This blog post is a review of “Hyperlocalization of Architecture: Contemporary Sustainable Archetypes” published in 2015. This book is written by Andrew Michler and published by eVolo.
You may know of Andrew Michler from his writing on Inhabitat, prior to that, he was a builder. He is a certified Passivhaus Consultant and has designed and built his own foam-free off-grid Passivhaus home in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
The book starts with two bold (but accurate, I would argue) assertions about modern architecture;
A majority of buildings have failed on the most basic level of interacting with the place and people they aspire to serve.
The principle of modern design was severed from the realities of a building as an environmental intervention by relying on technology to overcome conditions rather than adapt to them.
From this starting point, “Hyperlocalization of Architecture: Contemporary Sustainable Archetypes” launches into a global journey to seek out contemporary vernacular architecture. In other words, buildings that embody an attitude of hyperlocalization. Buildings that stand in direct contrast to the asserted failings of modern architecture.
The book is a joyous and lavishly illustrated romp from the US to Australia with stop -offs along the way in Japan, Germany, Denmark, Spain and Mexico. As you might expect, the stop-off in Germany focusses on a stunning example of Passivhaus architecture.
Each location has an essay by Andrew Michler followed by a selection of building profiles. Each building is documented with multiple superb colour photographs, the majority of which are by Andrew Michler. Sometimes there are also drawings and diagrams, and in all cases, there is a written narrative by the architect.
“Hyperlocalization of Architecture: Contemporary Sustainable Archetypes” is a beautiful written and visual source guide for contemporary vernacular architecture across the globe.
Locating contemporary vernacular architecture
The book opens with a foreword by Lloyd Alter, an introduction by Andrew Michler and essays by three visionary contributors to contemporary vernacular architecture; Edward Mazria, Dr. Wolfgang Feist, and William McDonough.
Lloyd Alter introduces the concept of Hyperlocalization. He picks up on the failures Andrew Michler identifies, citing first ‘Starchitect’ designed iconic buildings and then typical all-glass office buildings before setting the scene for the book:
… place matters. This is why Andrew Michler’s concept of hyperlocalization is so fascinating and valuable. Because every building he shows is not only a product of its climate and its environment, but of its history, its culture, a reflection of the personalities of the people who built it and surround it. [p12]
In the introduction, Andrew Michler takes a critical look through at how architecture has developed during the last century. He concludes early on that architecture is still essentially grappling for a clear identity following the failings of Postmodernism. This leads into the dilemma of what environmentally oriented design is and how it can be described today. So much historic knowledge of materials and place have been lost in modern times.
However, the journey the book plots takes in many fine examples of where architecture is exploring and expressing a contemporary vernacular. Architecture that expresses clearly the environmental constraints and performance requirements applied to the design process and reflective of its specific local. Architecture that flamboyantly asserts how it serves the people and place it belongs to.
The introduction finishes with some context for the following essays:
The first three conversations that follow frame the core considerations of environmental building design. Edward Mazria, Dr. Wolfgang Fiest, and William McDonough each have unique insights into the issues of our built environment and have pioneered visionary solutions. They provide the framework for our capacity to resolve our singular challenge of climate and environmental degradation through design. [p19]
Edward Mazria is the founder and director of Architecture 2030. He makes a compelling case that both operational energy consumption and embodied energy of the materials used must be addressed in order to significantly reduce CO2 emissions by 2030. He argues that for architecture the demand side is where the opportunity lies – CO2 emissions can be reduced by design. Although renewable energy production (“non-CO2-emitting energy”) is ramping up across the globe, so too are energy demands. In fact, the increase in energy demand by 2030 is expected to far outstrip the increase in renewable energy production. He points out that architects control how and what they design – within a given brief and budget there is a multiplicity of design solutions. An energy efficient, high-performance design solution is achievable. He makes an urgent call (one that I echo in my manifesto):
It is imperative that we plan, design, and build differently. Over the next two decades, most of the global built environment will be either new or rebuilt. This is our opportunity, one with a defined window that will not remain open indefinitely. The time to act is now. [p23]
Dr. Wolfgang Feist is the founder and director of the Passivhaus Institut. He gives a very clear explanation of the imperative driving the international Passivhaus Standard and why it is a performance standard. He identifies that worldwide two things are always the same: the laws of physics and what constitutes a healthy comfortable indoor environment. What is different is the local climate and the cultural context in each place. And it is the latter two aspects that determine exactly how the Passivhaus Standard can be met in any specific location.
Dr Feist draws a link between this approach and traditional vernacular architecture:
It turns out that given the limited technology that people had in the past of course they did a good job with regional traditional design. There have been different types of architectural heritage in different parts of the world, and of course it had something to do with the local climate. They knew how to build for the local climate given the technology at the time. [p25]
He goes on to assert that to design for the least negative impact, it means thinking local, particularly for energy production.
Dr. Feist concludes that Passivhaus and the PHPP make physics accessible and fun to those involved in designing buildings. It puts a powerful tool directly into the hands of the people designing the built environment. This is empowering, especially when measured building performance matches closely what was predicted as design stage. Buildings can be powered with only 10% of the energy generally expected. CO2 emissions can be radically reduced.
William McDonough is a founding principal of architectural practice William McDonough + Partners and co-author of the seminal book “Cradle to Cradle“. He is a formidable optimist and rigorous design-thinker. Where we typically see waste left over from a process, he sees nutrients and food for another process waiting to be harvested. It takes a significant mindset shift to start to see the world this way and to start designing from this place. No longer is it acceptable to do things a little less bad, it’s vital that we do good, that we create goodness through design.
The first job of the designer is not to build or to rearrange the furniture, it’s to change the way you see. So let’s start there. They don’t have less damage to the habitat, which is what they were trying to do. Instead they have an increase in habitat. [p31]
William McDonough, through sharing some uplifting stories, reminds us that we must think beyond designing buildings. We must be creating a thriving environment for all children, all species, for all time.
Andrew Michler, Edward Mazria, Dr. Wolfgang Feist, and William McDonough collectively provide a powerful lens through which to view the architecture in the book. And indeed, architecture outside the book.
[Germany Maintains] – Passivhaus contemporary vernacular architecture
Passivhaus is an international performance standard. As I have argued before, Passivhaus provides the ideal underpinning for ‘Vernacular 2.0’, wherever in the world a design might be located. However, as a codified standard, it first emerged in Germany following the research of Dr. Wolfgang Feist and Dr Bo Adamson. It is entirely expected, then, that Germany is where Andrew Michler locates a fine example of Passivhaus contemporary vernacular architecture.
To set the scene, he shares his experience of visiting Passivhaus buildings in Germany, including the incredible Heidelberg-BahnStadt city-region development. He observes the dedication to precision engineering and diligent attention to detail to ensure the buildings perform to the highest standard. He frames the Passivhaus Standard as an exercise in great restraint and intense focus on energy efficiency. This maintains strict control over the internal environment so it is healthy and comfortable with minimal technology and energy input.
The level of control of the elements is the key, and environmental building starts with a fundamental understanding of how environments actually influence buildings. The deeper intention of localizing our architecture is to maximise the inherent conditions of the site. These [Passivhaus] projects are based on a deep but accessible understanding of how we conserve and extract the energy we need from the immediate environment around us before we rely on outside, typically very dirty sources of energy. Showing great restraint, Passive House is the analysis and execution of the meticulous balance of heat losses to the exterior with heat gains from the sun, occupants and electrical devices. The same works in reverse to keep heat out when needed. [p92]
Andrew Michler writes about the radical approach of the Passivhaus Standard in contrast to the normal industry approaches. He goes into some basic details about the requirements of the standard, including the importance of comfort. He finishes up with how the ‘Passivhaus movement’ has already done tremendous things for the industry worldwide.
- The building science sector has been revitalised and charged with a fresh and vital mission.
- Demand for high-performance products has lead to industry engagement and innovation. This has accelerated an expanding market of Passivhaus-suitable components in stark contrast to the sluggish incrementalism typically witnessed in the construction industry.
- Rapid adoption in countries across the globe demonstrates shared values of community engagement and professional support for high-performance buildings.
Having explained why and how ‘Germany Maintains’, he then moves on to a single example of Passivhaus architecture: Kunstmuseum in Ravensburg.
This is an exemplary Passivhaus museum building set in a medieval city. It clearly embodies a contemporary vernacular architecture. There is no pastiche or empty stylistic gestures. The form and materials tightly knit themselves into the surrounding fabric of the city.
Inside the building, the spaces are calm, crisp and contemporary. Until you arrive at the top floor, that is. There the ceiling dances exuberantly away in vaulting arches formed with reused old bricks.
In the architect’s words:
Our approach to the design was based on two things. We think it is better not to think in terms of times, only to make a good building. Ravensburg is a very nice town and we were allowed to contribute to it. It is like we started with a cake and we put something on the cake. Our building is a continuation of the town. And the second idea is using old materials. Until the 20th century, people used old buildings to build new buildings, starting with the Greeks then Romans, and into the Middle Ages, and even after the Second World War people built with the materials from the ruins. This is one aspect in which we are very interested in, that’s why we used these old bricks. [p96]
There is a certain amount of technical information, but the narrative is more focused on the place of Passivhaus within the wider story of the hyperlocalization of architecture. The photos tell this story too. The building and its form can be glimpsed from a variety of vantage points on approach through the medieval city. An aerial view locates it in the roof-scape of the city – at once both contemporary and contextual, respectful and contemporary.
‘Germany Maintains’ provides a fresh lens through which to view the international Passivhaus Standard and a superb example of Passivhaus contemporary vernacular architecture
Architecture in the Anthropocene needs hyperlocal Passivhaus architecture
In this blog post, I have focussed almost exclusively on the Passivhaus aspects of “Hyperlocalization of Architecture: Contemporary Sustainable Archetypes”. There are, however, many other fascinating, beautiful and compelling examples of contemporary vernacular architecture in the book. Many of them, like the RMIT Design Hub by Sean Godsell Architects that adorns the cover, could easily be designed to meet the local climate and cultural heritage and meet the international Passivhaus Standard also. Maybe this is the next step architects will take as they come to terms with what it meets to design hyperlocal architecture fully embedded in place.
“Hyperlocalization of Architecture: Contemporary Sustainable Archetypes” is a wonderful visual and narrative guide to how Passivhaus, or at least the origins of the Passivhaus Standard, fits into a global movement to bring a meaningful response to environmental conditions back into architecture. And, even more broadly, it is a delightful and sumptuous guide to the diverse responses contemporary architecture can have to the place, environment and culture it arises from.
As I have argued before, Passivhaus is the starting point, not the endpoint for sustainable design. There are many exciting projects and approaches showcased in this book that can provide inspiration for Passivhaus architecture to go beyond the standard.
We can, and I would argue should, aspire to design and deliver hyperlocal Passivhaus architecture. Immature Passivhaus markets might struggle with a lack of local Passivhaus-suitable components but this will change as demand increases. Even so, the form, shape, materials and aesthetic of Passivhaus architecture can reflect the local cultural heritage and respond to the specific place.
Are you designing hyperlocal Passivhaus architecture?
Some additional resources:
- Hyperlocalization of Architecture: Contemporary Sustainable Archetypes
- Download a free chapter from the book: [Germany Maintains]
All images from the book, “Hyperlocalization of Architecture: Contemporary Sustainable Archetypes”.
To purchase a copy of this book I highly recommend supporting your local independent bookshop if possible or purchasing direct from the associated website Hyperlocalization of Architecture: Contemporary Sustainable Archetypes. However, if you do choose to purchase from any of the links on this site, Amazon will pay me a small commission (at no cost to you) which will support this site. You can click on the image above to go to the Amazon page for the book, or visit my Passivhaus Books page for more information about this book and other Passivhaus books.