Our homes had become sophisticated machines, designed to protect us from the environment. They are energy efficient, some of them to the point, that they even produce more energy than they consume. They are designed to cover every function and support any activity we might think of. And they are safe since they are constructed in a way to be able endure all possible conditions – from a pleasant sunny day or a rain, to almost to the point of being able of sustaining a terminal earthquake or a nuclear blast.
It is all a good thing.
Or isn’t it?
Any innovation, ever!, always came out of challenging the dogma.
This is a house of an Australian architect, my mentor and my dear friend Richard Leplastrier. He has a lovely wife and three sons. He is a former sailing Olympian and, regardless of his massive statue, one of the gentlest people I have ever meet. Really pleasant to talk to. And beside all that, he is also, at least by my opinion, one of the best architects on the world. For his houses even a famous Glenn Murcutt, who is well known for designing low-tech houses, once said that: “They are tough to live in”.
It is this house, so plain and simple, but so warm and friendly and open… and full of tiny innovations, that came to my mind when I have been invited to do a lecture on a conference “Innovations in healthy and sustainable wooden buildings”.
And it is this house, that comes to my mind every time when my clients say – usually at the initial meeting – that they would want me to design them a small, simple, sustainable home, which could be built for a reasonable price.
But rather sooner than later, we find out, that that it is much easier said than done.
It starts simple. But by now, I have become used to the fact, that we usually do a full circle. Kid’s rooms grow bigger and bigger, rooms tend to be added for every obscure function plus some in reserve – just in case. Heating systems are turning the house into a high-tech machine, fully detached from the ‘hostile’ environment and ‘wild’ nature that surrounds it. Gradually, small and simple house is transforming into a luxury villa, where the temperature would be 24/7 room-vise controlled to the precision to a half-degree variance. Blinds and screens will be rolling up and down automatically based on the weather and the season. And required manage and maintenance level will be approaching zero. Home would be a highly controlled environment where we would need to do virtually nothing.
Ultimate comfort and luxury!
But is this, what we really want?
In my architectural practice, I have specialized in designing family houses. It is something that I deeply enjoy doing. I love meeting nice, like minded people. People of similar lifestyle and mindset. People that I share at least some values with.
I love talking to them, discussing their habits and life vision. Being part of their new and better life.
But houses are being built for thousands of years.
It is not something like Apple or Tesla or SpaceX that are bristling with innovations. But, nevertheless, every house proves to be an opportunity to, by deep understanding and creative approach come up with multiple tinny innovations, that would make a building more functional, healthier, more sustainable, more beautiful and more pleasant to live and work in. And, last but not least, cheaper to build as well.
Because, what is it, that really rises the building and maintenance costs?
If we take a time to dig into the question, we soon find out, that it is relatively cheap, to cover 70%, 80%, maybe even 90% of our needs. What really adds up to the price is the tendency to cover the extremes. When we do things in reserve. For: “Just in case”.
If nature would design trees to be unbreakable, they would have to be much stronger. By designing for the normal conditions, it took into account that at harsh weather, some trees would break. But at the same time it saves much more energy and mass and whatever it takes to grow a tree.
With buildings, sure there are events like earthquake and fire, that we should do very little compromises. On the other hand, there are some norms and habits and alike, where questioning the commonly accepted truths, rethinking and compromising might prove to be very fruitful.
When asked, how he manages to handle the fact that their kitchen and bathroom are outdoor (yes – no indoor kitchen or bathroom!), Richard said that it might be a bit annoying a few days a year, during the really bad weather, but otherwise it serves them just fine.
When one thinks about it, it is a simple as that. Instead of investing into bigger house with two (indoor and outdoor) kitchens and bathrooms, they decided they are willing to endure nuisance five days a year in order to fully enjoy the rest 360 days of it. And save quite some money on building cost and maintenance.
Richard’s house is full of simple small innovative solutions.
Throughout my work, I learned that there is no general recipe when to compromise and when not to. It depends on the personality of each of us.
Some would like to maintain constant indoor temperature, others – me for example – would like to feel the weather and seasons changing outside. Some find it hard to lawn a small grass, other find it relaxing to spend a few hour a day in the garden. Some want to watch reality shows on TV every evening, others would rather enjoy a conversation by the fireplace. Or reading a book. Some would prefer this other would like that…
Being an architect, it is my job to take the time to listen in order to hear and understand my clients. Read between the lines. It is my role, to ask the right questions, to provoke them with the unexpected ideas, to challenge their believes… all that with a goal to find their true preferences – even the ones that even themselves might not be aware of. To help them make an informed decision about the level of comfort they are aiming for.
Saying all that, I’d like to stress out, that I find (almost) nothing wrong with a comfort – even in a classical meaning of that word. There are cases when smart-house installation could prove to be very useful. If used correctly, air recuperation could save you quite some energy. And it sure is comfy if you can set and monitor everything remotely. All that costs money – that is true. But if it is your thing and you could afford it that is probably the right way to go.
I would probably never been able to design something like Trump’s golden interior, but nevertheless, for or my clients I design low energy houses, passive houses, intelligent houses,… Heck, 10 years ago, I even designed a low-energy house for our family as well!
But regarding my present personal preferences… I’d say that my ideal is a reasonable measure of discomfort.
Therefore my own next house will probably be quite simple.
Some excessive heat in the summer suits me well. I don’t mind feeling a bit cold in the winter. And if there will be a few really cold days… well… Instead of paying tens of thousands euros in advance for additional heating installation and enormously thick thermo insulation layers, I’d rather opt to put on a wool stockings and a bit warmer pullover and join the good company of cool pullover wearers 🙂