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Building a Sustainable Language
of Typology

To be truly sustainable, design must be rooted in a community understanding of local traditions.

By Samantha L. Salden

Those of us who teach, study, practice and build traditional architecture and urbanism understand its inherent sustainability. A walkable place, well-connected to transit, full of durable and energy-efficient buildings should last for centuries. Make it a beautiful place and people will love and care for it through generations. However, legal obstacles, suburban-minded financial structures and a pervasive lack of emotional or cognitive connection to sense of place have decimated these ostensibly common sense approaches to the built environment, even in many places where they had existed for generations.

Over the last 30 years, we've regained a tenuous, but very real, foothold in the world of development to once again create places based on our most beloved models such as Charleston, Florence, Chicago's Lincoln Park or Boston's Back Bay. These new projects – infill, brownfield and greenfield – serve as a proving ground for overcoming economic and legal challenges employing form-based codes, the new LEED for Neighborhood Development system, revised modes of governance and reconfigured models of financing. Each is a critical step in the right direction, saving one location at a time from the ravages of "slumburbia."

But each neighborhood, village or town is only as successful as it is sustainable. And each is only as sustainable as it is supportable by its local residents. Today, it is all too rare for an architect or urban designer to live in the same region much less the same town as their built work. The Thomas Jeffersons and Andrea Palladios of the world are few and far between. A discussion of whether this is an inevitable outcome of globalization to be seen as a sign of modern progress or completely inappropriate to the continuity of local traditions could fill volumes, but for the moment it is a common fact. As such, it is all the more important for lay community members to become involved. It is their collective knowledge and enthusiasm alone that can build the political will necessary for lasting change.

The word "lasting" must be emphasized here. As a profession, we are very good at making beautiful pictures of what a place can be and sharing those images with others. That it in itself is a lovely thing. But what happens when memories of that beautiful image fade and the posters have been tucked away in a back closet of city hall behind the Christmas decorations? What happens when economic forces or a significant demographic shift change the needs of the community? The residents may no longer be able to look to that one striking vision. Sustainability must be internalized in the community's consciousness and incorporate flexibility. Residents must not only gain a grasp of one vision, but a critical ability to understand its components that they might combine and recombine them over generations, expanding and revising as population demands.

Components of a Place
The components of a place can best be described, analyzed and organized as a design toolkit through a typological approach. This methodology must address all three levels of architectural design: the urban scale, the building scale, and the constructional element. At the urban scale are the blocks, streets and squares. First, how is each of them shaped; then, how is each of them treated? Where does the messy stuff happen such as garbage and utilities? What is their scale and proportion? How are they landscaped? How is parking handled? How do pedestrians, vehicles and bicycles safely coexist?

At the building scale, we consider how the individual structure is scaled; how it is disposed on its lot in relation to the public realm and in relation to other buildings; how it is generally articulated; what sort of uses are generally assigned to various forms, etc. And last, but certainly not least is the scale of constructional elements. What methods of construction are employed? What are the common materials? Are they local? How are roofs formed? What is the scale and proportion of cornices, bases, openings? How are each of these elements ornamented? How are the construction methods reflected in the building details? At each scale, then, it can be noted how choices within the language of the place reinforce the understanding of hierarchy.

To be effective as a method for sustainable building – both physically and communally – these components cannot be understood or discussed solely at a superficial level. The scale of a window or thickness of a wall is not due simply to aesthetic preferences, but is instead based on time-tested solutions to climatological circumstances.

Why are the ceilings high? – Because it's hot in the summer and hot air rises. Why are the windows tall with operable transoms? – To allow light to penetrate deep into the building and to allow air to circulate naturally. Why are deciduous trees planted on the residential streets? – To provide shade in the summer and allow sun to warm the buildings in the winter, to improve the scale of the street and the sense of pedestrian safety. Why are houses elevated by half a story? – To allow more light into basement rooms and to provide a degree of privacy for living spaces fronting the street. This isn't rocket science, but in an effort to turn sustainable design into a purely high-tech scientific endeavor, much of this basic conceptual knowledge has been trampled.

At the University of Notre Dame, we aim to overcome that "green gizmo" mode of thinking, not out of nostalgia, but in recognition of the fact that sustainable construction must be based first on passive energy design methods, supported by mechanical means only as a secondary consideration. To loosely quote Steve Mouzon, of The Original Green, the most efficient HVAC system is the one that never has to run. Traditional design is also an acknowledgement that no building is green by itself. Its relationship to neighboring structures and the public realm cannot be overlooked.

Bath, England
This typological "building block" approach to design and education is the foundation for our sophomore studio curriculum, which introduces students to the role of the architect as a steward of community. And it was highlighted in a summer studio in Bath, England, which I co-led with Professor Richard Economakis in June of 2009. With a team of ten students – undergraduate, graduate and recent alumni – we created a proposal for a large swath of disused industrial land immediately adjacent to the historic center of the medieval and Georgian city on the south bank of the River Avon.

Bath provides an ideal location for study on two counts. First, it has a uniquely intact and uniquely homogeneous building fabric, renowned for the quality and consistency of its architectural detail primarily dating back to the 18th century, whose relative simplicity provides a good model for understanding the structure of this process. Second, Georgian urban strategies, in particular the urban block, which locates carriage houses along internal mews or secondary streets, providing an additional scale of residential options, accommodating private means of transportation and acting as a buffer for private gardens, were subsequently adapted in American cities like New York, Boston and Chicago, and still serve as the essential structuring device in the layout of new traditional developments in the U.S., especially those realized by members of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU).

"New Urbanism," or as some might simply say, "good urbanism," is a system, a method, which in order to be applied correctly must be locally calibrated. We can't help communities around the world to successfully sustain themselves and their built environments with a blanket solution. The solutions must grow out of the conditions of the place – topography, climate, material and culture. As such, distilling the ideal form from one's study and applying it as a basis of design is only the first step.

Even for a form as clear and ubiquitous as the Georgian block, we see the local calibration evident in Bath as it is deformed to accommodate the rolling topography of the Somerset hills and bends to embrace views from the iconic crescents. By contrast, the site selected for the Western Riverside project has relatively little variation in topography, so a crescent form wasn't appropriate. Deformation of the ideal block type instead occurred to ensure connectivity of the mews and definition of the formal public squares.

The Georgian terrace house was likewise adapted, allowing for more comfortably scaled residential units. More familiarly known as a row house in America, it was chosen as the basic residential type both for its elegant simplicity and because it allows maximum unit sub-divisions in response to changing socio-economic circumstances.

Buildings were limited to three stories plus attic (with basements where possible), to match the typical local roof height. Bath stone, the primary building material throughout the existing city, was reserved for civic buildings and ornamental details due to its increasingly limited availability and was replaced, for the most part, with brick of a similar tone. And building on the established local vocabulary of forms and hierarchical degrees of articulation, suggestions for architectural expression ranged from simple vernacular (with occasional Classical references) for residential and commercial buildings, to dignified Classical compositions for public edifices.

Such a systematic approach to adapting and crafting localized solutions based on traditional models is applicable to both surgical interventions for the repair and for the judicious expansion of existing communities. In no way does it prohibit individual expression. It simply describes the manner by which buildings are made legible to the viewer and able to communicate effectively with one another, and explains the reasoning behind the material, formal and detail choices found in a given place.

It also does not discard technology. To have a real impact on a 21st century community, one cannot ignore the car, throw out the satellite dish or ditch the cell phone. I would guess that few would want to. What we can do is understand that these technologies exist to serve us, not to dictate the form of our built environment.

The typological method is most clearly and simply introduced in a place like Bath. But while it becomes more faceted and layered, this approach for both study and design is well applied to a more heterogeneous context as well. In either case, beginning with the view that urban growth ought to occur incrementally – neighborhood by neighborhood – a replicable model can be created. This model is not one that is replicated through cloning of a photograph or even the greatest master-plan image, but one that can be adjusted over time, incorporating the work of many hands and many minds.

By involving local people to not just reside in a place but to invest in it, to guide the process and, ideally, build it themselves, communities are empowered to ask for what they want with the knowledge to achieve it. With the tools to describe why parts of their city have remained, intact and vibrant, for so many years and, in the case of Bath, centuries, residents gain the means to better elucidate their concerns, to defend their heritage and to ensure their future.


Further information on the work of Professor Salden, the Bath Summer Studio and other happenings in the Notre Dame School of Architecture may be found on the school's website, www.architecture.nd.edu. Professor Salden teaches design studio and interdisciplinary courses on the history of urban form and sustainable design at the University of Notre Dame's School of Architecture. She was previously an associate and project manager for Historical Concepts in Atlanta,GA, and is a founding board member of the Institute for Classical Architecture and Classical America (ICA&CA) Southeast Chapter. Salden is a LEED AP and holds a B.Arch. and a Masters of Architectural Design and Urbanism from the University of Notre Dame.

 

 

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