Tuesday, August 30, 2011


source: Google Maps
Besides mold and hurricanes, the other natural threat to buildings in Miami is termites. We frequently see tents draped over houses here - like our neighbor's house, seen in a GoogleMaps street view at left - so that they can be fumigated. The idea of fleeing our house for a few days so that it can be pumped full of poison is somewhat unappealing. What's more, the treatments often only work temporarily; the same neighbor already has termites attacking his house again. So what can we do to avoid this?

Monday, August 29, 2011


Maybe it was Anthony Bourdain's lament for a life without stinky cheese, or maybe it's the sad thought of so many friends with flooded basements in the wake of Hurricane Irene, but we've been thinking about mold a lot these last few days. You might remember that the existing house on our site was filled with mold (and termites), and anyone visiting our temporary home passes a mold-covered buttress before reaching the front door (left). In short, we need to be vigilant in preventing mold growth at tin box.

Mold grows easily in South Florida. Our humid and warm atmosphere nurtures the stuff. Many buildings - like our house and a lot of buildings at FIU - provide a hospitable growing medium for mold by allowing rain water to run over their porous stucco surfaces, where it soaks into the material and promotes mold growth. This is especially acute on the north sides of buildings, out of direct sunlight.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Anthony Bourdain would like our papaya latkes

That's right, papaya latkes. Substitute shredded green papaya for potato, and you've got a sweeter, more nutritious version of the Jewish soul food standard. You're welcome.

Anthony Bourdain would probably sneer at our sausage and peppers, made with vegetarian sausage substitute, and he'd probably scoff at our delicious beet and carrot slaw, but there's no way he could bite into our papaya latkes without heaping hyperbolic praise on them. They're that good.

Ditto for Paula Deen. I mean, how could she not love something this simple, and this fried?

Friday, August 26, 2011

flash urbanism, food truck edition

We just returned from Food Truck Invasion, a weekly event which is probably the largest and loudest food truck gathering in South Florida. About 60 trucks set up shop in Tamiami Park, outside the county fairgrounds and next to FIU's main campus. Hundreds of people come out, drawn as much by the spectacle of the crowd as by their jonesin' for a minuta sandwich or plate of yaroa (imagine poutine crossed with a cheesesteak). It's a wonderful experience.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

surviving hurricanes

Carol M. Highsmith's America,
Library of Congress,
Prints and Photographs Division.
Hurricane Irene is slowly passing offshore, leaving us with rain and clouds, but nothing unusual for a summer in the sub-tropics. The storm may cause catastrophic damage farther north, however, and we are hoping our friends in the Carolinas, the mid-Atlantic and New England are safe over the next few days.

So how do you design buildings to survive winds in excess of 150mph and torrential rain?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

awaiting Irene

This week was supposed to be busy at tin box. We were expecting a much-delayed delivery of light-gauge steel and fasteners, which we needed to install roof purlins (which are supposed to be corrected on site by the fabricator, who delivered them without the holes they need to be bolted in place). But then Irene came.

More accurately, Irene threatened to come at the end of this week. As the cyclone reached tropical storm strength over the weekend, the forecasts from the National Hurricane Center (pictured at left) predicted that the storm would reach hurricane strength close enough to Miami to threaten our new roof framing, so we've decided to delay installation of the roof purlins until next week.

Our erector believes the primary frame should be fine in its current state. We're going to keep an eye on the rainfall and drainage on the site, to see how well the ground handles intense rain events.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

summer vacation

from the Life Magazine archive at Google
The fall semester starts at FIU tomorrow morning. At 10am I get to enjoy the wonderful annual ritual of welcoming incoming students to FIU, many of whom will be sitting in a university classroom for the first time.

This is a good time, then, to disabuse non-academics of the common misconception that college faculty “have the summer off,” and non-Floridians of the notion that life here is a blur of beaches and mojitos.

The educational mission of universities like FIU includes the production of new knowledge through research and discourse. Yes, we spend a lot of time teaching (and much more time preparing to teach or evaluating and mentoring students), but the research component of academic labor is essential to the growth of our understanding of the world around us. FIU and other research-intensive universities evaluate junior faculty on the quality of their research through the tenure review process, and continue to evaluate senior faculty through the promotion process.

So how did I spend my summer vacation?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

swimming upstream

Yes, that's a Mercedes-Benz straddling the sidewalk outside our favorite restaurant, Whisk.

Making our city more accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists is an important goal, and good design is key to realizing those ends. We can make streets for walking, rather than conduits for motor vehicles, for example. But design can only take us so far.

We have to change our culture, too. And in Florida, this is an uphill battle. The recent New York Times article on pedestrian deaths in the United States, "On Wide Florida Roads, Running for Dear Life," notes that the poor design of Florida's roads only partly accounts for their extraordinary number of fatal accidents. The article describes the baffling habit of some drivers who speed up when they see pedestrians crossing the street. Closer to home, we've discussed the danger of unsafe streets before, but at some point we need to find a way - as a society - to inculcate a culture of safer streets. We're open to suggestions.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

a conversation with pens

An image from the archives for a quiet Saturday afternoon.

This sketch is from about a year ago, when the final design for the house started to gel. It's a quick diagram of relationships between spaces and enclosures. The areas shaded pink will read as closed, dense objects (like bedrooms, bathrooms and the garage), while the other rooms (living and dining, kitchen, family) read as extensions of the outdoors spaces (porch, courtyard, patio and gardens).

Thursday, August 11, 2011

tin box, the movie

FIU architecture students Ronna Burgoyne and DeShawn Davis have graciously allowed us to share the film they made about tin box.

The film was made for Professor Jaime Canaves's class, Film and the Architecture of Modern Life.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

caveat emptor

"They had their cynical code worked out. The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket."
George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

The always valuable blog Jetson Green links to a newly published marketing study by Scarborough Research on the lifestyles of "supergreenies," people they define as engaging in ten or more simple sustainable activities like recycling or using non-incandescent lightbulbs. Unfortunately, Jetson Green doesn't editorialize on the cynical marketing position underlying the Scarborough report, nor does the blog take issue with the report's uncritical implication that supergreeniness is some kind of luxury lifestyle choice. Nor do they point out the depressing data that show 95% of Americans won't even use reusable grocery bags, conserve water or take the bus (the low bar set for "supergreeniness"). So we'll do it for them.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

embodied energy and energy use

“Statistics are merciless things.” Le Corbusier, The City of To-morrow and its Planning, 126.

The Department of Energy has posted a lot of useful data on energy use in the United States, which helps identify the low hanging fruit for big gains in energy efficiency. Some of the key take-aways: Americans consume one fifth of the world’s energy. Two-fifths of that energy is consumed in and by buildings, with 22% going into our houses. 91% of that energy produces carbon or radiation. And, most depressingly, nearly half our energy is lost in transmission and distribution.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

rain, continued

We've posted a bit on rain and lightning already, but today's thunderstorm is just too good to pass up. Here's twenty seconds of a Miami summer, amplified a bit by the remnants of Tropical Depression Emily. Within twenty minutes, the deluge was over and the skies were calm again. The major design question is how to deal with these sudden, short-lived downpours, both from a practical standpoint (how do you handle that much water in such a brief span of time) and from an aesthetic vantage.

Bonus footage: water pouring out of the drainage scuppers, and bubbling up out of the second floor balcony drains, at the Sunset Place Mall in South Miami.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

primary frame

After three weeks, the primary is nearly complete. We have one area where the window frames need to be adjusted to align with the rest of the structure.

The next step is the secondary framing of roof purlins, followed by roof decking and roof panels.

Friday, August 5, 2011

solar decathlon

Models of the 20 finalists in the Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon competition are on view online at Jetson Green, a pretty good blog about sustainable construction.

A promising sign for Florida is that two entries come from the Sunshine State. Our favorite is the FIU entry. Check out their blog, or, better yet, stop by the site (one the main campus, just of SW 8th Street) before the house relocates to Washington in late September.


Tropical Storm Emily dissipated over Hispaniola yesterday, and we’ll probably see nothing worse than extra rain this weekend (in contrast to the terrible flooding in Haiti and the Dominican Republic). But the drastic summer weather raises another question about tin box: how do we protect a steel building from lightning?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


It rains almost every day in the summer, the subtropical wet season. For thirty minutes or so, water pours from the sky in thick, intense waves, often accompanied by lightning and thunder displays like nothing we’ve ever seen. And then the skies clear, the brilliant sunlight returns, and it’s time to hunt rainbows. The weather is as alien as the flora and fauna, and just as compelling to us as designers.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

graywater guerrillas on the radio

Via Greg Hamra, friend of tin box, comes word of this fun radio segment about graywater use in California. Our graywater system is more high-tech (it uses a filtration tank) and supplies both toilet and irrigation water, but it's great to hear stories about grassroots activism on sustainable building systems, especially when they don't make people like us sound like lunatics.

I’m told the camera adds five pounds

Spent the morning with Ronna and DeShawn, two FIU students working on a class assignment to interview an architect who has designed a house for her/himself. Clearly reduced to scraping the barrel, they asked me to talk about tin box. Hopefully we’ll be able to share some of the video soon.

One of the themes that came up during the interview is how important it is to de-mystify the design and building processes. All of the television shows and cable networks spawned by This Old House have helped people understand construction better. Yet we’re still looking for a more insightful popular discourse about design in America. We’re hoping that all of the public outreach we’re attempting – through this blog, site visits and other media – will help make the design process more accessible to a broad audience of designers, builders, clients, financiers and government officials.