Essential to modern design, building, development, and economic investment, on many fronts, is an understanding of electricity. Not so much how electricity works, but how it will be created and provided in the future – whether to homes, businesses, whole communities, or industry.
In much of the world today, electricity is of course primarily generated in power plants and transmitted via electrical grids by utilities of various types and sizes (see Ta’u for an example of a new and growing exception). Power plants in our time generally use natural gas, diesel, coal, nuclear fission, or dammed water to turn large generators. However, as you likely know, a small but increasing part of this mix is electricity from solar power plants, rooftop solar panels, and wind turbines.
What may be less clear is that much of this is likely to change, and perhaps soon and quite rapidly or radically. In a decade or two, electricity may be increasingly generated by building-installed solar panels or sheathing, stored in batteries where it is generated, and no longer transmitted by power grids at all. Power poles in residential and commercial areas may be coming down, traditional electrical utilities may be facing bankruptcy, and large power plants and long distance transmission systems may have begun to become obsolete.
A Gridless, Solar-Powered Future May Be Driven By Simple Economics
If this idea or prospect seems uncertain or doubtful to you, let me make the case why it may be likely and even inevitable, and also give you an idea of what more decentralized – or more naturally distributed, autonomous, and democratic – off-grid power systems might look like in the future. Importantly, let me add that these new building-level power systems may, in turn, usher in or become part of a larger movement to modularize and automate building and development more generally, perhaps significantly reducing building construction (or installation) costs, as I will explain.
Self-driving or autonomous cars and trucks are coming, and soon. Not only are the number of firms developing the technology increasing, regulatory barriers and public skepticism are receding, and the initial rollout of the vehicles is proceeding successfully.
As I write this, Google brethren and early market-leader Waymo has driverless, level-4 autonomous vans roaming the streets of Phoenix, Arizona, with plans to expand and achieve fully autonomous, level-5 functioning in the near term.
Self-Driving Technology May Change The Way We Live Overall
But what about self-driving or autonomous motorhomes, or mobile homes, here meaning more than mere recreational vehicles? As autonomous vehicle technology proliferates, self-driving mobile homes cannot be far behind, and perhaps with far-reaching consequences. After all, if we could live and move in our homes, and not have to drive or steer them, many of us might choose to no longer have fixed homes, and to live far more mobile or location-flexible lives than we do today.
Consider some of the potential key features of mobile living, if we could live and work, and not have to drive, as we move:
In many countries today, there is a rapid movement toward green building.
Often, however, this goal is cast somewhat narrowly – as creating buildings that require little or no external energy for their daily use, or fabricating structures with a fairly high degree of autonomy.
While this goal is laudable and has led to a number of important innovations, there are at least two broader, more rigorous, and ultimately more socially beneficial ways to conceive of green building design.
A second, broader conception of green building also considers the amount and nature of resources that go into the initial construction of buildings. In this expanded definition, architects, builders, developers, and regulators seek to: 1) minimize resource use during building construction, 2) reduce reliance on non-sustainable or non-recyclable resources, and 3) build in ways that are either minimally impact or positively enhance land, water, and air quality around buildings and their communities. As you may know, this sense of green building design is increasingly more common – and can be explored at green building.
A third and still more expansive definition of green building further extends the concept to include consideration of the long-term ecological and social impacts of building and development overall. In particular, this view enlarges our analysis to assess the relative effectiveness of building and development patterns both at meeting human needs and promoting human health, including the essential foundation of all natural health that is ecological sustainability.
What Is The Correct Scope For Green Building & Development?
Importantly, and often somewhat unintuitively or inexpeditiously, the natural – or renaturalized – goals of meeting human needs and promoting human health generally lead to a basic rethinking of traditional building design and construction practices, along with community and societal development norms more broadly. This is a complex topic, but let me point out that the aim of serving human needs and promoting overall community and societal health invariably must consider how building and development impact people generally, and how these efforts can serve the greatest number of people.
Working with a prospective client recently, a recurring idea in building design came up – the notion of wasting space.
It’s a term designers and clients frequently use, but also one we don’t always consider carefully. Today, I want to provide a framework for thinking about wasted space in design efforts of all kinds, and to highlight two important and common ways of wasting space in building design. In their essence, these two ways are creating space that is either too full or too empty. And by avoiding each extreme, we can reliably avoid wasting both space and time.
In the client discussion I mentioned, we were considering two design ideas for a project. The designs each had the same enclosed floor area and basic plan, but differed somewhat in the amount of garden space and walkways around the living areas. Overall, the first design was slightly more compact in its total dimensions and the second had a somewhat larger total footprint, owing to the expanded garden and walkway areas. But all other things were equal, and the two designs had identical interior proportions. So, is it correct to say that the larger plan had more wasted space?
Enormous, Luxuriant Space – How Much Of It Is Wasted?
The first design clearly used less space and in this sense was more efficient or compact. Similarly, the second design can be seen as using space less efficiently, or as containing more unused or unfilled space. But the second design was also more compelling and livable, and felt much larger and more open than its modestly greater dimensions might have suggested. One might argue, then, that the second design was a better use of space – especially if both designs were affordable or within budget, which they were in this case.
These considerations point to two fundamental, sometimes competing, but not mutually exclusive goals in spatial design – the task of achieving adequate efficiency or compactness and then sufficient elegance or extension. Both goals are integral to excellence in natural design, and arise again and again in a variety of creative and artistic domains (for example, even in the non-visual arts of music and writing). In total, ensuring both efficiency and elegance is a challenge we all must often repeatedly address and resolve, if we are to design and create successfully.
As my sunset photo above suggests, in an important sense space is never wholly wasted if it is elegant. And the 150 million kilometers of extension that lie between us and the sun are hardly wasted space, even in strict utilitarian terms, since the earth would warm and life would be curtailed if this distance were much less. More artistically, our solar system and larger universe likely would be far less elegant – or less mysterious and intriguing – if either were tightly compact and plainer to the eye.
Still, efficiency considerations are a natural concern in design, art, and fabrication, since all uses of space and other resources have costs and alternatives, and never only provide benefits. At the same time, there is a certain marvel with or satisfaction in the efficient or dense use of space, though this is rarely enough to be a substitute for true elegance in design (again, with useful analogies in music, writing, and other artistic domains).
But just as the single-minded pursuit of elegance can overlook or miss efficiency considerations, a preoccupation with design efficiency can unduly, and often needlessly, impinge on essential design elegance. In practice, both inadequate efficiency and insufficient elegance are reliable ways to reduce natural excellence in design and to waste space. And both shortcomings are likely to occur whenever designers, builders, or clients act inattentively, or without an essential understanding of these twin natural needs when creating.
To demonstrate these ideas, and to make them more tangible and applicable, below are three brief case studies. Each explores and underscores the importance of meeting the essential natural design goals of efficiency and elegance. And each suggests that this process involves striking a balance – or what I have elsewhere called a natural centering, or the avoidance of limiting extremes – in this case between excessive compactness and openness, clutter and emptiness, or expedience and extravagance. In these and many other cases, excesses in either direction can be understood as generally wasting space, and reliably produce designs below our potential. Read the rest of this entry »
Judging by building and architecture around the world, there seems to be a strong tendency in us to clearly delineate the places where we live, and to physically set them apart from those of others.
This delineation of our living spaces may be for security, to afford privacy and quiet, for exclusivity and status, or simply to follow local custom – custom often rooted in our agricultural past, but perhaps with older and more natural origins.
Though most take the practice for granted, it is distinctive and noteworthy. Imagine, for contrast, a system of architecture with minimal personal or family space and copious shared or community areas. Such systems exist, ultimately may be more beneficial for us, and have been proposed by modern architects (such as Le Corbusier). But they are not the norm, especially amid modern affluence and individualism.
Our enclosure or privatization of space of course begins with our residences themselves, and is often limited to our indoor residential space when we live at high densities. But in the lower densities of our suburbs and exurbs, this process nearly always extends outdoors to some degree, and quite frequently all the way to the edges of the property we own or use.
In practice, land enclosure at our personal or family property boundaries commonly takes the form of perimeter walls, fences, and other barriers, which visibly demarcate, and practicably domesticate, all of the land we own or occupy. This traditional mode of dividing and demarcating private space maximizes the area we have available for our exclusive use, may offer legal advantages, and often provides other practical benefits.
But this segregation of our living spaces in what we might call a maximalist manner has a number of disadvantages too. It can be expensive, especially on larger properties. It can be bad for local ecosystems, reducing wilderness and limiting the ability of wild animals to naturally move through settled areas. And as my photo above suggests, perimeter barriers and spatial maximalism can lead to a dominating and constricting built environment overall – for everyone, regardless of which side of walls or fences we find ourselves.
Given these limitations, I’d like to highlight a ready alternative to traditional perimeter walls and fences – an alternative that avoids many of their shortcomings, while providing distinct, more useable, and often far more interesting private space. This approach employs architectural barriers in a more restrained, attentive, and creative way, and in particular pulls them back from the boundaries of our residential properties.
My title might sound like the beginning of a novel. But instead, I intend it to introduce an important and often greatly neglected principle for optimal architecture and urban planning – how we design the final steps, say the last 100 or so, to our homes and neighborhood buildings.
As a practical matter, and as a foundation for more conscious architecture and design, there are two basic ways we can take our last steps home. First, we can take them ourselves, on foot, here including using bicycles and other personal mobility aids. Second, we can finish these final steps home in vehicles – in cars, motorcycles, and the like.
This idea might seem obvious, and yet almost no one thinks about it today, including many architects and planners, whereas we, and they, all should. Why? Because the way we take our final steps home significantly determines the basic design and character of our neighborhoods and surroundings – including their scale, their livability, their inherent healthiness, their initial cost, their ongoing resource demands, and their ecological impact.
As my photo above of Serthar Larung Gar in Tibet highlights, when communities are designed so that we take our last steps home on foot, this can greatly change the form and nature of our houses, neighborhoods, and larger communities, compared with designing for the option, or requirement, of covering this final distance in vehicles. Roadways can shrink to footpaths, large labor-intensive yards become superfluous, noise is appreciably reduced, and the natural intrusion and hazard of moving vehicles is eliminated.
Building natural shelters is fairly easy. It’s an innate, or quickly learned, human ability.
With some basic training and a bit of perseverance, most of us can gather materials from the environment and produce sheltering structures that are not only physically sound, but even ones that are often elaborate and quite stunning. This link will take you to some great examples – and again, ones that are within the reach of nearly all of us.
But erecting modern natural buildings is another matter, and a far more complex undertaking. And this is especially true when we define modern natural buildings as not just using natural materials or working with natural landscapes, but also as being wholly or partially off-grid, or having some degree of autonomy or independence from traditional – and unnaturally centralized – utility systems (see Wikipedia Autonomous Building).
In practice, the at once old and new demand of building autonomy often requires far more careful consideration of the building’s mechanical systems than in the case of utility-connected buildings. Unless our budget is unlimited and we can tolerate significant inefficiency or redundancy, autonomous building today almost invariably involves a fairly intricate weaving or orchestration of a building’s mechanical systems.
Of course, the primary driver of the added complexity of modern buildings, at any level of autonomy, is that we ask all modern buildings – whether serving as homes, businesses, or for other uses – to do more than simply shelter us. We want or expect modern buildings to heat, cool, and light our lives. We expect they will keep us and our possessions safe, and even warn us of threats and hazards – from outside the building and within.
We expect modern buildings to power our appliances and tools, and to aid our modern lifestyles more generally. We want our buildings to advance our goals, to make occupants and visitors comfortable, and to fulfill social mores and expectations. And we expect many buildings to be at once restful and enlivening places, settings where we can renew or enjoy ourselves amid the complexity and demands of modern life.
It’s a long list of essential building features for many, if not all, of us. And it is the complexity of modern building, and especially modern natural building, that tends to keep it out of reach for a great number of people. But this needn’t be the case. As I work to showcase through ArchaNatura, modern natural building can be greatly simplified and put within the reach of people of modest means, or ones dedicated to more natural, dematerialized, and intentional life.