RIP British architect Will Alsop 1947-2018

Will Alsop was fun. But he was seriously interested in green building and making the world a better place. His partner Marcos Rosello notes in the Guardian that “he had an exceptional ability to recognise particular strengths in individuals which he would draw out and nurture. His design ethos, essentially to ‘make life better’, is evident in the architecture of his buildings and their surrounding communities. We will miss him greatly.”

TreeHugger covered him because of his work with Bioregional Quintain, where he designed around the late lamented Bioregional’s principles of one planet living that go far beyond LEED, but include being zero carbon, zero waste, supporting local food and the health and happiness of its residents. It was and is a wonderful vision.

OCAD UOCAD U/ Wikipedia/CC BY 2.0

Alsop had a huge influence in my home, Toronto, where he designed the famous tabletop at OCAD university. It changed Toronto in a lot of ways, making people here realize that architecture can be fun. Even Alsop, who originally disliked Toronto, noted that the city had changed, telling the Star: “Right now I’m doing nothing else in Toronto — which I’m sad about,” he said. “Unlike 2000, when I didn’t like to come, I like to come now.”

alsopWill Alsop/ Wikipedia/CC BY 2.0

Alsop was never a superstar in architecture and had many reverses along the way. Oliver Wainwright, in his obit, notes that he “shook the establishment with his wild and wacky visions, which were often too harebrained for reality to bear.” Wainwright notes:

To his critics, Alsop was a reckless pied piper, duping desperate mayors of struggling cities into commissioning madcap schemes they could never hope to build. To his fans he was a mischievous breath of fresh air, injecting a welcome dose of colour and energy into a profession that was all too beige.

Many architects find success late in life so a death at 70 is seriously a career cut short, but like many architects, Alsop was, according to Wainwright, “never to be found far from a bottle of wine and packet of cigarettes.”

But in his work with BioRegional he profoundly influenced sustainable design, showing that it could be fun, accessible and exciting. He will be missed.

OCAD UOCAD U from Grange Park/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

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Architect Elrond Burrell on the subjective pleasures of PassiveHouse

It’s not all about numbers, really there’s more.

I have probably quoted Kiwi architect Elrond Burrell more than any other living architect; his blog on Passivhaus (or PassiveHouse) is invaluable.(See related links at bottom for my posts that reference him). I even named a new green building standard after him. One of the things I really looked forward to at the 22nd International Passivhaus Conference in Munich was actually meeting him in person and hearing him speak as one of the keynotes.

Elrond, like myself, spends a lot of time trying to explain the benefits of Passivhaus that go beyond just saving energy and reducing carbon emissions, although that should be enough on its own. But it’s not, particularly in an era of cheap fuel prices. So Elrond explained why he loves PassiveHouse so much:


Architectural design is typically carried out with little or no environmental consideration during the design process. Once the design has reached a certain stage, it is assessed so that “environmental features” can be added.

Elrond suggests that PassiveHouse is different, and that design is baked into it from day one, that “design is central to Passive House.” I am not sure that I agree here; I have seen some really ugly PassiveHouse buildings and houses. But Elrond’s basic point is valid; PassiveHouse design avoids what Philadelphia builder Nic Darling called “Polishing the turd”, building the same thing that they always did but just tacking stuff on.

So, they polish the turd. Rather than redesign the house that has been successful for them in the past, they add solar panels, geothermal systems, high end interior fixtures, extra insulation and other green features. The house gets greener. It gets certified, but it also increases significantly in cost. Since the features are add-ons and extras, the price rises as each one is tacked on.

PassiveHouse avoids that by keeping it simple.


PHPPHouseplanning Help/Screen capture

Building standards are often confusing and aspirational, failing to deliver what they claim. There is integrity in the clarity and simplicity of the Passive House Standard performance requirements.

Integrity perhaps; I have never heard anyone describe achieving it as simple. Just look at that spreadsheet! But the concept has always been clear: you can burn so much energy per unit area, and have just so many air changes. Everything else is commentary.


slanket© What is comfort anyway?

This is something we have been going on about for years on TreeHugger; I have called it the best way to sell the Passive House concept. Elrond notes that “Passive House is a comfort standard” It’s not really, because comfort is subjective. As Engineer Robert Bean has written, comfort is “a condition of mind that expresses satisfaction with the thermal environment and is assessed by subjective evaluation.” Basically, it’s all in your head — and in your skin. So you want the interior surface of the wall as close to the temperature of our skin as possible, to minimize heat loss from our skin sensors to the walls and windows. That’s what you get in PassiveHouse.


Architecture is often described as a combination of art and science. Art is subjective; however, buildings have no choice but to obey the laws of science.

Alas, this is why many architects avoid doing PassiveHouse; it’s hard to turn them into art. You need real talent to get rid of jogs and bump outs and big windows, to make it, as Bronwyn Barry calls it, Boxy But Beautiful. But these days more and more architects are figuring it out and doing beautiful buildings that just happen to be PassiveHouse certified. And finally, Elrond talks about:


Community in MunichNorth American participants at the International Passivhaus Convention/CC BY 2.0

The construction industry often feels fragmented and adversarial. Passive House is different… There is a very strong global Passive House community.

At the conference in Munich it certainly felt like there was a community. Alas, in North America the community is still a bit fragmented and adversarial.

I found Elrond’s talk to be inspiring, accessible and refreshing, but it appeared that the other energy nerds in the room were not as seduced by its charms as I was; they would rather look at data. This is a shame; there are many ways to save energy or go Net Zero that don’t deliver these benefits. Integrity, comfort, community and design, all those subjective attributes of PassiveHouse, are ultimately what people really care about. They should listen and learn.

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Woman architect travels Europe in her self-built van conversion (Video)

We see and hear a lot about van conversions out here in North America, but over the ocean in Europe, there are apparently a good number of adventurous souls striking out in tricked-out vehicles too.

One of them is Viki, a recovering architect from Germany, who is travelling around Europe with her dog Cleo and her self-built van conversion that she’s named Illa (the pun of “van-illa” is intended). Viki says that she had previously been living a normal life, working long hours in her architecture job, sharing an apartment with friends, and had initially intended to buy a car in order to drive to Norway to find another job. But seeing that a van was about the same price, Viki ended up building out a van home instead, and has since been journeying around for the last six months, visiting fresh new destinations around Europe. We get a look inside via The Indie Projects:

The Indie ProjectsThe Indie Projects/Video screen capture

Van-Illa is a Volkswagen T5 with a long wheel base. Viki has remade the interior to resemble a comfy, feminine bedroom that has all her possessions within reach (including quirky favourites like her collection of Disney movies). One of the interesting design elements here is how she has created a kind of L-shaped counter with shelving up front. The little bright red refrigerator sits here, keeping things cool when needed, though Viki says that over the last few months she has almost been eating only plant-based foods, so she hasn’t been using it much.

The Indie ProjectsThe Indie Projects/Video screen capture

The Indie ProjectsThe Indie Projects/Video screen capture

The Indie ProjectsThe Indie Projects/Video screen capture

The interior is insulated with 4-centimetre-thick cork board. Viki has used salvaged materials wherever possible: cabinet doors her neighbour almost threw out, and linoleum for her counter. Yet another awesome feature is her adjustable bed. With a lift up on folding supports, it becomes a reclining lounge seat-and-bed that looks out through the the rear van doors.

The Indie ProjectsThe Indie Projects/Video screen capture

The Indie ProjectsThe Indie Projects/Video screen capture

The Indie ProjectsThe Indie Projects/Video screen capture

The Indie ProjectsThe Indie Projects/Video screen capture

At the back of the van when the doors are open, Viki can slide out this giant pull-out drawer that functions as her kitchen prep counter and storage. In addition to the small water tank inside, there is another small water tank here.

The Indie ProjectsThe Indie Projects/Video screen capture

The Indie ProjectsThe Indie Projects/Video screen capture

Viki’s van conversion is simple design that features some very intriguing ideas for storage and layout. For now, Viki plans to carry on with her travels, while she can:

I really like my job still and I want to go back to working as an architect, but I felt I was missing out on travel. I’ve never travelled for longer than a month… so I wanted to change something. I will never be that young again, or that independent. I just couldn’t answer the question: ‘why not now’? So I left.

Indeed, for many of us, that’s a question that needs asking at some point in our lives: if not now, then when? To keep updated on Viki’s journey, visit her website.

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US main architect of Saudi military aggression on Yemen

The leader of Yemen’s Houthi Ansarullah movement has strongly condemned the ongoing Saudi Arabia’s devastating aerial bombardment campaign against his country, blaming the United States as the main architect of the atrocious military aggression.

Addressing his supporters via a televised speech broadcast live from the Yemeni capital city of Sana’a on Tuesday evening, Abdul Malik Badreddin al-Houthi stated that the Riyadh regime has made use of all available means in its attacks against the Yemeni nation.

“Civilian and religious sites have been targeted in Yemen within the three years of Saudi war. The Saudi regime does not shy from pounding anything which has to do with Yemen,” he said.

The Ansarullah leader added that the Saudi aerial assaults against funeral processions in Yemen conclusively prove the inhumane nature of the Saudi aggression against Yemen.

“Aggressors have, nevertheless, failed to force Yemenis into submission,” he underlined.

The Ansarullah leader also decried the deafening silence of the United Nations and the international community vis-à-vis the Saudi crimes and atrocities in Yemen.

“Saudi crimes against Yemen are a test for the entire world to see whether they speak the truth or not,” Houthi pointed out.

He stressed that Saudi Arabia and its regional allies are serving the interests of the Zionist regime of Israel in their military campaign against Yemen.

Houthi said the developments in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem al-Quds as Israel’s capital well showed that the incumbent regime in Saudi Arabia is merely a puppet in the hands of the US administration.

“The Saudi regime is an outsider and a traitor to all Muslim nations. Yemeni people are standing together in the face of the Saudi aggression no matter how different their stances might be,” the Ansarullah leader said.

He also slammed the media cover-up by Western media outlets over the Saudi war on Yemen.

Houthi further noted that the most savage and reactionary regimes in the Middle East region are involved in the Saudi-led aggression on Yemen.

“Yemenis will never surrender to the murderers of women and children. Enemies will not be able to take away our freedom, and weaken our willpower,” he commented.

The Ansarullah chief said the 1,000 days of resistance and steadfastness by the Yemeni people against Saudi Arabia and its allies attest to the fact that Yemenis’ faith cannot be undermined in any away.

He lauded the sacrifices made by the Yemeni people, stressing that “We will not allow our enemies to colonize Yemen.”

“Aggressors thought they could occupy the entire Yemen within a matter of days. Thousands of our children have been mercilessly killed in the Saudi-led airstrikes. This is while Yemenis are still resilient and steadfast despite the all-out war and various shortcomings they are wrestling with,” Houthi said.

He lashed out at the Saudi regime over turning Yemen into the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, emphasizing that Yemeni forces would not hesitate to launch barrages of domestic missiles at Riyadh and the Emirati capital city of Abu Dhabi if the airstrikes continue.

Houthi also called upon all Yemeni factions, institutions and all walks of the society to join forces against the current challenges.

Saudi Arabia has been incessantly pounding Yemen since March 2015 in an attempt to crush the popular Houthi Ansarullah movement and reinstate the former Yemeni president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, a staunch ally of the Riyadh regime.

More than 12,000 people have been killed since the onset of the campaign more than two and a half years ago. Much of the Arabian Peninsula country’s infrastructure, including hospitals, schools and factories, has been reduced to rubble due to the war.

The Saudi-led war has also triggered a deadly cholera epidemic across Yemen.

According to the World Health Organization’s latest count, the cholera outbreak has killed 2,167 people since the end of April and is suspected to have infected 841,906.

On November 26, the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) said that more than 11 million children in Yemen were in acute need of aid, stressing that it was estimated that every 10 minutes a child died of a preventable disease there.

Additionally, the UN has described the current level of hunger in Yemen as “unprecedented,” emphasizing that 17 million people are now food insecure in the country.

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The Axiom House is a flatpack prefab net-zero "game-changing concept home"

Being an architect can be so frustrating; the established ways are so entrenched, residential building technology is so primitive, it’s all done by hand in the field where the biggest innovation in thirty years was the nail gun replacing the hammer. Meanwhile in the architects offices there are tools that we never dreamed of thirty years ago- computers instead of drafting boards, 3D renderings that spring our of our drawings like magic, and perhaps most importantly of all, the Internet that changes how architects can market what they do.

That’s why the Axiom House, being developed in Kansas City by Acre Designs, is so interesting. Jennifer Dickson is an architect; Andrew Dickson is an industrial designer; together they are trying to turn a house into an industrial product that can be delivered anywhere in a shipping container, for a price that is competitive with conventional construction. They are not thinking like designers, but like a tech startup:

Acre is the very definition of a technology company. We apply scientific knowledge from the fields of architecture, engineering, environmental design, and material and construction science in the most practical way imaginable. We’ve used these practices to create homes that take half the time to build, use a fraction of the resources, and have as little as half the lifetime cost of traditional homes.

The house itself is a flexible 1800 square feet, designed to adapt to its occupants’ life cycles. It’s described as Net Zero energy, producing as much energy as it consumes; it achieves this by being built to near passive house standards so that very little energy is required to operate it in the first place. As they note,

Our homes are 90% more efficient than standard construction to begin with, and we make up the difference with a small solar panel (PV) array. We start with an efficient floor plan and a tight building envelope to prevent air from getting in or out. We use high-efficiency doors, windows, and appliances, take advantage of natural (passive) heating from the sun, and utilize unique heating and cooling solutions.

PGX ground loop© Acre

The heating and cooling system is indeed unique; I had to ask for an explanation. In the early days of Passive Houses, many had what are called Earth Tubes, or big pipes buried in the ground that were used as ducts to pre-cool or pre-warm air to the ground temperature, which is about 55°F in Kansas City. But earth tubes proved hugely problematic, delivering condensation, mold, radon and other wonderful things as well as air. Instead, the Axiom house has what they call Passive Geothermal, (PGX) a riff on what others have called brine loops or glycol ground loops. There is a grid of pipes buried in the ground which deliver water at near 55°F to a heat exchanger built into the Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV) that is required in a house that is so tight. So one gets all the benefits of an earth tube, preheating or precooling the air, without the problems and at a lot lower cost than a fancy ground source heat pump. They appear to work well; in an article by Martin Holladay in Green Building Advisor, a passive house builder called them “amazingly effective.” However Martin, always the skeptic, writes:

Of course, just because a ground loop works, doesn’t mean the system is cost-effective. Many energy experts have speculated that the pump needed to circulate the glycol solution uses almost as much energy as the system collects. The results of one monitoring study indicate that these experts may be right; data gathered in Vermont suggest that the simple payback period for this type of system may be as much as 4,400 years.

They are also delivering the tempered water to the radiant floor, and and addition to this system, the house also has a mini-split air source heat pump. Given the near- passive house amount of insulation, tight construction and careful siting, I suspect it won’t get a lot of use.

interior axiom© Acre

The structure is a flatpack of SIPs, or structural insulated panels. These are a sandwich panel of plywood or OSB board and expanded polystyrene insulation, 10″ thick for the roof and 8″ for the walls. They claim that that it can be built at prices competitive with other houses in Kansas City, running now at $110 to $135 per square foot. How do they do it?

It’s not any one thing, but a combination of strategies, that allows us to achieve this. A few examples:

By offering fixed plans, we can build hours of engineering and design into the base cost of the home. Just like with your car or phone, focused product development helps us deliver a refined, high-performance home that can be repeated again and again. Starting with a right-sized, efficient floor plan has a domino effect: reducing up-front costs, energy demands and system sizes throughout the house. With a lighter load, we can eliminate ductwork, wiring, plumbing runs, and the expensive labor associated with these. With streamlined, repeatable construction, we shave months of labor costs out of each job.

Axion Interior 2© Acre

Jennifer Dickson tells Metropolis:

We see no reason why architect-designed, highly efficient housing should not be attainable at a reasonable price point. To do that, we are treating this more like a car than a house. With cars, the design effort goes in at the front end, and at the purchase end, the customers do not get a custom product, but they get access to high-end finishes and their choice of features. We think we can leverage buying power by providing a set of well-designed packages.

Having used these same arguments for a decade when I was working in prefab, I am a bit skeptical that they can do that. I found again and again that designs are rarely repeatable, everyone wants to customize, and that customers don’t care about right-sizing, they care about price per square foot. And it’s just so hard to compete with conventional construction, the guy in a pickup with a magnetic sign and a nail gun.

Axiom closeup© Acre

But it is so exciting to see architects and designers trying to innovate in the design of homes and the way that their services and the product are delivered. I am really rooting for them and hope it works. Read more on the website and like any startup looking for money, attention and validation, they are crowdsourcing on Indiegogo.

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