Suggestions for an architecture thesis?
July 13, 2006 12:10 PM   Subscribe

My girlfriend is in the brainstorming stage of her architecture thesis and leaning toward sustainable community planning — any ideas?

The thesis takes the form of an in-depth final project to be completed over the next academic year. She wants to do something on a larger planning/community level rather than a smaller scale and is hoping to involve green spaces and sustainable systems extensively. Her ultimate goal is to work on a project that would suggest (in whatever small way) an alternate way for a community to approach life. Ideally, the project would be applicable to the real world — either in the sense that she can literally take the proposal somewhere when she's done or in the sense that the project addresses a problem typical to many communities.

I realize this leaves things pretty broad, but right now it's completely up in the air. I'm hoping that some of you may have pointers to projects you know if in this vein that we might not have seen or general suggestions and ideas in the wouldn't-it-be-cool-if variety. Thanks —
posted by rafter to Education (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
She might want to check out this video of Sustainable South Bronx founder Majora Carter.
posted by dobbs at 12:25 PM on July 13, 2006

Since gasoline will never be cheaper than it is right now, and probably will be much much much more expensive, the suburban sprawl common to most North American cities (50 acres of almost identical houses, no retail, no sidewalks, drive everywhere) is going to be heavily disfavored in the future. Consider how to retrofit such developments into places where people can reasonably walk, bike or take mass transit to obtain goods, services and recreation.
posted by jellicle at 12:42 PM on July 13, 2006

It's 2030, global warming and peak oil are in full swing, everyone's wishing we had more communities built

perhaps like ultra-dense (but ultra-soundproofed) low-maintenance, traditionally attractive (i.e. "timeless way of building", not mobile-home-like nor a Kunstler eyesore of the month) minimalist-scale housing that meets the practical and emotional needs of penurious but well mannered single middleaged people, for minimal expense - i.e. maximal return-on-investment of quality of life per dollar spent. Occupants do most of their socializing in common areas (or via iSight on their Macs), they cook in a common area, they have nearby garden/orchard/park and shops, and they don't want to be spending all their free time/money on their living quarters.

Analogous to a Katrina cottage in its hominess, style and thriftiness, but multi-unit; not quite a dorm but close.

Also I think jellicle's "retrofitting" suggestion is excellent. Related - your girlfriend could go to the Open Houses for still-unsold McMansions, get floor plans etc, and figure out how to remodel them into useful multi-unit structures.
posted by niloticus at 12:46 PM on July 13, 2006

Exploring the potential of homes like these in major cities might be interesting.
posted by dobbs at 12:49 PM on July 13, 2006

I've always been intrigued by carfree. Of course, they've already got their own pretty well fleshed-out model. And that doesn't address every aspect of sustainability.

I've got a friend currently studying at Ecoversity and blogging about it. I'm sure she'd be happy to correspond with your sister about all that permaculture stuff.
posted by adamrice at 1:00 PM on July 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

She should talk to the Center for Sustainable Community people in Stelle, Illinois. They've got a bit too much of a new age vibe for my tastes, but they know what they're doing with housing and energy.

She could also talk to Urban Habitat Chicago. Some very smart folks there. This guy is a mad genius of sustainable eco-systems. (Say "hello from Geof" for me. I used to be a member, but school got in the way.)

Me, I'd like to see entire city blocks with nothing but earth-sheltered homes.
posted by hydrophonic at 1:06 PM on July 13, 2006

I would suggest she look into Low Impact Development (LID). I work with local towns trying to help them integrate these techniques, which help them reduce non-point source pollution. If she's in RI (as you seem to be), I would suggest looking into some of the RI-specific info on stormwater management.

If she has any questions, e-mail's in my profile.
posted by nekton at 1:11 PM on July 13, 2006

How about exploring ways small-scale organic farming can be incorporated into traditional greenspaces? We are seeing a tremendous explosion of interest in the possibility of growing food nearer where it's consumed, fueled, to be sure, by an unconscious apocalyptic unease about a future lacking fuel, but real even so.

Perhaps, as well, development of associated farmers markets could be looked at; I think US cities are ripe for a rebirth of the truck farm, but real estate prices will prevent it without active advocacy from the urban planning movement.
posted by jamjam at 1:14 PM on July 13, 2006

Could get involved in the LEED-Neighborhood Design standards project. I think they might still be in draft form? A review/critique of them, or trying to use them somwhere?

One place for ideas is at some Congress for New Urbanism event or on their mailing list. Often they have good projects or working groups that could spark an idea.

Check out the Willits Economic Localization Link (WELL) -- trying to plan the city to be locally self-sufficient.

Retrofitting is a good idea. She could look at retrofitting an inner-city, an inner-ring suburb, and a sprawl outer-ring suburb. Check out the book Ecocity Berkeley, by Richard Register, if she hasn't yet. Mall and strip mall reuse is also getting a lot of attention now.

Infill development keeps growth from sprawling outward, so thinking about good design on awkward sites might be good.

She could look at "green infrastructure" in cities -- a network of green spaces where stormwater absorption can occur, replacing the decaying and malfunctioning storm sewer system.

But yeah, it would help if you could narrow down a bit. Does she want to do a book of design guidelines? A from-scratch design? A toolbox or overarching plan for an existing city? Oh, hey, here's a cool project.
posted by salvia at 1:27 PM on July 13, 2006

How about the increased use of steel to prevent termites or their durability during natural disasters? Or something?
posted by onepapertiger at 1:38 PM on July 13, 2006

Another idea would be to check out SustainLane's 2006 CityRankings for Sustainability and look at the criteria they applied and some of the suggestions they have.

Also, if you are in fact in Rhode Island, check out GrowSmart RhodeIsland.
posted by andifsohow at 1:47 PM on July 13, 2006

Have you read about Samuel Mockbee's Rural Studio?

(He introduced) students to the social responsibilities of architectural practice and for providing safe, well-constructed and inspirational buildings to the communities of West Alabama. In many cases these buildings, designed and built by students, incorporate novel materials which would otherwise be considered waste. -Wikipedia
posted by cda at 1:51 PM on July 13, 2006

It sounds (from many of the suggestions here) that your gf's going to end up designing Seaside, Florida.

Rather than design a community from whole cloth, it would probably be more interesting, both for her and her critic, to revamp an existing community (like, in the real world). Re-zoning problematic areas, cleaning up existing brownfields or dead industrial areas, or reconfiguring urban density to encourage sustainable activities. Starting with an existing development means that she'd be solving real problems, instead of ones she just made up in her head. With that in mind, my first step would be to pick the community; what to do for her project should follow naturally from what her investigations into that community turn up.
posted by LionIndex at 1:58 PM on July 13, 2006

I come from the construction side rather than architecture, so I'm unclear how "visionary" rather than feet on the ground such a project should be, but my suggestion would be to join the USGBC and start going to some of their events. Depending on the chapter, there are a lot of smart people and good contacts involved with them. Ties in with the really excellent LEED Neighbourhood Design suggestion above.

I've been involved in sustainable design and construction to some degree throughout my short career and have run into a fair few new-agey flakes from time to time. The USGBC / LEED people are far from this.
posted by jamesonandwater at 2:00 PM on July 13, 2006

This issue isn't working on as much of a macro level as what your girlfriend will end up dealing with:

How about the increased use of steel to prevent termites or their durability during natural disasters? Or something?

Steel is very resource-intensive (mining, milling, smelting, transport, etc.) compared to other materials. Rammed earth, straw bales, or some form of masonry or concrete would generally be preferable. Typically, light gauge steel framing isn't any more impervious to catastrophic weather conditions or earthquakes than light wood framing. Also, you can always grow more wood.
posted by LionIndex at 2:04 PM on July 13, 2006

have a huge space on the property growing alfalfa sprouts, which grow anywhere and very fast. make the alfalfa be both a food product which can be sold, eaten, and used as insulation.

(now let me scroll up and reread the question.:))
posted by Izzmeister at 2:10 PM on July 13, 2006

A Post-Apocalyptic View of Ecology and Design: Thirteen Recent Books

by Richard Ingersoll
posted by xod at 4:06 PM on July 13, 2006

She should begin by reading "Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream" by Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck. (amazon link, sample chapter)
posted by samw at 6:17 PM on July 13, 2006

I apologize for the de-rail, but this:

Steel is very resource-intensive (mining, milling, smelting, transport, etc.) compared to other materials. Rammed earth, straw bales, or some form of masonry or concrete would generally be preferable. Typically, light gauge steel framing isn't any more impervious to catastrophic weather conditions or earthquakes than light wood framing. Also, you can always grow more wood.

This is a huge misconception that the architecture community has been trying to dispel for years. The single most valuable aspect of steel is it's ability to be recycled. You can't recycle masonry, concrete, or straw bales, and steel is far more economic for strength, ductility, dead and lateral strength per gross unit of material. In fact, over 97.5% of the steel used in major structural members is recycled.

Now, back on topic.....

I agree with the concept of taking an existing community and rehabilitating it using LEED and sustainable guidelines. One note of caution though... don't get carried away with the scope. Pick one aspect of the project, focus on it and get it right.

A huge mistake I made on my architectural thesis was having too broad an idea without specific goals... such as the blanket statement "Make a community sustainable". There is simply too much involved to come up with an innovative solution and not pull your hair out. I would suggest focusing on one particular aspect of the thesis and solve it.... creatively, with a twist.

For example, solve a small communities' water needs... this leads to site redevelopment / orientation, water harvesting strategies, water containment, use of open spaces, limiting the use of impervious materials, creating water features, using water conserving strategies to drive the parti of the design, ... etc. This will lead the design in a manageable direction, and you will address many other sustainable issues in the process.

That's just a rough example and could be refined infinitely, just don't get sucked in by the blanket of sustainability, find a specific challenge and let it drive your design.

Feel free to e-mail (in my profile) if you need moral support.
posted by Benway at 6:27 PM on July 13, 2006

She should probably read The Death And Life of Great American Cities, although it sounds like she won't be happy about what Jacobs has to say about green spaces.
posted by bingo at 6:31 PM on July 13, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the suggestions and advice. I definitely agree that things should be kept kind of specific but right now I'm casting as wide a net as possible before I narrow things down for my proposal. I appreciate the help and look forward to checking out these links over the next couple days.

As LionIndex suggested, I think my first move is going to have to be settling on a location. I'll be located near Albany, NY but don't necessarily want that to limit me — anyone have any suggestions for regions/cities/neighborhoods that I should consider? Would it be prudent to choose a (relatively) nearby place I could visit often rather than, say, someplace in Asia?

— lauren
posted by rafter at 8:07 PM on July 13, 2006

You may wish to check out democraticSPACE - the author has an architecture degree and some graduate degrees in urban planning and city planning. He has done some case studies and design 'what ifs' with a number of different places in the US and Canada. Might give you some ideas about places to consider or how to go about thinking about a location.
posted by Cyrie at 9:58 PM on July 13, 2006

So, Lauren, do you have an instinct about which geographic scale you want to work at? Which environmental issues? There are hundreds of books, hundreds of cool projects going on -- I feel like it's hard to know which ones to mention... I'd be happy to discuss this more if you want to email me.

If you haven't looked at Planetizen already, it's a good news list (you can even filter for just environmental stories). Also, you might check ADPSR (Architects, Designers, and Planners with Social Responsibility) to see if they have a local chapter. Could even send an email to their list to see if anyone can suggest good local projects.
posted by salvia at 10:35 PM on July 13, 2006

As others have pointed out, viewing the problem broadly is so complex it's almost impossible to think about. How about coming up with a way to model the problem so that it can be solved, maybe by computers?

For example, representing the resources needed (raw materials, transport, human time) for each building material in a structure, representing different types of structures, what types of structures are needed in different community models, so that overall community models can be compared, easily, for sustainability.

Then, maybe some enterprising computer scientist (or several) could write an artificial intelligence program to come up with new ideas or to refine existing ones.

OK, this will never work the way I've presented it here (this was a quick off-the-top-of-my-head example of a conceptual approach), but it's a goad for better ideas. I hope.
posted by amtho at 6:28 AM on July 14, 2006

anyone have any suggestions for regions/cities/neighborhoods that I should consider? Would it be prudent to choose a (relatively) nearby place I could visit often rather than, say, someplace in Asia?

Absolutely do something nearby -- I took the train down the Hudson a couple years ago and Schenectady looked like it could use some help. My thesis project was assigned to our studio, and it was for the redevelopment of the train station site in Charlottesville, VA (I went to UVa) to include mixed-use housing, a community center, and a transit center in addition to the revamping the existing decrepit train station. In the early stages of information gathering, our studio functioned as one entity, conducting interviews with community activists, transit authorities and local politicians to try to get a handle on all the issues facing us. We were also compiling information on what kind of clearances or turning radii buses and trains need, and going around conducting surveys of existing parking structures in town and producing measured drawings of them (as our project would inevitably include a parking garage). I'd imagine you'd pretty much want to do the same kind of thing -- interviewing people that will have a direct gain or other effect on their lives from what you're thinking of doing. Make phone calls, meet with people if possible, and make the information you uncover part of your thesis. And really, this is what architects actually do -- they solve existing problems (or at least try to). Find out about where community waste (refuse and wastewater) goes, what local landfill life expectancy is, what drives the local economy and whether it's in decline or booming, what social issues are involved for sites that may be involved, etc.
posted by LionIndex at 8:33 AM on July 14, 2006

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