[Continued from yesterday's Part 1.]
By: David A. Smith
As ViaTechnik, which asked me for an email interview (published on ViaTechnik’s blog; July 9, 2014), is primarily a technology and design firm, their initial questions dealt mainly with housing’s and cities’ future:
The future begins tomorrow!
Problem: People are creating new family units and the retiree population is rising.
Solution: Design live-work and multi-tenancy housing.
VT: How important should adaptability be to architects and designers when considering the design and construction of a building?
DS: It ought to be huge, because as America urbanizes and America ages, ‘aging in place’ needs to be transforming into ‘extending independent healthspan’ (the period of time when an adult can live entirely independent and happily). Technology (broadband and computing) offers the promise of making the home interactively responsive to a physically less mobile homeowner.
Maybe we rethink these movable walls
Flexible-wall configurations could allow larger homes to be subdivided to accommodate a service-oriented intra-home multi-household tenancy: elderly homeowner who rents to two (say) younger people, with the younger people providing services in exchange for living accommodations (and some rent or payment going in either direction to balance the equities). That sort of multi-generational household used to be the norm (and is the norm in emerging nation-cities today) but has been zoned and building-coded and tort-litigated out of existence in America.
Don’t forget the lawyers
VT: Tell us the most exciting, up and coming construction industry innovation.
DS: Web-based ‘technological housing’ where doors and windows can be opened and closed, energy consumption monitored and adjusted, based on real-time usage. Ray Bradbury predicted this in a 1950 short story, There Will Come Soft Rains. This has great potential to make the home an independence-enabling environment, not an independence-threatening one.
Problem: Unsustainable stick-built houses in urban areas.
Solution: Modular housing and IBT.
VT: What seems to be the fastest growing design trend right now, and what effect is it having on the industry?
It looks manageable from above
DS: Micro-housing, though at the moment it’s over-hyped both in terms of its livability and its practical ability to address housing scarcity. At least the micro-housing discussion is creating a basis for examining our anachronistic and restrictive building and zoning codes that have failed to keep up with the ‘post nuclear-fission’ of acceptable American family and household configurations.
Overhyping is so overhyped
VT: How have design trends shifted in the past few years to accommodate self-sustainability?
DS: Not fast enough. Some design trends are at the architectural-concept stage; few have made it into practical scalable customer-accepted delivery.
Speed it up
VT: What kinds of construction technologies are currently on the forefronts of architecture and are showing the most promise?
DS: Industrial building technology (IBT) together with micro-modular housing are both attracting enormous interest, but neither yet solves the scale-customization problem. IBT is viable but only at kilo-scale (1,000 or more homes at a time) and that limits customization.
Not a CAD/CAM: Ixtapaluca, Mexico
Modular housing produces boxy surroundings – cars without wheels – that may be suitable for young adults for a while but doesn’t lend itself to evolving or aging families. In the 1930s, science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein predicted that the artisanal model of home construction – custom-build on-site – would be replaced by true modular construction. Eighty years later, we still haven’t cracked it.
Quirky but undeniably visionary: Robert A. Heinlein
Problem: Population increase and commuting.
Solution: Technology and live-work spaces in homes.
VT: How have design trends shifted to accommodate the rise in urban population?
DS: Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) is the principal visible manifestation of awareness to the consequences of increasing urban density. But even TOD thinks only in two dimensions, instead of three – that is, the most sustainable means of urbanization involves going up, higher into the sky. This has always been the case; in prior eras, the flat-over-shop was a recognized mode of urban living. Samuel Pepys, for example, basically worked at home his entire life, because his home was right next door to his Navy Offices.
Pepys’s house in Seething Lane
In emerging country mega-city expanding informal neighborhoods that are moving from peri-urban to urban, the most striking change is the replacement of ground-floor bungalows by two and three-story live-work spaces.
Even if totally informal, going up (Dharavi, Mumbai)
VT: How can construction technology positively affect sustainability and population growth?
DS: Reduce transportation requirements by increasing discorporated value chains – people working from home using broadband to create virtual meetings and virtual teams.
None of us actually leave home but our google-avatars do
Nothing will ever fully substitute for face-to-face human contact – we are social creatures – but as we boost the functionality of the home office, we can reduce commuting and all its negative externalities.
Problem: Old zoning and building codes.
VT: How significant will the understanding of architectural designs by the youth of today impact the industry in the next ten years or so?
DS: Not as much as you’d think, except in retrofit. Something like 90% of all the housing that will exist in ten years exists now; and with the increasing NIMBYism of urban environment, it becomes ever more important to retrofit existing zoning-allowance, or adaptive reuse, even increased density on the same footprint. So we are not suddenly going to be living in flexible-adaptable domes or pods. But we are only five years away from having new household formation by young adults who have literally had pervasive broadband communication at their fingertips their entire sentient lives. Omni-broadband is the next essential in all forms of housing.
Heads up, the future is coming
VT: To what extent does sustainability impact the methodology surrounding the design of a building?
DS: Certainly there’s a hyper-awareness that up-front construction-configuration choices have a determinative effect on downstream operations and maintenance, and therefore an investment today in something more sustainable (i.e. lower energy cost) will yield benefits for years or decades into the future. However, this tradeoff is only partially calculable: though we have Green Capital Needs Assessments (say), and can do payback or NPV analysis, the assumptions on which the NPV analysis depends – useful life of the improvements, changing energy costs, possibility of generation-skipping future technology that would make our current technology obsolete – create inherent ‘known unknowns’ that make judgment (or faith) a component on green/sustainable energy improvement decision-making.
VT: Is working around the environmental state of an area becoming increasingly difficult on designers and builders?
DS: To focus on designers and builders is, unfortunately, slightly to miss the point. Designers and builders have to be policy change advocates, because without changes in the building codes and zoning codes, what designers creatively design, builders cannot profitably build.
VT: Where does innovation and sustainability strike a balance?
DS: The balance between importance, necessity, and value is struck in the marketplace, and in modern urban society, the marketplace consists of two overlays: Private actors (people, companies) making individual trades and purchases according to their own perceptions of their self-interest. Public entities, government, which creates the enabling, indifferent, or disabling ecosystemic environment, including laws, subsidies, incentives, and rules.
The point is simple, really
The marketplace acts like a Darwinian ecosystem, and if innovations die, it is because they are not delivering value perceived by the private actors. You can’t really tell people what to want, but you can use government to change the pros and cons of different choices, and then let the marketplace of private actors decide how they adjust their purchases accordingly. Most mutations die. Most innovation fails. That’s all right; what matters is spotting the rare innovation that works, and then scaling that by delivering it to the market.
A man who knew how to look like a sage
Failing better since 1953
VT: If you could wave your own industry appointed wand, what would you like to see happen?
Let me chant the incantation to remove all anachronistic zoning
DS: Vaporize the single-family-oriented building codes and zoning requirements and replace them with clean-slate thinking about what new forms of housing configuration are appropriate given the mutability of household configurations, the importance of live-work spaces, the power of technology to make the home smarter, and the need to increase verticality as the ultimate in urban sustainability.
Cities are humanity’s future. We must make them work.
“Do you know, Watson,” said he, “I look at these scattered houses, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”