88 Lowell St. and living architecture

/ Tuesday, March 20, 2012 /

88 Lowell Street, courtesy of the New Hampshire Institute of Art.
It goes without saying that there is a dearth of modern architecture in Manchester. Hollowing out older buildings and modernizing their innards is a more common practice in the Queen City, and the new structures that do go up tend to be conservative designs, embodying America's "nice but professional" attitude towards architecture. But the New Hampshire Institute of Art (NHIA) has given the city a shiny, new and truly cutting-edge building that has been the boldest addition to the city's humble skyline in recent years and recently won Livable Manchester's "Best New Building of the Last Decade".

The NHIA building on 88 Lowell St. is a combination of academic and living space, utilizing the original facade of Manchester's first high school. If you stand on the corner of Lowell and Chestnut Streets, the small, brick schoolhouse sits modestly in the shadow of the new, six story, aluminum behemoth. Start walking north along Chestnut street, and you see the past and future are connected in an odd and stark cross section of industrial revolution and modern design.

View of the connecting corridor by Manchester Oblique.
The grammar school on Lowell Street opened in 1841 with less than two dozen grade school students. The second story was added in 1847 to house Manchester's first high school with a very small class size of a dozen or so students. The student population exploded in the proceeding years coinciding with an economic boom and the schoolhouse was quickly outgrown by the high school student body. The first iteration of Central High School would be the result.

View of the First High School at the corner of Lowell and Chestnut Streets. Looking north east Lowell Street is to the north (Left) and Chestnut Street is in front. Over the door a sign reads Manual Training School. It was the Lowell Street Grammar School (1841), via the Manchester Historic Association.
Eventually, the schoolhouse would lapse into an office for school administration officials before being abandoned in the late 20th century, a common thread in the history of Manchester's former schoolhouses. The NHIA bought the property from the city in 2007 and began renovations. The property had been boarded up 20 years prior and experienced extreme neglect.

The schoolhouse prior to renovations. From Google Maps.
After rebuilding the entire foundation and then some, the schoolhouse was scooted forward to the lots southern edge and the bluish-silver, futuristic looking building was put up behind it. The two are adjoined by a short corridor. As students enter the schoolhouse, they travel through a time warp of sorts, leaving the present and plunging into Manchester's Victorian past, only to find themselves in a not too distant future with a few quick strides across the schoolhouse and into the new building. 

The NHIA's building is a bastion of cutting edge design, giving Manchester's future developments a standard to live up to. From the outside, it's easy to see the solar panels that shade the south facing windows on each floor and the reflective siding that helps the building avoid the "heat island" effect. But the environmental efficiencies go much deeper than that, as they are ingrained in almost every aspect of the building, from the geothermal pumps that heat and cool the structure, to very materials it was built with.

Side view of 88 Lowell Street from above Chestnut Street, courtesy of The New Hampshire Institute of Art.
When I asked the NHIA for information about the building, the documents I received back were a staggering list of environmental considerations that had been taken into account, far too many to post here. But of the most notable were elements like the roof's rain filters that gather water, filter it and reintroduce back into the environment at a controlled rate, as not to contribute to river and pond overflow. Rain water is also used to flush toilets and reduce water demand all over the building. Along with the geothermal pumps that heat and cool the building, a high efficient gas boiler is used to heat the water, and helps to eliminate over 100 tons of gas waste a year. The floors and insulation are composed of completely recycled materials.

Living space inside 88 Lowell Street, courtesy of The New Hampshire Institute of Art.
Living space inside 88 Lowell Street, courtesy of The New Hampshire Institute of Art.
While the meat of the environmental efficiencies at 88 Lowell are impressive and well beyond anything seen in Manchester, inside the building are more subtle efficiency nuances like LED light fixtures, reflective ceilings that help better disperse light and even specific plant life to help with irrigation needs. It is also worth mentioning that the building is outfitted with Dark Sky compliant lighting, something that is on a whole other level of environmental consciousness of reuniting metropolitan populations with the night sky.

The NHIA is seeking LEEDS Gold status for 88 Lowell Street, a prized architectural certification for environmental efficiency, and it's no wonder, as it must be more akin to living in something closer to a generational starship than a dormitory at times. Outside of major metropolitan areas, it often seems like educational institutions, like the NHIA, are the last bulwark of innovative, intriguing and culturally risky design in the United States. It's almost a shame that college kids are unleashed into a world of ho-hum office buildings and industrial parks after leaving school with buildings like 88 Lowell. But with colleges and universities becoming trend setters in architectural design, what will urban campuses look like in 50 years when the global population has grown by 2 billion and over 60% of people live in cities? 

While LEEDS certification offers a wonderful and thoughtful set of constraints for architects to work in and force creative solutions to offset human presence, I was reminded of a 2010 TED talk by Rachel Armstrong that emphasized the idea that the construction of any building (by today's standards), no matter how environmentally efficient, is still a negative impact on the surrounding environment. Armstrong is working towards the reality of "living architecture", buildings and structures composed of semi-living proto-cells that secrete hardened shells, not unlike the fossilized remains of marine organisms that make up limestone. But unlike lifeless limestone, these proto-cell structures would have an active relationship with the surrounding environment, an example of which, she says, could be to act as a carbon emissions sink.

Armstrong's buildings might not be built so much as grown, shaped in a series of constraints and molds. Maybe industrial 3D printers will construct the initial shape of the building, dispersing the proto-cells according to a CAD drawing. Over the course of 20 years, these living buildings could become bulbous open-air reefs growing outward and inward, condensing corridors that students have to eventually squeeze to pass through while encroaching on city sidewalks to the shrill warnings of local government. Universities would raise tuition, not so much to renovate, but reshape their campus. Local eras would rise and fall with each shaping. In 2070, the campus looks something more akin to ancient Greece, and in 2090 it sports an homage to the organic nature of Gaudi's work, all the while forging a relationship with the local environment, creating new micro-ecosystems. Microbiologists could be the new maintenance staff, protecting and maintaining the buildings from infection and disease.

It is also worthing noting that living architecture is already a reality on a less sophisticated level in Meghalayas, where locals have been constructing living bridges for generations by manipulating the growth of fig tree roots over gullies and precipices. 

Yurt Town

/ /
A photo of a yurt, via Rochester Green Living.
Last month, Seacoast Online ran a a piece about a man that has proposed building yurts for the homeless.

Timm Piper has an idea for housing homeless people who are unwilling to stay in, or who are barred from, Seacoast shelters. 
"Some homeless people just don't want to live in a shelter," said Piper, a 43-year-old sales representative from Exeter. "Some prefer to be alone, or in small communities in the woods. Why not help accommodate this?"
Yurts are a type of nomadic housing that has roots in Central Asia and have recently become a Western phenomenon, offering an alternative to log cabin renters. They're round, compact, incredibly efficient, cheap to build and portable, in a loose sense of the word. In northern New Hampshire, it is not uncommon to find the sides of mountains dotted with the tiny dwellings that can be rented by peace seekers. Using the ground or a simple foundation of planking, yurts utilize a wooden lattice work as a circular wall that supports a number of wooden beams that make a coned or domed roof. The structure is then wrapped in any number of insulating and weather-proofing materials. In cooler climates, a wood stove often sits in the center of the yurt with its chimney protruding through the pinnacle of the roof.

A yurt being assembled, via Wikipedia.
In the Seacoast article, Piper explains that these Yurts would sit on donated or government owned land, giving the homeless an alternative to living in a shelter or freezing on the streets. Barring a lot of the debatable logistics of such a noble endeavor, I was intrigued by Piper's solution and reasoning: that regardless of the norms of our society, the American Dream of home ownership is not ideal for some and even being woven into the tapestry of a larger community, like Manchester, can be unattractive. Our country does not deal with the idea of societal conscientious objectors very well, for all intents and purposes, being homeless is practically illegal in the United States. But what if we gave people the option and all it required was a government subsidized structure and the land it sat on?

I imagined a small compound of yurts beside the unused streets atop Hackett Hill in Manchester's north-west quadrant. Nomadic peoples milling about, building a small, self-taught community that minimally relied on the small city below. Maybe Yurt Town residents would raise small amounts of livestock to be sold in local butcher shops at a premium, where the meat would inevitably end up in front of patrons of Manchester's more food conscious restaurants. In the summer, nightly bonfires would rally the growing village where stories, jokes and light discourse would be passed, binding the community to one another in friendship. Families might grow in the small community and face the inevitable question of whether or not rejoining the city below, with all its perks and headaches, is worth the potential ridicule and lack of support of their neighbors.

The inside of a yurt, via AroundTheYurt.com
The picture painted above is a pretty idealistic scenario, the best one could hope for with such an idea, but Piper's idea asks the question, is the society we're born into the only option? Why can't I opt out? It's a good question, one better answered by philosophers and lunatics, but under its all encompassing umbrella is the question of what "home" is to people. Does a home have to be a house or an apartment? Does a home have to be attached to a mortgage or rent? Does it even have to be attached to the ground it sits on?

With a true encroaching sense of a global economy and community, the idea of a home may change rapidly over the 21st century. Since the birth of the Federal Housing Administration in 1934, the United States has been nudging its population towards the two car garage and picket fence, and eventually the McMansion, with federally underwritten loans. This effort would inevitably lead us to the economic shenanigans of the last decade, somewhat proving that houses, that have doubled and tripled in size since the 1950s, might be unsustainable for every family, undermining a cornerstone of the American Dream. Couple that with people like Andrew Hudson, a recent college graduate who moved to India in 2009 because he couldn't find a job in the States, who presses the question, in 50 years will people be considering a move to Shanghai after college or receiving a job offer, just as easily as we might consider a move to a neighboring state?

The idea of a home might see a drastic paradigm shift to people being less attached to their surrounding living structure or maybe even more attached to a structure they can bring with them. Several months ago I came across a "house" designed by Adam Kalkin built almost completely using shipping containers.

"12 Container House" by Adam Kalkin.

"12 Container House" by Adam Kalkin.
While the above house is immobile, it's pretty easy to imagine a world where jet-setting job seekers and contractors buy specially built or retrofitted cargo containers (outfitted with satellite, wireless internet and all the comforts of the modern age) that could be packed up and hauled off by an 18 wheeler to the next "job site." Developers could build complexes where you don't pay for the roof over your head, but the door and space your container is attached to. Containers would line the outer edges of buildings with shared communal spaces where your neighbor in 10A could be different every month. Parking garage super structures would be built, housing several levels of living containers at the base of an arboretum style skyscraper, a glass and steel bastion protruding through the pollution filled nethersphere.

"Container Living Complex" by Manchester Oblique
In the same vein, I found Jimenez Lai's White Elephant, a building within a building concept, a fun, ultra-futuristic possibility that accentuates the idea of home mobility further. While Lai's White Elephant has been described as "super furniture" that can be manipulated to sit in any number of different positions, its crystalline shape juxtaposed against the metallic hull gives it the feeling that a larger iteration should be floating through the blackness of space, or the hollowed out innards of an asteroid tethered to a network of similar living spaces that could be towed (or propelled?) to its next location.

"White Elephant" by Jimenez Lai via BLDGBLOG

"White Elephant" by Jimenez Lai via BLDGBLOG

INNER SPACE: a call for innovative and interesting living spaces

/ Thursday, March 1, 2012 /

Architecture and space have just as much to do with the inside of a structure as the outside. Manchester Oblique is looking for innovative, creative, modernized, retrofitted, renovated, experimental, inventive and unusual living spaces in the city of Manchester.

Have a swanky living space you'd like to share? Send an email to daniel dot brian at gmail dot com with a picture and brief description of your living space.
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