Fat Is the New Green

AIA Design Theory- October 2009

by Rebecca Falzano
Photography Trent Bell

Architect Jesse Thompson believes green design offers the chance for a new aesthetic

Conversations about sustainability often involve a sense of having to do without or limiting creativity in some fashion. Jesse Thompson and his firm Kaplan Thompson Architects is instead finding that the quest for low-energy, durable buildings has not been an act of denial or limitation but instead is leading toward a new aesthetic and creating opportunities for a new style.


Thompson3_wQ. What do you mean by a bright green future? 
A: It’s a term popularized by Alex Steffen of Worldchanging. It’s meant as a contrast to “hair-shirt” environmentalism, where we all have to settle for less. Bright Green by contrast would be a world where buildings produce more energy than they use, and a new building leaves the world in a better place than before its arrival. We’re not there yet, but it’s the goal we’re working towards. Surprisingly, by constructing buildings with these goals in mind, we have started to question our heritage. Not the heritage of vernacular buildings, nor the heritage of careful Maine craftsmanship, but instead our architectural heritage.

Q. What do you mean by your architectural heritage?
A: Like most of my architectural generation, I was raised on a steady diet of two styles: California Modernism and the Shingle Style revival. On one side were the iconic Julius Shulman photographs of ethereally slender houses of steel and glass, so delicate they felt as though they might fly away in a strong breeze. The touchstones of the style were thinness wherever possible, acres of aluminum-framed walls of glass, and “honesty” of structural expression, both inside and out. On the other hand, we watched Robert Stern ride across the Hamptons, building a new vernacular for wealthy America with complexity of form: roofs erupting with turrets, dormers, and miles of valleys, technologically wondrous windows disguising their sophistication by simulating antique styles in every imaginable combination.

Q: Why do these styles now feel like dead ends?Thompson_w
A: Delicate and thin doesn’t allow room for proper insulation. Structural steel beams running continuously from inside out draws frost deep into buildings, leaving behind mold and rot. Those miles of roof valleys inevitably find a way to leak, and simulated divided lights cost more money for worse thermal performance and compromised views. As our technical knowledge has grown in our office, we’ve developed a “blacklist” of forbidden products and techniques. They include any insulation that comes in rolls or batts, and windows where you can see shiny metal both inside and out.


Q: So if thin and shiny are out, what’s in?
A: One possibility we have begun to explore in our most recent generation of projects is the idea of “Fat.” Properly insulated walls for our climate should be a minimum of twelve inches thick, but nothing says these walls have to be evenly twelve inches thick. Perhaps we don’t need to be perfectly straight and plumb at every moment. We’re exploring houses with walls that slope in different angles from the inside to the outside, and walls that taper and flare to shed water or sun. Also, our windows no longer need to live in the same relationship to the plane of the wall as they used to. A grand view might earn windows pushed to the outside of the building as far as they can go, while more intimate and quieter scenes might draw the plane of glass inward and let the view sit within the protective enclosure of the surrounding walls.Thompson2_w

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