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It’s time for a revolution in the way we look at buildings

We have to reconsider what is “acceptable for how houses should look and feel.”

I wrote recently about the UK Labour Party's campaign slogan Warm houses for all! and quoted an article in the Conversation by Jo Richardson, Professor of Housing and Social Inclusion, De Montfort University, and David Coley, Professor of Low Carbon Design, University of Bath.

Their post started off talking about how Labour’s low-carbon ‘warm homes for all’ could revolutionise social housing, which is why I quoted it, but it is about much more than that, and I have been thinking about it since.

Richardson and Coley make a case for Passive House design, but note that it changes the way architects have to work. They have to think about doing it right, right from the start.

Passivhaus only works if the right design decisions are made from day one. If an architect starts by drawing a large window for example, then the energy loss from it might well be so great that any amount of insulation elsewhere can’t offset it. Architects don’t often welcome this intrusion of physics into the world of art.

But physics actually changes the way you design. The windows tend to be smaller, which helps because they are more expensive to start with, but this is often hard for architects to deal with.

simple houseNick Grant/via

As Nick Grant of Elemental Solutions notes, you do have to make the right decisions from day one. You have to have to keep it simple. We have to embrace the box. “Passivhaus advocates are keen to point out that Passivhaus doesn't need to be a box; but if we are serious about delivering Passivhaus for all, we need to think inside the box and stop apologizing for houses that look like houses.”

It's why we see so many houses designed to “passive house principles” rather than being certified as Passive House – it would be nice, but we really need that jog, we really want that giant window. And it is hard, thinking about physics and design at the same time, especially when, as Richardson and Coley note, “architects and building engineers aren’t often taught together.”

I have noted before that it is “often harder for an architect to make a simple design look beautiful; they have to rely on proportion and scale. It takes skill and a good eye.” Bronwyn Barry hashtags #BBB “Boxy but beautiful” But perhaps we have to actually rethink beauty. Richardson and Coley call for…

…a revolution in what architects currently consider acceptable for how houses should look and feel. That’s a tall order – but decarbonising each component of society will take nothing short of a revolution.

dumb box Dumb box with dumb chain link fence balconies in Berlin/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

They're right, it is time for a revolution. We have to learn to accept a different standard. Mike Eliason has written in praise of dumb boxes:

…‘dumb boxes’ are the least expensive, the least carbon intensive, the most resilient, and have some of the lowest operational costs compared to a more varied and intensive massing….Every time a building has to turn a corner, costs are added. New details are required, more flashing, more materials, more complicated roofing.

New Zealand architect Elrond Burell has complained about needless complexity, writing:

I used to enjoy the rhythm of rafter ends projecting out around the eaves of a house. I admired timber and steel beams apparently gliding smoothly through external walls or floor to ceiling glazing. No more! I can’t help but see the thermal bridging these details create, the resultant heat loss, material degradation risks and mould risks.

Postgreen Homes in PhiladelphiaPostgreen Homes in Philadelphia/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Nic Darling, then of Postgreen Homes, described “polishing a turd.” People don't know how to keep things simple, complaining here about LEED certification.

So, they polish the turd. Rather than redesign the house that has been successful for them in the past, they add solar panels, geothermal systems, high end interior fixtures, extra insulation and other green features. The house gets greener. It gets certified, but it also increases significantly in cost. Since the features are add-ons and extras, the price rises as each one is tacked on.

And I have written:

If we are going to ever get a handle on our CO2, we are going to see a lot more urban buildings without big windows, without bumps and jogs. Perhaps we might even have to reassess our standards of beauty.

Tower in Vancouver designed by BJARKE!/ Lloyd AlterTower in Vancouver designed by BJARKE!/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

It's why I keep going on about BJARKE! This building (sorry for the older photograph) is all very energy-efficient with vacuum panels, but so much surface, so many jogs, so much material. It's not beautiful; it just screams wretched excess, waste. This is the new definition of ugly.

Boxy and ugly building in MunichBoxy and ugly building in Munich/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Without question, boxy buildings can be ugly. I took a lot of photos of this building in Munich because I couldn't decide if it was a Public Storage warehouse, a prison or a housing project – truly awful. Nobody ever said architecture was easy.

But I come back to Richardson and Coley, about considering what is “acceptable for how houses should look and feel.” Neither of these two projects are. They call for a revolution, (and mandatory Passivhaus certification) and they are right. We have run out of time.