Better Than Nothing

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By Mark Lundegren

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I would like to propose a bold new minimum standard for architecture and building – that of better than nothing.

This may seem as though I am lowering rather than raising the design bar. But if it does, it is worth spending a moment considering what we typically mean with the word nothing.

For me, in this context it means a building site that is in a natural or undeveloped condition, or one that is naturally returning itself to a wild state. As such, nothing is actually something, usually far from something negative, and indeed often something complex and inspiring, as my photo below reminds.

Undeveloped Nature – Nothing By Human Hands, And Yet A Dramatic Something

In this light, what we design and build too often can be seen as worse than nothing, since it degrades or subsumes wild nature, or is better than before only because a natural area previously had been beat into true or abject nothingness by others.

So, instead of lowering human design and development standards, my intent is to significantly raise, renaturalize, and inform them. By seeking to create in ways that are better than nothing, we have the opportunity for buildings and communities superior to their original natural condition, and not merely ones resurrected from oblivion and mediocrity. Importantly, this work naturally includes not only ensuring elevated aesthetics relative to natural conditions, but also natural autonomy, sustainability, self-renewal, functionality, and health-promotion too.

You may object, thinking I have cherry-picked the above photo or am romanticizing about wild nature. If so, my second photo provides examples of four vacant suburban lots, all currently for sale and awaiting development.

Four Vacant Sites Currently For Sale, All Undeveloped Nothings and Yet Beautiful Somethings

Scanning the four sites, perhaps you will agree that all are naturally beautiful and uplifting somethings, even as they are undeveloped, and thus nothing to some or in a sense. As waiting case studies in better than nothing or nature-informed architecture and construction, I could and would challenge you to conceive of development approaches that genuinely do better than these examples of natural nothing.

Of course, as wild or re-wilding natural ecosystems, all four sites again are not only beautiful, they are also resilient, interacting, evolving, healing, energy-harvesting, resource-managing, and waste-recycling, as is all or most of living nature. Each site equally is complex and synergistic, a store of value or outcome beyond the combination of its parts, in service of a diverse community of organisms, and a worthy lesson and foundation upon which to understand, and indeed demand, natural design excellence .

Once Marginalized Site Restored, Transformed, And Now Protected By Human Ingenuity And Love

I will leave you with one more photo, as you consider our opportunity for raising design standards to mimic and then enhance nature, and her landscapes and lifescapes. This is a before and after photo of a small stream in rural Pennsylvania, in a wild area previously farmed, mined, and logged nearly into unrecognition.

Since then, the site not only has been restored, but transformed into something new, remarkable, and uplifting by human intelligence, creativity, excellence, and love of nature.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of ArchaNatura. 

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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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The Future of Electricity

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By Mark Lundegren

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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.

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Self-Driving Mobile Homes

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By Mark Lundegren

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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:

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