Monthly Archives: March 2012

Was the Recession a Good Thing?


Today’s guest post is by Nadia Pidgeon. ArchitectureTravelWriter ran a Q&A last month on this Denver-based architect. Yet another employment victim of the Recession, she started her own architectural tours company and commenced upon a set of international journeys. Here she discusses some (possibly) positive results of the Great Recession.

Perhaps the Recession is really a second chance. Architecture, and in a broader sense design, has been an endangered species on the American landscape. How many times have we heard colleagues or students dream of landing international work in an effort to escape a dying craft in our own country?

Efforts have been made to re-introduce design to a consumption driven American culture. Years ago, Target began to offer products designed by famous people in their respective fields. The Michael Graves tea kettle sat on the shelf next to the regular, made-in-China, looks-like-every-other tea kettle. Priced similarly. The American consumer had to decide which was better: The one that looks like the typical kettle or the one that had been contemplated and crafted for a purpose. Did a tea kettle change the American design movement? No. Is it a start that reaches a great number of people? Yes.

The Recession also reached a great number of people. (Yes, that was a comparison between the Recession and Target.) Jobs were lost, houses went into foreclosure, instability became commonplace. If Americans are considering what type of home they wish to raise their families in now, it is the first time in my lifetime. The concept of house=investment led to the neutralization of design and downgrading of quality. The person who built the house only wanted to make a profit, which led to the cheapest solutions for the highest yield. In order to appeal to a large market, the standard 3/2 with neutral color palette and stainless appliances became the only available option. The market was controlled by realtors who strove to have houses sell quickly, not for the highest profit as the commission differences and a couple thousand dollars was negligible in the face of taking the time to show the property six more times. Owners took cues from realtors as if they had no self-interest and families attempted to force themselves into the standardized creations. There (seemed) no need for designers.

I worked for an architecture firm in a resort area. Many of the homes were second homes and all were over a million dollars… most (were) several million. The neighborhoods required each home to be designed by an architect, yet to look at the neighborhoods, they all had strikingly similar homes. The reason? The homes were simply contractor-built properties in fancy, gated communities. While the neighborhood association demanded unique, architect-designed homes, the contractors built and developed the properties and sold them to clients. The contractors simply brought their plans to the architects for review and stamp only. Once I was working on a plan and noticed that the master bath and master closet must have been labeled incorrectly because the closet had a perimeter wall while the bath did not, hence no window. They were exactly the same size and adjacent so I switched them only to be told to switch them back. The contractor had no intention of paying for an extra window on this 3 million dollar property. Mediocrity ran rampant yet consumers had become so conditioned, they knew no difference.

As instability in the job market became a reality, people were less likely to over extend themselves on the property they choose to own. Instead of both incomes going to support a suburban McMansion, people started to look at homes that could be supported on just one salary in the event of a job loss. Some experts are even calling this the end to the McMansion era. These smaller homes have real world constraints. Design solutions must be employed in order to create solutions for each family. And, more than anything else, this is what designers do best: solve problems.

These developments are crucial to the design market. Architects were hit harder than other fields during the Recession seeing an 18% drop in employment. But maybe the Recession was a blessing in disguise. While so many designers have craved international clients for the opportunity to truly design and create without the limitations seen in American culture, the Recession may have been the catalyst necessary to allow Americans to once again embrace individuality. Only time will tell, but architects and designers across the country have their fingers crossed!

Hopefully American consumers will start to demand more for their money. Maybe they will seek out designers to solve problems and the American landscape can once again be a symbol for innovation. One can only hope.

(Nadia’s opinions do not necessarily reflect those of

German Hostel’s Architecture Jars then Delights


Much of the work of LAVA, also known as the Laboratory for Visionary Architecture, is progressive and edgy. Let’s call their work “organic technology.”



Their projects look as if Jackson Pollack painted with then freeze mercury in mid-air. Their interiors compel one to wonder, “What would Stanley Kubrick think?” Its Berchtesgaden Youth Hostel renovation jars in juxtaposition. That is, on first glance.

The Berchtesgaden Youth Hostel, near Munich, Germany, is a series of renovation projects done by LAVA, which has offices in Germany, Australia, and China. The first stage is to overhaul the hostel, modernize one part of the building to serve families or groups. Highly individualized rooms, bibulous colors, and cantilevered window boxes ensure guests never think of hostels in the same way. This is no military-style space design of bunkers, ever so typical of hostels— nope.


All photos courtesy of LAVA









LAVA cleverly designed the spaces with built‐in furniture and integrated storage.

They turned formerly unused space under the attic into a mezzanine complete with beds open to the spaces below. They linked the indoors and out with cantilevered “window boxes”, which act as tables, viewing platforms, and lounging spaces.

Wide hallways preempt the feeling of being in a hospital or a warren of rooms. Materials like rough concrete ground the frenzy of colors on the furniture and walls. Private storage spaces lend a feeling of security that’s rare in hostels, while each room has the added luxury of private bathrooms. Backpackers will feel like they’ve stumbled in their own Ritz Carlton.



The sustainability factors include a low energy facade, floor heating, and a biomass pellet heating system.

LAVA won the competition for the redesign in 2009. The other buildings in the project will be transformed over the next few years. It has offices in Germany, Australia, and Abu Dhabi and has done even more international work, such as the Water Cube in Beijing. The firm’s scope includes master planning, design, architecture, documentation and construction supervision, material technology, and support services such as visual animation, graphic presentation, 3D modeling. They’d designed hotels, offices, towers, museums, stadiums, residential, commercial and resorts.








The design of one building in the hostel, the Haus Untersberg, optimises contemporary requirements for family or group usage within this concept. The project’s first phase entailed the modernisation of this building, and was targeted at families. The existing room structure was opened up to facilitate higher quality rooms, each with it’s own bathroom.

As youth hostels boast a wide range of typologies ranging from hut to castle standardizing would be the wrong approach and so LAVA opted for creating different bedrooms using the old structure in different ways. This transformation of the old spaces includes a wooden ceiling of the old restaurant at ground floor made visible in the new rooms and unused space under the attic becomes a mezzanine level with additional beds open to the spaces below.


This originally published in Perspective magazine.

Emily Pilloton’s Project H Expands Sustainability


Nearly impoverished Bertie County, North Carolina, has 20,000 people or 10 people per square kilometer. The county seat contains more buildings in disrepair and blight than are occupied, with fewer than ten restaurants, and no bookstores, cafes, or theatres. The county contained zero licensed architects.

The public education system has a shortage of qualified teachers. Few people in the county have a college degree, and less than a third of the students between third and eighth grades were passing state minimums in English and math.

Yet this primarily agricultural area is slowly morphing from a “rural ghetto” into a progressive community classroom. How?

With the help of Project H, a non-profit cooperative formed specifically to enhance the public education system through community design and architecture projects.



“This is a story about public education and rural communities and what design might to do improve both,” Project H founder Emily Pilloton said in a TED Talks presentation.

In 2009 Doctor Chip Zullinger, a superintendent known for success with charter schools across the country who’d been asked to help the county’s school district, invited Pilloton and her partner Matthew Miller to bring a design perspective to the repair of the school district. The duo’s then architecture-and community-development-based firm eventually relocated its San Francisco offices to the town of Windsor in Bertie County, and Pilloton and Miller earned teaching certificates to holistically manifest Zullinger’s vision. They then formed the Studio H, a design/build curriculum that connects education with real-world, creative projects in rural community development within the high school.

Photos Courtesy of Project H

“Design offers an antidote to all of the boring, rigid verbal instruction that so many of these school districts are plagued by. It’s hands-on, it’s in-your-face, it requires an active engagement, and it allows kids to apply all the core subject learning in real ways,” said Pilloton. (Find out more of what she said on The Colbert Report.)

First came renovation of the school’s computer labs, where teachers and students use the space to heighten their experience, rather than adding more trailers for them to study in. The next involved collaborating with teachers to devise an outdoor “learning landscape”, a link between physical education and classroom education activities.

“It allows elementary level students to learn core subjects through game play and activity and running around and screaming and being a kid,” Pilloton said. Students now learn basic multiplication, for instance, by playing team games. Some of the classes and teachers have reported higher test scores and a greater comfort level with the material.

“It’s hand-on instruction that requires active engagement and allows them to apply core-subject learning in real ways. It’s an evolution of shop class, which is usually taught to students who aren’t going on to college. Now it’s more than building bird houses and instead working on projects the community actually needs,” she said.

Thirteen high school students work with Pilloton and Miller in one-year terms to learn six core principles of design and development: designing through action; designing with, not for; designing systems, not stuff; documenting, sharing, and measuring; starting locally and scaling globally; and building. The students implement these processes in a new 4,500-square-foot studio designed and built by Project H. Here they perform research and design visualization, prototype their designs, and determine the efficacy of their own designs. They then materialize actual projects for the community, such as the Windsor Super Market.

Students meanwhile earn high school and college credits for these projects and income for their work in actually building the pavilion that became the super market, already in use by farmer’s market vendors. During the previous school year the students interviewed community members in preparation for the market. They determined what kinds of foods they ate, what was easily accessible, and what better sources of food were necessary and desirable. It opened on a morning in October (2011) when some of the high school students— whose hands, sweat, and minds had brought the vernacular architecture to life— were taking their SATs.

This summer the students actually built the 2,000-square-foot market, their first large-scale project. (An earlier project included chicken coops given away to families after the town experienced a destructive flood. Future potential projects under consideration are bus shelters that double as farmers markets, which would create a network between Windsor and outlying towns.)

Skills used during these projects emphasize those the students learn in their English, social studies, history, math, and natural sciences classes, Pilloton said, harking back to the holistic quality of the district’s program.

“We feel like this could work in other places,” Pilloton said.

Studio H demonstrates sustainability in a way that Windsor and Bertie County denizens can recognize. It’s the very kind of sustainability that continues to show for generations.


This article originally published in Perspective magazine.