Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Energy Disasters

   I want to talk about energy, the environment, fear and morality.  I'm not going to talk about global warming and whether or not it's real or caused by humans, because it doesn't matter.  What matters is that i don't want to live in a world where i can't drink the air or breathe the water.  Or something like that.  Trees are pretty neat, too.
  Because i work in architecture, energy is something i think about quite a lot.  If you take a look at this graph posted by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, it's easy to see why energy use is a major concern for architects.
   Never mind cars or manufacturing plants -- those buildings you live and work in are drawing down more energy than either of those.  Now, there are some noble endeavors taking place in the domain of reducing our energy needs, such as LEED and Green Globes.  The US Green Building Council, which oversees LEED, boasts that over 10,000 homes in the US are now LEED certified.  That's nice, but according to the American Housing Survey of the US Census there are over 128 MILLION housing units, so that doesn't make for a very good percentage.  No matter what the adoption rate of sustainable practices though, it seems unlikely that our energy demands are going to shrink.  Ever.
   Things look even bleaker in the Industrial sector as pressures mount to weaken the ability of the EPA to enforce penalties on businesses who flout the environmental restrictions on pollution.  Loosening restrictions might decrease manufacturing costs, and maybe if they're richer they'll expand and hire more, but it will definitely increase pollution.  If these businesses were capable of responsible self-regulation we wouldn't have all the restrictive, knee-jerk legislation they're complaining about in the first place, because it would never have been necessary to write.  Pollution and energy are only somewhat related, but the point is that the industrial sector isn't going to solve this problem internally.
   In the transportation sector there's a little bit of sunshine now that car companies are realizing that consumers want more fuel efficient cars, but as with housing, the percentage of efficient cars and the colossal, growing quantity of vehicles on the road trumps any gains from efficiency.  Switching to electric may provide a slight respite, but at our current rate it's about 21-58% in greenhouse gas emissions better than gasoline, as calculated by The Energy Blog.  The remaining 42-79% is coming from the power plants that provide electricity to the car...and your house.
   Compounding the problem, developing nations face an impossible choice between following sustainable practices (and being left behind the industrialized world, who polluted for decades) or callously polluting (and having sanctions imposed on them through the World Trade Organization and others).
   So if our energy demands in buildings are going to consistently increase, and the next best alternative to gasoline in cars also increases our energy demand, what about those power plants that are providing the energy?  Here's a bit of a confusing graph, but i'll do my best to simplify it.
   On the left we've got sources of energy, and on the right the sector for which the energy is used.  The numbers along the lines on the left indicate what percent of that source is being used in a particular sector -- for example, Petroleum, which accounts for 37% of all energy use in the United States, is primarily used for transportation.  To be specific, 72% of all petroleum goes to transportation uses.  This accounts for 94% of all transportation energy.  So that i can use consistent units of measurement throughout this analysis, let's convert the 94.6 quadrillion Btu (British thermal units) to terawatt-hours: 27,724 TWh.
   I want to focus on electric power and residential and commercial sectors.  The R&C energy demands are provided mostly through natural gas.  Recently we've discovered that we have an enormous amount of natural gas in the United States, so that's unlikely to change.  There are all sorts of controversial issues surrounding the safety of extracting it, but i'll leave those discussions to the experts and courts.  We're going to use a much higher f/stop for this topic so that we don't fall into the trap of missing the forest for the trees.
   Electric power, on the other hand, is provided by a number of sources, coal foremost among them.  That's not ideal, because we know that fossil fuels aren't particularly good for the environment.  People are scared of nuclear (we'll come back to this), so that leaves "Renewables", a category which includes wind, solar, biomass and hydroelectric.  There is a fascinating article by Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi which outlines a world where energy needs are entirely met with the use of renewables, but for various reasons i find their report to be somewhat fantastical (the scale of the project, primarily).
   Nuclear power would be far easier to implement, if the political will were present.  Perhaps it's not, and this is similarly wishful thinking, but unless we harness some as-yet-undiscovered source of energy in the near future, these are the only two acceptable solutions.
   But people are afraid of nuclear energy.
   Here's why you shouldn't be.  Here's a graph to bring home the point.
   That nuclear figure includes Chernobyl and the recent Fukushima Daichi disaster.  There are one MILLION deaths per year due to the coal power industry, which includes mining and air pollution deaths.  In contrast, there are only 104 deaths per year (averaged) due to nuclear power.  Building more nuclear power plants would increase the total number of deaths per year due to nuclear power, but would drastically lower the total number of deaths per year due to energy production.  One of the ironic consequences of the Fukushima disaster is that countries which had plans to build more nuclear power plants have decided to stall construction of those facilities, which has the effect of keeping older, less safe nuclear power plants in operation.  If there's one thing i learned from SimCity, it's that it's a bad idea to run a nuclear power plant longer than its lifespan.  Incidentally, the Fukushima Daichi reactors were days from a likely shutdown (due to age) when the tsunami hit.  Thus far, there has been 1 death attributable to radiation from Fukushima.\
   Opponents of nuclear energy like to say things like "nuclear power is safe...unless there's a disaster".  Well, how many disasters until it would be comparable to coal power?  Let's measure it in units of Chernobyl disasters.  Estimates for deaths from Chernobyl range anywhere from 31 (JUST thirty-one) to 1.4 million, which is a pretty ridiculous range.  For the sake of argument, let's take the worst estimate: 1,400,000 deaths.  We would need to have a Chernobyl scale disaster every year and a half (16.8 months) just to match coal alone.  Chernobyl happened 24 years ago, to a nuclear power plant built with 1970's technology.  Do you know what else was built in 1977?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
  The Apple II.  Now look at the computer or smartphone you're using now.  We've come a long way, haven't we?
   If you still think nuclear power is unsafe -- compared to what?  Let me show you a list of things people are likely to die from: choose one.  Neither nuclear power nor radiation show up.  
   But what about nuclear waste?  That's an environmental issue too, right?  Well, no.  If there were political will to build nuclear reactors, we could invest in breeder reactors like the Integral Fast Reactor, which can use waste fuel from other nuclear reactors as fuel, and which produces waste fuel itself which is radioactive for orders of magnitude less time than current waste.
   Our fear of nuclear power is causing nearly 1.4 million deaths per year.  It's dirtying our air and acidifying our oceans.

   It's time to stop being afraid.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Wednesday Update

Wednesday update this week -- i put a lot of effort into making sure all the images i host here are shared legally, but the post planned for this week contained photos from a studio's website with restrictive licensing.  I'll do my best to get the quality of article you expect up by tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Hamilton Road Interview

   This week i had the opportunity to sit down and talk to Dave Delind, a friend of mine who has been working on a massive home renovation project he calls the Hamilton Road Project.  I wanted to ask him a few questions about the house and renovations, and the transcript follows.  All the photos are pulled from Dave's blog (link below), which i highly recommend reading.  My questions are in italics.

What exactly is the Hamilton Road Project?
   The Hamilton Road Project on paper is the renovation of an antique house.  On that face of the project I decided to take it on to see physical results from my education.  On the other face of the project is that it was the house my father and his brothers grew up in.  It was bought by my grandfather in the '40s, and at the end of the day it was either buy it or a developer buys the block and bulldozes the block for condos.
The HRP Before Work Begins
How long have you been working on the project?
   Just over two years.

So what made you decide to undertake the entire renovation yourself?
   My grandfather and my dad are people I looked/look up to.  The were/are the sort of people that solve their own problems and depend on themselves.  It seemed to me that if I could do the ins and outs of a project like this and see it through that it would help me depend on myself more.
The Original Interior
Walls Removed
Is it working?
   Well, yes and no.  It has made me realize that any problem can be solved and what is considered "standard" or "code" may  not necessarily be the best solution to a given problem -- but at the same time it is quite humbling.  I went into it thinking I knew how to work with my hands and now I realize that in most aspects I am still a novice.
Novel Problem-Solving
Speaking of code, have you had any trouble getting your renovations approved with the city?
   I did at first, mainly because I didn't get a permit.  Or 5 permits for that matter.  It was ok for the first year, but I got the bright orange "Stop Building Notice" about a year ago.  As it turned out, the inspector knew my grandfather, walked through to see what i was doing later that day, approved me, and decided not to hit me with fines.
Hah, lucky.
   Yeah, mainly he just wanted to see I wasn't trying to flip the place and knew somewhat what I was doing.

Ok, two-part question:  what was the state of the house before you bought it, and what's your goal for the final style of the renovation?
Do you mean physical state or style state?

Well, both.
   The house, as I found out getting into working on it, should have been condemned ten years ago as an unsafe structure.  [It was at a] point where half the walls needed to be jacked up, kicked out and re-framed because of how badly the supports were rotted.
   The physical style was pre-Victorian for the original brick, with a truly utilitarian gray addition from the forties built off the back.  My plan is to leave the brick parts of the house more or less unchanged and have painted stucco off the back.
Looking Out The Front Windows
What's been the biggest hurdle or surprise you've had to overcome for the HRP?
   Well, every day there are things that were unexpected and each has its own "special" way of being difficult.  I can't really say one part was harder to overcome, but there are a few points that stand out in my mind.  The first was raising the walls two inches with jacks the same way someone would change a tire.  That was one of the more dangerous things we accomplished.
   Beyond the aesthetic things that are starting to come online now the single thing i take a great deal of pride in is the HVAC system.  I had never worked with sheet metal before and built from the ground up a system that passed code and works.
So it seems like you're getting to the point where you're most of the way done; when do you expect to be able to move into the house?
   My goal is to have Thanksgiving there.

Do you have any other big projects you've got on the shelf for after you finish this one?
   Actually I haven't allowed myself to think too far out yet.  I found early on that if I didn't break things down day to day it was too overwhelming to continue.  I can definitely say though that I won't let the skills gained go to waste.
Stairs To The Basement
Ok, last question:  what advice do you have for readers who might want to start a big renovation project?
   What I can say is this:  It is a great thing to do, but if you take on something like [the Hamilton Road Project] there are caveats just like anything else.  It will take twice as much time and three times as much money as you initially expected, but at the end of the day nothing is more satisfying.  On that line, though, for anyone getting into a project like this, the help and support of my family, soon to be family, and friends was the most valuable thing on site.  Not only were they there to help manually, financially and spiritually, but they kept me going even on days that I didn't want to be working.

Thanks for much for contributing.  Best of luck on completing the renovations!
You can follow Dave's progress on his blog at

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Typography 2.0

   Bam!  Starting right off with one of my favorite program fonts.  I'm using "program" here in the sense of program music, in which the composition is intended to evoke a particular story.  Think Copland's "Rodeo" (that's the "Beef -- it's what's for dinner" music) or Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" (the one with Mickey in Fantasia).  I specifically mention the Sorcerer's Apprentice because this font looks like the sort of thing that would appear in a spellbook, or engraved on some ancient tablet.  On a more technical level, one of the common elements you'll notice in these program fonts is a strong implementation of kerning.  If you investigated the links on the first typography post, you'll know that kerning is an adjustment of spacing between certain letter pairs, like A and V, which can overlap slightly.  Mael kerns Ls, Rs, and Qs to an extreme extent, along with many others.
   None of these fonts in this second typography update are suitable for anything that's meant to be read.  However, they do provide a great visual quality if you're more concerned with how the words look.  These are all free fonts for noncommercial use, so if you'd like to use them personally, i'll provide a link to each.

   This crazy text is "Oblivion Worn", which is a typeface used by the video game The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  This version is fan-made and graciously licensed for public use by parent company Bethesda.  Instead of repeating any existing language, Bethesda invented an entirely new set of characters, which necessitated drawing a new typeface.  Because of the strong association here with the games, i've included it here for comparison to Mael rather than for any sort of suggested use.  If you aren't up for making your own font, tab on over to 1001 Free Fonts and grab yourself one.  There are so many great free fonts that there isn't any excuse not to find a novel one that isn't everywhere.  A note on the link -- those are free for non-commercial use, but you "have to" buy them to use them commercially.  Don't steal.

   Here's a whimsical one.  Like the name suggests, it's looking to capitalize on the stereotypical horror flick style.  Unlike most of these other typefaces in this second typography post, Chiller looks better in block text than it does as a title.  The downside of this text is that it's SO iconic that it's pushing cliche.  Still, it could be put to good use as a starting point for some Photoshoppery such as the "dripping text" effect.

   Code Bold is a good example of creating a strong impression without a lot of whistles and bells.  It doesn't take an incredible amount of gimmick to make great design, which is a theme that will certainly appear frequently throughout this blog.
   This is a complete 180 from Code Bold; AlphaRuler is wildly prescriptive.  The empty space inside letters is reminiscent of stencils or early 80s computer readouts.  The thin lines also make it difficult to apply any Photoshop effects, but you could always pick up the bold version of AlphaRuler if that's your interest.

   There are far too many script fonts to keep track of, but i'll include a pair here for comparison.  I'll post the second without further comment so you can view both on one screen.

   Scriptina has the appearance of grace and ornament...until you see Tangerine.  The impossible perfection of Tangerine's script is the sort of thing you'd expect on wedding invitations.  Consider for a moment that people used to actually practice their script until they could craft letters this precise for important documents.  On the flip side of that comparison, Scriptina manages to look just sloppy enough to create the illusion of handwriting.
   There's talk of fonts with multiple entries for each letter that will randomly grab one of the options so there's less repetition, but i'm not sure if it's possible in the .otf format.  If you've seen one of these in circulation, let me know.
   What's YOUR favorite typeface?

Monday, June 13, 2011

New Links!

There's a link over on the right sidebar now for the amazing and talented Juan Freitez at J.F. Production!  It's right under the link for Stair Porn.  You should probably take a look at both of those.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Typography 1.0

   We're going to take a quick break from strict architecture to take a look at the intimately related field of graphic design! You see, it's a common misconception that architects build buildings. In fact, what architects do is draw pretty pretty pictures of imaginary structures to help instruct the construction trades and to seduce reticent city development commissions into signing permits. If you've ever bought from Ikea or Lego, you know where i'm driving.
   What? You've never seen the instruction manuals on how to build Lego sets? Heresy!
   Go out and buy one of those little $10 sets, i'll wait. Ok, ready to continue?
   Those sorts of graphic instructions are fantastic for describing complicated relationships of objects. Imagine Lego sets that read this way:
          1) Locate the flat rectangular blue lego piece with circular top joiners in a two by four pattern. Attach this piece vertically between the joiners of a similar             red piece. This construction will be referred to as L-1.
   That would be terrible.
   But today isn't going to focus on graphic instructions, no! Today the topic of interest is the way the written information is conveyed. We'll investigate the use of color and layout another time. That's right, it's time to dissect a few typefaces.
   Just like your junior high biology class, we're going to ignore the real technical parts of what the point of a spleen is, because the test only cares if you can differentiate the spleen from the eyes. If you want to get into the meat of typographic design, i recommend you check out ilovetypography and this fantastic graphic hosted over at graphikhaus. If that stuff isn't your cup of tea, don't fret, this article is going to focus on the application of typography instead of the lexicon.
   Enough introduction, let's jump in and take a look-see at the first font on today's menu.

   That is some attractive lettering, don't you think?  It looks a little bit like the typeface this blog uses (Philosopher).  Nyala is based on Sylfaen, both of which ship with Windows and/or Microsoft Office.
   The "Lorem ipsum..." phrase is a commonly used placeholder text used to demonstrate the visual qualities of a layout or other graphic design.  Although the original phrasing might be attributed to a text by Cicero, the words have been intentionally jumbled to make the paragraph nonsensical.  The point is to illustrate how a paragraph written in the typeface would read, which can be difficult to focus on when there are meaning-loaded words to be read.
  Nyala has a stately quality to it that's just a little bit playful.  The lettering is fairly complex and bold, though, making it somewhat unsuitable for large masses of text.
Appropriate Uses: Business Cards, Resume Titles
Inappropriate Uses: Books

   Yeah, you knew it was coming.  Look, Papyrus is a fantastic font.  It's distinct, slender and appears worn and aged, like writing on the parchment that gives Papyrus its name.  It's one of a very few calligraphic, hand drawn typefaces that are shipped with most Windows computers.  It's also legible, which puts it a big step ahead of Parchment or (perish the thought) Wingdings.
   But here's the thing -- Papyrus is EVERYWHERE.  You've probably seen it on those framed prints of crepuscular rays streaming through clouds with Bible quotes in the foreground.  Or on your favorite "organic" foodstuffs.  Or in the subtitles of the "Prince of Persia" movie.  The logo for the mysteriously-still-in-business company "Edible Arrangements" and for the movie "Serenity" aren't quite Papyrus, but they're awfully close.  I love Firefly, but that still bugs me.
   For better or worse, Papyrus has developed this association with organic, natural, and/or Middle Eastern stuff.  If that's what you're selling, at least you're advertising yourself accurately.  But you've given up your ability to control your image, which might cost you business down the road.  If you look at the companies that sell an image, almost all of them have uniquely designed logos.  Coke and Apple spring to mind, although the latter has opted to lean more heavily on their graphic logo than the written name, which uses an older typeface reminiscent of what those old 80s printers with the tear-off edges could handle...which is appropriate for the company that made those possible.
Appropriate Uses: ...
Inappropriate Uses: Everything.

   How many papers did you write in 12 point Arial with 1 inch margins?  Or maybe you used...
   Helvetica won't make an appearance in this post.  I can't say anything about it that hasn't already been said in the movie of the same name.  Arial is pretty darn similar anyway.
   I was a Times New Roman writer all through grade school.  It seemed a bit more professional looking to me than Arial, which i believed (and still do) would improve the grade i got on my paper.  Some people like to boost the size of their font to make their paper look longer, but this just makes it look like you never switched from standard rule to college ruled paper.  Standard rule is the one with maybe 10 lines on a typical 8.5x11 leaf.  You don't want your teacher to think you're still in kindergarten.  Of course, using a smaller font does mean you need to write more, but that's probably a good thing.
   Both Arial and Times New Roman are eminently legible, which is great for your poor teachers' eyes who've read one hundred papers before yours, all written at the last minute and with worked cited of Wikipedia only. Most of the indecision between them stems from the argument of serif vs. sans-serif (without serifs).  If you looked at those links up at the top of the page, you already know the difference, but basically serifs are those little bits of decoration on the edges of letters that Times has and Arial doesn't.
   There are conflicting studies as to whether serif or sans-serif fonts are easier to read, but the arguments goes something like this.  Serifs guide the eyes horizontally and provide clear terminal points to each letter which makes the letters more recognizable based on individual characteristics of each letter.  Sans-serif fonts are cleaner.  This argument isn't likely to end anytime soon, but there's some evidence to suggest serif fonts are better in print, whereas sans-serif fonts are easier to read on the computer.  This is because until recently, computer monitor resolutions were insufficient to render the detail of very small type, and serifs are an additional level of complexity that ends up as an indistinguishable blur.
   You'll notice i'm using a serif font here.  That's because i'm confident my awesome readership is tech-savvy enough to have a monitor with a decent resolution.
   One point about the uses here -- a LOT of businesses use Helvetica for their logo.  It's not as heinously annoying as Papyrus because it's just so plain, so it focuses the attention on the name of the business rather than the design.
Appropriate Uses: Term Papers, Office Memos
Inappropriate Uses: Wedding Invitations, Comic Books

   Ok, along with my all-time favorite typeface, Papyrus, Comic Sans gets a lot of flak.  The difference is that most people seem to get it with Comic Sans.  The name gives away the origin -- it's supposed to look like the writing in comic books, and it doesn't have serifs (sans)...most of the time.  It's a sort of childish, playful font, and people recognize that that isn't the quality you want when you're coming up with a sign for your business.  If you're a teenager on AIM, it's forgivable to use Comic Sans (Do teens still use AIM?  Oh man, i'm dating myself), but for the rest of us, leave the comic lettering to the comic book artists, who ink the letters by hand.
Appropriate Uses: AIM, amateur comic books
Inappropriate Uses: This

   See, isn't this better than Comic Sans?  This being an architecture blog, i can't help but point out that the Frank of this Frank the Architect typeface is our good friend Francis D.K. Ching, the author of those great design drawing textbooks.  This typeface is best in all caps, or "cruise control" for the web forum-inclined.
Appropriate Uses: Architectural Notation
Inappropriate Uses: Term Papers

   This is just another example of a playful font that you could use instead of Comic Sans.  Of course, you could also create your own typeface with the Font Generator, which is pretty groovy.  You might have noticed that throughout this post i've been avoiding using the term "font" in favor of "typeface".  This is because a typeface includes the family of whole font family; bold, italic, and other variations on a font are all part of one typeface.
Appropriate Uses: Entomology Notebooks
Inappropriate Uses: Government Buildings

   Georgia is like the Apple of the typography world.  It's not necessarily a better typeface than any of the other standard web fonts, but it gets fewer viruses because it isn't as popular.  Wait, no.  You get the idea.  It's gaining popularity very quickly around the 'net, though, so we'll see how long that lasts.
   It's ok to be a typography hipster.  It really was cooler before it got popular.

   This is getting to be a really long post, so i'm going to split it up into two posts!  Typography 2.0 will hit your computer like a sledgehammer sometime later this week (regular Tuesday posts won't be interrupted) and we'll look at some of my favorite unusual and programmatic typefaces that really carry a lot of weight.
   Not really like a sledgehammer though, i have terrible aim with those things.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Euthanasia Coaster

   Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the infamous pathologist who championed the "right to die" by physician assisted suicide, died today. Serendipitously, i also discovered today the following project by Lithuanian designer Julijonas Urbonas. Be warned, the contents of the linked page may be somewhat disturbing to sensitive reasons.

   Euthanasia Coaster

   Links provided in the text of any posts will be archived semi-permanently in the "Quick Links" sidebar to the right.