As some of you know, a while back our class worked on a project in which we were instructed to create a design for a sustainable housing project. I selected as my site a single lot in an established low-density neighborhood of mostly upscale single family detached housing. The reason I seleced such a small site is that I have been interested in how to inject density into an already established SFD fabric that is so common in Mississippi. It was left up to us to define our take on sustainable. I decided to go with the route of a sense of community as the major driver of sustainability in this instance, although I always think about the ecosystems at play. I also generally always look for opportunities for agricultural food production and passive stormwater management strategies. But this time I was specifically looking to create a dense development to 1)foster a sense of community, 2) improve the walkable scale of the district, and 3) flow seamlessly into the cultural and architectural context of the established neighborhood.

Prairie Common Master Plan

 

I think overall the design was successfull and that I accomplished what I set out to do. I spent most of the design phase figuring out how to cram 6 detached dwelling units into a lot that was laid out for a single large detached house, and capturing the architectural character of surrounding developments and blending it with a more regional and vernacular style which I saw as more responsive to local climate and place.

I also wanted to create spaces that facilitated flow between the indoor and outdoor realms in order to foster interaction between residents. To accomplish this goal, i designed for each unit to have its own semi-private outdoor space that was shaded in the summer and sunlit in the winter, and had access to breeze in the summer and sheltered from winds in the winter. These spaces also included lines of sight to other spaces in the development so that residents could sit outside and watch the comings and goings on within the community.

 

 

One of the shortcommings of this project, I feel, is the lack of planning for stormwater infrastructure, which is of course a key component of sustainability as far as pollution prevention goes. While I did make indications for stormwater management devices such as a cistern to feed the pool, and pervious surfaces (all the grey you see is crushed limestone gravel instead of concrete) none of that is actually sized according to calculations for ammount of runoff. In fact there is no REAL plan for controlling runoff here as only 3 of the units even have any indications of such infrastructure.

Another shortcomming as I see it, albeit mostly philosophical, is the ecological concept behind this design. I admit that originally I did not really have an ecological driver behind this design other than habitat for humans. But as the design progressed and I began figuring out my materials, I started seeing some abstract parallels between the look and feel of the ground plane and prairies. The major surface material, as i mentioned before, is crushed limestone which mirrors in both look and chemical composition, the chalky calcareous soils of prairies. Also I wanted the material that the users feet come into contact with to be a semi-raw wood that is allowed to weather naturally (on the porches at least). This remined me of the meeting between 2 materials in prairies, the chalky soil and the weathered cedar trunks. And then the next logical conclusion came pretty easy; to use naturalized prairie wildflower plantings. The conflict I have with this is that this site is not a prairie. Even though the overall surrounding context is that Starkville is located in Mississippi’s prairie belt, this specific site is located on an upland ‘acid cap’, and so perhaps a pine dominated ecosystem would have been a better model. I wonder though, how all that limestone gravel would affect the soil over time, if it would change the natural ecological leanings more towards alkaline prairie habitat. I like the prairie concept though and it was arrived at organically, I just feel that it may be a little disingenuous. Also there was the material choice of stucco. I used stucco for the raised foundations of the houses and for the garden walls. The reason for this is because Mississippi prairies have a kind-of, sort-of Mediterranean feel to them… and so I was wanting to convey that, instead of having a lot of dark brick walls and such. This may be a little disingenuous as well.

Garden wall elevation, including prairie plantings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally I would like to address my architecture. I felt that some of my houses were successful and some… not so much. One of the problems that i have is scale. I was trying to make overhead planes and vertical elements as tall as possible because i thought that because there was going to be a lot of structures situated on a relatively small lot, that i could keep it from feeling cramped by going up. The problem is that I think I lost some of the coziness that should be inherent in this design. I didnt realize this until after I completed my digital model and only then started putting my human entourage into the model. In hindsight I probably should have been drawing a lot of quick section elevations with people in them and I would have seen this. Also I found out that the cramped vs. coziness thing actually worked in the opposite way than I had anticipated. I think if I had not tried to exaggerate the vertical scale, the spaces would have felt cozy not cramped.

As far as the architecture flowing seamlessly from the existing fabric, I think I was a little too conservative here. Again, some of the buildings were more successfull than others. But my main issue is with the “master house” which faces the street. The end product for this, even though I didnt set out to do this, was that it was essentially a copy of the existing houses on the same street. I think that i could have been a little more creative with how the house frames the entry portal. I dont know how i would have done it, but I would have liked to have the entry come through the middle of the house. Maybe the main house could have been split into two units or just had a real funky interior layout. I wish that i had been a little more true to the “port cchere” new orleans house that had been my original concept behind the whole development.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Camelback" and "Carriage" houses

 
These, I think are the two most successful houses. In this case, the floor plans are small (not as small as you might think though, 1000 and 1200 sq. feet) with high ceilings (10′). I think that because they are tall, they make an interesting street to building height ratio on the exterior.
 
 
 Below you can see an elevation and a perspective image of the “Master House” which is what you would see from the front of the development, passing by on the street. Especially in the image on the right you can see what im talking about in terms of scale. Everything is too large and grandiose and is out of scale with the feel of the overall development. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Master House Front Elevation

 

Front Entry Perspective

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
One last image. This perspective image should give you a feel of the overall development in terms of coziness vs. cramped. Also in terms of street width to building height ratio.
 

Perry Cafeteria

Funny Story. After having just posted about some historic buildings in Starkville, I was walking to the Union to grab some breakfast. On the way I overheard an MSU tour guide giving someone a walking tour of the campus. She was telling the visitors that “Perry Cafeteria was built to look like a church because back during WWII when the Germans were bombing, they didnt bomb churches, and so from the air they wanted the cafeteria to look like a church so that it would be a safe place for students.”

it would be funny if it wasnt kind of scary. Ill give her that perry looks like a church, but only because it is built in the gothic revival style, as were so many churches in the south, simply because of the coincidence of the popularity of that style with a time period when a lot of churches were being built.

I wont bother uploading an image from google earth as this post really is not that big a deal, but i would venture a guess that there is no way that one could say that this buildings roofline could be discerned as a church.

Ok so maybe the title of the post is a bit overreacting. It just remined me of the stories from history class of how historians could tell that Ancient Greece went through a dark age. There was a time period when a lot of monumental buildings were built and then a span of a few hundred years where there were none built, and then it picked back up again. During the lapse period, all the writings explained the old buildings by saying that giants had built them. How else could those huge blocks of stone have been moved?

While doing some background research for the EFLA presentation in Estonia, the librarians at both the MSU and city libraries found some historic images from around Starkville for us.

Enjoy.

Security State Bank on Main St. Postcard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Back when the community could be proud of the buildings they built

The "model house of the futrue" - early 1900's

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 erm, thats supposed to be “future”. notice it still had a raised foundation and porch. notice also the gumdrop foundation plantings which would stay with us for a long time to come.
 
 
 

The Page St. House from the Cotton District - date unknown

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 Actually known as “The Washington House”. The actual Page family, who the street is named after had another impressive mansion elsewhere.
 
 
 

The page street house circa 2011

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Interior of Perry Cafeteria - very early 1900's

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Even though this cafeteria is still in use, its difficult not to compare the quality to the current student union which conveys no feeling, only a meaningless space in which to eat meaningless food. 

This post really should appear after the previous 2 posts instead of first order as most recent.

This is a link to a blog created by an avid Landscape/Ecological Urbanist who is relaying J.H. Kuntsler’s assesment of the LU/EU movement. As you can expect there is plenty of vitriol coming from Kuntsler on this but I have yet to see the counter to these criticisms from the LU folks. In fact I have seen some arguments put forth by LU/EU that reinforce what Kuntsler is saying.

http://landscapeandurbanism.blogspot.com/2011/03/kunstler-joins-lunu-debate-with.html

In the face of a seemingly calculated and mounted attack (criticism) of Landscape Urbanist theory by Andres Duany and other prominent New Urbanists, Duany invited Charles Waldheim (See previous post of Duany’s comments towards Waldheim’s new faculty position at Harvard) to last years CNU (congress of the new urbanism) conference to defend the positions of LU theory in what has spawned blog post titles such as “Landscape Urbanists and New Urbanists to Settle Debate After Class, Behind Gym”.

Here is a link to one that gives a New Urbanist camp members perspective of the debate at the conference:

http://newurbannetwork.com/article/street-fight-landscape-urbanism-versus-new-urbanism-14855

Also you can refer back to a previous post that gives a cursory differentiation between NU and LU theory courtesy of Wikipedia.

 

As I continue to research the upstart theory of landscape urbanism i keep looking for the specifics on how LU and New Urbanism theories are different.

Some background. Recently there has been somewhat of a move at the Harvard Graduate School of Design towards LU theory. This has coincided with the arrival of new faculty members Charles Waldheim and Mohsen Mostafavi. The debate between the two theories seems to really boil down to density with the New urbanists arguing for diversity over all other things (seemingly) whereas the LU theorists seem to be more interested in ecological process based urban design and planning. Apparently there has been a good deal of mouthiness between duany and the folks at the GSD.

Here is the link to Duany’s comments about the new faculty there.

http://www.metropolismag.com/pov/20101103/duany-vs-harvard-gsd

I have been researching the topic of ecological urbanism for a paper in the sustainable communities seminar class. Upon a superficial exploration i  found out that this was a relatively new “urbanism” that was spawned only 2.5 years ago from a conference at the Harvard GSD. It seemes that EU (ecological urbanism) was and evolutionary extension of LU (landscape urbanism) and was essentially a framework by which to approach urbanism in a holistic way. I had mentioned to our professor that this seemed like a BS (bullshit) conference to name another “ism” – in other words an attempt by yet another group to pick apart some minutia that they dont agree with in NU (new urbanism) and yell louder about it. My sentiment on this was sort of “no shit sherlock” – as in approaching urbanism holistically with ecology in mind – wow, what a novel idea you geniuses at harvard have come up with! (thats supposed to be sarcasm font)

But after having researched this a good bit more deeply I realized that there is more to this concept. Specifically it is about adopting neither a anthropocentric OR ecocentric approach to urban and ecological design. Of course it isnt. Nothing in this world is a black and white, one or the other, all or nothing issue. Everything exists in shades of gray. The truth is always somewhere in the middle. etc. etc. EU seems to be more about accepting humans and human activity as players in ecological systems rather than outside influences, always to the detriment of nature. Human influence on nature is neither all good or all bad, but simply different – with some bad AND good. (although and of couse there is certainly alot of human influence on nature that is catastrophic to all organisms involved.)

EU is also about indeterminism in design. Their philosophy points out that it is a fallacy to think that humans can control every aspect of systems so complex as the urban environment in totality, much less natural ecosystems. What we CAN do however, is manage our own actions and interactions with the ecosystem (urban or wild) and guide it accordingly.

Crosby Arboretum anyone? Hello?

My early classification of EU as a new concept as BS was simply informed by the fact that it was NOT a new concept to me. Thats because this is exactly what our dept. here at MSU has been preaching for some time. Yes we hold up the principles of NU, but we also diverge from them when we see gaps in what they say and what they produce. And then there is our strong ecological background with a tendency to things as systems (human AND natural).

Now that this (our) approach seems to have been given a name, we need to jump on this and let the world know that we have independently arrived at the same conclusions. One way of dong this is if the Harvard GSD holds another conference on this topic, our dept. could go and present en masse. Or perhaps WE could hold the second conference on EU here at our dept.