Bringing out the Best


Mouth of the Gowanus Canal (Source:

The Gowanus Canal is one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States. Located in Brooklyn, NYC, this mile and a half long Canal was used as a commercial and industrial waterway for the numerous industries and businesses in the surrounding area. Large ships carrying coal, cement, machines and tanks of natural gas and oil sailed through every day. During the industrial revolution, environmental regulations were near non-existent, and many industries simply deposited their waste into the waterway, polluting the water with heavy metals, pesticides and organics. Additionally, many of New York City’s combined sewers flowed into the Gowanus Canal, meaning that during periods of heavy rain, when the city’s wastewater treatment plants could not handle the combined flows of sewer water and stormwater, the sewers directed flows into the Gowanus – untreated. As the lowest point in the immediate area, any water that landed in the surrounding six square miles flowed into the Canal, picking up all sorts of pollutants on the way.

Currently, the Gowanus is undergoing a $506 million clean-up, which should be complete by 2022. With Downtown Brooklyn less than half a mile away, relators and other investors are beginning to realize the potential in the Gowanus neighborhood.  Gowanus by Design, a community-based urban design advocacy group, hosted its third annual Axis Civitas international design competition to invite design firms to envision a possible future for the Gowanus Canal, based on its rich and complex history. Entries had to have two components: 1) Conduct research on the current economic, environmental, or social conditions of the area and 2) use this research to provide a new community “Urban Field Station” to enable sustainable development and growth.

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An Irrational Request

(C) Luc Schuiten

As a fan of the fantasy genre, I have always been attracted to the concept of tree architecture. Almost every fantasy world has some magical city hidden in the forest, where the branches intertwine into canopy walkways and the trunks serve as dwellings. Belgian architect Luc Schuiten has taken this idea and applied it to the urban space, imagining sprawling cities made of twisting trees and illuminated by bio luminescent leaves. His drawings seem both fantastical and futuristic. I highly recommend you check out his work.


Schuiten is not the first architect to imagine the use of trees in urban design. Mitchell Joachim of Terreform ONE developed the Fab Tree Hab as a home that operates symbiotically with it’s surroundings.

(C) Luc Schiuten

It would be my wildest dreams come true if any of these ideas were to become a reality. There is an art known as tree sculpting that can shape trees into desired patterns and structures. However, the key obstacle to any of these designs (among many) is that trees take quite a long time grow to a usable size. Trees often outlive humans, so any endeavor would require humans to plan far in advance and be well-invested in the future of the species (and we all know how hard we struggle with that).

So I am putting a call out to the genetic engineers of the world – figure out a way to accelerate the growth of trees. I don’t know how you’ll do it, or if it can be done, but I assure you, if you can do it, you would drastically change the world as we know it today. We could have the amazing cities we read about in books. This is the irrational part of my brain speaking, and it’s really only for the aesthetic purposes, but please, make it work.

The Art and Engineering of Infrastructure

In a previous post, I brought up the idea of making our city’s infrastructure more aesthetically pleasing. Infrastructure – almost by definition – is hidden, buried underground or constructed in a far-off area away from the central city. By making our infrastructure aesthetically pleasing and placing it at the center of attention, the public has a better chance of appreciating the complex systems that support our modern lifestyle. There’s a good chance that our relationship with our built environment can rapidly change when we begin to appreciate the beauty of the systems in place.

The Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI), has this exact goal in mind. According to their website, LAGI wishes “to advance the successful implementation of sustainable design solutions by integrating art and interdisciplinary creative processes into the conception of renewable energy infrastructure.” This requires the collaboration of architects, urban designers, landscape architects, scientists and engineers all working together to create a work of art that generates physical and emotional value.

Every two years, LAGI holds a design competition that combines a major infrastructure sector with public art. In 2012, the competition centered around New York City’s Freshkills Park, drawing 250 submissions from around the world to redefine waste management to the public. This year, 2014, the project description was to design a public sculpture that also continuously distributes clean energy into the electrical grid, proving that our energy infrastructure can be both essential, and beautiful.

The first place winner was designed by Santiago Muros Cortés. Titled, “The Solar Hourglass,” this sculpture acts as a solar central receiver, concentrating solar energy through the use of flat mirrors to heat up a steam turbine and generate 7,500 MWh/year. Aesthetically speaking, the sculpture is quite elegant, consisting of two simple pieces that mirror each other, with the bright glow of the sun at the center (whether this would be a danger to eyesight remains to be seen). It certainly looks like something that should come out of a science fiction novel.  You can find the other winners and submissions at the competition website.


What attracts me to this competition is the idea that both science and art can be blended seamlessly together to create a product that could not have existed without this collaboration. I’m glad there are organizations like LAGI who strongly believe in the benefits of this intersection. The built environment inherently contains character, and this character must be expressed in order to garner full appreciation. Additionally, the built environment must also support the livelihood of the people that inhabit it. This requires design guided by scientific principles and engineering thinking. As I learned recently, architecture that does not consider engineering cannot fully unlock its full potential, and engineering without art cannot truly connect with the people.

By making our infrastructure the center of attention, our entire perspective regarding the built environment changes. It may not be easy to see at first, but consider how our line of thinking and behavior would change if we were cognizant of the many systems that support our way of life. A greater appreciation for the built and natural environment develops, and we are more aware of our place and effect we have on our surroundings. It may take a little more money to hire an architect to design something like a power plant, but consider the added benefits it will bring. What a world it would be if there were children pulling their parents by the hand, saying “Let’s go visit the garbage plant!”

Service that Inspires

Despite being essential for the function of society, infrastructure is often shunned or avoided by the general public. Facilities such as wastewater treatment plants, landfills, and gas plants often have a difficult time being constructed as no one wants to live near an ugly, smelly, or “dirty” site. While some transportation infrastructure, such as bus stations, are welcome by neighborhoods, other examples such as highways are opposed due to the increase in traffic and noise. This pubic behavior of NIMBY-ism (Not In My BackYard) results in costly construction (and transportation) costs, a lack in appreciation for infrastructure services, as well as discrimination and segregation (landfills are often found near neighborhoods of lower income, as these neighborhoods lack resources to oppose unwanted development, which drives down property values).

The New York City Sims Municipal Recycling Facility seeks to change the way the public views infrastructure. This state-of-the-art recycling facility was built to process 20,000 tons per month of NYC gas, plastic and metal while displacing 150,000 truck trips (260,000 miles) annually by utilizing barges on the Brooklyn Waterfront. This $110 million project transforms the old South Brooklyn Marine Terminal (which was used as a police tow-pound) into an exemplar of Infrastructure Design.

Instead of design taking a backseat to function, as is often the case in infrastructure, this recycling facility employed the services of Selldorf Architects. While hiring architects to design infrastructure facilities is not unheard of (see BIG’s waste-to-energy/ski slope), the design of the Sims Facility includes not just the aesthetics, but the function of the facility within the community. Selldorf, which is known for their simple, yet elegant and economic design, used recycled materials to construct the facility, and powered the buildings with solar and wind power. The challenge of working with a constrained budget did not deter Selldorf, in fact, it seemed to breed creative solutions.

As recycling is a harshly scrutinized practice by critics and city officials due to its low-profit margin, the Sims Facility set out to sell the idea of Recycling to the public. Aside from the aesthetics, the Facility also includes a visitor and education center that houses classrooms to hold visiting students. The department of Education is working on a curriculum to teach kids recycling processes and bring them to the facility to experience the process first hand. Selldorf was also careful to showcase the environmental benefits of their design by using renewable energy, including bioswales to treat stormwater runoff and having the foresight to elevate the facility four feet above the city minimum which protected it from major flood damage when Hurricane Sandy arrived.

Clearly, the design of the facility intended to show its worth to the public not just as a recycling center, but also as a social educator and respectful member of the community. This is a great example of Infrastructure achieving the ultimate goal of Service. The Sims facility should be an example to future infrastructure facilities. Infrastructure should be not only a place for efficient function, but also as places for education, appreciation and inspiration. It is not just aesthetics, but also the role of the facility within the community that makes the project so noteworthy. The collaboration between engineers designing the processes and the architects designing the program can change public opinion regarding these life-supporting systems. Sure, some infrastructure will always be shunned, but we should really try to change public perception of infrastructure in general. Infrastructure should not be something that drives off the public, it should be something that attracts the public as a source of pride in the community. 

But will it work? The Sims Municipal Recycling Facility will be open sometime soon, so we will have to wait for a while before we can determine if all the efforts paid off. Will the facility achieve all it set out to be and bring about a new appreciation for infrastructure? Or will it fall flat and serve only as a monetary sink for the city? Even if the facility doesn’t turn out to be a huge success, we can still learn from its failures and work on other solutions to bring about public appreciation (and therefore, funding) for the essential systems that support and serve our society.

Infrastructure should Inspire.

(For more information on the design of the building, see this excellent NY Times article)

A Little Help From Nature

A while ago, I wrote a blog post on Engineered Ecologies – a particular interest of mine. I have struggled to put into words why I find the concept so interesting, but I think I’ve come to some sort of explanation. Engineered Ecologies allow natural processes to continue to function while utilizing them for some positive benefit towards human society. I know that sounds like a lot of complicated mumbo jumbo that doesn’t seem to say anything at all. I’ve been trying to come up with a better way to explain myself, but at the moment, that’s what I’ve got. It’s easier to explain through examples rather than using a large amount of abstract, all-encompassing terms.

(Source: MIT Media Lab)

This kind of thinking – utilizing natural processes for human benefits – doesn’t just have to apply to ecologies, it also applies to systems on smaller scales. Recently, MIT featured a pavilion constructed with the help of 6,500 silkworms. After a scaffold was constructed, the silkworms were placed upon the bars and did their work – spinning webs of silk across the bars to form walls and windows as instructed by the influence of varying environmental factors – light, heat, and geometry. The applications for this technology include architecture and fabric manufacturing. The best part? The silkworms can produce offspring, allowing for a whole new set of workers.

Dewars’ – a whiskey maker – has a started a project using 80,000 honey bees. The bees are placed in a mold so that when the honeycombs are formed, they will form into desired shapes. Sculptures include a bottle and a human bust. I’m not sure how practical the bottle will be, or if the honeycomb structure provides any benefits for applications, but this strategy certainly exemplifies out-of-the-box thinking.

(Source: Dewar’s)

Finally, the company Ecovative – best known for the patented process of growing mushroom-based packaging, is testing their mushroom material as an insulating material in their Mushroom Tiny House. The mushroom material grows into the wooden walls in a few days, and once dried, creates an airtight and extremely strong insulating material. Because the mycelium can grow into the wood, no nails or glue is required to keep the wooden beams and panels together. The material provides great thermal insulation and fire resistance.

All three examples utilize a certain formula that allows natural processes to be used for human benefit. I haven’t quite found a word to describe this kind of thinking, I’m sure there’s a word out there that sums it up nicely. MIT uses the term “Biohacking” and Dewar’s calls their method “3-B” but I think this term is somewhat misleading. This kind of thinking is what motivates me to pursue Environmental Engineering, I hope to apply this thinking to infrastructure design.

After much thought, I’ve tried to boil the formula down into essential steps which can be applied to all scales (both engineered ecologies for infrastructure, and for smaller-scale examples mentioned above):

  1. Examine the problem/goal: what is it you want to achieve, in as basic terms as possible? (for instance, the problem is not building a bridge, but finding the most efficient and cost-effective method to get from point A to point B.) Usually, when you break the problem down, you allow your mind to view the problem in a different, unbiased light. This allows you to approach the problem using methods and strategies never before considered. Create a set of steps to achieve your now broken-down goal: This is your outline, the fundamental, basic steps one needs. These can be pretty abstract.
  2. Identify natural processes that achieve parts (or all) of your goal: This is similar to the strategy of biomimicry, in that you look at nature for examples. However, the goal isn’t just to mimic nature, it’s to actually USE nature. This may require some research and modeling, but basically, you are taking an inventory of the natural tools you can use to put together your solution. Tools can be physical/chemical (the hydrological cycles, the wind currents, soil chemistry) or biological (the silk-producing ability of worms, the honeycomb-construction of bees, the connective tissue of fungi).
  3. Create a framework for the natural processes to function: This is basically the scaffolding, or if you prefer biological metaphors – the seed. This is the structure that must be man-made, but once put into place, requires no artificial intervention. For instance, the MIT pavilion required scaffolding to achieve the desired shape, but once created, the silkworms did the rest of the work. Basically, the idea is to do as little as possible to get to your result. Think of it as growing a tree – you decide what kind of seed and where to plant it, but after that, nature pretty much takes over. It’s the same idea here. This way, the solution is formed by nature, and therefore is more resilient and adaptable (well, hopefully).
  4. Wait: Now your part is done. If you’ve done the research and careful planning required, the natural processes should now be doing the hard work for you. This part is probably the most unsettling for humans, as it requires a hands-back approach and we all know that humans don’t like to feel like they are not in control. Remember, this isn’t construction, this is growth.

Well there you have it – my formula. As I said before, it applies to the examples I listed in this post, as well as the examples in my Engineered Ecologies post, and I’m sure it applies to many other stories I’ve mentioned before. It probably makes little sense and actually has very little practical value. After all, I’ve never actually used this formula for anything, it’s just a product of my observations. If anything, I hope it gives you a slightly better idea of what I’m talking about and as to why I am so interested in Engineered Ecologies and this type of thinking. If you have any ideas or opinions on the topic, please share, I am always interested.

What are the advantages of this kind of thinking? I think this will help us garner a stronger appreciation and confidence for/towards the natural processes and systems that surround us. I also think that this will provide more cost-effective solutions. If we let nature do the heavy-lifting, I’m sure materials and operations costs will be reduced. Also I’m sure these solutions will be quite aesthetically appealing (which goes a long way towards community involvement and investment). There are of course, downsides to this thinking (mainly, time requires), and I welcome any inputs on the negatives of this kind of framework. But these are just an opinion of a 3rd year Environmental Engineering student with no professional experience. I’m curious to hear what others think. Please comment and/or share this piece with others that may find this interesting.

The Perfect Tree-house

SOURCE: Bijan H Architecture

Bijan Haghnegahdar, a designer in New York City, came up with an interesting idea which he calls Being Nature. The idea was born out of the simple observation that we as humans like to keep the things that are necessary for our survival – mainly trees and plants – out of our habitats. It seems strange that we would want to separate ourselves from the very things that keep us alive. Haghnegahdar sought to change this paradigm by designing habitable buildings supported by trees and other foliage. With the use of scaffolding put into place by the architect, the trees will grow around the scaffolding and form the framework of the building. Walls and floors will be formed using thick moss and ivy. What’s even more intriguing is that Haghnegahdar also identified the natural-equivalents of Radiators, Sinks, Shutters and Lightbulbs which would be grown within the building. The result is a very intriguing structural design with a very organic appearance. It would certainly be a great way to integrate the natural world with the artificial urban world.

SOURCE: Terreform ONE

Of course, as with many ideas envisioned by designers, these natural buildings are only conceptual ideas. While the design is based on current science and technology, Haghnegahdar makes it clear that these structures are grown “using botanical hybridization techniques in conjunction with speculative advances in biotechnology,” the key word being speculative. And there’s also the main obstacle with growing your own structures – time. Mitchell Joachim, one of the founders of Terreform ONE also came up with a “grown home” design called the Fab Tree Hab, but also consented that such a design would take some time to grow (Terreform ONE also designed a Meat Habitat…slightly less aesthetically pleasing in my opinion). It may take years, or even decades for the trees to form the necessary framework. And in our current world of rapid population growth, time may not be something we can spend freely. Additionally, when/if such buildings are grown, it may take quite a while for us to get used to the new interior design. I admit, although I am all for such a design, I am hesitant to imagine what it would be like to be surrounded with moss, soil and most probably insects. I like my clean, minimalist interiors. But I guess that is the current paradigm – our homes are meant to keep us separate (protected) from the natural environment, not to open ourselves up to the natural environment. But I’m sure if such a thing were to be grown, plenty of people would be lining up for the chance to live in such a building. After all, who wouldn’t want to say they get to sleep on a “cotton puff bed”?

You Wooden Be-leaf it

Sustainable building practices encompass many ideas: minimum resource consumption, efficient energy usage, recycled materials and so on. Often, new buildings and designs incorporate the latest technological innovations and use the newest materials (that are sometimes formed out of recycled products). But there’s a new technological innovation that’s starting to catch fire (pun intended), and this one has been around for a couple billion years.

Amazon Deforestation

Thanks to many environmental organizations, the danger of deforestation has been widely spread, and rightly so. Deforestation destroys biodiversity as well as health for the soil and wildlife (and yes, ultimately us humans). Entire jungles have been chopped down for the sake of more farmland, paper products, and lumber for buildings. And with such stories as The Lorax (which admittedly, I have not read, but I plan on seeing the film!), the dangers of tree-cutting are ringing even in the ears of today’s generation.

But it’s important to note that the very first materials used to build homes were made out of trees. Huts and tools and such were, and still are, made out of trees. The key is limited and controlled consumption. I’m not sure how accurate this is, but I once read that some lumber industries have made it a point to plant seeds for every tree they cut down, to ensure that another will take its place. Yes, I’m aware that seeds take quite a while to grow to be tree-cutting worthy, but the idea is still there. The point it that even though we have been taught that cutting down trees and using them for our purposes is a bad thing, the truth is that trees are a renewable resource (as long as we manage resource consumption diligently), we can keep growing them, and in that sense they are probably the most “green” building material we have (oh man, I am just full of puns today).


Architect Michael Green (yes, another play on words) has designed a 30 story skyscraper for Vancouver made primarily out of wood. Instead of using the traditional carbon-producing concrete and metal materials, Green utilizes a special type of lumber known as Laminated Strand Lumber (basically a bunch of small wooden strips glued together for increased structural properties) to construct the framework of his building. Green has been generous enough to post his research on the use of timber for tower construction publicly. Instead of adding to the carbon in the environment, this construction technique actually takes in carbon in the sense that while alive, trees and plants have this uncanny ability of breathing in carbon and breathing out oxygen.

You may be thinking, doesn’t wood catch on fire, and isn’t it a pretty poor substitute for metal and concrete? Well the truth is, wood is actually safer than steel when enflamed. The wood chars on the outside and creates a protective layering for the inside. And thanks to the innovative method of Laminated Strand Lumber (or Cross-Laminated Timber, as I discovered a few months ago), the wood performs just as well as steel and concrete for most building purposes.

Green isn’t the only architect that has thought about bringing back wood. Austria is also in the process of producing a wooden skyscraper. London is currently constructing a high-rise residential building made out of cross-laminated timber.



Not only is the use of wood sustainable (with careful forestry management), but the use of wood is also aesthetically appealing. After a few weather-proof treatments, you wouldn’t even need to spend extra on covering up the beautiful structural framework. Modern buildings are often characterized with the generous use of metals and glass, but it’s nice to see a more…earthly appearance to skyscrapers. The combination of wood and straight edges gives it a very tree-like appearance while still maintaining that human-designed beauty and order.

So while deforestation is still a topic that we all should be concerned about, I think the main takeaway is that more emphasis should be placed on managing the world’s forests. Trees provide so much benefit for the natural environment and humanity; if we can carefully manage the earth’s supply, we can come up with many sustainable innovations utilizing a renewable resource. Instead of always creating new things, perhaps we should look back on how older societies and tribes utilized their resources and improve upon their techniques for a modern age.