Design Matters

I’ve been around the globe a time or two but until this past weekend had managed to avoid visiting Florida (excepting the one time we touched Key West via sailboat which somehow doesn’t count). This visit, which was work related, had me in the Tampa/Clearwater/St. Petersburg area.

I wasn’t actively avoiding Florida, mind you; I just had never felt compelled to visit. It was partly a matter of protecting a closely held vision of paradise lost that acted as a sort of force shield between me and the state. This vision was based on a series of books written by the great late Peter Matthiessen, author, naturalist and CIA agent (work on that combo a while).

Matthiessen’s series was based on a real character from the turn of the nineteenth century who went by the name of Dr. Watson, a very nasty fellow if accounts are to be believed. The reason these books formed this vision was that they very carefully described Florida before it became whatever it has become. It was truly a naturalists’ paradise, full of flora and fauna found nowhere else on the American mainland.

Notice the use of the past tense; most of that irreplaceable bio-diversity has been lost. What we have instead, I can now report with full confidence, is nightmare of human intervention, short sightedness, and greed. The place is a sprawling mess, a fragile construct based on cheap energy and unsustainable water usage.

So what does this have to do with green building, you might reasonably ask? Well, a few things.

One, is the importance of place to design. Every place has it’s own unique climate, rain and storm patterns, wind, sun angles and intensities, topography, building materials, and of course the all important cultural histories (who does what and how).

Have you ever heard the expression, “That’s how we did it in Florida?”. I have and I have the pleasure of reporting back that this time and place (Western North Carolina, 2016) is absolutely and utterly different from not only Florida but most of the rest of the Southeast as well.

Think of this as an invitation to study our unique time and place with an obsessives level of scrutiny and focus. When you find yourself with an opportunity to build spend an inordinate amount of time discovering and observing how it is unique from even other locations nearby; how stormwater moves over and through the site, how the trees lean or do not lean, how the soil and/or ledge is different than other places.

Look at the flora in various seasons; I’ve heard mycologists suggest than there are fungi that have never been categorized. Are there flowering plants? Are there food bearing plants for animals? Nesting sites, birds roosting, insects peeping, etc.

Got turtles?

Is there an architectural context? Studying how folks solved architectural problems over the ages is a great way to discover the principles of timeless design. It doesn’t mean you have to copy them; but it does present as an opportunity to consider why they did things the way they did.

This level of study will likely discourage a one size fits all design solution. This is a good thing. The one lingering super negative of modernism is the tendency to force a template onto a design solution; never forget the International Style and do you best to see that it stays in the drawer of history.

A related sidenote; thank your lucky stars we have mountains to limit unabated sprawl. Apparently (and this is as true of Piedmont North Carolina as it is Central Florida), an impediment to unchecked growth is a very good thing indeed.

The other relationship all this has to green building is the importance of design, both on an individual project scale and on an urban and regional planning scale. We need planning, people. The absence of planning is chaos.

I had occassion to wonder around historic St. Petersburg looking for the architectural gems left over from the teens and twenties. While there were a few here and there the overall context has been lost.

It’s hard to explain but I bet you’ve experienced it; the sense that you’re not in your proverbial Kansas anymore and that something is missing or not right. Compare this to the experience of walking around downtown Asheville (or Charleston or New York or San Francisco or Marfa or McClellanville) on a summer’s evening and you’ll be picking up what I’m putting down. There is no substitution for authenticity, for a true fabric of architectural experience, and for connecting to time and place in a uniquely appropriate way.

Of course there are places in Florida that do this, I just haven’t been to St. Augustine or any of those other places that fit the geopgraphy and the time.

OK so all that is a bit of a stretch and a diatribe; guilty. While that may be true it also presents as an opportunity to think carefully about design and how green design in particular may just be our last best chance at preserving a viable biosphere with fully developed humans moving in it and through it.

Stephens Smith Farrell