Abre Las Ventanas by Rick Schneider


Powell Elementary School won the AIA DC Design Excellence and Sustainability awards by telling students to “Abre Las Ventanas” (open the windows). Our renovation and addition to this dual language school showcases solar chimneys and operable windows as passive design strategies.  To make the learning environment more comfortable and energy efficient, passive design harnesses the powerful effects of nature… forces like hot air rises and nature abhors a vacuum[1].

 Solar chimneys utilize the natural flows of air current to provide non-mechanical cooling + ventilation. They’re something we don’t see every day, but the concept has been around forever. In fact, the original historic structure included a solar chimney when it was constructed in 1929.  This was a time before the use of mechanical air conditioning… a time almost forgotten when schools had operable windows.

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We discovered something fascinating when we surveyed the historic building: every classroom had an odd metal grille on the corridor side wall. Each one connected to a duct in the hollow wall that led to the open attic. In spring or fall, when a room got too hot, these vents moved hot stale air out of the classroom and into the attic plenum as students opened the windows. Hot air rises – nature abhors a vacuum.   Open a window to let in fresh air: free cooling and ventilation.

 So how do you get all that hot stale air out of the attic? The cupola was not just for looks - it functioned as a vent for the attic. Louvers let the hot air out and windows use the sun to heat the space up and speed up the process somewhat.

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For the new classroom wing at Powell, we took a lesson from history – we replicated this function and modified it to improve efficiency.  Now each classroom has a duct to a solar chimney. When conditions are right - temperature, wind speed + direction, humidity – a green light goes on in the classroom telling the students “Abre las ventanas”.  In this day + age we have to encourage our kids to open a window.


The natural ventilation provided by the Solar Chimneys in the addition results in an additional 5.2% savings on energy above the already high baseline for a LEED-S Gold school. The passive strategies in this one wing alone provide cost savings of 2% to the overall project. The solar chimneys provide cool fresh air without the use of non-renewable energy. It’s a concept that is thousands of years old and it’s chock full of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, + Music) teaching moments.

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That’s why the folks at DC Sustainable Energy Utility gave us funding for signage in the hallways to educate students on how they work. The STEAM message is levelled for different age groups.  It helps explain the concept by comparing it to a fire place chimney within their own homes.  However, rather than exhausting smoke, the solar chimney exhausts hot, stale air.  It’s a timeless lesson in saving money and energy, promoting healthy buildings, and educating all ages on resource stewardship.



[1]          Nature abhors a vaccum (horror vacui); this idiom and theory by Aristotle posits that empty space does not want to be empty space.  When it comes to passive design, this theory is applied in a myriad of ways.  Powell Elementary uses the solar chimney and operable windows to create a vacuum.  As temperatures warm throughout the year, the vents at the top of the solar chimney can be opened to release the hot air.  As the hot air is removed, the empty space left wants to be filled.  When used in combination with the operable windows, new fresh air is pulled in to fill the space creating a naturally occurring and desirable draft.

Why Do Community Design Process At All? by istudio

This is a question asked frequently in the design community. The community design process is not an easy fit with the way that many design firms operate. ISTUDIO contends that developing mechanisms that provide communities with design services is both a crucial development in our culture’s response to the crises affecting our urban neighborhoods, and a crucial development in the maturing process of the design profession. All professions have made organized, broad-based efforts to provide services to under-served communities.

This practice of offering services based on the greatest need, rather than the greatest availability of resources, has created great organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, and Doctors Without Borders. This brings us to a crucial point; if designers truly believe that their services are indispensable to creating healthy communities, they must find ways to extend those benefits to communities in need. This focus re-imagines the design process as, first and foremost, a method of caring for others.


Since design is a process, it is useful to establish some benchmarks in the process, and some general guidelines. First, community design must be a two-way street in order to be effective. Designers must be willing to learn from communities and vice versa.

Further, good interpersonal relationships will be crucial to creating a smooth process. Therefore, designers must be intentional and focused on developing connections, both professional and personal, with people and organizations in the community. Failure to accomplish these ends results in a lost opportunity for designers to learn. Diminished trust means community members will be less invested in the final product, less likely to provide the necessary support for completing the project.

What do designers learn through workshop process?

- Designers learn which issues community members care about, and how residents think about the space, its use, its purpose, and each other. Designers gain insight into the specific language each community uses to talk about itself. This local language is influenced by culture (and the mix of cultures), class, race, religion. All of these form the basis for our aspirations for the future, and for people’s understanding of changes as positive or negative.

- Designers can clearly define their role as community advocates. They should recognize a possible need to take on roles outside or beyond their roles as defined in standard practice. Professionals should figure out what the project needs, rather than limiting themselves to what designers are “supposed” to do.

- Designers can develop long-term connections with communities interested in reinventing themselves, and help build community capacity to manage those changes.


What do communities get from the workshop process?

- Stakeholders can develop a unified vision for a community, and document that vision in a way that is easily understood.

- The design process can build a constituency to a create change. That base group, once formed, can work on other issues, solidifying community involvement.

- New relationships can develop between existing community members and organizations during the process.

- The workshop structure allows communities to access expertise from organizations or individuals in a regularized fashion. Communities gain a new method for group problem solving. The workshop process can be applied to other community problems, and function as a “safe place” in which to discuss group problems and propose solutions.


Seen in this way, the workshop process provides three products. First is the design proposal, a solution to the specified problem and a plan for implementing the solution. Second is a community-building effort that organizes existing individual and group assets of for change. Third is the workshop process itself; a structured, familiar mechanism to address future problems.

  • Michael Hill, ASLA

When does a city become your own? by istudio


Notebook Japan 98 So when does a city start to belong to a person? Is it a matter of time, or of experience? Maybe when the lights coming on in the evening bring a sense of familiarity. When I have a place to go as some kind of regular. When I decide I’ll go home this way instead of that because the subway is cheaper than a train + bus, even if I have to walk a little more. When I feel a strange sense of kindred with folks on the street I’ll never even meet – complete stranger. When I don’t stop at each corner to check my direction + location.

I’ve come to Motomachi only the 4th time or so and I spend the afternoon strolling streets and the early evening drinking coffee at an outside table in the fall air and I take possession of the city a little. Like a beachhead, like a first long kiss + a touch. Like taking it for a test drive. At that point it’s a little bit mine now. Walking through doesn’t count, a peck on the cheek doesn’t either. But lingering, that’s when the exchange begins whether one knows it or not. And returning builds the bond one silk thread after another. Finally the living is what really seals it. The prolonged occupation, “marrying a native”. Sleeping together, or better yet waking up together. Taking it in for alignment and getting the brakes checked. When I’m buying bread, saying hello to the owners and thinking about how there’s too many new people these days… it’s mine.

Smelling Your Floor in the Age of Online Shopping by istudio


We are renovating a building from the late 1800s, which involves sanding and refinishing a pine floor that’s older than any person alive on Earth.  Particles of wood dust in the air, set free after what could have been over a century of entrapment under layers of oil, met my nostrils.  My nerves interpreted the chemical compounds and transferred the information for my brain to process, causing me to feel something.Some say that they will never forget the smell of their mother’s favorite perfume—smells can be imprinted on us with deep emotions and memories.  Smells can also be pleasant or offensive—and we tend to know it right away.  It varies with each smeller, though many would agree that there are certain smells that evoke a universal reaction. Every object contains a smell, whether it’s as pungent as a lemon-scented Lysol or as pleasant as the near-non-smellness of a public building.  As designers, we are often limited to catalogues that smell like heavily processed paper and without any scratch-and-sniff to get a sense of the product’s smell.  Often we do not even receive such catalogues.  We stare down at the pixels of the computer screen wondering, “what would this look like in-person?” without even a trigger to arouse wonder about the product’s smell (as Google once convinced of the American public-at-large of its newest technology).In the age of online shopping, are we capable of desensitizing ourselves from the materials we specify for our projects?

Most of us can remember the smell of a fresh-painted room or an old log cabin, even though the color of the walls or the species of the wood are forgotten.  Nonetheless we often specify architectural materials and finishes based on their aesthetic and physical properties, often ignoring its effect on our sense of smell.

Perhaps more oddly, there was a phase during architecture school when I insisted on tasting the site—the blades of the grass and the leaves of the trees.  This part perhaps seems less romantic than the smell of freshly-sanded pine, since we smell our lawn and flowers more often than taste them.  Maybe our chalky plaster walls and chunky terrazzo floors aren’t meant to be tasted after all.  But could the perception of our buildings change based on whether our walls taste less like paint and more like Italian coffee; our floors less like bleach and more like zucchini?  I’m sure our dogs could tell us the answer.Perhaps taste is stretching the boundaries of the scope of our profession as architects, but architecture does evoke all five basic senses—sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste—and additional senses such as heat and balance, which are sometimes more important to the building’s inhabitants.

I recall the smell of pine floors, freshly sanded.  I remind myself that the smell is now entrapped again under layers of sealers and finishes—to which I’d like to say—smell ya later!

Thieving Monkeys by istudio


The sun was barely up as we leave the Yellow House, eyes red from the flight and sneakers tightened in anticipation; ready to explore the streets of Kathmandu.  We turn left, running along the thick concrete wall holding back the leaves and flowers hungrily growing on the other side.  A quick left and then a right leads us down a hill towards the Bagmati River - a contrast to the stone streets, the concrete houses, the lines of motorbikes.  We find ourselves in an easy rhythm, steps falling mechanically on the pavement. Past jagged streets, the windows and doors sagging with age.  Balconies and thresholds filled with the beginning of morning - dhaal baat dished on plates, spirit shrines flickering with sleepy candles, old men sitting with tea.  Street sweepers look up as we pass, “Namaste”; old women bent with children look up, “Namaste”; children with toothy grins and white polos fall in step and then race past, “Namaste”.  Hands to heart center, eyes connected, head slightly bowed, “Namaste”; acknowledging the spirit within.  Connection on the street.  Connections that happen when life is lived necessarily close - breakfast and laundry and worship all within inches of the door step. The phone map guides us, distant and factual in its direction [turn right at the next intersection].  Our reality is more supple, a wide right - avoiding the sacred cow that has chosen the middle of the street as a needed place to rest.  [Turn left, then left again] Turn left past the man feeding the street dogs, observe the goat tied to the doorway, then left into an alley.  Our map does not dictate whether this is a street or a series of backyards strung together, the dampness of life uncomfortably close.  Continue forward as the women in the backyards seem to find no fault in us moving past their cooking fires, scuttling their chickens, intriguing their children.  “Namaste”.   [Continue straight] when straight appears to be an after-thought of a tunnel built in between two buildings, steps crooked and worn, the mossy walls clinging to us on either side, pushing onward and upward, pushing us to the release of the streets.  We continue in this push and pull, contract and release; one step brushing past the routine of life, the next gliding past the routine of eternity: shrines and Stuppas.  When privacy is a commodity, communion of the typical and the holy is shared.

Then gradually, beyond in the distance, a hill arises, golden with the rays of the morning light: Swayambhu Stuppa [Continue straight].  A gaggle of children and street dogs follow us, eager for a break from their routine.  My lungs burn, my feet ache under the repetition; yet I am beckoned on - by the Monkey Temple and the colors floating through the streets.  The street finally ends, buildings give way to trees and stones, masking the temple above the canopy.  Maps are no longer needed.  Follow the grey stone path, continue moving upward, past the monkeys; sacred or not; lounging in the shade.  The monkeys sit, confident of their position, knowing that we are the temporary visitors, abiding by the rules of their temple.  The steps steepen and become short, my toe angled against the worn stone, stepping lightly. Deliberately.  365 steps.  365 decisions to continue upward.But the top! The summit!  Feet shuffling and prayer flags rising to blend with the wind. The white dome of the Stuppa lifts gracefully skyward. The golden tip and steady eyes glistening with the sun.  Brick walls house shrines and prayer wheels, tin shanties and tarps house merchants and makers.  Everything is masked with a hushed undertone, as though I am walking around with ear muffs on. Only the chimes and the heavy turning of the prayer wheels appear in full volume, marking my observation in a convoluted melody of serenity.  The view beckons us to the edge.  Gasp, words are useless.  The fog settling in the valley is lifting, the sun’s rays growing stronger, the Himalayas steadfast in the distance.  The mountains are confident in their place.  Knowing, like the monkeys, that they are the rules.  We are the temporary visitors.  Monks shuffle past, continuing in their prayer walk.  Prayer wheels are turned.  Candles are lit.  Monkeys scurry by, immune to the sacred.  The top is a place of pause.  A place away from the closeness of everyday routines.  Intention.  I will pause, I remind myself, accept the everyday routine and the push and pull of life.  I will pause to remember the tea and open fires and the laundry hanging on the balcony.  The colors that reflect on the Bagmati and the concrete walls.  The dogs that do not care for an owner, but for a meal.  And I will pause when I return home; for the coffee and the whistle of the breeze.  For monuments and the shifting of clouds.  For friend’s stories and benches in parks.  For fat squirrels that prefer Sweet Green to acorns.

And thus I descend from Swayambhu.  One step, one decision at a time, away from the top.  Surrounded by the ephemeral bliss of a moment of pause.  And then, serenity realized, peace affirmed: my assailant strikes.  A water bottle is ripped from my unobserving hand, nimble fingers and a furry face look up at me.  Black eyes, confident that he is now the rightful owner stares back.

The monkeys of Swayambhua are masters of finding the advantage in other’s pause.

For Whom The Monument Speaks by istudio


The voice whispered,

“Is this the most monumental building from all these weeks,”

not at the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacán[1], nor at the Metropolitan Cathedral[2] by the Zócalo[3], nor at the obelisk (monument) of Washington.  On the last day of the trip, we arrived at the Vasconcelos Library in downtown México City (DF).The length of the building was hidden from us until we discovered a plaza to the left side of the front façade.  Its louvers extended across the length of the building, stacked the whole height between the columns.  There were street musicians—some sitting on the circular concrete pavers, others sitting on a low concrete wall with chamfered edges—whose upright bass player was resigned to not being heard.

I am reminded of the first paragraph of a short story titled The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges:

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors [...] Also through here passes a spiral stairway, which sinks abysmally and soars upwards to remote distances. In the hallway there is a mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances. Men usually infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite (if it were, why this illusory duplication?); I prefer to dream that its polished surfaces represent and promise the infinite ...

Inspired by this short story in one of my semesters at the WAAC (Virginia Tech Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center), I worked on a studio project for a library.  The design incorporated a central stack of books with see-through floors and reflective materials—which I was quick to deem unfeasible—“makes for pretty drawings.”  Such a building based on dreams and poetics could never really be built.  But it was.

During my travels through México I fell head-over-heels—enamored and googly-eyed—for the grace of Barragán’s house in DF, the charm of the doors of San Miguel, and the passion of the streets of Guanajuato.  However, monuments differ from other buildings at the root of our experiences.  They can surprise us, choke us, and draw tears from our chests.

Books were hung from the sky and balconies were hung from the books.  They soared to the highest point and extended to what seemed like infinity.  I could see the entire universe but could only comprehend the book that would be in front of me.  Facing each book between all these stacks, I felt the weight of human history compressing against my ego—and imagined the stories contained within and connected by each book—all the while feeling myself drawn to-and-from each section within the web of hanging pathways.A monument of books—a monument built by humans for the knowledge within the books, much like the books themselves—written by humans for the knowledge within the universe.  How wonderful it is to face a monument representing knowledge.

[1] The Pyramid of the Sun, the largest building in Teotihuacan, believed to have been constructed about 200 CE, and one of the largest in Mesoamerica At its zenith, perhaps in the first half of the 1st millennium AD, Teotihuacan was the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas, with a population estimated at 125,000 or more, making it at least the sixth largest city in the world during its epoch. [2] The Metropolitan Cathedral is the largest cathedral in the Americas, situated atop the former Aztec sacred precinct in Downtown Mexico City. [3] The Zócalo in Mexico City is 57,600 m2 (620,000 sqft), one of the largest city squares in the world.

Day 4 in the Impenetrable Forest by istudio


We track mountain gorillas today. The call came in from the Uganda Wildlife Authority while we were at dinner on the patio watching the lights in Buhoma village go out one by one. The forest camp switches off the generator for the night and we finish making our plans for the coming day by lantern light. Trackers go out before dawn to locate the gorilla family and report back. Our group of trekkers waits under a thatched canopy while our guide give us the orientation. “Stand this far away… don’t talk loudly… and definitely do not stare – especially at the silver back.” We shoulder packs and head off into the lush green of the Impenetrable Forest National Park.We cross a bridge over a stream in the steep-sided ravine, wind our way up and over the facing ridge into higher country. Mahogany trees become more plentiful here – their roots extend into the pathway tall angled boards of resonant wood. Gorillas pound them with their hands like thumping drums to send messages across the valley. The ranger puts us on notice as we traipse through a low muddy area churned up by the feet of elephants. There’s not much you can do if you run into them on the path, hemmed in on all sides by overgrowth. The German couple moves on silent and wide-eyed at the thought.We stop to eat lunch on a fallen log in a small clearing and receive a radio call – the family is near. We move through the brush in the next stream valley only to realize suddenly we are among them. A rustle in the understory, black shapes in a green on green hillside. A juvenile climbs a tree and hangs from the branches. Barrel-chested with long, long arms and legs tucked up almost like a baby.

They pull leaves down from the tall bushes to satisfy a mostly vegetarian diet. A domestic calmness permeates the experience, belies the mythology of a fierce man-eating creature. Mother shoulders a young one. Two kids tousle in the tall grass.

We spend more than an hour visiting, then the silverback moves in a way that tells everyone it’s time to move on. A few low grunts punctuate the message. The family fades into the forest and we work our way back across the ridges to the edge of the park in the late afternoon. The valleys are already collecting shadows as we hike up the red clay road to our camp with heads full and bellies not.The place we’ll make for future visitors will nestle into one side of the ravine. The departure point for the trek will be carved into the hill, a small terraced amphitheater with the intense green wall of the forest as its backdrop. It will be a gateway to the impenetrable.

Where did all the blue skies go? by subLoft

Marvin Gaye didn’t sing “Love The One You’re With” — that would be Stephen Stills. But the line seems appropriate when we talk about biophilia and urban green field sites. While these sites are often overused, there is still much of the natural environment to love. Here is a little lyric about the site in Northeast Washington DC where Marvin Gaye grew up. There is a path in a park and a recreation center that bears Marvin’s name. The park is entered from a neighborhood street of brick rowhouses + duplexes on the north end of the site. The path moves south through a grove of majestic willow oaks. Folks play basketball beneath towering specimen trees planted in rows over a hundred years ago.


A footbridge crosses a wandering stream — a riparian zone working to regenerate itself with some help from the Army Corps of Engineers. Pass through a belt of trees that line both sides of the small ravine. Fields open up to the south — football, baseball, soccer, anything can be played here on a carpet of green.

The treeline forms a backdrop for the outfield. Here the recreation center is raised on berms above the floodplain. The path rises on a ramp to a high plaza and passes into the lobby. The building can be felt taking a breath. Fresh air is drawn in through louvers above windows and exhaled through high fans on the roof — natural ventilation.


Daylight pours in through high clerestory windows, draws visitors to the gallery on the second floor. The ramp leads to stairs; stairs lead out over the fields up into the boughs of the trees cantilevered above the stream. A point of prospect from within provides a view out over the fields. A perforated sunscreen filters light like the canopy of leaves on either side.

Step out onto the balcony and the building disappears — replaced by the sense of being in the trees beneath blue skies with the sound of water coursing through the stream bed three stories below.


Streets that hug by istudio

Around noon, the sun casts the smallest shadow from my feet onto the stone pavement. To my left, oversized trucks crowd the one-way road — to my right, walls are colored golden yellow, pale brown, and mature red. Hand-made doorknobs and dusty windows offer glimpses of life inside these houses. Where I walk, the house is separated by only the 30-centimeters of the walls. My fingertips can’t help but touch. My eyes trace the imperfect lines of these walls that border the sky.

I am embraced at each turn and slope of San Miguel streets.

Having been around the Virginian suburbs and gone to university in the Appalachians, the density of urban communities often receive a negative connotation: tall towers and their long shadows, constant traffic and noise, not enough space. Many have sought out for space by extending into more space — setbacks and front yards connected by miles of asphalt.

Compared to San Miguel, I wonder if there is a cityscape that was as unfamiliar to me. Yet — where once an old woman greeted me and once a young businessman asked me about my home — on these streets I felt a sense of belonging.

Biophilia by istudio


We are better than telephone poles disguised as trees. We don’t need plastic flowers and wallpapered bricks. We need sunlight and the change of seasons. We need the wind and the rain and seeing a fern gently arch towards the sunlight. We need gardens that go dormant in winter and plants that die in a drought, only to be rebirthed with the rainy season. We need the rough texture of slate and the sound of gurgling water easing our thoughts.We can build buildings that are perfectly plumb and streets that align to a grid. Consistent, logical, expected. But to bring in nature, to allow the regimented design of 90 degree angles be interrupted and forced to co-exist with the constant changes of nature; that is where the secret lies. To have places that celebrate this, embrace the unregimented neighbor and, dare I say, be informed by the earthly forms and knowledge that the natural world provides, now that is a place worth inhabiting.