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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Low-Road Buildings Are Homeowner-Friendly

In ‘How Buildings Learn,’ Steward Brand reminds us that cheap, temporary, improvised buildings are easy to reconfigure

Image 1 of 4
Owner-built homes are easy to modify. This hippie house may not meet code, but it's comfortable, attractive, and easy to remodel.
Image Credit: Photographer unknown
Owner-built homes are easy to modify. This hippie house may not meet code, but it's comfortable, attractive, and easy to remodel.
Image Credit: Photographer unknown
An old industrial building — one type of "low-road building" cited by Stewart Brand — provides plenty of raw space ready to be remodeled and repurposed. This owner-built houseboat is a classic example of a low-road building.
Image Credit: Samuel Justice -
Home, sweet mobile home.
Image Credit: Jeffery Turner

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 Passivhaus 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 footprint.

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 2×4 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.”

Click here to follow Martin Holladay on Twitter.


  1. Aj Builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a | | #1

    A positive A
    This piece is worth submission to be printed in a Sunday NY Times.

    Best blog of late here at GBA. This piece is why I come here and why I do critique many other much lessor pieces.

    Bravo Martin... GBA is lucky to have you.

    aj (adirondackjac, taking the low road for 25 years)

  2. Bill Rose | | #2

    Great topic
    Thanks for providing a topic that invites rumination. There’s another way of looking at the two categories of buildings that I find helpful, though it differs a bit from your approach. This approach comes from discussions with Ted Cushman of JLC and reading Karl Marx, though perhaps not in that order.

    All items, including buildings, have use-value and commodity-value. We make decisions about our buildings based on whether they are for our use or for our eventual resale. The hippie cabins you describe arise from seeking use-value; the suburban homes must maintain commodity-value and the decisions we make for them are governed by the marketplace where they are commodities.

    This came home to me in thinking about adding insulation to the interiors of old masonry buildings. In the isolated world made up of just a building and its user, the decision, though not simple, is easily taken based on budget and comfort and a modicum of building science. But for commodity thinkers, there is a lot of tension on whether the trend will play out on the side of do it or don’t—people don’t want to have a bet placed on the wrong horse in that race. Commodity-value owners are always looking over their shoulder.

  3. User avater
    Aaron Birkland | | #3

    Building 20
    I love the mention of MIT building 20, quite a contrast to the contraption that replaced it:

  4. Brent Eubanks | | #4

    As a certified permaculture designer who is also a mechanical engineer, I've been living with one foot in each of these worlds for some time now. (I refer to the earth builders as "brown green" and the techno builders as "blue green".) It's frustrating how little communication and connection there is between the worlds. Quite a few permaculturalists seem to have a deepseated distrust of engineers, and very few engineers take earthbuilding as seriously as they should.

    +Aaron Birkland: That is a tragedy. The article says that MIT said "Gehry breached its duties by providing deficient design services and drawings," . But it sounds to me like Gehry breached its duties by designing like Gehry. Architects who fixate on "artistry" at the expense of functionality should have their licenses pulled. (Instead, the community treats them like rock stars. Go figure.)

  5. Dan Kolbert | | #5

    Great book
    I can't remember who recommended "How Buildings Learn" to me but it knocked me out - made me think about many things differently. Can't recommend it enough. In fact, probably time for a re-read. Great piece Martin.

  6. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #6

    Response to Aaron Birkland
    According to Joe Lstiburek, the problems with Gehry's Stata Center at MIT stem mostly from the wrong-side vapor barrier. More information here:

  7. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #7

    Response to Bill Rose
    Here in the U.S., we are like little fish, swimming in an ocean of capitalism, and to us the water is usually invisible. Yes, our obsession with the commodity value of real estate creates strange contortions. Karl Marx was a very astute analyst. In my lifetime, I've certainly witnessed the concentration of capital into fewer and fewer hands, and it's happened at a pace I never anticipated when I was younger.

    I've learned that I should never telephone Ted Cushman if I have somewhere I need to be in 10 minutes, because once I'm on the phone with him, the conversation ranges widely, and our talk takes half an hour or more.

  8. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #8

    Response to Brent Eubanks
    Yes, the overlap between the two groups is indeed small. It's kind of a historical anomaly that the very different pursuits of the two movements have the same label -- "green building."

  9. User avater
    Robert Swinburne | | #9

    These ideas don't have to be antithetical to each other
    This resonates with me. I grew up with "Mother Earth News" I had all the books from the 70's about hand made houses or whatever they were called back then. I built myself a cabin when I was 13 to live in using old wood and cast offs when I worked in a sawmill during high school. I came from the country, not suburbia, to architecture school. Here in Southern Vermont, there is a lot of this out there still happening - lack of building codes for an owner-builder. Much of what I try to do as an architect is bring the non-precious and comfortable aspects of this into a thoroughly modern super-duper wiz-bang new house. I'm finding that modern materials and methods in the shell allow me to use much more rough and tumble materials to clad the shell - inside and out.. since most of my clients are from suburbia, I get a lot of pushback. But when I do stuff for myself....

  10. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #10

    Response to Dan Kolbert
    I agree that it's a great book. In this blog, I didn't really get into Brand's criticisms of some hugely expensive landmark buildings that are architectural disasters -- but it would make sobering reading for any architectural student.

  11. Dan Kolbert | | #11

    his embrace of nukes and geo-engineering, but that doesn't detract from all his other wonderful work.

  12. Burnham Nationwide | | #12

    Huff & Puff
    Great article. We really appreciate you blending the two world together. The beginning reminded us of the story of the Three Little Pigs - and them having to realize that extremes aren't always the best option.

  13. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #13

    Response to Dan Kolbert
    Concerning nuclear power and geo-engineering: It's possible for a genius to be right about many things, and wrong about a few.

  14. Philipp Gross | | #14

    Embodied energy
    I also liked the article very much - Thanks Martin. One way of having the tech-green folks become more conscious of the benefits of "Low road" is to encourage them to include embodied energy into there calculation. Also have them look at source energy per person rather than Hers scores . This would proof that low-road buildings are often "greener" than the tech- green ones especially when heated with wood. I think it would be harder to convince the "low road" builders to incorporate some of the high tech green features.

  15. Vera Novak | | #15

    Counter-culture or Centered in the Venn?
    I like this framing of the ’green’ building issue. So - the ultimate combination would be building to PassivHaus standards (blue-green), timberframe / plaster walls and other natural finishes (brown), open-building and built for adaptability (low-road), permaculture and net-Zero energy (cave/ cabin in the woods), and design space that welcomes poker games and inspires philosophical discussions. Civilized living in architectural space that ages gracefully. Works for me.

  16. Jin Kazama | | #16

    Superb writing sifu!
    It is much easier to go for an "hippie house" ( we call them "wabo" here )
    when you wish to live in a recessed area, or a piece of land that has not yet been violated.
    You then have access to free wood for heating which is the main energy of those unefficient leaky houses..and you'll need alot of it!

    Not so easy when you need to pay 100$ for a single " corde de bois" in suburbs or in the city,
    then do not have enough space to store properly the required wood to go through the winter...

    I do agree that our search of perfect finishes highlights the smallest defects it necessary ?
    What does finish has to do with building efficient ...not much

    On the other hand, having a natural stone wall on half of the house gathers alot of dust, which can be a threat to some allergic occupants.

    I've visited quite a few "wanna-be hippie" houses in the least years ...there are still alot of interest for self building with green material here in Quebec ...
    Most of them have a very good start , but the lack of planning and knowledge from the builders usually ends up in many major defects or problems that jeopardize the durability of the building.

    Then there is the climate argument.

    If you build a house in a forest in Mexico, you usually don't need to push hard on cold weather protection, water shedding becomes number 1 priority ( maybe insect protection ? )
    Much easier to build a low impact structure there than in Alaska,
    ( unless you count Igloos as a building ..which i don't :p )

    At then end, there is still space for every type of building ...
    restrictions on energy source drives the design and the impact

    Your life style also directly affects the specs of the enclosure ,
    unfortunately , "look" is often pushing other more important things downstairs in our current society.

    Architecture needs to combine technical efficiency/performance with pleasing aesthetics and features ..otherwise it becomes plain artistry or mechanical engineering.

  17. George S | | #17

    bldg 20
    I did my undergraduate thesis in the Old building 20 acoustics lab.. Great place to scrounge for equipment. On the basis of that work I got my graduate studies funded.. though I did have to compete with those folks who wanted the junk for gravity wave measurements

    Alas the buidling is long gone, and replaced by the sata center.. I doubt if there is much scrounging going on there

  18. Tom Gocze | | #18

    El Cheapo
    I love to look at buildings/houses and consider the cost per square foot.
    The basic shell that keeps you warm, dry and safe is not expensive (except if it is insulated with
    some of the fru-fru green materials that are mentioned on this website).
    The big cost comes in with all the stuff we all seem to love--hardwood floors, granite countertops, raised panel this or that.
    You know, the stuff that gets torn out by the next owner when it is considered not to be the "next big thing".
    That basic shell is a cheap date.
    Up here in Maine, there are a lot of Low Road homes, especially away from the population centers.
    I like it that way.

  19. Mark Siddall | | #19

    The Layers of Construction
    Thanks for the article. As it happens i was teaching at Northumbria University (UK) the other day and discussed Passivhaus design, Lstiburek's Perfect wall concept and Stuart Brands concept of layer. I have found that three compliment each other incredibly well. Why? The reason is that Brand examined a layers concept at something of a macro level across time, Lstiburek considered a layers concept at something akin to a micro level and Passivhaus privides a performance brief for how the Perfect Wall may be employed.

    By harmonising all these approaches you get an adaptable, maintainable, low energy building. I say adaptable because partitions may be added or removed without impairing the air barrier, or creating significant thermal briges and the building may be extended quite readily as a clear logic prevails within the construction and this can be 'pluggged' into with relative ease. Whether Brand would regard this approach as high road or low road I am unsure. With the right mind set Passivhaus buildings can be realised affordably. Advanced low road perhaps.

    It is interesting to note that Brand was discussing How Buildings Learn back in 1994. The Passivhaus standard was not developed until 1996 (though the first Passivhaus - reseach project - was constructed in 1992).

  20. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #20

    Response to Mark Siddall
    You wrote, "It is interesting to note that Brand was discussing How Buildings Learn back in 1994. The Passivhaus standard was not developed until 1996."

    Indeed. Amazing as it may seem to some younger designers, people were thinking about architectural issues before the development of the Passivhaus standard. In fact, if I remember correctly, back in the 1970s and 1980s, we had a green building movement as well as a superinsulation movement. In the early 1980s, manufacturers were even selling blower doors, HRVs, and triple-glazed windows to progressive builders. Imagine that.

  21. Mark Siddall | | #21

    Why the attitude? I am fully aware of the history of super insulation, from HUD to the Saskatchewan low energy house up to current day. (I have a shelf or two full of books by Harje and Shurcliffe and the like.) My remark was simply noting the passage of time - almost 20yrs - since Brand's book and the adjacency of that date to the development of the Passivhaus standard.

  22. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #22

    Response to Mark Siddall
    I apologize for my tone; I evidently misunderstood your point.

    Since I've been reading Brand's writings since the Whole Earth Catalog days (1970 or 1971), something he wrote in 1994 seems like "late Stewart Brand" to me. I'm still not sure what the connection is between Brand and Passivhaus; I'm sorry if I misunderstood your point.

  23. Christopher Vlcek, Littlewolf Architecture | | #23

    either-or both-and
    Cheers Martin,
    I would say that I'm a both-and dweller with a foot in each camp. But as a designer, I pretty much work on the industrial side. As much as I would love to design a whimsical hobbit house, the market for hand-made generally precludes architect involvement. Though some of my customers might be fond of such whimsy, they are generally not going to be involved in the construction, so the cost and complications seem prohibitive. Studs & drywall are a hard box to break out of.

    There are also changing needs through the cycles of raising a family and the empty nest. I hate to see a home become a burden to carry, yet its all too common a condition. We need to continually ask ourselves what do we truly want and need in a dwelling. For me, I think the answer lies somewhere in the overlap of the techi-vs-hippie camps, whether in a multi-unit or free-standing home.

  24. Rachel Wagner | | #24

    another big lesson in How Buildings Learn
    This is one of my favorite books about design, sustainable design in particular. I'd welcome another blogpost focusing on Brand's (and architect Frank Duffy's) concept of the hierarchy of 6 building layers (thanks for bringing it up, Mark Siddall!). I used this concept as the basis for a "sustainability index" produced for an affordable housing agency trying to create a decision-making protocol about sustainability and the best use of initial funds. More importantly, our firm uses the theory in our continued effort to design better buildings. What must we do now, because it will be next to impossible (site decisions) or very difficult (structure) to change later? What can we "let up on" because in 10-15 years it could be readily changed, and maybe even desirable to do so (systems)? This is a framework that can be used to guide many decisions.
    So, yes, there are lessons to be learned and shared in the low-brow vs high-brow dichotomy. And lessons in the layers. I think that Stewart Brand's book should be a must-read for all who endeavor to create more sustainable design.

  25. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #25

    Response to Rachel Wagner
    Thanks for your comments. I agree that Brand's book contains many more themes worthy of discussion here (as well as in our nation's schools of architecture).

    I'll try to return to the book in the future.

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