Do More With Less
Double-glazing vs. masonry. Why, in an era of rapidly diminshing resources, is architecture so technologically complex?
By: Kiel Moe
Credit: Jameson Simpson
Architects often have a nostalgic view of progress: Our feebly linear understanding assumes that humanity always benefits when a new technology arises. Architects frequently deploy systems, software, and products to replace older versions and differentiate themselves in a crowded and competitive marketplace. Many architects thus embrace linear progress with excitement and incorporate technology with misplaced enthusiasm, unaware that they are caught in a vicious cycle, based on recurrent, and self-undercutting, obsolescence. Technology is anything but new, and the traditional view of progress—a curiously mixed cocktail of acquiescence and hubris—reflects little about its real dynamics.
In reality, progress is nonlinear and unstable. As such, it is very much open to design. Today, progress itself must be designed. Contrary to the traditional model, one design for progress today would selectively de-escalate the most egregious forms of technology in favor of a lower-technology but higher-performance paradigm. Neither stubbornly reactionary nor blindly optimistic, this lower-technology, higher-performance approach is an intelligent mongrel of both the archaic and the contemporary, and it can improve the performance of our design practices and buildings.
Instead of adding ever-increasing layers of intricacy, specificity, and coordination, architects should question the complexity that dominates our buildings and lives. Using a low-technology, high-performance approach, architects can exceed the performance expectations of a higher-technology building, and in the process they can engender durability, adaptability, tolerance, and, most importantly, resilience—qualities that are increasingly fundamental to architecture. One cannot underestimate the role of designed resilience in the 21st century.
Conspicuous Consumption, Conspicuous Construction
The linear model of progress in architecture is invariably additive: When architects encounter new problems and obligations, they often respond by layering materials, technologies, consultants, software. The double-glazed envelope is a classic example—a cascade of compensations for the conceit of an overilluminated, underinsulated glass box. The extra glass and steel, automated shading devices, fire controls, and operable vents consume prodigious amounts of embodied energy and coordination time. These costs are difficult to justify when envelopes with a vastly more sensible 20 to 40 percent ratio of window to opaque, insulated wall can yield much higher performance for thermal conditions, lighting, operational energy, embodied energy, serviceability, and resilience.
Monolithic wall assemblies such as site-cast, air-entrained, lightweight insulating concrete are, by contrast, an optimal approach to the de-escalation of technology. The lower strength of lightweight concrete requires greater wall thickness to perform structurally. The concrete incorporates millions of air pockets that provide insulation equal to layered insulated wall assemblies and that manage vapor and water migration with its capacity to “breathe.” Indeed, what are often seen today as problems inherent to building envelopes, such as vapor or water migration, only became problematic as assemblies became layered with thinner, task-specific systems and air conditioning.
Whether lightweight air-entrained concrete, solid cross-laminated wood panels, solid masonry, or solid stone, monolithic assemblies become even more beneficial when coupled with a thermally active surface for heating and cooling, created by moving water through pipes that are embedded directly into walls and ceilings. Structure becomes the primary mechanical system. In Portland, Ore., Opsis Architecture renovated a masonry horse stable into its new office by retrofitting the building with a thermally active surface, which at once served as the seismic retrofit, the thermal-conditioning system, a perdurable finish material, and a foundation for a future expansion.
Bureaucracy of Technique
Architects have inherited a mentality of overly programmed, layered, engineered, additive, complex, and obsolescent design from the 20th century. We routinely strain against the bureaucracy of techniques we have passively grown to accept. We lose more ground than we gain in our successive attempts at “progress,” and yet, somehow, we routinely acquire more liability. Architecture stands to benefit from a rigorous reevaluation of its more pernicious theories, techniques, and technologies.
As the complexity of buildings and practices continues to increase, so does our inability to know the difficult whole. This is an intellectually and professionally dubious position. In a radically less-additive mentality, there are systemic gains for buildings and practices when we do more with less by orders of magnitude: 40 drawings in a construction set, not 400, for instance. Practices that do this know more about what they do and do more of what they know well. Doing less but better, and in turn achieving more, is consequential progress. A primary aim of de-escalating technology is an escalation of actual knowledge about technique, practice, and performance.
Architecture’s chronically divergent preoccupations with a building’s image and the inevitable obsolescence of ever-escalating technologies and systems is not a cogent pathway forward in this century, and it never was. Rather, consequential progress will emerge only when architects productively merge architecture’s objecthood and objectivity; when they grasp that a single-speed bicycle offers a model of far-higher-performance design than a Toyota Prius, much less a Formula One race car.
In all aspects of practice, an increasingly interesting question has arisen: What is the least architects can do and still exuberantly achieve or exceed the expectations of our discipline? This is not to suggest laziness, or some trivial minimalism, but rather to invoke a more mindful engagement with technique—a wholly untaught, unthought but inordinately consequential concept in architecture in this century.
What the profession needs is more intellectual and disciplinary agility to finally set our techniques and practices on a course for meaningful progress. This will emerge from strategic shifts in our pedagogies and practices. It will not emerge from capitulating to the demands of software packages, certification checklists, or greenwashed products. As Lewis Mumford wrote, “The machine itself makes no demands and holds out no promises.” Progress will not arrive automatically, but through thoughtful tactics and strategies. Progress will only be achieved when it is designed.