Small Can Be Beautiful – Use these principles to make it work
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We continue our primer on building responsibly in the post-carbon era: How do we design to honor and support nature's patterns, rather than co-opting them? [Editor's note: Robert Riversong, a Vermont builder, continues his 10-part series of ... Archetypes Even in our monumental phase, in which the "great" societies created near-permanent landmarks to their own values--the pyramids, the walls, the temples and cathedrals, the city-scapes--there was an intentional application of universal design principles or archetypes that were gleaned from the natural world. In the Western tradition, the Golden Proportion--found in everything from a fiddlehead, snail or pine cone to the swirl of a hurricane and the spiral of the galaxy--was manifest in the Great Pyramid, the Parthenon and DaVinci's Vitruvian Man (named after Roman architect and author of De Architectura, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio) and the Mona Lisa. From the East, however, another ancient design tradition might better inform us as we move toward sustainability. Rather than the geometric perfection and permanence of the Greek tradition, Wabi-sabi is a Japanese world view and aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience. It understands authentic beauty as imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, and is based on the elements of asymmetry, asperity (roughness), simplicity, modesty, intimacy, and the mimicry of natural processes. From an engineering point of view, "wabi" may be interpreted as the imperfect or unpredictable quality of any object, due to inherent material or design limitations; and "sabi" can be interpreted as the principle of imperfect reliability, or limited durability. We will return to these concepts in future essays. These principles, however, are not unique to the East: Would I a house for happiness erect, Nature alone should be my architect, She'd build it more convenient than great, And doubtless in the country choose her seat – Horace (20 BC), author of the term "golden mean" The essential elements of appropriate design include these: functional (form follows function), elegant in its simplicity, consistent with needs but not excess, adaptable to various life stages and occupants, buildable with available materials & skills, materials and methods appropriate for the bioregion, affordable for both occupants and the world at large. The primary determinant of construction cost, energy use and environmental impact is size. Small houses cost more per square foot but less overall, require fewer natural resources, demand less operating expense, tend to accumulate less clutter, are easier to clean and maintain, are more intimate and reduce life to its essentials. Principles to make small work: minimize circulation spaces (hallways) avoid diagonal circulation paths maintain an open floor plan employ multi-function spaces tie spaces together visually separate spaces without walls use thin interior (movable?) walls/dividers create niches, shelves, and built-ins employ views to expand small spaces use varying heights, colors and textures – expansive or intimate incorporate indoor/outdoor transition spaces locate windows for view, ventilation & natural light "You know you have reached perfection of design not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away." - Antoine de Saint Exupéry (author of The Little Prince) The full 10-part series of Robert's reflections will be as follows. Tune in next week for more: 1. Context – land, community & ecology 2. Design – elegant simplicity, the Golden Mean 3. Materials – the Macrobiotics of building: natural, healthy and durable 4. Methods – criteria for appropriate technology 5. Foundations – it all starts here: how do we begin? 6. Envelope – shelter from the storm, our third skin 7. HVAC – maintaining comfort, health and homeostasis 8. Energy & Exergy – sources and sinks 9. Hygro-Thermal – the alchemy of mass & energy flow 10. Capping it All Off – hat & boots and a good sturdy coat copyleft by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes Robert Riversong has been a pioneer in super-insulated and passive solar construction, an instructor in building science and hygro-thermal engineering, a philosopher, wilderness guide and rites-of-passage facilitator. He can be reached at HouseWright (at) Ponds-Edge (dot) net. Some of his work can be seen at BuildItSolar.com (an article on his modified Larsen Truss system), GreenHomeBuilding.com (more on the Larsen Truss), GreenBuildingAdvisor.com (a case study of a Vermont home), and Transition Vermont (photos).