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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.

With these ideas in mind, let’s examine a few instructive studies in or candidates for the most efficient building form possible, notably by looking at: 1) available building profiles or basic shapes, 2) possible plans, layouts, or distributions of buildings, and 3) the potential for solar energy collection or production by buildings and developed areas (click to enlarge each exhibit).

Efficiency of Building Shapes

For our first study, examining building profiles, or their basic shape or street view, I have begun with the sphere in my first exhibit. As you likely know, this shape is naturally or geometrically the most efficient in terms of minimizing surface area for a given volume, and thus can be relatively efficient in terms of enclosing interior space, and heating and cooling space too.

But spheres and their variations suffer from natural drawbacks or inefficiencies, on the earth or water, and even in space. They of course are naturally likely to roll and thus require steadying, can be difficult or intricate to build unless constructed monolithically or geodesically, and often require extra effort or otherwise prove inefficient to partition, furnish, equip, and modify for human use.

Solving some of these natural inefficiencies are the next two forms in the exhibit, domed and arched-shaped buildings. These shapes are also very efficient in terms of surface to volume ratio, and as with spheres, are often superior when seeking to span large areas and enclose space homogeneously. But the two forms similarly can be less practical and efficient for many applications. Domes and arches also frequently waste or leave unusable internal space, and often prove less effective as overall solutions for modern and generally rectilinear human living.

These issues lead us to the square or rectangular building profiles that are the mainstay of settled human life, and also notably to the hybrid form that is the cylindrically shaped building (which generally blends the advantages and disadvantages of curved and rectangular forms). Overall, rectilinear building forms are less efficient from a surface-to-volume standpoint and are naturally weaker structurally than spheres, domes, and arches, but they can be much simpler and thus more efficient to build and use in many cases (again excepting buildings requiring large spans and having homogeneous interiors).

Importantly, square and rectangular forms also can be much easier, or more efficient, to modify, expand, or adapt over time than spherical and curved structures, and this is likely a crucial driver of their ubiquity in human life. However, one important disadvantage of perfectly rectilinear buildings is their flat roofline, a widely unnatural and inefficient approach to providing shelter from precipitation. In practice, this drawback of course is mitigated via the use of special materials and pitched roofs of various slopes – which we can view as variations on or extensions of basic rectilinear forms, as I have indicated in the exhibit.

Efficiency of Development Plans

Our second study moves from considering the efficiency of basic building shapes or profiles to that of overall building distributions, or the general organizing plans, layouts, or top-down views of buildings and developed areas. As the first graphic in the second exhibit highlights, round, spherical, and cylindrical buildings, rooms, and other spaces are most efficiently planned in an alternating honeycomb format, though this still leaves significant unused space between buildings, even when they touch.

As you can see in the next graphic in the exhibit, one solution to this natural inefficiency is to use hexagonal or other tiling polygons for building plans, which reduce unused exterior space and also have a natural beauty or aesthetic appeal. But this approach suffers from many of the drawbacks of spherical and cylindrical buildings mentioned above – including potential added complexity of construction and frequent interior spatial mismatches for many applications. In addition, the lack of direct or straight entry and exit from hexagonal and similar grids may disadvantage them from an efficiency of access and use standpoint in many applications (though this feature can advantage them in others, as I will touch on).

Once again, these natural trade-offs bring us to the ubiquitous human form that is the rectilinear building plan and larger grid layout, whether buildings are square or rectangular, along with potential variations such as triangular grids (but which have many of the same properties as hexagonal and other non-square grid patterns). Overall, rectilinear grids often waste less space both inside and outside of buildings, and thus can be more spatially efficient across many human applications. But one disadvantage of rectilinear and similar grids is that they can be too regimented or belittling experientially, and thereby emotionally unappealing or unsettling. That is, they may be aesthetically inefficient amid their practical and geometric efficiency.

As shown in the last graphic in the second exhibit, a solution to this aesthetic, emotional, or experiential limitation is to alternate, honeycomb, or otherwise stagger rectilinear buildings in one plan or layout dimension. This has the effect of reducing access efficiency somewhat, but can produce a more effective solution overall in many applications, including the development of neighborhoods and other intimate public, semi-public, and private spaces.

Efficiency of Energy Production

Our third study considers building profiles and layouts in combination – in street, side, or profile view once again – and in particular, resulting opportunities for solar energy collection or production. Owing to this, it therefore considers the potential for transformative modern building efficiency from new design profiles and layouts, even to the point where buildings might produce or capture more energy than is consumed in their construction and use.

Intuitively, and as the first two graphics in the third exhibit illustrate, any building will cast an amount of shadow in sunlight, and of course in proportion to its overall shape, size, and height. When buildings require no energy input or benefit from shade, such shadowing is not a problem or source of inefficiency, and even may result in efficiency gains.

However, if we wish to collect solar energy along the sides or walls of buildings, this will necessitate a wider distribution or layout of buildings, spaces, or building elements than might otherwise be the case. In other words, it will involve new optimization of building shape and layout based on the relative efficiency benefits afforded by compactness on one hand and renewability considerations on the other.

As shown in the second pair of graphics in the exhibit, a natural solution to the problem of unwelcome shading from plan compactness is to design for solar collection on the tops of buildings only (roofs and upper walls). This approach allows for close placement of buildings without the unwelcome shading of solar collectors, and also with perhaps beneficial shading of building walls in warm climates, but it does require relatively uniform or otherwise sun-friendly building profiles overall.

Depending on building energy demands, limiting solar collection to the tops of buildings may be an ideal solution, but it is clear that building height and occupancy will be limited overall, especially if 100 percent solar power is a goal, and simply given natural spatial constraints. In this approach, and in a way that is still quite unusual today, building height would be primarily determined by rooftop solar gain potential, system efficiency, and expected building energy use patterns, instead of structural or aesthetic considerations.

Key Takeaways

I hope these ideas and analysis are helpful to you, and will help you to explore, pursue, and encourage more optimal natural design and development in its many potential forms.

Provocatively, our discussion suggests three overall efficiency ideals for solar-powered building, leaving aside industrial and other high-span applications: 1) low-rise buildings placed closely together and primarily using rooftop solar collection, 2) mid-rise buildings placed a moderate distance apart, and using roof and wall solar collection, and 3) high-rise structures spaced even more widely apart and also collecting energy on both roofs and walls. Importantly, the ideas we have examined further suggest that rectilinear buildings and rectilinear grids, significantly compacted in shape and layout,  will be most efficient as well – though again, perhaps with the use of partially staggered or honeycombed layouts in some applications to improve aesthetics, appeal, or spatial intimacy.

Of course, there are other factors or application demands, beyond solar energy production and building autonomy, that will determine which building profiles and development formats are best or most efficient in particular cases. But I want to end our discussion by pointing out that much of our traditional and contemporary built environment does not match the above archetypes, and also often is not substantially compact as well. Given this, many historical and ongoing approaches to building and development are likely to prove less efficient and desirable, as we move to greener or more ecologically-friendly development, and especially as we switch to naturally more distributed, decentralized, and thus democratic sun-based energy production.

As you can readily observe, nearly everywhere we look today, we see tall and mid-rise buildings packed closely together, low buildings often far apart and sprawling into the landscape, and similarly wandering and inefficient building shapes, especially in the latter case. There are numerous reasons for these patterns of development, including historical building practices and inherited community zoning practices. But if we are serious about renewable, sustainable, and efficient human building and development, this must change.

I would welcome your comments and questions on this crucial and far-reaching set of design ideas.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of ArchaNatura. 

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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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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.

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 »

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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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