Ultra-Low Water Use Buildings

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By Mark Lundegren

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There are many reasons we might be interested in ultra-low water use.

To begin a list, we might live in an area which has low rainfall and limited water abundance. We may want to reduce expenses from high water use, wherever we live. We might seek to stop unsustainable draws on local groundwater, and thus perhaps ensure adequate spring and surface water for natural wildlife and the carbon-sequestering ecosystems around us. Or either practically or philosophically, we may wish to build off-grid in as many ways as possible, be free of centralized utilities and their bills, and live with a higher degree of natural autonomy, freedom, and resilience than is typical today.

Whatever our motivations for examining and pursuing this goal, let me say upfront that genuinely radical reductions in water use are normally possible in much of the industrially developed world, without significant reductions in our material quality of life. As we will discuss, thanks to modern technology, and in most areas – and almost always in ones with above 30 cm (12 inches) of annual rainfall – it is possible to live a fully modern life with on-site captured rain and other precipitation as our sole source of water.

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Wikipedia: Residential Water Use in the U.S. and Canada (link/credit)

Importantly, while our discussion will focus on residential or domestic water use, all of its its lessons are directly applicable to commercial and institutional buildings. On the other hand, water use in industrial manufacturing is clearly a separate and more ranging topic, with different issues and differing opportunities across various industrial sectors.

However, while we will only briefly touch on this area here, the case of both industrial and domestic food production is worth highlighting as part of our core discussion. Simply put, with careful water consumption, the use of modern permaculture techniques, and movement to more natural and naturally water-conserving perennial food systems (a topic I have summarized here), the above rule of deriving all needed water from on-site precipitation also broadly applies to agriculture as well.

Lastly for this introduction, our discussion notably will assume the presence of abundant low-cost electricity, a proposal that seems reasonable, across the developed world at least, in our era of increasingly low-cost solar collectors and batteries (a trend I have explored here).

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Building Design For Printability

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By Mark Lundegren

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Architects, builders, planners, and developers are doubtless aware that 3D printed buildings and larger communities are on the horizon, with early prototypes now in the popular and professional press. In this approach, large three-axis printers, or alternatives such as ones pivoting from a central point, are used to place materials in a specific order via design and printing software.

While this potential is well-recognized, at least three important aspects of this likely change in construction methods may be overlooked. First is that it will both require and strongly incentivize new Design for Printibality (DFP) standards and practices. On one hand, this will be necessary to enable reliable use of the technology, and also encouraged by the fact that machine-printed buildings with high DFP quotients – from backyard sheds to urban skyscrapers – may become substantially less expensive to construct and maintain than traditionally-built ones.

To Sense Potential Changes, Consider Which Form Is Easier to 3D Print

Second, as my intentionally provocative photo suggests, perhaps few of us have considered how radically DFP may alter building design and engineering, and the typical building shapes and fine-scale design features that we typically employ and take as given today. But to quickly understand this prospect, consider that much of human architecture, historically and in our time, has a low DFP quotient and is likely to be strongly disfavored or disincentivized by 3D technology.

Third, perhaps just as few of us are aware that DFP standards exist already, owing to the rise of desktop and industrial 3D printing, that these standards appear broadly applicable to building design at all scales, and also that they likely offer a significant window onto future building design and construction.

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The Most Efficient Building Form

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By Mark Lundegren

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Do you wonder if common building forms or approaches are the most efficient possible?

Since much of architecture and design today, as in the past, is concerned with aesthetics, norms, status, expression, and therefore communication, you may suspect the answer is no, and even strongly no.

But before you answer, let me point out that when we think of form or design efficiency, we can mean more than the direct costs or immediate resources and energy involved in constructing and using buildings, along with the larger settings they create in combination, as important as this is to determining efficiency.

In a complementary and informing way, we also can consider the indirect costs of buildings and developed areas. This crucial but less obvious category of costs or efficiency factors is often substantially overlooked, taken as separate from or beyond the scope of building and development, or expediently treated as “free” to some degree – thereby becoming externalities, or public or unborn costs, in the terminology of economists.

Importantly, indirect building and development costs can be as significant as direct ones. They include the often unexamined costs of pollution, dislocation, future inflexibility, sprawl, resource degradation, eventual obsolescence, and the potential for blight. As a practical matter, such indirect and commonly overlooked costs are essential to understanding the true cost, and thus the true efficiency, of any design, building, or developed area.

Fortunately, we can simplify this complex topic for a general discussion by recognizing that two basic design principles or features often substantially predict both types of costs, and thus the general efficiency of building and development. The first of these principles is that development, buildings, and spaces that are more compact or reduced in scope will tend to be less resource-intensive, less costly overall, and therefore more efficient, as long as they meet essential needs or are effective solutions overall.

The second principle is that buildings, infrastructure, and material inputs using renewable resources – and failing this, readily recyclable or reusable ones – will tend to be less costly and more efficient overall as well, by often producing fewer externalities or indirect costs for others to contend with in time. There are of course exceptions to these two rules. But overall, it is a much more difficult general case to advocate for expansive and non-renewable building and development on efficiency grounds, even as this is still our most common approach to building today.

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Low-Cost Courtyard Homes

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By Mark Lundegren

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In our era of increasing excess, but also increasingly inaccessible excess, there is now an important counter-trend – one favoring mobile homes, smaller homes, and even tiny homes. This trend often seeks to promote less expensive living, less encumbered living, more intentional living, ecologically greener living, or all of these complementary goals at once.

While this overall movement has produced many interesting designs and innovations, one home feature that is frequently lost or missing in the pursuit of smaller or more minimalistic homes is privacy, and especially private outdoor space. Fortunately, this omission is readily avoided and there are a number of ways of preserving or creating private space as today’s architects, builders, property owners, and developers downsize the footprint of housing.

Model Of Small Classical Courtyard – An Option For Modern Minimal Living

Simple steps to increase home privacy generally involve the use of natural or artificial screening around a building site, which can result in designs that are creative, functional, satisfying, space enhancing, and quite beautiful, as I wrote about in Rethinking Walls & Fences. However, sometimes we will want a solution that creates greater privacy, and especially greater acoustical and visual isolation, than screening and similar approaches may afford. Here, we can look to pre-modern urban and suburban building to see an earlier widespread method for creating significant household privacy, especially on a small scale or in fairly dense living conditions. As my title highlights, this method involves the use of courtyards.

The idea of bringing courtyards to modern minimal living and small or tiny home designs may seem an extravagance. But the truth is that, except in mid or high-rise urban cores,  courtyards can be created simply and inexpensively, for little more cost than the land the courtyard occupies. Indeed, sometimes courtyards even can be created almost for free, as in the case of mobile living on public lands or when reconfiguring inefficiently designed spaces. And as the focus for this discussion, homes themselves also can be designed from the start to be naturally self-screening or area-enclosing, creating private courtyard spaces automatically, as they are built and quite simply.

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Green Building: More Than LEED

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By Mark Lundegren

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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.

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Wasting Space – And Time

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By Mark Lundegren

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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?

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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.

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Rethinking Walls & Fences

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By Mark Lundegren

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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.

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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.

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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.

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