“The principle of organic economy was too essential to the functioning of the society not to affect ethics and aesthetics profoundly.”
— Ursula K. Le Guin, from the novel The Dispossessed
Architectural sustainability, or the green building movement, is dominated by concern with buildings energy efficiency and use of sustainable materials. Left largely undiscussed is the question of the cultural values that shape our homes. American homes have increased in size, cost, and complexity, even while the building’s energy efficiency and materials have improved. Geoff Manaugh often points out the possibility that after technical fixes to fossil fuel energy have been perfected, we will still live in precisely the same way as before – with automobiles, large homes, and consumption. The most visible counter-trend, small homes movement, has had a limited cultural impact as its absurd minimalism contrasts so greatly against excessive cultural norms. It’s often pointed out we simply don’t have enough raw materials for billions of the world’s poor to live at the same standards as exist in the developed world. What’s lacking is a concerted effort to cultivate aesthetic and cultural models for more resource-efficient living.
Other professions involved in the planning and design of cities have dedicated considerable effort to realizing models for less resource intensive environments. New Urbanism proposes neighborhood-scale pattern for more efficient development. Together with Smart Growth, some think it is the nucleus to a new “sustainable urbanism.” The field of landscape architecture has sought to align aesthetics with ecology (PDF), and great strides have been made in seeking to design parks and landscapes that are both beautiful and beneficial to natural ecosystems. The architectural profession needs to engage in a similar effort.
Oddly the place best situated to cultivate a cultural ethic of creative and efficient homes are the nations where wealthy and deeply impoverished live side-by-side. Here the resources of professionals can be deployed within the limits of the forced austerity of poverty.
Vaughan Burns, a South African architect I met with last summer while studying abroad, has made it his life’s work to make humane low cost housing. In the country, government efforts to provide housing to the poor had pushed the architectural profession to the limits of economy. Every centimeter of cement or piping, every hinge, every ounce of paint makes a difference in cost when you’re building 2.3 million homes. Although Vaughan lamented how this tendency can result in inhumanely minimal structures (the model to the right is a new version, enlarged from the previously standard 380 square feet), he has taken it as a creative challenge to formulate a philosophy that maximizes the benefit for residents. Vaughn said he’d been commissioned by middle income and even wealthy clients to build homes much larger, but in the same style as low-cost government housing. The owners almost certainly could afford a conventional home, but found the simplicity, economy, and beauty of the “low cost mindset” more appealing.
In his view architecture had just four basic elements: floors, doors, roofs, and windows. These structural categories doubled for metaphors of four rules of design that have guided his designs.
The first, the “floor,” is client participation. Vaughan argues for participation both because it is important to creating good design and also because of its transformative impact on the clients.
The second, the “door,” represents multi-functionality of design. Buildings should maximize the use of every space, surface, and room. An architect specializing in alternative building techniques has observed “many standard homes built today feel hollow and empty until they are filled with possessions.” He observed his designs include window seats, window shelves, and creative flooring making the homes “quite pleasing even before you move in.” An efficient home could convince the occupant to choose a smaller space, and even “need” fewer belongings to live.
Third, the “roof,” is the principle of expandability and sub-divisibility to provide maximum future use of the structure. This may mean making halls wide enough to contain a narrow bed should it need to be converted to a bedroom, using easily recyclable materials, or allowing outdoor access to a bathroom to allow it to be shared among several small homes.
Fourth, the “window,” stands for the value of embracing symbolism. Fake traditional touches can be cheap but provide a sense of community or identity. Murals can transform a plain surface into something beautiful, powerful, and meaningful, all at the cost of the artist’s time and the paint involved. Rather than abolish symbolism as inauthentic or unnecessary ornament, Vaughn argues we must recognize the imaginary thing can be just as good as the real thing. After all, in his view through architecture we transform real things — raw materials and labor — into the unreal — comfort, shelter, and space for living. Perhaps someday, like in Le Guin’s fictional future, economy itself will profoundly affect our aesthetics as one of the desired unreal products of architecture.