Wednesday, December 28, 2011

rethinking the grid

Spending the last few days of 2011 in Southern California has been a wonderful opportunity to see how far the state and its cities have progressed in their efforts to repair and protect a fragile ecology. Los Angeles still suffers from a layer of brown smog that hangs over the region, but the air here is much clearer than it was in the past. Policies aimed at reducing fossil fuel combustion are working - incentives for buying fuel-efficient cars have led to consumers and taxi fleets adopting hybrids in extraordinary numbers (Priuses are ubiquitous here) and programs meant to increase renewable energy generation have made this the leading state for rooftop photovoltaic installations. The best part of this progress is how visible it is.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

unintended irony, parking meter edition

It's great to see how seriously California and its cities are working to increase the state's sustainably generated electricity capacity, and to establish an infrastructure for charging electric cars. But you still see stuff like this: p/v-equipped parking meters with their panels pointed east (huh?), shading each other. Oy.

Friday, December 16, 2011

more wall panels

The insulated steel wall panels are going up at the garage and the front porch, and by the end of next week we should have most of the wall panels in place. We'll write about the installation process (and sing the praises of our installers) later. Right now, we wanted to share some photographs of the panels in different light conditions, to show how the color and texture change with the weather and time of day...

Thursday, December 15, 2011

wall panels, continued

The erection crew put up the first two wall panels this afternoon, in between solving one problem (the screws provided were too short) and running into another (the third panel would line up in a spot with no supporting girts or other structure). Nonetheless, the installed panels give us a good idea of how the exterior is going to come together. The silver finish (seen here with Holly peeling back the protective plastic wrap) is really beautiful. Because it reflects so much of the ambient light around it, the silver finish appears to change color as the viewer moves. It also changes as the light fluctuates between direct sunlight and the indirect light of an overcast sky.

wall panels

For the last few days, our steel erectors have been preparing to install the insulated steel wall panels. At 3" thick, these panels are thinner than the roof panels, but still have an insulating value of at least R-24. Like the roof panels, they are held in place with clips designed to avoid breaking the thermal barrier, and they use two kinds of sealant (gooey stuff from a tube and self-adhesive strips) to maintain a continuous moisture barrier.

Preparing the panels and the frame is taking some time and care...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

day job, unexpected honor edition

I just heard this morning that the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture and the Journal of Architectural Education awarded my article, "Misprision of Precedent: Design as Creative Misreading" the 2011-2012 Journal of Architectural Education, Best Scholarship of Design Article Award. This is a huge honor, and I feel very, very fortunate.

I owe a great debt of thanks to Holly, who first suggested the idea for the article, and our friends, Tony DeLeon and Nate Zelnick, who read drafts and encouraged me to send it in.

Friday, December 9, 2011

solar decathlon

FIU just produced a video of the university's entry into the 2011 Solar Decathlon, sponsored by the US Department of Energy. The FIU project was terrific in a lot of ways, especially in the way it incorporated passive solar shading and hurricane protection elegantly. The project was designed by an interdisciplinary team of students, led by my architecture department colleague, Marilys Nepomechie and including Eric Peterson (who helped assemble the project in both Miami and Washington) and Brett Moss.

The accompanying news article is online.


Last night, tin box recorded its 15,000th page view. The blog started as a way to keep friends and family up to date on our progress, and so social media sites (like Facebook) and email servers remain the major sources of traffic for the blog since its inception. However, two-thirds of our visitors now come via Google and other search engines. This is probably a good thing, since it means a broader audience has access to the record of our experiences. We're happy to help make design and sustainability more accessible to a larger audience.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

day job, peer-reviewed edition

By sheer coincidence, two scholarly articles of mine are appearing in print at the same time. One is excerpted from a chapter on Italian fascist-era urban design in my forthcoming book, and is published in the January issue of Planning Perspectives. The other is an essay on urban design in Italy's East African colonies, which came out in the December issue of the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. It's a real honor to print work in two journals I respect profoundly.

Above, an image of the Esposizione Universale di Roma from the exhibition "Metropole/Colony," which I'm curating with Jon Mogul of the Wolfsonian. It will open in the Wolfsonian's teaching gallery at the Frost Museum on FIU's main campus next month.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

roof panels complete

Late this afternoon, the steel erector installed the last of the insulated roof panels. There's still a lot of work to do on the roofs, including trim, gutters and photovoltaic panels, but it's really nice to see all the panels in place.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Design Miami

"How much does your house weigh?"

Buckminster Fuller's famous aphorism-in-the-form-of-a-question brilliantly raised concerns that had escaped the focus of architects, but would become central to the practice of many of the twentieth-century's key figures. Fuller's interest in efficiency and his close study of natural forms led to the invention of the geodesic dome, the dymaxion living units and the concept of synergy. Design Miami worked with Fuller's friend, Norman Foster, to bring two projects - a restored fly's eye dome and a new dymaxion car built by the British architect - to the Design District this week. It was spectacular to spend time poring over both, as well as the accompanying exhibition of photographs and drawings. And that's not all Design Miami had for us this year...

Sunday, December 4, 2011


Social sustainability hinges on the ability to foster community, which, in the built environment, emerges from public spaces - streets, squares, parks - that engage, excite and reward the people who use them.

One of the best developments in Miami in recent years has been the explosion of large-scale graffiti in the Wynwood district north of downtown. These murals transform neglected streets into vibrant public space.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

roof, again

An addendum to our earlier post about the upper roof. The first photo shows the upper roof with its b-deck sheathing, while the lower image shows the insulated roof panels installed. One difference is reflectivity; the galvanized b-deck is almost mirror-like, and reflects light much more brilliantly. In fact, it casts the kind of harsh glare that caused the Miami Marlins to revise the finish on their new stadium in Little Havana (see below). The duller finish of the galvalume paint on the roof panels, however, moderates the amount of sunlight reflected into our neighbors' houses, which is a good thing.

The other difference has to do with grain and pattern. The wider spacing of the standing seams in the roof panels makes the roof - and the house as a whole - seem less broad than it did when the roof was covered with just b-decking.

We're curious to see how the roof changes when we install the photovoltaic panels. In the meantime, bonus photos of Miami's biggest tin box, the new Marlins stadium:


Our steel erector set the insulated panels in place on the upper roof yesterday. These panels, each 42" wide, run the full 18' length of the roof slope in order to eliminate the kinds of lap joints that might leak. The standing seam joints between the panels also eliminate leaks (by raising the seam well above the roof surface) and hold the panels in place by crimping around the stainless steel clips that are screwed through the corrugated b-deck and into the z-purlins.

The installation process includes two kinds of sealants to complete the moisture and thermal barrier:

Sunday, November 27, 2011


One of the truly elegant things about the National Gallery is the way I. M. Pei uses movement through the building. The structure makes reference to the city plan of Washington in several ways, beginning with a series of diagonal rifts that split the solid block of the building into triangular prisms, echoing the Baroque geometry of the streets outside. Inside, the theme of diagonal circulation reappears in the cascading stairs and escalators of the main atrium. Diagonal movement gets translated into the vertical dimension. It produces a beautiful space which offers just the right amount of room for the small number of extraordinary works on display.

The National Gallery is a good example of how poetic circulation can be. Besides referring to the city's streets - the horizontal circulation of the metropolis - the stairs and escalators generate shifting views of the art displayed, allowing multiple perspectives onto each work
Here's what the stairs and escalator look like in motion, as recorded on an iPhone.

Friday, November 25, 2011


Walking to the National Mall in Washington today, I remembered how hard it is to pass by the East Wing of the National Gallery without stopping in. It's like visiting an old friend. And while pausing to say hello to the sculpture by Richard Serra and the painting by Robert Motherwell, we were struck by that other famous quality of the building - the way it invites the visitor's touch.

I. M. Pei's building has always compelled people to touch it, and I'm not sure why. It makes sense in the parts where the whole building comes to a sharp point - you just want to touch that prow, or whatever it is - but throughout the building there are stains on the walls right at the height of a visitor's hand, where countless museum-goers have left a little oily trace of their visit. It's the remarkable gift of this richly complex building that it engages people in such a warmly physical way.

You've got to love a building that makes you want to touch it:

Monday, November 21, 2011


We've designed the house to avoid using softwood lumber as much as possible. This is the kind of wood that's typically used for framing (as 2x4s and 2x6s) or furring (the thin pieces of wood used to attach gypsum drywall to concrete block walls) in conventional construction. The two major problems with using softwood lumber in Miami are termites and mold.

However, it turns out we need to use a few 2x4s in the house...

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Our mechanical contractor began installing ductwork this week. The segment in the living and dining rooms (pictured here) is the most prominent piece in the house, and it was the first to go up. It will remain exposed, along with the structure and the electrical conduit.

The ductwork has a layer of insulation between two walls of metal to keep the air as cool or hot as possible between the air handler and the register. This kind of ductwork is more expensive, but the insulation makes the system more energy efficient and prevents condensation building up on the ductwork, and the metal lining inside helps keep the air free of dust and mold.

The ductwork also responds beautifully to the changing light conditions inside the house:

Saturday, November 19, 2011

roof panels

Our steel erector began putting the insulated roof panels up this week. Together with the insulated wall panels and the metal trim, this comprises the final layer in the prefabricated shell of the house. The panels themselves are pretty impressive:

Friday, November 18, 2011

tagged, again

At some point in the last 24 hours, we got some new graffiti at tin box. Somebody made a spray paint stencil and tried it out on our construction fence (left, and after the break), and on the electric pole next to our house. Cool tag. The art is definitely improving around the house.

Day job, lectures and exhibition edition

Last night, my friend Aziza Chaouni spoke at FIU about the work her firm, Bureau E.A.S.T., has done in Morocco. She also gave our students a preview of the exhibition that will open this evening, Salon de B.E.A.S.T., as part of the Humanities Afternoon organized by FIU's African and African Diaspora Studies program.

satellites and camera cars

Cartography might once have been understood as the documentation of an unchanging earth, whose coasts and continents needed only to be discovered and charted a single time. Now, cartography seems more like an act of constant surveillance of a world in a constant and unending act of transformation. The Google street view photos of the neighborhood around tin box have been updated to show the site as it was back in April, when rough plumbing was going in under the slab. The satellite view is unchanged since July, when Google showed the site as had been since excavation in March:

Sunday, November 13, 2011

site visit with Kaelsie

We met on site with Kaelsie Saravia, our cabinet maker, yesterday. We came out to finalize the layout of the cabinets in the kitchen and to verify the dimensions of the walls, since the walls have moved a little in response to where the plumbing ended up. Kaelsie is also an architect - you can tell by the way she and Holly are talking with their hands in the photo - which gives her a keener understanding of the details, proportions, finishes and alignments we're trying to achieve.

After the break, a video panorama of the house, so far:

Friday, November 11, 2011

thinking of Nigel Tufnel

Well, if you're going to crank your amps to 11, you're going to need some electricity. Our electrician, Celestino, has started roughing in the flexible blue conduit (Electrical Nonmetallic Tubing, or ENT) that will carry the power and control lines through the interior partitions. We've been reviewing the locations of the outlets and tweaking the electrical plan to make sure our outlets are located where they're most needed - near dressers or tables, for example - while also meeting the code requirements that there always be an outlet within six feet of a door, and then spaced no more than twelve feet apart after that.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


An exciting moment at the site today. The subcontractor responsible for putting up the roof and wall panels took down the construction fence to give their forklift better access around the house. For the first time, we got to see the park from the house, without the green vinyl fencing in the way. It was spectacular.

Since we started planning the house, we've been anticipating that the living and dining room windows would frame a view of the park, with the street edited out by the low wall beneath the window sills. Today, we got to see this relationship for the first time. We also got to see the house from the park...


One of the reasons we chose South Miami - and this particular corner of South Miami - to build our home was the sense of community in the area. We liked the neighbors we'd already met, and we felt that the house could contribute - even if just in a small way - to strengthening the neighborhood's sense of community.

At the same time, we know the house is not going to earn universal acclaim. One woman who drove by the other day seemed particularly disturbed to find out this was a house. She assumed it was some kind of support structure for the park across the street.

But then there's the teenagers who rode their bikes by yesterday. One yelled to the others, "that's a [expletive deleted] cool house!"

We agree.

[pictured: our new steel erector completing the frame on Tuesday.]

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

partitions, p.2

In the week since we wrote about laying out the interior partitions, Pedro and his crew have completed most of the framing. The light gauge studs and track, which were supplied as part of the prefabricated system (along with the heavy steel frame and the insulated exterior panels), go up pretty quickly. The studs are easy to cut, carry and fasten, and they have holes in them to allow plumbing and electrical lines to be laid easily. The metal studs also have the environmental advantage of being made largely from recycled steel.

day job, Casablanca edition

I spent last week at the 5th African Perspectives Conference in Casablanca. The conference organizers included ArchiAfrika, whose 2007 conference in Kumasi, Ghana, gave me my first opportunity to discuss Italian colonial architecture and urbanism in a public forum. This conference focused on the issues confronting African mega-cities, which isn't yet a part of my research. However, I was able to present a poster outlining my ongoing work in the Horn of Africa (and which I've expanded into a forthcoming article), and I was honored to be invited to participate in a roundtable discussion on education (my presentation is linked here).

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Our superintendent, Pedro, sent these photos of the work he and his crew did this morning, laying out the partitions (interior walls) throughout the house. This gives us a chance to check the locations of all the partitions and look out for conflicts with the pipes and conduits coming out of the floor slab and the beams and purlins overhead. Once we approve the partition layout, Pedro will start putting down the light-gauge steel track which will hold the wall studs in place. This gives us an even better idea of the scale of the rooms in the house, too.

In fact, this is one of those moments when the house will "shrink," at least perceptually. There are points during construction when the project seems to grow - like when the floor slab is poured - and moments when it seems to contract, such as when the foundations are excavated.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

props for Tricky Dick

Could Richard Nixon get the Republican presidential nomination these days? Whatever else Nixon was responsible for, he also signed into law some of our country’s foundational environmental legislation, including the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973). Without Nixon, many of our iconic animal species – bald eagles, alligators, bison – would be extinct. Remember back when you couldn’t see the Los Angeles skyline through the smog, or when the Cuyahoga River caught fire? Take a deep breath and thank Richard Milhous Nixon.

edible landscape

The Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is holding its Edible Garden Festival this weekend. The event includes demonstrations of gardening, composting and cooking, and is intended for people who only have room for one container on their balcony, as well as folks who have an acre to plant. Plus, they've got food trucks.

We had a chance to stop by yesterday and take notes on soil (use lots of rich, organic material and perlite), the need to use raised beds, and good combinations to plant (tomatoes and peppers like to be neighbors).

Saturday, October 22, 2011


An important new report this week gives new urgency to our efforts to slow the pace of climate change. Richard Muller, a physics professor at Berkeley whose critiques of climate science have earned considerable support among climate change deniers, released the results of a two-year study of surface temperature data  from the last two hundred years. His conclusions? The earth is warming, and the pace of warming is increasing at a disastrous pace. As Kevin Drum writes in Mother Jones, not only is the rate of warming accelerating, but Muller's findings are even more alarming than those of some of the other scientists whose methodologies he faulted.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

bike lanes

Props to our local governments – the City of South Miami and Miami-Dade County – for continuing to build bike lanes and better sidewalks in the community. We have a long way to go, but the county’s efforts to provide bike lanes, shade and better pedestrian crossings are gradually improving our streetscape.

The recent improvements to 62nd Avenue are – hopefully – a harbinger of a better interventions to come. They show a good grasp of some important urban design practices:

Thursday, October 6, 2011

thinking about Apple

Macintosh 128K Home Computer,
designed by Steve Jobs and  Jerry Manock, 1984.
Museum of Modern Art, via ARTstor.
It is touching to see the volume of tributes to Steve Jobs coming from people like us – not journalists or public figures, but regular folks addressing second-person messages to a man they’d never met, delivered via social media, and typed out on devices that didn’t exist just ten years ago. Since tin box was designed, blogged and filmed on Macs and iPhones, we thought we should share some of the lessons (for architecture and culture) we learned from our computers:

Sunday, October 2, 2011

no biking in the house

It's my house, and I'll bike if I want to.

cutting room floor

Venturi Scott Brown and Associates
Franklin Court, Philadelphia
The most important part of writing is editing. It is also the most painful. As part of a chapter on postmodern architecture I wrote for a forthcoming survey of world architecture since 1960, I wrote a couple of paragraphs on Venturi and Scott Brown's Franklin Court project in Philadelphia, a place I first encountered as a kid, and loved. And then my co-editor chopped these paragraphs out. Fudge.

action photos

Steel construction makes for some pretty cool photos.

Here, one of the erection crew is trimming some of the roof decking. Of the scores of panels of B-decking used in the house, only two needed to be trimmed. This efficiency - less material used, less waste on site, lower transportation costs - is one of the advantages to prefabrication.

One disadvantage is the need for specialized (read: expensive) machinery, like boom cranes...

Saturday, October 1, 2011

roof decking complete

The erectors completed the roof decking this morning. We're now ready for the insulated roof panels to go up (then wall panels, then windows and doors). The house is looking pretty cool.

Monday, September 26, 2011

unintended irony, golf cart edition

photo by Adam Feinstein
Kudos to FIU for investing in golf carts with solar panels on the roof. Self-powering vehicles are an ingenious idea, especially in a sunny place like Miami. It will work more efficiently, though, when the drivers stop parking in the shade.

Our pursuit of more sustainable practices sometimes requires rethinking pretty good habits. Generally speaking, it's a good idea to park in the shade in Miami. Our black bicycle saddles reach osso-bucco-braising temperatures after just a minute in the sun, and the Prius gets hotter than an EasyBake oven if you leave it in the sunlight. It's probably hard to break these habits when you sit behind the wheel of an electric golf cart. And there are probably much bigger paradigms we need to change as we retool our civilization to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

landmarks and leftovers

At some point last night, tin box recorded its 10,000th page view. A lot of our traffic comes through postings on Facebook, where we entertain a fair number of good questions from our friends and family. We wanted to share some of that correspondence.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

the week ahead

Looking forward at the week ahead, we're anticipating a lot of work at tin box. Our erector should be able to finish installing the roof decking this week (we're still waiting on two pieces of steel that weren't shipped with the z-purlins). The exterior roof panels arrive Tuesday, and should start going up right away. Our panel manufacturer plans to begin fabricating the exterior wall panels Monday and deliver them to the site Friday.

Meanwhile, the neighbors clearly approve of the project...

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Our erector started installing the roof decking yesterday. These gorgeous corrugated sheets are High Shear B Deck (HSB-36), a structural roof decking that comes in 36" wide and 1.5" deep sheets. The decking is fastened to the z-purlins with TEK screws (which don't need a pre-drilled hole), and will act as a structural diaphragm under the insulated roof panels, which are also structural. Together, the decking and roof panels will deal with the combination of tensile, compressive and shear forces generated by hurricane force winds. They will also support the weight of the vegetated roof that we plan to add someday.

The B Deck will also make for a great ceiling, in combination with the z-purlins...

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


From the Kingspan factory in Deland, FL, comes this progress photo of our roof panels. Our roof uses KingZip insulated metal panels with a standing-seam joint. We chose 4" thick panels, which will give us an insulating value of R-32 (exceptional by Florida standards). We could have gone up to 6" thick, which yields R-48, but this would be a bit excessive in South Florida.

Each 42" wide panel will hold two solar panels, which adhere directly to the steel surface of the roof panels. The panels have a galvalume finish whose high albedo value (a measure of reflectivity) means they will reflect most of the sunlight that hits them, minimizing the direct heat gain.

The roof panels are cut to length in the factory, which helps eliminate on-site waste and reduce energy wasted in transit (one benefit to prefabrication). The pieces can come in lengths up to 52', the length of a flatbed truck. Our longest pieces are about 32'. We'll write more about the roof when it starts arriving, early next week.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


The cheapest technology in the house is borrowing shade from existing trees. We deviated from the US Green Building Council's LEED standards when we included lots of glazing on walls that face east and west. LEED's concern is that the low sun in the morning and afternoon brings excessive heat into a building during the hot months. We recognized, however, that the existing trees in the park to the west would provide a lot of shade in the afternoon, while our east neighbor's trees would shade the house in the morning. The photo at left shows the living/dining room shaded by existing trees, even before we add the roof panels.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


With the purlins in place and the roofs and eaves taking shape, we've got a better sense of the scale of the courtyard and its relationship to the major interior spaces. At left, a photo through the dining and living room into the courtyard and the dense vegetation of the back yard. The large (8 feet by 11 feet) openings between the courtyard and the living/dining room will have gliding glass doors to maintain as much visual transparency as possible, even when closed. When open, the glass doors will help join the courtyard and living/dining room into a single expansive space, defined by the lush border of trees and plants at the edge of the yard (while in the other direction, the park across the street will feel like a verdant extension of the courtyard and living/dining room). So, how does the kitchen fit into this?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

look both ways

One reason Florida leads the nation in pedestrian fatalities may be our poorly designed roads. But the streets don't (fail to) work in isolation. This photo shows a planted median between a Dadeland office building and the parking lot that serves it. The problem stems from the building's relationship to its site. The building is symmetrical, with a central entry leading out to the sidewalk, even though everyone exiting that door needs to walk to the corner to cross the street. The building's entry sequence simply doesn't take the connection to the parking lot into account, and as a result, people were crossing the street in mid-block, right in front of the entry.

Medians with plantings like this are popping up all over South Florida. They frequently use dense hedges as a kind of green fencing, which is a decent way to discourage people from jaywalking on roads like US 1. The palm trees are a real missed opportunity, though. As friend of tin box Gray Read points out, palms provide almost no shade, which is the amenity most needed by pedestrians on South Florida's hot streets.

n.b. On a related note, the Miami  Herald just published an article on the "best and worst intersections" in the region, based on the number of tickets issued by red-light cameras. Short version: be careful trying to cross US 1 in Coral Gables.

Friday, September 16, 2011

more purlins

All of the steel purlins - the secondary structural elements that support the roof - are in place, and much of the blocking (light gauge steel members that keep the purlins from twisting in place) has been installed. The next step is to complete the blocking and add the roof decking, which is corrugated metal sheeting that helps provide lateral stability for the roofs when subjected to high winds. After that, the roofs will be ready for the exterior panels that provide insulation and water proofing, including the roofs' galvalume finished outdoor surfaces.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

bicycle pump brilliance

photos by Mauricio Gonzalez
Quietly over the summer, FIU's Office of Sustainability started installing tire pumps at some of the bike racks on the main campus. Kudos to them and the other people responsible for this brilliant idea. The pumps are professional model floor pumps by Park Tool, modified to sit in a steel tube (manufactured by Dero, the company that makes the bike racks) bolted to the existing bike rack. The pumps have a pressure gauge, and work with Presta, Schrader and Dunlop valves.

We have to see about installing these in South Miami.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

purlins, continued

Our erector started installing the purlins this week. The purlins are z-shaped steel sections that span between the beams and support the weight of the roof panels. Our purlins are a little unusual in that they pass over the beams, rather than sitting in the same plane as the beams. This, along with the use of corrugated steel decking between the purlins and roof panels, is necessary for the roof to resist hurricane-strength winds. (The corrugated decking is hiding under the blue tarp at right).

Friday, September 9, 2011


We'll write more about the purlins over the weekend, but for now, we're excited to have the next pieces of steel going up. By the end of next week, we hope to have all the secondary structure of the roofs in place and ready for the roof panels to go up.