Low-Road Buildings Are Homeowner-Friendly
In ‘How Buildings Learn,’ Steward Brand reminds us that cheap, temporary, improvised buildings are easy to reconfigure
There are at least two recognizable camps in the green building community. The older camp includes hippies, owner/builders, and those in the natural building movement. These builders prefer to scrounge materials from the woods or demolition sites rather than purchase new materials from a lumberyard. Their homes might be made of adobe, logs, or straw bales.
On the other side of the aisle is the newer camp of builders who emphasize energy efficiency and high performance. This group includes fans of triple-glazed windows and heat-recovery ventilators, as well as builders who brag about their blower-door results. The PassivhausA residential building construction standard requiring very low levels of air leakage, very high levels of insulation, and windows with a very low U-factor. Developed in the early 1990s by Bo Adamson and Wolfgang Feist, the standard is now promoted by the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt, Germany. To meet the standard, a home must have an infiltration rate no greater than 0.60 AC/H @ 50 pascals, a maximum annual heating energy use of 15 kWh per square meter (4,755 Btu per square foot), a maximum annual cooling energy use of 15 kWh per square meter (1.39 kWh per square foot), and maximum source energy use for all purposes of 120 kWh per square meter (11.1 kWh per square foot). The standard recommends, but does not require, a maximum design heating load of 10 W per square meter and windows with a maximum U-factor of 0.14. The Passivhaus standard was developed for buildings in central and northern Europe; efforts are underway to clarify the best techniques to achieve the standard for buildings in hot climates. adherents can be found on this side of the aisle.
If you draw a Venn diagram of these two groups, you may find a few builders in the small zone where the circles overlap. But most green builders are outside of the overlap, falling clearly into one of the two large circles described above.
The natural builders usually work in rural areas, while the high-performance builders often work in urban areas or suburbs. These two groups have contrasting attitudes toward building codes and regulations. While natural builders usually decry the stupidity of building codes, calling them roadblocks to creativity, the energy-efficiency group often promotes stricter building codes, noting that “we need to raise the bar.”
In short, these two green building groups appear polarized. Perhaps the aims of the two groups are irreconcilable, and this polarization is inevitable. But even if the groups’ aims can’t be reconciled, it’s important for green builders to listen to each other.
Steward Brand praises low-road buildings
In 1994, Steward Brand, best known as the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, wrote an influential book, How Buildings Learn. Brand observed that all buildings are destined to be modified — a fact that many architects forget — and that many occupants prefer a building to be easy rather than difficult to modify.
Stewart sang the praises of shacks, cabins, garages, and repurposed industrial buildings. He coined the phrase “low-road buildings” to describe these inexpensive, thrown-together, improvised spaces that are easily remodeled or reconfigured.
If you don’t have the time to read How Buildings Learn, you can gain a quick overview of Brand’s paean to low-road buildings by watching a 30-minute YouTube video, “The Low Road.” (The video is one segment of a six-part BBC series narrated by Stewart Brand.)
To make adjustments, just pick up a saw
In the video, Brand says, “There is a category of buildings that might as well be invisible, that are never photographed or celebrated, even though people are perfectly happy working and living in them. Architects don’t even acknowledge them as buildings. That’s usually because architects had no hand in designing them. They are old warehouses, old factories, old farm buildings, mobile homes, shacks — all the leftover buildings, cheap and unrespectable. Our eyes bounce off them as if we were trained not to see them. Yet it’s in buildings like these that you find the real creativity of a civilization. I call these buildings low-road.
“The main thing about low-road buildings is that no one cares what you do in them. … That’s how low road buildings work: you spend less money and you get more freedom.”
“Low-road buildings are low-rent, low-visibility: no style, with a lot of turnover. Most of the world’s work is done in low-road buildings. … At MIT, the most loved building on campus is not one of the great old traditional buildings nor one of the new high-tech buildings. It’s a leftover artifact of wartime haste that doesn’t even have a name. It’s simply called Building 20. It was designed in an afternoon and built in just a couple of months for radar researchers in World War 2. Why do the occupants love it so much? Because it is so freeing. Since it’s low-prestige space, no one cares what you do in it. It’s so simply and cheaply built, that it’s completely pliable. Some say it is the best experimental building ever built. … Projects flourish in low-supervision environments, which are free of turf battles, because the turf isn’t worth fighting over. I once heard a Nobel physicist say, ‘We did some of our best work in the trailers, didn’t we?’ Low-road buildings keep being valuable, precisely because they are disposable. …
“When you can make adjustments to your space by just picking up a saw, you know you are in a low-road building. … You can do almost anything you want in low-road buildings. The sheer malleability of the space affects whatever you are working on in a freeing way. The building makes you active instead of passive. Low-road buildings are genuinely empowering.”
Why do small drywall defects bother us?
Brand's appreciation of low-road buildings got me thinking about the characteristics of a comfortable home. It seems to me that highly polished finishes don't necessarily go hand-in-hand with comfort.
Of course, the quality of finishes found in our homes varies across a wide spectrum. Some American living rooms have unfinished pine flooring; others have floors of polished marble. Why is it that a bumpy tape joint on a surface of painted gypsum wallboard wall will drive most of us crazy, while a rough wall of earth plaster or a log wall appears quaint and attractive?
There is a counterintuitive element to our pursuit of perfect finishes: when we aim for perfection, small flaws become annoying. When surfaces are rough and natural, on the other hand, the imperfections are not only acceptable — they appear beautiful and soothing.
This paradox goes a long way towards explaining the delight that so many people feel when walking into an eccentric, owner-built hippie house. Low-road buildings are often beautiful as well as comfortable.
Nostalgie de la boue
When I first moved to the woods, I built a rustic cabin. Over the years, the process of renovation and addition transformed my cabin into a larger house with indoor plumbing, electricity, taped drywall, and hardwood floors. Now, when my friends and I get together for poker night, we share the same dream. Since our owner-built homes have (over the years) become fancier, we all dream of building a shack, deep in the woods, far away from our current homes.
This low-road longing is far from universal, of course. Among some Americans who express it, it is more of a pose than a real longing for change. It is arguably more common among men than among women, and is entirely foreign to many urban dwellers. This version of nostalgia is nevertheless a recurring theme in Western culture, cropping up, for example, in Rousseau's idealization of “uncivilized” peoples, in the pastoral longing expressed by 18th-century Romantic poets, and in Americans' late-19th-century fascination with the Adirondack style of architecture.
What about energy?
The high-tech builders who focus on airtightness build durable, efficient homes, of course, and Green Building Advisor has always sung their praises. Unfortunately, many of the best examples of Passivhaus construction are beyond the financial reach of most Americans. Ironically, many high-performance homes are relatively large. What's worse, many of these superinsulated homes, while efficient, have energy-hog features like swimming pools that increase their carbon footprintAmount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that a person, community, industry, or other entity contributes to the atmosphere through energy use, transportation, and other means. .
In contrast, many of Stewart Brand’s beloved low-road shacks and houseboats use very little energy — not because they are airtight or equipped with high-R walls, but because the buildings are small and the owners don’t have much money to spend on energy. On balance, these homes are probably greener than a $400,000 Passivhaus.
While most Passivhaus buildings will be more durable than a $50,000 trailer, durability is a double-edged sword. When a homeowner decides to reconfigure and remodel — as all homeowners eventually do — a cheaply built structure will be easier to alter. (For a further discussion of this topic, see Green Homes Don’t Have To Be Durable.)
In defense of building codes
Unfortunately, most new homes in the U.S. offer the worst of both worlds. Needless to say, a tract home in the suburbs lacks the idiosyncratic and delightful features of an owner-build hippie house. Although suburban homes are inspected by building officials and (at least in theory) comply with all building codes, they are nevertheless leaky and inefficient.
Both ends of the green building spectrum — the natural builders who want to sculpt beautiful spaces out of mud and straw, and the Passivhaus builders with their $2,000 windows and $7,000 HRVs — offer something better than the typical 2x4 home sheathed with OSB and insulated with fiberglass batts.
The idea behind building codes — to protect life and safety, and to ensure that home buyers aren’t being cheated — is admirable. Unfortunately, however, building codes have failed to prevent builders from producing shoddy homes. The challenge for regulators is to imagine a building code that is flexible enough to accommodate both ends of the spectrum, without shortchanging home buyers’ expectations concerning safety and efficiency.
There is no need to choose sides
Needless to say, just because there is a split in the green building community, does not mean that one has to choose sides. If you are fortunate enough to be able to afford to build a new custom home, there is no reason that you shouldn't aim for exactly the type of house you want.
Low-road buildings, while endangered, will always exist on the margins of our modern civilization — illegal but difficult to completely eradicate. Let's hope that their advantages will continue to provide useful lessons to observant designers.
The main value of Stewart Brand's insight is to provide architects with a dose of humility. It's impossible to anticipate the ways in which the homes we build today will be altered in the future. The only thing we know for sure is that our buildings will be altered.
Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “Martin’s Energy Quiz — Third Edition.”
- Photographer unknown
- Samuel Justice - www.samueljustice.net
- Jeffery Turner
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