Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Roman Domus as a Caribbean Urban Housing Solution

I've been on a bit of a kick right now learning about the Roman Domus; an ancient urban housing solution from about 2000 years ago. It all started with a simple question. Why do they have a pool of water (impluvium) in the center of the living room (atrium) like that?

Well, it turns out that the impluvium is a much more functional feature than I realized. It's actually a remarkable rainwater collection, storage and home cooling device all rolled into one. If you're looking for the best sustainability solutions, and I think we all should be, it makes a lot of sense to look to the past. To a time when fossil fuels were still locked in their original state and people had to make every day human life work without them. Once we've scoured the past for amazing resource saving ideas, then by all means fire up your gas oven or take a flight halfway around the world. Let's use our resources to their highest and best purpose. 

In this post I’ll address timeless issues, like rainwater collection, greywater systems, passive cooling, sustainable finance, and suggest some modern layout improvements to the domus for use in our lives today.

In short, ancient Romans collected rainwater from their roofs, filtered it through a sand filter and stored it in a subterranean cistern for later use in home cooling and cleaning. All for free. Let’s look at how we might reap some of the same benefits from clever design today. According to this handy Reddit thread:

Households usually collected their own rainwater from the roof to supplement aqueduct supply. The first rains would be allowed to run off the roof into a basin (impluvium) in the atrium of the house, and out through a drain into the street. Once the rain had washed the roof clean, the drain to the street was stopped-up, and another hole in the impluvium basin was opened to allow clean rainwater to fill the cistern. Usually the cistern mouth had a sediment trap on it as well, so that only clean rainwater would get into the holding tank.

Like so:

Inspection (without excavation) of impluvia in Paestum, Pompeii and Rome indicated that the pavement surface in the impluvia was porous, or that the non-porous stone tiles were separated by gaps significant enough to allow a substantial quantity of water caught in the basin of the impluvium to filter through the cracks and, beyond, through layers of gravel and sand into a holding chamber below ground. The circular stone opening (visible in the photograph, resembling a chimney pot) allows easy access by bucket and rope to this private, filtered and naturally cooled water supply. In wet seasons, excess water that could not pass through the filter would overflow the basin and exit the building, and any sediment or debris remaining in the surface basin could be swept away.

In hot weather, water can be drawn from the cistern chamber (or sourced from municipal supplies outside the domus) and cast into the shallow pool to evaporate and provide a cooling effect to the entire atrium. As the water evaporates, the surrounding air is cooled and becomes heavier and flows into the living spaces and is replaced by air drawn through the hole in the ceiling above (compluvium). The combination of the compluvium and impluvium formed an ingenious, effective and attractive manner of collecting, filtering and cooling rainwater and making it available for household use as well as providing cooling of the living spaces. (emphasis added)

In modern times, the manual labor used to draw water from the cistern would be replaced by pumps and the water itself could be sent to toilets and irrigation or could be treated and used to supplement or replace the city system (which is usually not 100% potable anyway).

Here are a couple more images of the atrium, compluvium and impluvium set up. The walls of the house are made of rubble mass wall masonry covered with painted plaster and sometimes stone or tile. The floor is also a stone or mosaic floor. The roof supported by wooden beams set into masonry pockets is slanted inward and features a ceramic tile roofing system with gutters and drain spouts from the four corners of the compluvium to direct rainwater into the center of the impluvium.

Since the atrium is exposed to seasonal weather changes, this system doesn’t make sense in temperate zone climates, but is ideally suited to tropical and sub-tropical zones. Looking at the typical climate in Pompeii where some of the best examples can be found I discovered that original Roman Mediterranean climate would have been slightly cooler, but not unlike the Deep South and Caribbean.

My wife is Dominican and we spend a fair amount of time in Santo Domingo, the oldest colonial city in the Americas. The Zona Colonial has a lot of really wonderful architecture,

and some of it even follows a loosely similar concept with interior courtyards and pools
Historic Landmark Hotel Doña Elvira
but the average house built over the last 50-70 years looks a lot like the examples below.

In most of the Caribbean it is quite common to live the entire year without air conditioning. Since it’s an island, the cost of electricity is high and once you become accustomed to the heat it’s bearable but not always comfortable. The rain is frequent, but usually pleasant and warm. Also water service is occasionally interrupted and the tap water is not always potable. It is wise to boil or filter city water before consumption. As local water systems age and the equipment to treat your own water drops in price, this may increasingly become the norm. In Santo Domingo burglary is (increasingly less of) an issue so most families put bars on their windows and balconies to keep out intruders.

Let’s take a look at the total floor plan for a typical domus.

You’ll notice the Roman domus has a few other advantages. The whole house is inwardly focused and places windows and potential 2nd floor balconies on the inside away from possible burglars. Also, because the streets would have been filled with people and animals, they were noisy and polluted. The Romans built their homes with street facing retail only reserving a single entrance door for themselves. These retail spaces helped to pay for the costs of the house and served the public interest. Today, it is easy to imagine creating a second floor above the retail spaces for live-work units that pay for the main house.

The central room (#5 tablinium) served as the meeting place for the house. It was the focal point and divided the public space in the atrium from the private space in the garden-court (#14 peristylium).

As a possible solution to urban housing in the Caribbean the Roman Domus would provide an excellent solution. In the Dominican Republic, they reserve their front yard primarily for the automobile anyway. It would be simple to re-purpose the two commercial spaces in the Roman design for a street facing garage that could eventually be converted to retail space in the event that the family needs the income or prefers to use taxis and transit. The need for security is similar to the Roman situation and providing bars on the roof over the compluvium and at the perimeter of the peristylium is an option.

Below, I’ve re-imagined the uses in a modern floor plan. Doing away with the traditional office-like tablinium and replacing that with an open kitchen. The meeting place of our modern lives. The kitchen I envision would have two mobile workstations on castors (shown in grey) that could be configured as service and prep islands or as casual dining and conversational surfaces. A second floor could be easily added for additional living space or to rent to the shopkeepers as supplementary income. The impluvium with cistern would remain and the collected rainwater could be used as grey-water to power toilets and irrigation or could be treated in a water treatment closet and used throughout the house. Adding electrical battery storage first and solar power cells second would enable the house to operate almost entirely off grid and would avoid any disruptions in service common on the islands. The garden could be edible or just a simple yet elegant backyard surrounded by covered walkway. As a typical fabric building, these homes meet most of the tests diagrammed in Steve Mouzon's exceptional work on the Smart Dwelling.

It is typical in the region to build the home structure with poured concrete columns/beams, the walls constructed of concrete block and plaster, and clay tile roofs. That is actually very similar to the traditional Roman construction and the added mass makes sense to help keep the house cool and durable. Even the heaviest rains can simply be wiped off the stone or ceramic flooring and masonry walls.
In a country with high energy costs and a favorable climate this system could make the interior of modern homes much more comfortable and solve several other major issues with typical Caribbean urban architecture.

Friday, September 27, 2013

New Media for Designers & Builders - Book Launch!

Social Media for A&E practitioners
I just wanted to take a moment to publish a quick note in support of a friend and professional idol of mine. Steve Mouzon is an exceptional presenter, writer and thinker on the subject of true sustainability. His presentation(s) and subsequent book on The Original Green has been something I refer to frequently in conversations about human-friendly and environment-friendly design. 

Over the last six years or more, Steve has been learning as much as he can about the connected web and how to use it to push ideas and his architectural practice out into the national and international conversation. He has been carefully documenting this journey on his blog New Media for Designers & Builders.

Now, I'm happy to announce he has collected and collated the extensive information available for free and is offering an e-book to help you make sense of it all. It's probably the best how-to guide I've seen for small & medium sized A&E industry design practices.

As a designer himself he recognizes the need to earn a living as your building your media strategy and gives great practical advice on how to get started and keep things moving with as little time & cost as possible. I'm sure it works because I've personally seen him go through the entire process.

Steve Mouzon
Take a minute to go check out the website ( and judge for yourself. I can think of several under-appreciated designers, architects and engineers who could benefit from his advice. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Coming Apart... and how to come back together

I was just reviewing this blog and realized it's been quite a long time since I've provided any new post.  A lot has happened since July '09.  Back then, I was working for the high-end fit-out contractor Conelle Construction in NYC, but by January 2010 I had finally found the position in the middle east I thought I was looking for.  The last two years have been quite a ride, and now that things have stabilized, I think I’ll start writing new posts about my experiences here.  But not just yet.  Before I get into work and life in the GCC I wanted to share an op-ed my aunt sent me recently published in the NY Times that ties in directly with my last topic on Richard Florida’s book, the Big Sort

The Great Divorce by David Brooks (1/30/12), is basically a book review for Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart (also reviewed in the WSJ).  There’s no need for me to review a review, but the argument is that American society is “bifurcating into a different social tribes, with a tenuous common cultural link linking them.”  A nice summary of the situation can be found in the article in the times:

“Today, Murray demonstrates, there is an archipelago of affluent enclaves clustered around the coastal cities, Chicago, Dallas and so on. If you’re born into one of them, you will probably go to college with people from one of the enclaves; you’ll marry someone from one of the enclaves; you’ll go off and live in one of the enclaves.

Worse, there are vast behavioral gaps between the educated upper tribe (20 percent of the country) and the lower tribe (30 percent of the country). This is where Murray is at his best, and he’s mostly using data on white Americans, so the effects of race and other complicating factors don’t come into play.

Roughly 7 percent of the white kids in the upper tribe are born out of wedlock, compared with roughly 45 percent of the kids in the lower tribe. In the upper tribe, nearly every man aged 30 to 49 is in the labor force. In the lower tribe, men in their prime working ages have been steadily dropping out of the labor force, in good times and bad.

People in the lower tribe are much less likely to get married, less likely to go to church, less likely to be active in their communities, more likely to watch TV excessively, more likely to be obese.

Murray’s story contradicts the ideologies of both parties. Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country and traditional values. That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditionalist lives than the cultural masses.

Democrats claim America is threatened by the financial elite, who hog society’s resources. But that’s a distraction. The real social gap is between the top 20 percent and the lower 30 percent. The liberal members of the upper tribe latch onto this top 1 percent narrative because it excuses them from the central role they themselves are playing in driving inequality and unfairness.
It’s wrong to describe an America in which the salt of the earth common people are preyed upon by this or that nefarious elite. It’s wrong to tell the familiar underdog morality tale in which the problems of the masses are caused by the elites.

The truth is, members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive. They may mimic bohemian manners, but they have returned to 1950s traditionalist values and practices. They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids.

Members of the lower tribe work hard and dream big, but are more removed from traditional bourgeois norms. They live in disorganized, postmodern neighborhoods in which it is much harder to be self-disciplined and productive.”

Brooks then proceeds to advocate mandatory national service as a way to “jam the tribes together”.

As most of you might guess, I find this solution abhorrent for a lot of reasons.  First, all service provided by humans should be voluntary in nature, not coerced at the point of a federal or state held gun.  Second, making two culturally disparate groups work together doesn’t work.  Allowing them to live next to each other and trade as free individuals on the other hand does.  The solution to this problem is in the way we build our cities, not in the way we force people into slave labor.

From my research, the physical environment has a serious impact on how people interact with each other and how they separate themselves from others.  One of the boons of traditional cities is that within a framework of property rights law, they allow all sorts of people to live next to each other, to experience different cultures and to fluidly exchange ideas.  Suburbs make that pretty difficult.  Ironically, the widespread use of suburbs as we know them come from the central planning (top down) mentality of the 1950's.  Most cities had some form of zoning law by the late 1920's but used them mostly for their stated intent, controlling noxious/polluting uses, rather than demographic control.  Post civil rights act, we decided it was time to step up socio-economic segregation too.  When we build suburbs constructed only of homes all in the same price range, and limited exclusively to home-owners (renting your house is usually illegal in most HOAs) we intentionally segregate ourselves from other socio economic groups.  The policy of suburban planning has created an increasingly segregated society.  Before the 1940/50’s, you could build a house on a block in a city and could do whatever you wanted with it, now those old cities, with lively streets and spontaneous interaction are becoming so expensive that they are being accused of being the enclave of the elites. Imagine saying all of Manhattan is for the wealthy in the 1980’s when you could find hookers in Times Square and crack cocaine in Tompkins Square Park.  It’s amazing to me to think how much things have changed in only 30 years.

Rather than promote national service, we should reign in outdated zoning policy that prevents people from building what they want and living where they want.

Friday, July 17, 2009

"The Big Sort" - concepts by Richard Florida

I just finished reading "Who’s Your City" (2008) – by Richard Florida

The important concepts are:
1) The world isn’t flat, it’s spikey
2) "The big sort" is happening now
3) The decision of where to live will increasingly impact your chances to connect to others at the top of these global spikes

This is Richard Florida’s idea, supported by several maps, that there is a scene for nearly every type of economic activity. As creatives increasingly rely on innovation with other like minded or similarly interested people, cities are serving to collect and aggregate specific types of thinkers and do-ers. Some of the more obvious examples are Nashville for Music, New York City for Fashion and Finance, Los Angeles for Entertainment, San Francisco Bay Area for Technology, etc. Interestingly, each of these scenes is becoming increasing concentrated and if you show the concentrations on a map the resulting visualization is spikes of varying intensity dotting the globe. Florida refutes Thomas Friedman’s famous thesis that information and communications technology is allowing us to work from anywhere and that the world has become more egalitarian or “flatter” thus opening up opportunities to people and areas that never had access before. Florida argues that the true professionals work at the top of their spikes and are connected in ways never before imaginable to the other large spikes across the globe. These connections serve to further consolidate spikey places making participation almost impossible for those located in alternative markets.

The Big Sort
This leads to the “big sort”, as peaks and valleys develop in the economic world there will be distinct winners and losers. Those willing and able to relocate are doing so now. People without the means or THE PERSONALITY to relocate are being left behind to increasingly marginal social positions. Florida spends a great deal of time discussing the personality characteristics of various urban areas based on the concentration of specific personality types. The idea that a city has its own personality based on the types of people it draws in is a compelling theory that I think many people will anecdotally agree with. The important point here is that as relocation get’s cheaper and easier, people are clustering in like minded groups. Diversity as we know it is being undone. When people are no longer tied to place, place becomes all the more important. Living in NYC gives me an interesting perspective here. In New York, there’s a neighborhood for virtually anyone. In a way, NYC is a small replica of Richard Florida’s world. Certain neighborhoods experience the extreme clustering he describes and it is easy to see how people have begun to self select neighborhood based on personality.

Where to Live?
The premise of the book is this; Where you decide to live will impact every moment of your life in ways that it never did before. Economic and social opportunities that used to be more diffuse are clustering and altering the geo-political landscape and it will be easy to be left behind if you aren’t paying attention.

My Thoughts
I spend a lot of time thinking about place. A friend of mine is currently working for a real estate development company that intends to begin revitalizing small to medium sized downtowns. Richard Florida’s book underscores my advice to him, which is: Find a scene to locate there and push for its growth. I’m not sure it’s entirely possible to construct a scene, but it may be possible to identify a burgeoning one and help it along. Rather than try to resist “the big sort” I would try to use economic jujitsu to redirect it towards a given place or try to tie nearby places into those pre-existing spikes.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Coco Lopez

For those of you who don't know; while I was starting Asgard Associates, I was also moonlighting throughout the summer working for the famous Julie Reiner at her new bar the Clover Club as a barback. If there's a better way to learn about spirits, mixology and the bartending as one of the culinary arts I don't know what it is. One of the things I love about Julie's bars is that they are completely open and accessible to the public. I enjoy the secluded, speak-easy feel of the popular NYC cocktail dens too, but I appreciate the fact that anyone can stumble in and learn about fine spirits and classic mixtures. The openness of her bars are just the tip of the iceberg for what is (in New York anyway) a massive underground cocktail scene.

If you've been to NYC in the last couple of weeks, don't let the rain fool you. It's supposed to be summer in the northeast right now! So what better way to rebel against the weather than to make some tiki drinks with my good friend Gerry Corcoran, currently behind the stick at Please Don't Tell, another wonderful, but considerably more exclusive joint.

The cocktail world is a funny place and like all scenes, this one suffers from fads too. Right now, it seems that everywhere I go there is a major push towards a dry palette. Dry and citrus-y mixes are fashionable and sweet drinks are frowned upon. When I went to see Gerry, I gave him a hint of my plans and I wasn't too surprised to discover that I'd have to bring my own Coco Lopez. Damn-it I was committed to the idea of making some piña colada variations that rawked, so I popped into my local Mexican bodega and found a couple of cans in the back corner. Gerry and I put some pretty good drinks together that night, but the fact that PDT and most other exceptional cocktail lounges don't keep some of the sweeter ingredients on hand is a sort of fashion related tradgedy. I suppose this phase will pass soon, then I'll be complaining that no one has any decent bitters or some other inane ingredient. But for now if you'd like a good tiki drink, just remember to bring your own coco lopez.

For something on the drier, simple side, try a

Coconut Kallalo

2 oz Mount Gay Rum
1 oz Coco Lopez
1 oz Fresh Lime Juice

shaken w/ cubed ice and served up in a coupe glass

or our unnamed variation - please feel free to improve on this recipe and post it as a comment
*Flaming Pina Colada (for lack of a better name)
2 oz Appleton Estates Rum
1 oz Pineapple Juice
1 oz Coco Lopez
1/2 oz Fresh Lime Juice
2-3 dashes Angostura Bitters
(1/2 oz Wray & Nephew Overproof Jamaican Rum - en fuego)

shaken with crushed ice and poured directly into a highball
garnish with a half lime turned inside out, fill with the 1/2 oz Wray & Nephew Overproof Jamaican Rum and ignite with a match. Serve flaming.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Soul of a Courtyard

In March, before I left Los Angeles, my good friend Jim Kumon gave a presentation and took me on a tour of courtyard housing in the Pasadena, CA area. Courtyard housing is a type of multi-family dwelling centered around a courtyard and is a popular historic style in the Los Angeles area. As a typology it was effectively made illegal with the advent of Euclidian zoning in the 1970’s. It has only been in the last decade or so that sophisticated developers have been able to begin building these types of housing complexes again, and as with all art forms that die, reviving them can be a bit of a trick. Things that were once taken for granted have to be laboriously rediscovered and institutional knowledge is often lost for long periods of time.

One of the best modern architecture and planning firms capable of this work is Jim’s former employer Moule & Polyzoides. In fact, the principal, Stephanos Ployzoides wrote a book on the subject well worth reading if you’re interested in understanding more about the design concepts he’s rediscovered. The most recent courtyard housing project we know of is Mission Meridian Village, located at Mission station on the Gold Line. From what Jim describes there are several critical factors to consider when designing these buildings. There are some strict rules regarding proportions based on human scale, and several compelling things to consider concerning architectural details and style. However once you get past these ideas, the final product should create a shared public space for the residents that can act as an urban oasis in the middle of a busy city.

The courtyard should be defined as unsuccessful if it is not used and enjoyed by the residents. This is the prevailing problem behind Mission Meridian, pictured above on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. It is all but impossible to find someone using the outdoor space for reading, talking, grilling or any other form of play. How can this be! How can we be so successful at creating the form of the historic courtyard complexes without the soul? I believe it has to do with creating a sense of belonging or ownership and the ability to participate in the space while still expressing you’re right to be there. If you’ll notice from the photos, the planters nearly fill the entire courtyard. While attractive, they essentially render the space useless. Also, and perhaps more importantly, at many of the units there is no way to sit with your back to your apartment. That simple tweak would allow a resident to effectively claim his unit as his own making his presence in the space acceptable to his neighbors. Notice the benches in front of each ground floor unit in the below example, located at 410 N Euclid in Pasadena, CA.

In the example below, located at 611-17 E California Ave (Pasadena, CA), notice the inviting, shaded space. It’s easy to imagine children playing on this surface under the watchful eye of their parents and neighbors. Values for these units are well into the $600/sf range while the surrounding neighborhood is valued closer to $380/sf.

In summary, without fully considering how residents can comfortably use a space (both socially and physically) even the most beautiful spaces will fall short.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Legal Structure & Sprawl

The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.

Now that the bottom seems to have fallen out of the debt markets (for the moment) it seems like you can't get away from obfuscating financial commentary in every newpaper and network news station, but perhaps the best summary of what happened in the past year was done by Jonathan Jarvis above. All of this talk has lead me to start thinking about where our pro-ownership policies have and will be taking us.

Obviously, there's been a lot of discussion about government intervention in the housing market contributing to the real estate bubble. When most people talk about this, they're referring to the last five to ten years at most. As a result, I've started to re-address some old thoughts on how policy affects real estate development.

We all know transportation policy has a lot to do with it. The transition from land-grant, semi-private railroad companies to government funded, federal highways in the 1940's helped to spur a huge shift in the way people move around the country and of course caused massive changes in land value. Farmland that was once remote suddenly became accessible to the masses. Sub-urban land that would have taken years for a traditional urban grid to grow to, now seemed close by comparison. But I've also begun to consider the ownership structure supporting all of this growth.

Before condominium laws existed nationally (circa 1969), it was virtually impossible to purchase individual units in a multi-family apartment building. The notable exception to this is the housing cooperative format popular on the east coast, where the buyer actually owns shares or a percentage of the building (usually as a limited stock company). This is a cumbersome financial vehicle that frequently makes real estate transactions too time consuming or difficult for the middle class. So for fourty years or more, from the creation of Fannie Mae in 1938 to the rise in popularity of the condo format in the 1980's, urban property was considerably more difficult to own for working families. In other words, we went from 45% to 65% homeownership in the same period of time that urban dwellings were nearly impossible to finance in a conventional way.

It's no wonder cities suffered from an exodus of residents in the 60's and 70's, the opportunity for ownership was literally 10 newly paved miles away. Now that the condo format is well known to the banking industry, you can have ownership in any type of building you like. Urban dwellings can be built and sold just like suburban sprawl. Is this what's driving re-investment in our cities?

Most new urbanists will assert that people are simply expressing a latent preference for urban living - I think it's more complicated than that and I'm betting the incentives placed on homeownership and transportation combined with our innate preference for social living contain a more accurate description of what's going on. Andres Duany once argued that the goal for New Urbanists is not to bring urban form to suburbs, but suburban policy to cities. Now I think I understand what he meant by that.