Philadelphia Architects’ New Approach to Sustainable Building

Monday, January 18, 2010

by Inga Saffron, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, January 17, 2010

philly1 They’re not the sort of architects you go to when you want just another pretty building. They don’t design walk-in sculptures that swirl like ocean waves. A plain skyscraper would bore them to tears.

Instead, they dream of making buildings that can go up in weeks instead of months, that are manufactured rather than constructed, that penny-pinch on energy, and that can be tossed into the recycling bin when the world grows tired of them.

Meet the Philadelphia Four, a group of rising design firms that see architecture as a weapon in the battle to stave off environmental ruin.

Unlike many of the celebrity architects of the last decade, who pursued innovation with exotic shapes and gravity-defying constructions, these architects focus on process rather than looks. They want to use their creativity to invent cheaper, greener ways to build.

All share a conviction that conventional building methods have become as obsolete as hunting and gathering. Construction, they argue, takes too long, wastes too much of our resources, and spews out way too much carbon dioxide. Rather than attempting to make our system greener, these architects are bent on overthrowing it.

The Philadelphia Four include the internationally recognized KieranTimberlake, which the American Institute of Architects named its top U.S. firm in 2008; the up-and-coming Erdy McHenry and Onion Flats; and the still-emerging Interface Studio Architects.

"These are architects who do not blush in saying that what they’re doing is socially important work," said David Brownlee, who teaches architectural history at the University of Pennsylvania. "All of them are committed to architecture as an intellectual project."

Like the Philadelphia School radicals, who emerged in the 1960s with the ascent of Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi, these firms are starting to attract notice beyond the city, winning national awards and the attention of prestigious architecture journals. Their designs are showing up from New Orleans to Ithaca, N.Y.

At first glance, their buildings might not appear to have much in common. Erdy McHenry’s swaggering style, vividly on display in its twisting new dormitory tower at Drexel University, is clearly at odds with KieranTimberlake’s more sober approach and its devotion to craft, a trait that won it accolades for green projects at Yale University and Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.

The family resemblance between Onion Flats and Interface is stronger, especially in the syncopated facades for their housing designs. But what really links the Four is their efforts to change how we build. [Read rest of article}

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