October 26, 2006

Healthy buildings’ role in organic modernism

  • On an organic level, architecture affects one’s nervous system, personality and sense of self.


    From musicians to teachers to designers, the creative class is transforming work, leisure, community and everyday life. Savvy people — who hire design professionals with advanced knowledge and a holistic understanding of healthy people, places and the planet — stand to influence the shift to organic building strategies.

    By integrating the built, social and natural environments, organic modernism allies itself with sustainable design and becomes an investment strategy for our survival.

    One hundred years ago, the Industrial Revolution restructured the built environment from the invention of machinery to the advent of steel to the internal-combustion engine. Today, a revolution of dynamic relationships encompasses the global community and the environment as the knowledge economy unfolds.

    In the knowledge economy, three key concepts influence our future in the built environment: creativity, social responsibility, and health of the body, spirit and place.

    Creativity as the driver

    In the book, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” Richard Florida portrays the values and lifestyles that drive the 21st century economy, its technologies and social structures. Florida talks about how creative people are challenging the traditional structures of the 20th century society: scientists, architects, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and other self-motivated people among them.

    Florida maintains that the success of humanity relies on people and their dynamic relationships: both with each other and with their social and natural environments. Survival depends on our ability to creatively remove barriers to change and encourage sustainable practices across every domain that affects our lives and our environment.

    The city of Seattle and a network of local organizations and businesses exemplify this type of creative problem solving. They do it globally as it relates to the environment and organically as it relates to our social culture.

    Visionary leadership within the city government, most notably in adopting LEED standards, extends to the Seattle City Light’s Green Up program.

    On a smaller scale, the Master Builders Association, in partnership with King and Snohomish counties, provides affordable and environmentally friendly housing through the Built Green certification program.

    In retail, the Environmental Home Center has become a national distributor for green building supplies and household products, and Greener Lifestyles offers fair-trade sustainable furniture.

    Social responsibility a must

    Now with everything from fair-trade coffee to biodegradable plastic, many people recognize that we cannot continue to survive as a disposable, consumer-based society.

    In the early 1900s, modernism evolved from the idea of the building as a machine for living and working. Today, the built environment is an organism of infinite opportunities. Highly creative and skilled people are bringing social responsibility back to the environment and to the community as a place with spirit.

    At Joseph Greif Architects, we see a trend emerging in residential architecture as our clients ask us to build homes to house them as well as future generations of their family. When a house is planned for future generations, the idea of a home as a disposable shelter changes. Housing that is built for a life span over 100 years generates payback to the environment by conserving materials otherwise consumed in replacing housing with shorter life spans.

    These sustainable buildings, built as an investment, offer economic shelters and become socially responsible additions to the community and the natural environment.

    Health of body, spirit, place

    In the 1920s, architect and philosopher Rudolph Steiner introduced the concept of organic as the use of physical and spiritual resources and systems needed for the healthy function of spaces and the environment.

    The word organic speaks not only to form and function but also to a global and cosmic environmental paradigm of interconnectedness needed for our survival. For example, Steiner initiated organic-biodynamic agriculture in response to the worldwide use of inorganic fertilizers, which were a by-product of the nitrogen used to make WWI weapons.

    Looking at architecture more organically, we can say that every building affects one’s nervous system, personality and sense of self. As architects, we create buildings that calm, stimulate, excite, amaze and inspire. The basic use of light, shadow and color create immediate physical responses.

    The health of our bodies, spirit and environment is directly connected to how the building responds to the movement of the sun and air and how it adapts to natural influences of climate, such as rain, heat and cold. For instance, architects can boost comfort, health and productivity by optimizing daylight, harnessing the sun’s ability to provide heat and by designing natural ventilation suitable for the climate and building type.

    One of the highest standards of living in the world has been created in Sweden through social rituals that help us feel connected in the workplace and to our home.

    Dennis Doxtater describes this interconnectedness of the body, spirit and place in his book, “Architecture, Ritual Practice and Co-Determination in the Swedish Office.” In the book, Doxtater documents examples of Swedish design that weave together the built environment, social environment and natural environment. He discusses how individuals can feel physically and spiritually connected to their office environment through social rituals that invite participation.

    One of these rituals is the practice of “quality circles” where the hierarchy of management and staff is dissolved into common problem-solving groups. The individual is not lost within a linear hierarchical management system but rather nourished and encouraged from within their office family quality circle. These groups interconnect with other quality circles throughout the company.

    Doxtater also extends this idea of quality circles to social systems outside of the work place. Community co-housing and living environments foster a holistic balance between the body, spirit and a sense of place by knitting families and individuals closer together into quality circles. These people-friendly environments stand out in direct contrast to many housing subdivisions and the linear grid typical of streets in the United States.

    A living example

    In the Madison neighborhood of Seattle, Joseph Greif Architects is designing a new urban place based on this definition of organic modernism and as an expression of a quality circle. The urban place is comprised of 11 homes on a four-lot parcel, and each dwelling unit is less than 1,000 square feet. The site, itself, is designed as a house where each dwelling is conceived as a room within the entire home site. Shared areas include a fireplace, community center, space for a Flex-Car, recycling station, underground parking and storage facilities.

    The planned development departs from the ideal of building the biggest single-family house on the smallest division of a lot where houses are set in rows with cars parked in front.

    The project is designed collaboratively with the city’s LEED team, the Madison Miller Neighborhood Association, Robin McKennon Thaler of Mayfly Engineering and Design, Mark Tible of Murase Associates, Milenko Matanovic of Pomegranate Center, and Scott Engler of HB Inc.

    Joseph Greif, AIA, is principal of Joseph Greif Architects. Dyan Pfitzenmeier, president of Firefly, is a writer and consultant.

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