The Original Green Blog
This blog discusses in plain-spoken terms various in-depth aspects of Steve Mouzon’s proposition of the Original Green, which is that originally, before the Thermostat Age, the places we made and the buildings we built had no choice but to be green. The Original Green is holistic sustainability, and broader than Gizmo Green. If this blog interests you, please subscribe to it by clicking the RSS button to the right.
Skeuomorphism - How Steve Jobs Hit What Walter Gropius Missed - But Now, Is Apple Throwing Its Soul Away?
How has Apple seduced millions while Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus left those same millions cold? Steve Jobs' passion for simplicity was legendary, and his esteem of minimalist Bauhaus design was immense, but Apple products are loved by masses around the world, while the Bauhaus is loved only by design geeks. What's the difference?
Simply put, Steve knew the difference between body and spirit, and Gropius didn't. Hardware is the body of a computer, while software (and more precisely, the user interface) is the spirit. There's no dispute that a body (whether human or machine) should be as lean as possible… but no leaner. In other words, low body fat but no anorexia. I remember the first time I held an iPod… its design seemed impossibly lean, but after less than a minute of turning the wheel and pushing the button, the question was "what else do you need?" So minimalist design is an indisputable virtue of hardware design.
Minimalism was a religion to Gropius; a creed to be applied to everything from buildings to typography. To Steve, it was a powerful tool to be used everywhere it makes sense. What Steve implicitly knew that Gropius and most minimalists since him have completely missed is the fact that a minimal spirit is rarely a lovable spirit.
And so Steve imbued the spirit (user interface) of all his Apple creations with lovable characteristics on many levels. That lovable interface began by setting people at ease with their machines by using ideas with which they were familiar and comfortable.
Apple designed things like a calendar icon that looks like a paper calendar, print icons that look like printers, and a note pad application that looks like a yellow note pad. Even the "desktop" itself that is the core of the Mac user interface was originally designed to look like a physical desktop. I call this "allegorical design" because the pixels on the screen are telling a story (an allegory) of something else that people are familiar with. Apple has used allegorical design to great effect for years to make its computers "friendly," as Steve often said.
It's not just that allegorical design is "friendly;" it's also highly efficient. Unless you're an experienced computer user, you might not know what a "directory" is, but everyone knows exactly what a "folder" is and how to use it. And while everyone using a computer is assumed to be able to read, it's still quicker to look for an icon that looks like a printer than to look for the word "print."
Minimalist design geeks make the mistake of lumping allegorical design into a larger term with a dark side: "skeuomorphism." Skeuomorphic design is the design of one thing to look like something else. It can be powerful, like Apple's desktop, folders, and note pad, but skeuomorphism can also be cheesy, like fake wood-grain panels on 1970's station wagons. Today, the charge of skeuomorphism is a high insult in most design circles. Even the word itself sounds nasty, like some terrible intestinal disease you might get in the tropics.
Today, skeuomorphism is under full attack at Apple. Jony Ive, Apple's awesome hardware design wizard, was handed the keys to the user interface kingdom at Apple last fall. Unfortunately, it appears that Jony, like so many minimalists before him, doesn't understand the difference between body and spirit, either. And so he's reportedly delaying the release of iOS 7 so that he can stamp out all vestiges of skeuomorphism. Amputating allegorical design in the skeuomorphism witch hunt just may rip the soul out of Apple stuff because what are you left with after you remove the allegories that have made Apple stuff so lovable for so long?
Apple stuff seduced us (until now) with bodies that were lean but spirits that were warm. Lean bodies and warm spirits are seductive, even sexy. A minimal spirit can't seduce. It can't even be understood unless you go to school to learn how to appreciate it. Saying "go to school" is no way to seduce someone. The inability to seduce leads to sterility… a frequent charge by non-design-geeks against Bauhaus architecture. Jony and Apple should urgently re-learn why Steve hit what Gropius missed… or run the risk of sterility themselves.
Nature has countless good lessons on how to sustain cities and towns… if only we would listen. Chuck Marohn's excellent Strong Towns post this morning flatly states that cities are organisms, not machines. I agree that it's more instructive to think of them that way. And that got me thinking about the fundamentally flawed things we do to (mis)manage them. Chuck traces the core disconnect to the transition from building, maintaining, and operating our towns and cities to paying others to do so.
Depending on the level of development in the area, it was only a century or two ago that the townspeople built and maintained the town. In my family, "house-raisings" were common occurrences, even in recent decades. My own house was built with much help from family and friends. But when we became wealthy enough, it seemed simpler to hire all the work done by someone else and spend all our productive time working on whatever our specialty was.
What we lost in that exchange is only now becoming clear: when we become experts in one thing and turn all other parts of our lives over to people who are experts in other things, we no longer have the authority to speak up when things get out of balance. And so the specialists get more and more efficient at doing their narrowly-defined tasks in near-ignorance of anything else. So we get arterial thoroughfares that are really efficient at moving cars, but nobody wants to live anywhere near them. We get volume builders that are really efficient at throwing up countless little vinyl boxes that cannot possibly be loved. And the whole mechanism of sprawl was one of the most efficient machines ever invented, but its excesses have literally become "cancer of the city." The good news is that there is a cure.
The time has come to question the underlying value that helped spawn all of this: efficiency. For decades, efficiency was used as a reason to do so many things that haven't worked out well. We now need to come to terms with the fact that, as someone once said, "an efficient Nazi is not a good thing." Efficiency simply means we're going really fast… but we could be going really fast in the wrong direction.
So if not efficiency, then what should we be looking for? How about looking for things that have been proven to work for a long time? The operating system of true sustainability that kept humans alive for all of human history before the Thermostat Age was something I refer to as a "living tradition." The heartbeat of a living tradition that pumps sustaining place-making principles to all the townspeople is four simple words: "We do this because…" If you put every pattern of place-making in these terms, then the streets, squares, and buildings we build might not be so efficient at moving cars or whatever, but they'll be far better places to live and work because you will have tapped the minds of all of the townspeople, not just the civil engineers, architects, and the like.
Put another way, if you want to tear down the gates to the specialties that their gatekeepers have guarded so jealously for so long, simply tell the people why. Why plant trees along the street? Why allow parking on the street? Why lift porches above the sidewalk, and by how much? Why set aside land for plazas, squares, greens, and parks, and how often? The answers to these questions aren't difficult… anyone can understand them. And once the townspeople know why, they'll take ownership of their neighborhoods and towns again… and we'll all be better for it.
I said that nature has countless lessons on how to sustain cities and towns, and re-starting living traditions is one of them. I have several more in mind, but what are the most obvious of nature's place-making lessons to you?
The best green measures are the ones almost nobody's talking about. If you're sick of hearing the same green building talk today on Earth Day, it could be because Gizmo Green is the only thing being discussed in most circles. Better equipment and better materials can never achieve sustainability for us because our consumption is increasing faster than the engineers can increase efficiency. Here are four unmentioned things that can do far more good than good engineering:
Drive Only on Special Occasions
The carbon footprint of your house isn't really meaningful until you achieve a good carbon footprint on all the things you do outside your house. Put another way, you could have a zero-energy house, but if you have to drive to work, drive to school, drive to shopping, drive to recreation, and drive to pretty much everything else as well, then you're not really achieving anything significant. So live near work to begin with, and then make sure you can walk to the grocery along paths with great walk appeal. If you can do these two things, then you can probably walk or bike to many other daily needs as well. And then what you do inside your home can be meaningfully green. Why would you want to spend a lot of money on green gizmos and then discover it's not meaningful?
Get People Outdoors
If you entice people outdoors into a great public realm or into a great series of garden rooms most days of the year, then the time they spend there helps condition them (whether they realize it or not) to the local environment so that when they return indoors, they may not need to turn the equipment on. If not, then they achieve a state I call "living in season," and it means that they can throw the windows open most days of the year. And when you do that, you discover that there is no piece of equipment so efficient as that which is off. There's nothing greener than being able to cut the equipment off for most of the year.
They call that boring white stuff we put on our walls "drywall" because so long as you keep it dry, you have a wall. But just as soon as it gets wet, it turns to messy mush. And even if it doesn't fall apart, it loves to host mold and mildew and make your family sick. This means that even if you get outdoors and want to live in season, you can't take a chance of leaving the windows open because if a summer thundershower pops up and blows rain in the window, you'll have lots of damage. We need to learn how to build durable and resilient buildings like our great-grandparents did so that the summer shower is no reason to call the insurance adjustor; you simply wipe down the walls that got wet and never give it a second thought.
Bigger isn't Better - Bigger is Worse - Smaller is Better
There should be no controversy here: if you build bigger, it simply can't be as good, but if you build better, it simply won't be as big. Spread $200,000 over 1,000 square feet and that's a $200/square foot house. Spread that same $200,000 over 2,000 square feet, and you've impoverished yourself to a $100/square foot house. But you can't just put people's lives in a vice… you must entice them by designing the smaller space so smartly that they choose it over the bigger, less intelligent design. And if they do, all sorts of good green things happen easily. To begin with, the space is a lot smaller, so it's easier to heat, cool, and light. But it's even easier because it's likely to be only one room deep in places, making daylighting and cross-ventilation no-brainers. It might even be more lovable as well. Embrace the luxury of small, and you'll be creating luxurious green as well.
Those are my game-changers… what are yours? What are the greenest things you know that nobody's talking about?
Architecture has changed irreparably in the past decade, but those who know how to adapt just might find themselves in a far better place in a few years. It has now been 8 years since construction peaked in 2005, nearly 6 years since the subprime meltdown, and close to 5 years since the big meltdown that really kicked off the Great Recession.
The End of Experienced Employees
Today, it appears that construction is finally beginning to pick back up, but it's too late for architecture as we knew it. More than half of the people working in architectural offices in 2005 aren't there anymore. Some are still unemployed, some have gone in business for themselves, but many have left the profession. And when people leave architecture, they rarely come back for three reasons: an architecture degree prepares you to do so many other things, it's such a stressful profession, and the pay is usually significantly lower than other professions like law and medicine. So if you're a firm owner, your former employees are likely either gone for good, or have started their own firms and are competing with you for work. So you can't simply gear back up with the same experienced people you once had.
The End of Trusting Clients
During the past 8 years that we've essentially been out of business, our clients have changed in several ways. A decade ago, clients were much more likely to accept the expert opinion of an architect. Now, they've all learned to Google. Just ask doctors about their experience with patients who know WebMD for a look at what a web-searching clientele means to another profession.
The New Frugality
Your one-time clients have become much more frugal over the past 8 years, and because the construction crash has now lasted twice as long as it takes to get a college degree, this new frugality is likely to stick. Just look at how the Great Depression transformed a generation of Americans almost a century ago, forever imprinting them with high frugality. When they do spend money, frugal people are more likely to buy products than services. They buy store-bought clothes rather than patronizing a tailor, for example. Frugal homeowners-to-be are more likely to buy a stock house plan than commission a custom design. Today, if you have only services to sell, you may want to start thinking about packaging useful things you've done into products.
Smaller & Smarter
When those homeowners-to-be build, they're facing a banking industry that has changed dramatically. Many banks have sworn off real estate lending entirely, whereas those who are still making mortgage loans are much more conservative. This means that your clients have a much better chance of getting a smaller project financed… so long as you design it to be smart enough that your client prefers it over a larger, less intelligent design.
Younger & Greener
Your clients have also gotten younger. A decade ago, most custom design clients were Baby Boomers, but they are now beginning to move out of the home-building market as they age, and are being replaced with GenX and GenY. These generations are much more concerned with building and living sustainably. As a matter of fact, if you're a Boomer architect, you may well be viewed as part of the sustainability problem because Boomers have consumed more than any generation in human history, not only because we were so large, but because we were so hungry as well.
Patience, Generosity, and Connectedness
Those changes would be enough to rock any profession, but there's more. Business is currently undergoing a change that I believe will prove to be as great as the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago. For that quarter-millennium, the prime virtues of business have been better-faster-cheaper, or quality, speed, and economy, if you prefer. I believe that the new age that is now dawning may come to be known as the Age of the Idea, and it appears that the three prime virtues of this time we are now entering may become patience, generosity, and connectedness. So this isn't just about remaking our marketing… it's about remaking ourselves.
The New Tools
Most marketing methods architects have used for decades don't work so well anymore for two reasons: First, the market is leaner, and the old methods worked best when there were lots of jobs to go around. Second, and less obvious, is the fact that we've all been vaccinated by spam against wanting to hear anything about your business. We turn a deaf ear to sales pitches just as quickly as we hit the delete key on a spammy email. The good news is that new tools are emerging that work much better, and again, for two reasons: First, you can reach far more people with tools like blogging, tweeting, online communities, video, etc. than you can by playing a round of golf. And these tools reach the places that are heavily populated by your younger potential clients.
I firmly believe that even though the Great Recession has been architecture's bleakest epoch of my lifetime, it also has the potential to be a great transformational event that can change the profession for the better. At least for those who adapt and transform themselves. What do you think?
The impatience of the development industry and its municipal regulators clearly contributed to the Meltdown, and a case could be made that impatience was actually the prime culprit. Developing impatiently means building large swaths of similar product efficiently and quickly. The public and private sectors each need to learn some lessons from the ways most great old places developed because those ways are far more sustainable and require a lot less debt, as we discussed recently. Here are the forces at work today that prevent us from building patient and sustainable places today:
Bankers usually require developers to provide market surveys showing that there is a need for the developments they're proposing. Typical market survey firms do what seems like the logical thing and look both at what has sold in the past and also at economic forecasts for the market in question. But there are two serious flaws in the system: First, this "rear view mirror approach" will almost always predict some combination of the previous best-sellers. It is incapable of predicting what people would prefer if they were given a choice. So they usually call for small variations on the "sweet spot house." The second problem is that if a survey calls for 500 new houses in the market, 5 developers might take that same survey to 5 different banks and get approved to build 5 x 500 = 2,500 houses. So market surveys can be wildly deceptive, and they are a major force for homogenizing new housing offerings.
Appraisers base their work on "comps," which is short for "comparable sales" of properties in the same market in the recent past. If you're building a house type that hasn't been built in recent years (or ever) in your market, appraisers don't have any recent sales to compare it to, so they kick into their "dark side mode" of ultra-conservative appraising. When Wanda and I built our house in the 1980s that didn't need a conventional heating and cooling system because it conditioned itself passively, the appraiser assigned it a ridiculously low value of $25 per square foot, forcing us to finance a large part of the house on credit card debt, which financially burdened us almost to the breaking point for several years thereafter. Most people would have done the sane thing and abandoned their dream of building a sustainable homestead. The appraisal system, then, has a similar effect to market surveys: forcing the development industry to build what it has built before by severely discouraging anything new. And of course, building many of the same types of houses plays right into the industrial homebuilders' impatience because it allows them to carpet the land with subdivisions quickly.
Because we distrust new development, our city planning departments require developers to show exactly what the final development will look like. They are then required to build everything out to its climax condition from the beginning, burdening developments with millions in infrastructure costs before any real estate is sold. Many developments, including several well-designed ones I'm aware of (and more that I certainly don't know about,) have failed in recent years because of this huge front-end burden coming during the Great Recession. So it should come as no surprise that once that "interest clock" starts ticking on their loans down at the bank, developers have little choice but to be impatient in everything that they do to develop their property. There's no ill intention here; they simply have no choice.
Bankers play a role at both the scale of the neighborhood and the scale of the home. If we built houses in small increments that we could afford to pay for at the time, then we wouldn't need home mortgage bankers very often. Thomas Jefferson, for example, built and lived in one of the two small cottages behind Monticello while he built the rest of the house over nearly a decade. But because our whole system is impatient, we are forced to build the complete house from the beginning. And so we're forced to make our biggest lifetime purchase: the home mortgage.
Because those mortgages on the big house we might never fully need are so large, the bankers have no choice but to force us to insure our homes against all sorts of threats. And because we're insured, we don't have the incentive to build durable buildings that would survive most of those threats. Durability is a special kind of patience, because it extends a building's life long into the future.
Once, you merely had to persuade your local banker to loan you the money to build your home, but no more. Now, mortgages are bundled and sold to investors, so the bankers are limited not only by their own judgement, but also by the investors' guidelines. Mortgage bundling is the biggest iron fist in the homogenization of housing into just a few house types. Bundling is also one factor broadly blamed for creating the Meltdown for several reasons that have been written about by many experts… just Google it if you're interested.
Real estate agents foster housing homogenization in a very direct way: Talk to most agents about buying a house and they'll steer you to houses with a whirlpool tub, for example. They'll tell you that you need it "for resale." In other words, even if you never get in a whirlpool tub, you need to buy a house with one anyway because someone else might want one. Never mind the fact that if you polled the public, only a tiny percentage use a whirlpool tub on a regular basis.
Combine all these factors, and it's crystal clear why we've built the way we've built in recent decades. But as we look at how the system is now so broken, it's also clear that American development needs a strong does of patience… don't you think?
Patient development was once the normal American way to build, as it was in other parts of the world as well, but patient place-making began to seriously erode about a century ago and is almost unheard-of today because of several seemingly disconnected factors. But before we get to those, here's the thumbnail sketch of patient urbanism:
• Patient urbanism doesn't have to build the climax condition of a place from the beginning, but can start with small temporary structures and move or improve them over time.
• Patient urbanism can do the same with infrastructure, starting with gravel roads that eventually might morph all the way to paved Main Streets.
• Patient urbanism works in small increments, doing a good job with each little piece before moving on to the next instead of trying to do it all at once.
• Because patient urbanism is good with little pieces, it's good at infill development as well.
Patient urbanism was once the default American way to build (as it was in other parts of the world as well) but it's really rare today because of these factors, which I've arranged in roughly chronological order of when they began:
The car allows us to live where we want and work somewhere else. Before the automobile, it wasn't possible to build large swaths of the same building type because you needed to live near your work, and near the butcher, the baker, and all your other necessities as well. As did everyone who worked for the businesses and institutions that served you. Trains first allowed us to live remote from work, but once you arrived home, everything else still needed to be close around, so the railroad suburbs retained the traditional fine-grained mix of building types… until the car arrived and allowed us to work, live, shop, play, worship, and learn, all in different places.
Developers bought into the industrial paradigm, which is based on economies of scale. Small incremental projects aren't interesting to most developers because if you develop like an industrialist, you need high-dollar jobs in order to get involved because you're looking for those economies of scale. The alternative to economies of scale is economies of means, which produce very different results. Scale and patience are inextricably intertwined. Patience allows very fine-grained place-making, whereas impatience requires large swaths to be developed quickly.
The regulation of the built environment is without doubt a heavier burden today than it has ever been. The architects bear a lot of the responsibility because they slowly forgot how to design lovable buildings, beginning with the Great Decline, which started just before the Great Depression. So most new projects seem like downward trades from whatever was there before, whether a pasture or an old building. NIMBYs are a testament to this long sad track record of downward trades. So we place ever-heavier obligations on new developments, including requiring them to build the climax condition at the beginning instead of allowing them to develop patiently in ways that might be less predictable. Unpredictability can't be tolerated if change is usually bad.
A mediocre plan can be finished quickly, because there's not so much to them, but great inspiring plans by heroic figures such as Daniel Burnham often took a half-century or more to realize, so they had to be patient. But municipal planners so discredited themselves by allowing the demolition of huge swaths of American cities in the Urban Renewal programs of the 1960s that they ceased to plan, relegating themselves to being something more akin to "urban accountants," counting parking ratios, building height, and floor area ratios. The New Urbanists, composed at the beginning as a rag-tag band of developers and architects finally said to the planners "if you won't draw a plan with compelling vision, we will" beginning in 1980. But by then, the damage had been done because the development industry had been rebuilt around quick, low-aspiration, developer-driven plans.
Social upheavals and violence of the 1960s created a lot of fear, and people left the cities in massive waves, fueling the suburban building boom. Many cities around the country began pulling themselves back together in the 1980s, but fear wasn't necessary any longer to drive the suburbs because they were the shiny new places, even if it was just new vinyl and sheetrock. The boom charged on, right up until the Meltdown.
Developers spun the "city fear" into an urban legend that read like this: "people, for the first time in human history, want to live in places with other people exactly like them." So the developers stratified subdivision pods in a very fine-grained manner. There's a big sprawl development in my hometown where if you wanted to spend $320,000 to $360,000, they steer you to a particular pod. I am not kidding… it's that narrow of a range. But if everyone I'm around is just like me, then that's a little boring, isn't it? The real reason for spinning the myth is that developing many pods of very similar product is very efficient because when builders buy ("take down") pods of lots for very similar houses, they get really good at building those house plans over and over again. And if you're an industrialist, you love efficiency.
These historic trends built the massive development machine that built suburbia. That machine went off the rails at the Meltdown that spawned the Great Recession we're still struggling to escape. A lot of smart people like Chuck Marohn and Kaid Benfield make the case that it was too good to be true because we were mortgaging our future to keep the machine going. Today, we really do need to re-learn how to build places patiently… don't you think?
The heartbeat of a living tradition is four simple words: "we do this because…" If you put every pattern in a language of architecture in these terms, it opens up the "why" of each pattern, allowing everyone to think again. Modernists have long chafed at architectural pattern books, objecting that "they don't allow invention," but with "we do this because…" everyone can invent all they like, so long as it's within a set of agreed-upon principles.
For years, I referred to these four words as the "transmission device" of living traditions. Recently, Kaid Benfield told me that this term "takes something warm and personal and makes it cold and technical-sounding." And he's exactly right. For the last couple months, I've been looking for an alternative. I stumbled across a great candidate just the other day: "we do this because…" is the heartbeat of living traditions, as noted above. What do you think?
It might sound a bit sappy at first glance, but please consider that it's fairly correct organically. The beating heart moves life-sustaining blood through the body, keeping it alive. "We do this because…" moves principles, which are the lifeblood of any living tradition, to all participants in that tradition. Without knowing why, a tradition is dead… it's just your father's way of doing things. But if we all know why we do what we do, we're free to adapt to new conditions. And when an entire culture knows why, you just might have millions of minds thinking of better ways of building.
This transforms a living tradition into a bracing paradox: On the one hand, if many people are thinking of ways to improve their architecture, that architecture is intensely of our time, because it's the latest thought on the matter. On the other hand, if the principles are based on regional conditions, climate, and culture, those things (especially conditions and climate) don't change very quickly over time, likely allowing the architecture to rise to the level of the timeless. This same principle holds in disciplines far afield of architecture as well… living traditions can thrive in everything from music to the blogosphere.
The error of high-design architecture of recent decades isn't that it's too inventive… it's that it throws out everything that has been proven to work. If architecture isn't allowed to learn from things outside our time, it becomes transgressional, rendering it highly unlikely to be lovable.
Think what would have happened in the computer industry had Steve Jobs not allowed himself to learn from the past. Had he attempted to reinvent the Mac with each new version, it never would have gotten so much better over the past three decades. It's the same story in medicine, in aeronautics, in chemical engineering in space flight, in… the list goes on. If we're talking about core sciences such as mathematics and physics, it's the same story as well. Newton famously said "if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." The discipline of green building, above all else, needs to be able to learn from the work that others have done.
To be clear, inventiveness is great… I love inventing things. But I want those things to be lovable so that they have a chance of being sustained long beyond my lifetime. If we want to sustain things long into an uncertain future, we really should stack the deck in our favor by doing work that embodies principles proven to produce things humans love, and that can become part of a living tradition… one with a heartbeat… shouldn't we?
Building neighborhoods patiently requires far less debt for infrastructure and results in places that are more interesting than those that are built all at once. This was once the way we built everywhere, but it is now illegal all over. Why? Because cities insist on "seeing the end from the beginning," meaning that they want the developer to begin by building the final condition of the neighborhood. In human terms, it would be like deciding that we can no longer tolerate giving birth to a child that grows into an adult; we will only allow giving birth to an adult… an incredibly painful proposition that simply doesn't work.
Go to any great city or town that has been there for at least a couple centuries, and the buildings that make up the historic center are highly unlikely to be the ones that were originally built there. At the beginning, the buildings may have been little more than shacks that were replaced or transformed a few decades later into proper wood-frame buildings. A generation or two later, those detached buildings were likely replaced with the larger (and often attached) buildings we see today.
Seaside, Florida, designed by DPZ and the birthplace of the New Urbanism, is a good example of a place built this way, but only because there was no planning department to forbid it at the time. Streets were built one at a time; the next street didn't begin until the previous one was pretty much sold out. Originally, the paving was just crushed shells; it was covered several years later with the concrete pavers that are there today. The first building was a sharecropper's cottage that was hauled in from a farm several miles away. The first commercial buildings were shacks, sheds, and trailers. A few of them remain in their original locations, but most have been moved at least a time or two to make way for larger and more permanent structures.
Seaside's town center is now in the process of being rebuilt in its climax condition of 3- to 5-story masonry buildings. A few are complete, but there are several more to come. Sundog Books started out in a simple one-story wood frame building. It moved several years ago to a two-story frame building on the square, but this building has always been slated to have its final home a couple blocks away as part of the neighborhood school. When it moves, it will be replaced with the masonry building that will house Sundog Books long into the future.
Building this way allowed Town Founders Robert and Daryl Davis to build this world-famous town with essentially no debt after the infrastructure of the first street was paid off. Put another way, had they been expected to build Seaside's climax condition in 1980, it's highly unlikely that Seaside would have ever been built because it would not have been financed. Who ever heard of building a world-famous town on the Redneck Riviera amid the scraggly condos, t-shirt shops, and liquor stores that thinly populated this stretch of Highway 30-A back then? No banker in their right mind would have gone for such a proposition.
This is even more important today, with real estate development money as tight as it has ever been. The great places we love the most were usually built without real estate mortgages. Most places weren't more wealthy then than we are today; they simply built what they could afford at the time and then improved it in small increments over time. Cities and towns really need to learn this lesson again today… it just might make the difference between building and not building, and it will certainly create a better place.
Amendment: I meant to mention several groups in this post that are making significant strides on this issue: Tactical Urbanism is exploring all sorts of ways of improving places with no debt using available stuff. Strongtowns examines the ways infrastructure debt has spiraled out of control, and what to do about it. A number of architects and planners are exploring these ideas under the banner of Incremental Urbanism… their site was on Posterous, which is shutting down, but I'll post a link when they're back up. And the Sprawl Repair people are looking at how to incrementally salvage our biggest infrastructure investment, which is sprawl.
The neighborhoods and subdivisions that make up our towns and cities can be very generous, but they can also be really stingy as well, and their generosity is a great barometer of their prosperity and a good prognosis of their long-term prospects. A typical subdivision is miserly, selfishly cutting up every scrap of available land for sale under the mistaken assumption that this will make more money for the developer, but this is a half-baked view even in the short term. Here's why:
You can give land back to a neighborhood in several good ways and one bad way. First the bad news: amorphous left-over "green space," especially when it's located behind the houses in a thoughtless manner, really does waste land because it creates so little value. Now the good news: if you design the open space as parks, greens, squares, plazas, and playgrounds, and if you put them in front of the houses rather than behind, you can create a great deal of value.
A long view across a space significantly wider than a street increases the real estate value of all buildings facing the long view, usually by 25% or more. Turn the fronts of the houses to the view with a street (or occasionally a walk) running between the houses and the view, and you carry that value up to two blocks deep into the adjacent urbanism because those people can walk to the long view as well.
That increase in real estate value can almost immediately pay for the land given up for parks, greens, squares, plazas, and parks. Over the long term, as the neighborhood is built out, it builds a reputation of being one of the more desirable places in town, cementing the resilience of that value. These principles apply both to new neighborhood design and also to sprawl recovery. Two caveat about fronting the view:
• The front of a building is usually a lot better-looking than the back because designers spend more effort and builders spend more money composing the front of the building. Buildings that turn their back on a view (like almost every golf course subdivision built since World War II) exemplify what I call "mooning the view." If you're on the golf course or in the park, it simply doesn't look as good when you're getting mooned.
• The more eyes you can put on the view, the more value you're likely to create. It's OK to have large detached houses around a park if it's in a less urban part of town, but for the greens and especially the squares and plazas, you really should consider townhouses or even condos in the more urban parts of town.
Here's a curious thing: I started thinking about generosity while working on my upcoming book New Media for Designers + Builders. For over 200 years, business has operated on the three prime virtues of quality, speed, and economy (or better-faster-cheaper.) But things are changing now, as we can see all around us. I believe that in the Age of the Idea that is now dawning, the three primary virtues of sustainable businesses will be patience, generosity, and connectedness.
But something strange happened. As I was writing, it became clear that Original Green places are built on exactly these virtues as well, as we discussed earlier. The next few posts will look at other ways that sustainable architecture and urbanism is built on these virtues. And I've undoubtedly forgotten lots of things… how are the best ways you've seen of architecture and urbanism being patient? Generous? Connected?
How is it possible to develop land that is "close to sacred" to the landowners and yet preserve both the beauty that has always existed in the land and also the family's stories that date back there almost a hundred years? I'm on a charrette this week in Niceville, Florida where we're contemplating that question. Niceville is bounded on the South by Rocky Bayou and on the North by Eglin Air Force Base. The 1,100 acres we're working on at the Northeast corner of town is the last large parcel of developable land in Niceville, which unlike almost the entire rest of the country, is experiencing substantial growth.
The Ruckel family's roots here go back to the 1920s, when James E. Plew, great-grandfather of today's landowners, moved to the area from Chicago. Plew was an inventor, with inventions to his credit ranging from the nose inhaler to the "banana seat" for bikes. He was also an aviator and friend of the Wright Brothers, and donated the original land for Eglin. His children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren have developed most of Niceville and Valparaiso out of what was once family land. The 1,100 acres has long been preserved as a family retreat for fishing, hunting, camping, and yes, aviation: there's a grass landing strip to the West. The recently deceased Walt Ruckel (Plew's grandson) painstakingly mapped out every detail of the land in a hand-drawn map we're using this week as we work with Marion and Steve, his daughter and son, to lay out new places here.
With all this beauty and history embedded in a place, how do you go about developing it? We're trying a few techniques that we believe may work:
Preserve the Old Paths
We are painstakingly following the old paths Walt Ruckel laid out on the map. There is wisdom embedded in an old path that a newcomer can't often know. Sometime's it's obvious, like when a path dodges around an enormous live oak. But more often, the reasons the path runs there have to do with things that can only be known if one has observed subtle nuances of the land for a long time.
We give high value to the places the paths intersect. As a matter of fact, many of these crossroads are becoming the centers of the hamlets, villages, and towns that will one day populate this land. Most of these intersections already have names (more on the names in a moment) which means that there are likely many stories embedded at these crossroads.
If you really want to preserve the character of a path as it becomes a road, it's important to do so in three dimensions. In plan, preserve every little crank and turn rather than straightening them out. Do the same in the third dimension, moving as little earth as possible so that the new road hugs tightly to existing land forms.
Keep the Water Pure
A beautiful sand-bottom creek of crystal-clear water runs through the middle of the land from headwaters at a spring nearby, with fingers branching up into hollows on each side. The water is so clean that Marion stooped down and scooped up two handfuls to drink on our first site tour recently. We plan on using Light Imprint techniques to handle stormwater from the new development in hopes of keeping the waters as clean as they are today.
Build Compact Hamlets, Villages, and Towns
The normal inclination of conventional planning is to carpet the land from edge to edge with development, but then the original character of the land is irretrievably lost. Instead, we're taking the number of homes that have been approved by the city and building them more compactly so that we can preserve over half of the land, with most of it being left completely untouched and some converted to agricultural fields to raise food for restaurants in the hamlets, villages, and towns embedded in these woods.
The outer edges of these settlements will be crisp, like the edge of an Italian hill town, going from urban to wilderness across the twenty-something feet of the drive bounding most of these places. This means that everyone in town can walk easily to the edge, since the edge isn't someone's private back yard, but belongs to everyone instead. In hamlets, you won't be further than a block from nature. In villages, the furthest distance to nature might be at most two blocks, and in the two towns, the greatest distance to the edge will be less than three blocks.
Save the Stories
It's important to use the names that already exist for any places in the land. These don't sound anything like names that a PR department might come up with, and they make salespeople cringe. But they sound real places: Tin Can Junction, Hidden Springs, Five Points, and Two Shot Meadow.
Next, find stories in the natural elements found in the land. Here's an image of the deer moss that carpets much of the high woodland floor. It gives way to the palmetto shoots above as you descend toward the stream. Unlike conventional development, where Fox Run is the subdivision where foxes will never run again, we hope the deer moss carpets the forest floor long into the future… so it's likely that there may be a Deer Moss Crossing somewhere in the woods.
Finally, find ways of memorializing the stories themselves on monuments throughout the place before they're lost to the next generation. There are several hunting towers, for example, most of which are located near intersections. We plan to rebuild these towers in a more substantial fashion where they sit just at the edge of the village green or the town square for futures as observation towers anchoring those civic spaces. Somewhere on these towers, there should be an opportunity for the story of that place to be written.
More soon… I've gotta wrap this up now because the charrette day begins shortly. What other techniques do you have in mind? What else should we be considering?