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.
In the mid-1400s, Johannes Gutenberg famously invented the printing press, enabling a new and seemingly irreversible change in the amount of written information in the world. His invention quickly decentralized, democratized, and expanded human knowledge, and ultimately helped to usher in the modern age.
Roughly 500 years later, and though his invention still lacked a graphical interface, Edmund Berkeley created what is often recognized as the first personal computer. And 50 years after this, in a world newly saturated with desktop and then laptop personal computers, Steve Jobs broke open mobile computing, in both phone and tablet forms.
With these specific examples of technological development, a relatively easy case can be made that they provided a substantial net benefit to human life – to our understanding, welfare, and potential for natural progress. With the qualifier “net,” I mean simply that the benefits of these technologies exceeded their costs, or in naturalized terms, that each technology made us more, rather than less, adaptive as a species.
Early Printing Press & Troubled Modern Nuclear Plant
Importantly, it is essential to highlight that there are clear costs involved with each of these highly beneficial technologies, and indeed with all technology. For example, printing accelerated deforestation, computers clogged landfills with plastics and hazardous materials, and mobile computing led to countless lost hours of productive human life, via the taking and sharing of selfies and pet photos.
More seriously, these quick examples of technological costs or downsides of course merely begin what can be a long and substantial list of negative attributes associated with any new technology, even helpful or progressive ones.
Overall, the weighing of the costs and benefits of technologies – past, present, and proposed – is a complex task and one that is sure to be inexact or imperfect, even with great hindsight, owing to the natural veil that is complexity. But practically, we must and do make such assessments every day, whether as consumers, inventors, scientists, entrepreneurs, investors, regulators, or social leaders. And how well we make these technology-related judgments is critically important, since the future sustainability and progress of our species literally may be on the line at times.
In our changing, more globally conscious, and, for many, economically pressured times, material minimalism and ‘less is more’ thinking is decidedly in vogue – and this is particularly true as respects our housing choices.
Reducing our material footprint has many advantages, and the way we house ourselves is a principal factor determining the personal and collective mark we make on our planet, potentially leading to sprawl and ecological harm, or not.
Beyond improved ecological sustainability for us all, at a personal level material downsizing and the move to intentionally smaller and lower-cost homes can offer reduced stress, greater freedom, and even new happiness. In the latter case, this is through the ongoing opportunities for attentiveness, deliberateness, creativity, and joy from intentional or intrinsic living, qualities that small homes naturally and often unexpectedly foster.
Tiny, Mobile & Studio Homes – Opportunities To Explore Intentional Modern Living
In the move to smaller, more intentional living spaces, and leaving aside shared housing, three main strategies dominate – tiny homes, mobile homes, and studio homes. All have an appeal to those of us wishing to downsize, rightsize, or deliberatize the space we call home. But what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of each approach?
To explore this question, I’ll provide a brief overview of tiny homes, mobile homes, and studio homes, three housing options that similarly emphasize smaller material footprints and generally foster or require more intentional living. But perhaps more importantly, I will then provide a framework for thinking about these and other approaches to the way we house ourselves, perhaps helping and inspiring you to examine your own personal options for life that is more deliberate, created, joyful, and sustainable.
#1: Tiny Homes
You are probably aware that a “tiny house” movement is afoot across the developed world, and has been growing rapidly in popularity and scope since the Great Recession of 2008 (see Tiny House Movement).
Plant-covered walls are a popular trend in architecture and design today, reflecting our natural need and desire to have living nature around us. But not all so-called living walls or vertical gardens are created alike. Because of this, understanding their basic variations can help us to design, build, or buy living walls more optimally and advantageously.
Owing to their two quite different basic designs – green walls and green facades – and the high number of potential variations on these designs, living walls should be viewed as an extremely flexible design tool. In practice, they can be employed: 1) with nearly any type of building, 2) as both interior and exterior walls, 3) with either edible or ornamental plants, and 4) on almost any budget.
Living Wall Softens The Lines Of A Mid-Rise Modernist Hotel (LivinSpaces)
Indeed, after their initial construction costs, many living walls will steadily pay for themselves through superior building and environmental performance, in addition to offering strong and ongoing visual and psychological appeal.
Before we can intelligently design and create – whether an invention, a building, or a life – we need a clear sense of essential needs or requirements to guide our actions. As has been said, we are wise to always begin with an end in mind. Without this context or frame of reference, we will tend to act and create haphazardly, and achieve beneficial results only by chance.
This idea is taught in most schools of design and engineering. And yet, the needs and requirements we uncover and pursue as creators can be superficial, far from essential or penetrating, and less apt to lead to true innovation or breakthroughs in human value. Too often, we seek, see, and fulfill only limited requirements or expedient outcomes. And thus, we leave or give to others the opportunity to see more fundamentally into life’s many needs and requirements, and the chance to surpass us and our work on the back of their deeper or more enduring insights.
Life Is Full Of Options, But Which – Or What – Is Most Essential?
There are of course countless examples of this – new designs, technologies, and products that radically upend existing and more narrowly or poorly grounded approaches – and I will leave you to pick your favorites. One of mine is the case of homebuyers, who often begin with very fixed ideas about the type of home they want, but often can be led in wholly new directions by exposure to alternatives that better understand and reflect or express their essential needs.
As I suggested, a way to see, design, create, and live more essentially, and thus more intelligently and innovatively, is to delve fundamentals – when approaching an immediate challenge or presented set of requirements, and more broadly. By extension, the ultimate expression of this process is to seek and pursue our or other’s most essential needs, in any area or across all areas of modern life and endeavor, and perhaps helping to re-create and eclipse how life is structured today entirely.