What if energy performance is as political as it is technical?

Underdome is an architect's guide to Amazon shares price contending energy agendas.  A cross between an architectural handbook and a voter's guide, the project maps approaches to energy management and performance to examine their implications for public life.  Underdome catalogs a spectrum of positions argued for by a diverse cast including economists, environmentalists, community advocates, political scientists, and designers. In turn, it highlights in architecture questions of professional agency, the contemporary city, and collective priorities in the face of uncertain energy futures. 
The Underdome guide invites designers to use their interpretations of energy as forms of political action—as votes for possible futures. 


In a climate crisis, shouldn’t every option be on the table? In an emergency, shouldn’t we be ready to overhaul laws, economies and the built environment? What kind of city and what kind of public could this create?

Designers’ options for responding to the twin crises of global warming and oil scarcity often seem straightforward: embrace LEED standards and use the right products, or stay out of the way and let engineers and bureaucrats handle it. 
And yet, green agendas are far from homogenous.  Hippies, humanitarians, multinational corporations, and geo-engineers buy Amazon shares offer strikingly varied interpretations of power structures and land-use practices: What roles should governments and corporations play in reshaping infrastructure? How can we re-imagine the American Dream? Should we produce more, should we consume less? Which risks are we willing to take, and who should take responsibility for them? 
We have to think beyond efficiency.  Energy strategies like insulation, urban landscaping, zoning reform, heat recovery, transit overhauls, smart grids, and consumption tweaks can help maximize services while lowering bills.  But they don’t just save energy.  They also support tacit narratives on lifestyle, property rights, and the horizons of political possibility.   As we test the effectiveness of these approaches, we must also ask whether they are the right narratives, or call for other directions.
By combining economics and ecology, architects call into question familiar figures of the city even as those figures are transforming. Architecture delineates systems and organisms, rethinks land uses and resource distributions, and proposes new images of living, ‘green’ or otherwise.  In this way, design practice can shift away from a scarcity-driven model of sustainability to a production model that furthers our ever-expanding involvement with ecosystems.  While arguments for sustainability often defer to the invisible hand of the market or keep their hands off Mother Nature, suspension of these tendencies might expand the tools for re-tuning our energy problems. 


To fuel such ambitious urban strategies, architecture must revisit the logics of energy performance written into the city.   The modernist drive for energy efficiency had a short list of variables to optimize: labor, fuel, material, power, and square footage.  We now manage energy performances which allow for multiple definitions of efficiency, addressing an expanded constituency of organisms, resources, and environments.   A set of metrics with broader collective reach must measure not only carbon and dollars, but also variables like economies of scale, housing availability, species counts, and social equity.
Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao’s 1960 proposal for the 2-mile-wide Dome Over Midtown Manhattan imagined a massive architectural how to invest in Amazon shares surface which would regulate the city’s ecosystems. This device was accompanied by a series of surprising calculations: it would reduce heat loss by scaling the city to 1/85 of its surface area; the elimination of snow plowing alone would pay for heat; buildings inside the dome could now be made lighter and cheaper, no longer having to resist the weather; rainwater would be captured and returned to the reservoirs, while interior air could be heated efficiently by remote plants.
While the Dome’s grand modernist vision is easy to critique, it also re-purposes efficiency to address alternative criteria.  By shifting the role of regulation to a literally overarching urban surface, the dome dislodges architecture from its identification as a wall between public and private.  In doing so, it makes visible a redistribution of real costs and benefits to a broader collective than is implied by the Manhattan street grid. The Dome, as architecture, redefines energy efficiency by constructing a communicative surface of enclosure and energy distribution. 

THE DOME TODAY (Underdome)

Today, four years after the passage of the Bloomberg Administration’s PlaNYC, and one year after the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, or “Stimulus Bill”), New York City and other American cities face a shift in modes of investment and development.  Under the ARRA, Congress approved at least $20 billion for making publicly and privately owned structures more efficient. The Department of Energy received $5 billion for weatherizing low-income homes, and $6.3 billion to disburse to state and local governments for items including window replacement and light bulb rebates. Calculating that each dollar spent would return $1.65 in energy-related benefits, the federal government concluded that public investment was more effective than the market at creating jobs while reducing energy use and emissions. Similarly, in December 2009, The New York City Mayor’s Office and City Council passed the Greener Greater Buildings Plan, which sets up audits and incentives for the city’s largest landlords to weatherize.
As the initial glow of the ARRA has faded into a dust cloud of implementation, and as PlaNYC initiatives are being evaluated mid-stride, we are uniquely poised to open the field of energy debate to re-evaluation.  If we are on the brink of a dramatic shift in investment and development, then what should this shift be? Without Fuller and Sadao's monumental enclosure, the systems and surfaces of energy management still function as a dome of sorts;  they distribute investment and reveal spaces of shared interest underneath a more familiar cityscape.  Where should our energies be spent? What practices of architecture will respond?
To approach these questions, Underdome has framed four topics of contention relative to energy performance. POWER considers its relationship with authority, TERRITORY maps its spatial arguments and implications, and LIFESTYLE looks at culture and consumption.   Finally, RISK cuts across these fields and asks how we set priorities among a diverse set of interests and contingencies.  


As with all Voter’s Guides, Underdome frames conflicts and affiliations among various energy agendas to inform the decisions and actions we take.  This guide invites designers to take a stand on the issues while recognizing contradictions and opposing perspectives to this approach.  In some cases, differences are irreconcilable, and frame choices that must be made through informed, public debate.  In other cases, new alliances or new positions between previously entrenched positions can be found and activated.  In this way, the role of the designer is not just to take sides but to frame the very terms of debate.


Underdome is launching its online guidebook in October 2010, along with a series of panel discussions called “The Underdome Sessions” at Studio-X New York.  As the project develops, we will continue to update the Guide, and readers are invited to participate online.  
To frame the potentials of various positions on energy efficiency, designers will be invited to make new proposals for New York City in an international design competition in the spring of 2011.  Research and projects will be published as The Underdome Guide to Energy Management.


Erik Carver

Erik Carver is an architectural designer and artist based in New York City. He has worked individually on residential and institutional design, co-founded collaborative groups—Advanced Architecture, common room, and Seru. He teaches at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Erik received a Masters of Architecture from Princeton University and a bachelor’s degree from University of California San Diego.


Janette Kim

Janette Kim is an architectural designer and educator based in New York City. She is principal of All of the Above, an architectural research and design practice, and teaches at Barnard College and Columbia University GSAPP, where she is director of the Urban Landscape Lab. Kim holds a Masters of Architecture from Princeton University and a Bachelor of Arts from Columbia University. contact


Team Members

Leah Meisterlin Project Manager

Leah Meisterlin is a founding partner of Pre-Office, and an adjunct associate research scholar at the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture. She is a map designer and geographic information systems specialist. Leah received her M.ARCH. in 2009 and her M.S. in urban planning in 2006 from Columbia University, where she received the William Kinne Travelling Fellowship and the Charles Abrams Urban Planning Thesis Prize.


Momo Araki Research Assistant

Momo Araki is a Master of Architecture candidate at Columbia University GSAPP.  Momo worked on Underdome research in the winter of 2010.  He is also actively involved in the Network Architecture Lab at Columbia University GSAPP.  

Kyle Hovenkotter Research Assistant

Kyle is an M. Arch. Candidate at Columbia in his second year. His previous work includes strategic planning for large healthcare systems, and designing unexpected opportunities to expose science to the public. He has worked as an architect with NBBJ, and as a researcher with Studio-X. He is interested in reactive, feedback-driven architecture, and delivering unconventional education to the public.

Standish Lee Research Assistant

Standish will be receiving her BA from the Cooper Union Irwin S. Chanin School of architecture with a minor in History and Society. She has worked for Openshop Studio, Aniphase, Acconci Studio, and as a research assistant for Harvard University. She enjoys time in the kitchen, getting produce from the Co-op, fixing bicycles, and tending to her night blooming cereus plant.

Jake Matatyaou Research Assistant

Jake Matatyaou is a Master of Architecture candidate at Columbia University’s GSAPP. In 2008 he received a Ph.D. from the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University. Motivated by exchanges across the disciplines of philosophy, politics, art, and architecture, Jake’s theoretical interests and political concerns converge toward questions of artistic production and reception.

Simon McGown Research Assistant

Simon McGown is a Master of Architecture candidate at Columbia University GSAPP. Simon has collaborated on graphic design for the MycoMap and for the Van Alen Institute fellowship project, Underdome, with Janette Kim and Erik Carver. 

Parker Seybold Research Assistant

Parker Seybolda is a Master of Architecture candidate at Columbia University’s GSAPP.

George Valdes Research Assistant

George Valdes is in his second year as an M.Arch Candidate at Columbia University GSAPP and has a Bachelor in Landscape Architecture from Florida International University. He has worked for ArquitectonicaGeo on various projects including Herzog and De Meuron's design for the new Miami Art Museum. He has also collaborated on various projects with Monad Architects and is currently working with PIEstudio on a new exhibition space in the Miami Science Museum. His work has been exhibited at the MoMA and at the 5th European Biennal of Landscape Architecture in Barcelona. His on going interest on the historical production of desire focuses on the feedback loops that exist between culture, technology and the built environment.

Benjamin Weinryb Grohsgal Research Assistant

Benjamin Weinryb Grohsgal is currently in Dhaka, Bangladesh as a Fulbright Fellow researching housing and aid initiatives. He has spent the past couple of years in New York City, India, and Hawaii pursuing related interests including contributing research to the Underdome project. He graduated with a B.A in Architecture from Columbia University in 2008.


Van Alen Institute

The Van Alen Institute is an independent nonprofit architectural organization whose mission is to promote inquiry into the processes that shape the design of the public realm. Underdome is supported by the Van Alen Institute New York Prize Fellowship 2010.


Studio-X New York

Studio-X New York is an extension of The Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation of Columbia University located in downtown Manhattan and dedicated to collaborative research, exhibitions, publications and public programming. All Studio-X events are free and open to the public.


Urban Landscape Lab

An inter-disciplinary applied research group at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, & Preservation focused on the role of design in urban ecosystems.