. For the first time, residents saw their settlement from overhead, enabling them to better understand the relationship of their community to the surrounding city. Despite being forced to relocate by the municipality, residents are interested in mapping their new land, which will help in land-title claims offered by the municipality.
Designer: Jeff Warren, Center for Future Civic Media, MIT Media Lab. Collaborators: Shuawa Arts Organization, Neokinok, Escuelab, Manzanita “A.” Cantagallo, Lima, Peru, 2010–present. Trash bags, balloons, plastic bottle, braided nylon string, reel, tape, digital camera, rubber band, helium

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Right-Sized Heating & Cooling Systems at Home

Here is a link to a consumer level checklist to help you evaluate any proposals you request for replacing or improving your heating and cooling:  Quality Installation Checklist. Use it to find the best contractor and value for your investment.

As part of my day job I spent the day in training for correctly sizing HVAC Systems. Here is a link to the event:

I have been involved and aware of these processes at a high level for many years but now I'm drilling down into some of the nitty gritty details of determining the correct load, the right-sized system and properly designed duct work to maximize comfort and efficiency. A lot of this has technical aspects that are boring beyond belief, but they yield real value.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Upcoming Conferences

What is a City? is a conference at UMSL this Thursday and Friday. Here is an outline from the conference website:

When: October 25-26, 2012
Where: UMSL, J.C. Penney Conference Center, Summit Lounge

How Art Builds Community

The Center for the Humanities invites you to join speakers from across the Midwest and St. Louis in exploring the power of art to effect changes in urban neighborhoods and communities. The majority of artists live in cities and their work often addresses urban concerns of health, happiness, diversity, security, freedom of expression, and a sustainable environment. We examine such questions as: How do art and artists help sustain our cities? Why should we support the work of artists? Why do cities need art and vice versa? Why should citizens and voters know about the artists and art projects in their communities and beyond? 

The SLU Center for Sustainability is hosting the 2012 Sustainable disaster Recovery Conference. Here is an intro from their website:

The Center for SustainabilityGreensburg GreenTown, and GreenTown Joplin are proud to present the 2012 Sustainable Disaster Recovery Conference to be held on the campus of Saint Louis University on Monday, October 29 and Tuesday, October 30.
The conference aims to help cities stricken by natural disasters rebuild strong, livable communities by identifying ways to efficiently and effectively weave elements of sustainability into the disaster recovery process, while increasing collaboration among all parties working toward this goal.  

The Sustainable Cities Conference is hosted by Washington University and takes place on several sites. A Lecture by Bill McKibben kicks it off on Thursday night, November 1st. The Land Lab portion starts Friday at the Contemporary Museum of Art. Here is a preview from their website:

Land Lab

Building on public dialogue started by the Open/Closed conferences and the Pruitt Igoe Now and GOOD Ideas for Cities competitions, the Land Lab Competition seeks innovative ideas for sustainability projects on St. Louis’s vacant lots. Teams will rethink one of the region’s greatest challenges into an asset that advances sustainability.
The winning proposals–selected via a public competition–will consist of integrated strategies for urban sustainability issues, such as power generation, site remediation, storm water management, economic development, and food systems.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

more Maybeck

Here are some images of the chapel, some of the dorms and a view from the bluffs above the Mississippi River on the Elsah, Illinois campus of Principia College. Compare the sandstone and classical forms of the chapel with the juxtaposition of materials in the dorms. The dorms utilize the lessons learned in the Mistake House.

In the image above there is board-formed concrete at a timber frame section supported by cast concrete corbels above brick work with contrasting coin corners and a stone window surround. The details on the left show a large opening for glazing and more timber frame with a brick herringbone infill. The concrete and generous overhangs give a modern touch to a traditional building type.

This stair and the 3 images above are from a dorm called Buck House. It is similar to the Mistake House in the utilization of the entire palette chosen by Maybeck for this commission. There is no monotony and the materials provide a great solidity to the buildings that leave one with the feeling that they will be around for a long, long time.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Maybeck at Principia

Here is some information about a Bernard Maybeck Celebration at Principia from November 8 - 10:

Here is a little more info on his career:

I was on the campus today to watch the soccer game of a friend's daughter and we took the time to look around a bit. I've seen some of Maybeck's work in Berkeley, California many years ago and it has stayed with me all this time. Just outstanding and captivating in terms of space, scale, materials and more.

Per wikepedia on Principia: There are ten student dormitories on campus: Anderson House, Rackham Court, Howard House, Sylvester House, Buck House, Brooks House, Ferguson House, Joe McNabb, Lowrey House, and Clara McNabb. The first six mentioned were designed by architect Bernard Maybeck in 1935, as was the campus' chapel.[4] Maybeck attempted to use different architectural styles and building techniques for each of these dormitories and for the chapel. In an effort to ensure success with his designs and materials, he experimented with them through the creation of a small building known affectionately by Principians as the "Mistake House."[5]

Here are a few pix of the Mistake House - a little treasure all on its own:

Maybeck wanted see his planned palette of materials side by side and this little experiment did the trick. Each elevation features something different. When seen expressed in the group of buildings it is impressive. I have more pix I'll try and get up later. 

Please enjoy and support our magnificent architectural heritage.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Neighborhood Effect

I attended a lecture by Robert Sampson at Washington University yesterday and found his short presentation of the research collected in his new book compelling and thought provoking. The Atlantic Cities' Richard Florida did an interview with the author that can be seen here. 

Here is a part of the interview:

The late Peter Drucker used to say that voluntary organizations and non-profits would increasingly drive the knowledge economy. Your focus on non-profits has helped to provide the social, civic and economic organizing glue of neighborhoods and cities. Lots of urbanists and Cities readers work in non-profits, I'm sure they'd like to hear more about this.
We live in an increasingly organizational society, and this reality plays out in neighborhoods as well. The density of nonprofit organizations leads to enhanced collective efficacy (for example neighbors watching out for others), collective civic engagement, and cohesion among community leaders. What’s important is not so much the existence of any specific type of organization but the overall organizational infrastructure of a community. Sometimes a disproportionate reliance on any one type of organization, such as the church, can be a problem. Surprisingly, for example, mistrust and cynicism in Chicago communities are highest in the well-churched communities. Although a fount of the civil rights movement, the church alone is clearly not enough to overcome the needs of African American communities, or any community for that matter. Communities with a diversity and density of many types of organizations seem to do better, creating collective spillover or “knock on” effects.  
Nonprofit organizations can make a significant difference in how vulnerable neighborhoods face burdens such as foreclosures due to the recent recession. Community-based organizations are an important ingredient in building up the collective efficacy of communities to meet everyday challenges. While national policies are obviously crucial, nonprofits serve as a kind of social buffer that can make the difference between which neighborhoods tip into a spiral of decline and which turn themselves around. I call this process the "organizational imperative."

Sampson studied leadership in his city as well as issues related to the 'underclass' in an effort to gain a more holistic view of how things function. Collective efficacy, diversity, density and organizational infrastructure are some markers for successful neighborhoods that cross economic and ethnic boundaries. There were many findings that would seem counter intuitive at first glance but suggest, to me, that some similar research in our metro area might provide interesting and surprising results as well.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Another Look Back - Architectural Digest

Another look into the not too distant past. No, I was not involved in Cher's house, but a project I worked on did have a nice spread in this issue of  AD. This project had it all and then, a little more. We temporarily relocated an out building and then moved it onto a new foundation. We added close to 18ksf, a pool and lots more. It also included geo-thermal and a back up generator.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Look Back II

First of all, I want to let those of you who may be interested in the architecture of William Bernoudy know about this great book:

There are also some great resources and local blogs that deal extensively with Bernoudy's work - just google and enjoy.

On the particular project I worked on the interior seemed, in many ways, deceptively simple. Upon completion the complicated substrate for the finishes and geometry are covered in wood and plaster, leaving the viewer only a few clues of this inner complexity.

We used a custom finish on fir to match the cypress in the original part of the house.

The kitchen is cherry with granite counter tops.

Years later I helped a new owner restore the original stained concrete floors. We had a high degree of success despite some stubborn stains that would require judicial use of rug and furniture placement.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Your House In Winter

What is the building science behind understanding and ending draftiness in a house? The image below diagrams the movement of air through all the little cracks, joints and openings between your home and the outdoors. Small openings in utility pipes, poorly weather-stripped doors and windows, can lights, and wiring can add up to a significant source of leakage. These air leaks cause the discomfort of draftiness and a significant increase in energy use as your heating and cooling systems work harder to compensate for these losses of conditioned air.

The benefit of a Home Energy Assessment or Energy Audit is the identification of these kinds of issues with specificity. This is often called 'the low hanging fruit' in the energy efficiency world. Making these kinds of changes are cost effective, with short term pay back.

The image above shows an air-sealed pipe penetration in an attic. This pipe goes through a hole, from the basement to the attic, that is larger than the outside diameter of the pipe. This is one of the many small holes contributing to the stack effect. By sealing this with closed cell foam and then using insulation, the home will be less drafty, more comfortable and more energy efficient.

Here are a few local resources for contractors and financing related to doing this kind of work:

One last note: I do not do this kind of work for a living and I have nothing for sale.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Look Back

I spent most of the last 30+ years as a construction professional in St. Louis. I started as a carpenter and moved into management, design and marketing over the course of a career. I'd like to think of this as an occasional series on some of the things I've helped build. It might more accurate to say it started with this post of a few weeks ago, but be that as it may, here are a few images & drawings from a project I did on a Bernoudy house in the early 1990s.

This shows the site plan (The Christner Partnership) of a complex project in which the only right angles occurred where the walls met the floor and some ridge details I drew so my team could understand how to frame roof lines finished with different materials that needed to meet at the same height.

The photo above shows part of the framing of interior, open soffits and structural steel elements for the roof adjacent to the framing plan I drew for the crew.

This is a view from the front, built in the early 50s. We did extensive updating to this area and more than double the size of the place with the addition we built.

The west elevation shows the addition on the left and the original area to the right.

Here is a detail of the exterior siding. It is an interesting contrast to some siding details utilized by Frank Lloyd Wright, Bernoudy's leiber meister. I'll try and get to some interior details in a few days.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

St. Louis, Detroit, Metaphor & Home

A documentary movie review: in which the reviewer, talking about what it means/feels like to live in a troubled city like Detroit says. "I’m just tired of living in a metaphor."


[met-uh-fawr, -fer] 
a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance, as in “A mighty fortress is our God.”
something used, or regarded as being used, to represent something else; emblem; symbol. is one of my first few blog posts in which I ask a simple question: What issues arise when some one's reality serves as a metaphor for the perceptions of another? I didn't try to answer the question. I simply showed the photograph of an incredible little house that seemed to symbolize a lot of different things. Given the TV dish it seemed safe to assume someone lived there. The house was demolished a couple of years ago - it stood off I-70 between St. Louis & Columbia.

We don't want to 'represent something else.' We don't often want to be a 'symbol.' To live in city which is constantly used as metaphor is to experience acute insensitivity. To see a thing this way is to borrow it and use it as a means to an end without due consideration to the citizen/occupants. When this becomes, not the occasional view of a place, but the dominant view I imagine it can be/would be troubling and challenging to overcome. Neither Detroit nor St. Louis exists solely as a metaphor or symbol for America's decline - at least not to those of us who call these places, 'home.' I know I don't like or learn much from  the city/county arguments that pass for reader response in

The way we are represented is not always the way we are.

Crime reports published in show that there were just 4 nuisance crimes on my block in Tower Grove South in the past year. The Riverfront Times listed our neighborhood as the best place to live in the city. It is the most diverse area in the region as well.  A metaphor for progress and success? Perhaps, but we just call it home.

Metaphor and symbol are important ways to discuss and share ideas but we need to do it with sensitivity and respect when it involves real communities where real people live. When a view of a place as a metaphor becomes embedded in popular culture it becomes an uphill struggle.