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Why do we make everything so complicated? We need radical simplicity right now.

The KISS principle applies to everything, including building design.

On Tuesday afternoons in winter I teach sustainable design at Ryerson School of Interior Design at Ryerson University in Toronto. This year I have been concentrating on themes that we have covered in TreeHugger, and a lot of this has been in previous posts, but I am continuing to refine and develop the points, and in this lecture I am concentrating on just the Radical Simplicity.

Four stepsSlide 1 in my lecture at Ryerson University last week/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The four points of my manifesto are:

1. Radical Efficiency – Everything we build should use as little energy as possible.
2. Radical Decarbonization – Why we need to build out of natural, low carbon materials and electrify everything
3. Radical Sufficiency – What do we actually need? What is the least that will do the job? What is enough?
4. Radical Simplicity – Everything we build should be as simple as possible.

A reader informed me that Radical Simplicity is the title of a much-loved book by Dan Price, where he writes that “you can live a life of freedom, in harmony with the rhythms of nature, and your own internal rhythm and creativity. You can live very well with very little money. ” I would have defined that as Radical Sufficiency, and will define radical simplicity differently.

I led off with a photo of Vancouver House by Bjarke Ingels Group, or BIG, which I saw during construction. Like all of his buildings, it is a stunner, twisting as it rises. But I couldn't help thinking back to my experiences as a real estate developer, where I had a penthouse unit with a balcony on top of another unit, the upper left unit in the photo. A small leak caused $16,000 damage in the unit below; a more experienced developer told me that roof leaks from this kind of balcony are a constant problem.

Vancouver House closeupVancouver House detail/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In Vancouver, Bjarke has designed a building where every single balcony is the roof of another unit. Every jog and every corner is an opportunity for failure. Every living room there has four surfaces exposed to weather; at least it is temperate Vancouver, but he did the same thing in Calgary.

And don't even get me started on the upfront carbon emissions produced by designing a facade with twice the surface area that you actually need to enclose the building.

Model of New York West 57Model of New York West 57/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

When I visited the BIG offices in Copenhagen a few years ago, I saw the model for a building proposed for New York City and spent some time staring at it, trying to figure out how one could actually build it. All that water, pouring off the roofs into those balconies, with no way out but a drain. Every single one of them a minor clog away from being a swimming pool, again on top of another unit. Who would even think of doing this? I thought that it was an interesting building, but I didn't think it would ever get built; it's too scary to think of all the problems.

Once again I was wrong. It exists, and it is marvelous to look at. Fortunately, it is a rental rather than a condo, so it is more likely to be maintained and to have those drains checked regularly.

Back in Denmark in 2016 I visited Bjarke's incredible Marine Museum, built around an old drydock, with these flying occupied ramps connecting that you walk down to enter the underground building. It is a brilliant building, a great museum.

Walking down the rampWalking down the ramp/ Lloyd Alter/ 2016/CC BY 2.0

Most architects, when designing ramps, would not make them out of shiny aluminum sheets. But Bjarke likes shiny, so the aluminum plates have little grooves to make them supposedly non-slip. But since he is always reinventing everything, they are all bent, coming apart, and actually had duct tape added over many of the joints. Because he just can't keep it simple.

Marine Museum rebuildMarine Museum rebuild, 2018/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Visiting again in 2018, they are rebuilding the whole thing. I continue to wonder how many buildings by Bjarke have to go through this kind of exercise. I could go on about Bjarke, who I do admire for doing wonderful, innovative and challenging buildings.

Mies and MorrisMies and Morris/via

But he reminds me of Morris Lapidus, architect of over-the-top hotels in Florida, who never agreed with Mies's Less is More. He turns it on its head; he revels in adding stuff, laying it on thick. “If you like ice cream, why stop at one scoop? Have two, have three. Too much is never enough.” Bjarke is the leader of the Too Much Is Never Enough School.

As an architect, I learned that you shouldn't reinvent the wheel, but you should use tried-and-true, tested methods, because when something goes wrong, you get sued. When I became a real estate developer, I learned that you shouldn't reinvent the wheel, because it always costs more, and you get sued, or you get broke. Or both. Perhaps that is my problem with Bjarke; I don't see buildings, I see lawyers.

Radical Simplicty© Nick Grant's presentation, photo by Juraj Mikurcik

Perhaps that's why I fell in love with Passive House or Passivhaus. They tend to be relatively simple, to minimize surface area and eliminate jogs and bumps that can be thermal bridges. There is a price to pay every time you get fancy. I first heard the phrase Radical Simplicity at a presentation by Nick Grant at the 2018 Passivhaus conference in Munich.

Nick GrantNick Grant explaining Value Engineering/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Nick explains that if we are going to build affordable housing to Passivhaus standards, we have to keep it simple, and plan with that in mind right from the very beginning, because if you try to hit the standard after, it just costs more money. He says we should 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.”

Perhaps the best definition came from architect Mike Eliason, who wrote 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.

Wandering around Munich during the Passivhaus Conference, I saw lots of dumb boxes. They didn't look so bad; the architects there have had a lot of practice at keeping things simple.

Simple, modern forms, not too many windows but a careful eye to their placement, and you can have really nice housing to really high standards of energy efficiency, at reasonable costs.

The very first Passivhaus, built over 25 years ago, doesn't look much different. Dr. Feist wasn't impressed with me calling it a dumb box, but that's what it is. It worked then and it works now.

St. Clair Avenue buildingApartment on St. Clair Avenue, Toronto/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In Toronto where I live, the building code changed a few years ago to improve energy efficiency, and architects could no longer do the all-glass buildings that were the norm. They don't have the 25 years of learning from Passivhaus, so have been trying to make their buildings more interesting by pushing and pulling out bits and pieces and adding different materials. A tweeter I follow defined it:

But they also solve the Big Building problem by just having a good eye for proportion.

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

Perhaps my favorite dumb box is this one in Berlin, the R50 cohousing project that I described as “a study in simple, minimalist construction.” I think it's actually beautiful because of that.

As I noted about a building that I love to hate so much that I have written four posts about it,

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

In this era where every tonne of carbon has to be weighed against our carbon budget, we can't afford to build like this anymore. We have to demand radical simplicity.

Why do we make everything so complicated? We need radical simplicity right now.

The KISS principle applies to everything, including building design.