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.
I’m at Greenbuild in New Orleans. A walk through the exhibits reveals a lot of manufacturers trying to prove that what they’ve always sold is green. That’s the definition of greenwashing. On the other hand, there is some really clever stuff here as well. I’ll be blogging about both on my Useful Stuff blog today and tomorrow because it’s better suited to quick, short posts with images than this blog. Check it out!
There’s a strongly-held view in some architectural camps that minimalist design is unlovable, but I believe that’s a misconception based on the famously-sterile architecture of the 1970s. I even railed in last week’s post against the dangers of pursuing minimalist design so hard that we get rid of essential things. So let’s take a look at ways clean design can achieve lovability.
Love and Respect
It’s hard for design to be lovable and therefore sustainable if it’s not respectful of its setting.
Wanda and I moved to Miami eleven years ago, buying a unit at The Dixon, a noted Art Deco landmark in the heart of South Beach. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I’m a long-time advocate of lovability as the first foundation of sustainable buildings because if a building can’t be loved, it won’t last, because we'll find some excuse to rid ourselves of the unlovable. But I’m also a huge advocate for contextual design that respects its surroundings, so it was a foregone conclusion that our renovated condo would not look like something we might have done in another setting. Instead, it became an intriguing exploration of a new part of the character of lovability.
The high standard of great minimalism is losing no essential thing while keeping no unnecessary thing.
Our bedroom is the simplest room I have ever designed, and I thought for a long time about what was really needed. A tent is exotic yet peaceful to me. The bedroom was almost perfectly square to begin with, so I began by encircling the room with a curtain that is precisely an eleven foot square.
The curtain runs across everything… windows, closets, yes, even the door. Come into the room and close the curtain and it’s very much like being in a tent. It’s also very quiet because the fabric absorbs so much sound. Andrés Duany said “this room feels better than any room I’ve been in for a long time for reasons I can’t quite describe.
The huge white ceiling fan indulges a bit of fancy with a nod to our island home: each blade’s spine is a fishing rod stretching sail cloth into a blade. The bed is a white leather platform bed with a white down comforter. There are only two other things in the room (other than us): two little floor lamps of a perfect height for reading in bed.
Other than that, what is really necessary? And editing all those other normal bedroom artifacts out creates a couple’s retreat so immersed with and peace and calm that it borders on the sublime.
A Chef's Kitchen
Visual simplicity in a kitchen hides all the tools from view. Far better to see everything, so cooking is simple.
Our kitchen is a very different room from our bedroom. It abandons the visual simplicity of the bedroom so that it can achieve simplicity of use. Our son Sam, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, calls this a “chef’s kitchen,” the opposite of which is a “show kitchen.”
A chef’s kitchen creates a different sort of lovability. By being quirky, engaging and warm, it invites others to join in and cook together, like Wanda is doing with her sister Janna here. Several types of lovability are delivered by the design itself, but in this case, the design merely sets the stage for people to have experiences they will recall in pleasant memories.
Things that Curve
No part of the body is without curve. We resonate with design that reflects curving human form in some way.
These shelves are soapstone slabs, cut in a gentle mirrored S-curve (or reflected cyma, if you prefer) to honor the Art Deco heritage of the building, as that language of architecture was well-stocked with repeated ribs of various shapes used for many purposes.
Most consruction materials and components are straight, from wood studs to concrete block to sheets of metal roofing. Curves, therefore, are usually quite expensive to achieve. A space composed only of curves would be so exotic that it might even seem psychedelic, as you might recall if you’ve ever seen any of the 1960s architecture that tried to do precisely that. So use curves sparingly, but don’t forget about them because well-designed things that remind us of our own form usually get points for lovability.
Things that Grow
Places that welcome living things, plant or animal, tend to be more lovable than those too polished to be bothered.
We’ve all seen rooms so visually sophisticated, whether classical or modern, that it seems as if any intrusion might degrade them. “Too perfect to live in” is a description I’ve heard countless times for places like this.
Because minimalism falls off this cliff faster than classicism, it’s really important for a minimalist space to be imperfect enough to accept various life forms. And a minimalist room arguably benefits most, because these two palm fronds arguably make a bigger impact in a room like this than they would in one already chock-full of decorative embellishments. Bringing the outdoors in can be a responsible thing as well… Wanda almost always salvages greenery that was trimmed or pruned away, giving it a few more days of life indoors as it delights us in exchange.
Lovable places frequently are built with at least one thing that brings you up short and makes you chuckle.
The most chuckle-worthy thing in our condo is probably the door casing. For reasons that are a story for another day, I needed the casing to sit very flat against the wall. And I wanted to honor the metal detailing found throughout our Art Deco building in some way. I was walking through one of those great old lumberyards in Miami one day… Shell Lumber, if you know the area. I was looking for something else, but then a piece of flashing caught my eye. It was precisely the right width, and quarter-inch drip crimp not only would hold the free-floating edge straight along its length, but it was a near-perfect metaphor for the edge band often found on classical wood casing. Delighted, I purchased my galvanized-roof-flashing-turned-door-casing and headed back to the condo, where my trim carpenter thought for a moment that I had completely lost my mind… but who still to this day occasionally brings people here to show them his most unusual casing job ever!
Head to Foot
Lovable design reflects the vertical arrangement of the human body, which has a top, a middle, and a bottom.
Most often, reflection of the body from head to foot is thought of as a head, body, and foot, like the capital, shaft, and base of a classical column. But there are other ways of reflecting us as well.
This room, for example, divides between middle and bottom at the waist, marked by a black soapstone belt. The tile wainscot reflects the legs and the black soapstone base (not visible here) reflects the feet, while the mirror and painted wall above the belt reflect the body and the painted coffer reflects the head. It’s a bit of a high waist, but that’s because I needed to align the band with the window sills beyond, as you can see from their reflection in the mirror.
Reflecting Our Faces
We resonate with things that reflect us, including the form of the human face.
It’s not essential for a design to have an abstracted face in order for the design to be lovable, but when you can make that happen, people almost invariably smile. Of all the ways of reflecting the human body, the reflection of our faces reaches us most deeply.
If you’re interested, I’ve posted a portfolio of images of our condo, including these and some other images, on the Studio Sky site. Studio Sky, in case you don’t know, is a design firm I run with two great friends, Eric Moser and Julia Sanford. Our goal is to build places and buildings that are highly sustainable according to Original Green and related ideals. I’m building a really interesting Original Green section on Studio Sky, where I step through each of the foundations of the Original Green, all the way to frugal buildings, illustrating each principle with a collection of patterns, some of which might not have occurred to you yet. You’ll find some of the examples from this post on the lovable buildings page, along with several others. I hope you find these Studio Sky pages useful… please keep coming back, as I’m adding stuff all the time.
Leading with principles that anyone can use for free instead of the normal sales pitch makes Studio Sky’s site a bit unique among designers and builders, but I believe this will be the future of designers’ and builders’ websites. If you’re interested in what the future may hold for us, I’m doing a New Media workshop for designers and builders November 8 in Celebration, Florida. Hope to see you there!
As for this post, it has just touched the tip of the lovability iceberg. Have you had enough, or would you come back for more? I’d be happy to do a series of posts on lovability if anyone’s interested… just leave a note below… thanks!
Simplicity isn't so simple, but simplicity done right can create some of the most lovable experiences and things… and the things we love the most are usually the things we sustain the longest. The problem is that there are several types of simplicity, including at least one charlatan close to the end that's not nearly so simple as it appears.
The Bandwidth Pendulum and the Victorian Revival
Conjuring simplicity with images of a simpler time works for a while, but doesn’t ease our bandwidth demands.
The architectural establishment won't acknowledge it, but a Victorian Revival has fluorished for the past three decades in the US, arguably getting into full swing at Seaside. How is it possible that people have embraced things that high-style designers might tag as "fussy" or "frilly" during precisely those decades when our bandwidth has been increasingly sapped away by the 24/7 connectivity of the digital era? I believe the Victorian Revival sprang from a desire to strip away our modern burdens of time demands and complexities and invoke the perceived simplicity of an earlier time. But pendulums always swing back, and while things that recall images of a simpler time can transport us out of the digital torrent for a while, we need a deeper simplicity now, as time demands wash ever deeper over us. Let’s consider several ways of achieving more deeply-rooted simplicity.
Simple to Use
The life expectancy of a tool is inversely proportional to the thickness of its manual.
The best tools need no manuals at all, because their uses are self-evident. And the things that are simplest to use actually lend themselves to much inventiveness of purpose because it’s easy to imagine other things they could be used for that their original designer may never have envisioned.
A simple pleasure is more easily repeated than one that depends on a complex set of conditions.
The caption of this post’s title image asks an important question: Is that bowl of Tuscan bean soup sitting on a checkered tablecloth somewhere in Tuscany simple or not? Visually, there are a lot of things going on, from the texture of the soup itself to the knotty fabric of the tablecloth. So designers might consider the image to be visually complex, but almost everyone else would consider the experience of eating a bowl of Tuscan bean soup in Tuscany to be one of life’s simple pleasures.
And as such, it’s something you can have any time you’re in Tuscany… or any time at all, if you know how to cook. And that’s the great pleasure of simple pleasures: they’re so accessible to us because they come so easily, and many of them can be repeated for a lifetime.
Outsourcing work might be more efficient, but things done in-house are less susceptible to disruption.
Take the IT department, for example. It’s good to have a good IT department. But it’s better to work with systems that are simple enough that you don’t need an IT department. That’s why Apple has fans, while all the other computer companies merely have customers. Those other companies make consultants more powerful; Apple makes me more powerful by making power simpler.
Imperfections are signs of depth - only thin veneers can be perfect, and that perfection doesn’t last.
Veneers had a long and illustrious history… until recently. For centuries, people overlaid structures built of strong but crude materials with thin layers of costly materials with the intent of making buildings more noble. Today, our motive has changed: we're no longer seeking to make buildings more noble, but to make them maintenance-free. So now we coat building elements with thin layers of cheap materials like vinyl or aluminum in hopes that we will no longer have to care for the building. But because they're cheap and thin, today's veneers can only hide the imperfections of the base material for so long. And when they fail, they do so hideously. Because we've seen far too many cheap veneers come apart at the seams, there is now a budding desire for building with real materials. A timber column, even with its cracks, is better than a structural column encased with a flimsy wrap of other materials. Those cracks in the timber column show that this is the real thing: a building element with depth, and that won't suddenly come apart one day.
Nature’s accountant balances all of the books.
Nature is incredibly complex at the microscopic level, but everything balances out. One creature’s waste is another one’s food, as we’ve known for a long time. And even when humans put things far out of balance at one moment in time, nature finds ways of achieving a new balance. Consider how quickly an abandoned place is reclaimed once the people leave. This simplicity of everything balancing out even though the individual workings of nature might involve very complex chemistry or physics is a high standard we cannot really even aspire to yet. The best way to invoke the simplicity of natural economy is simply to plant stuff and feed things, and let nature do its work. We can’t yet manufacture tomatoes, but we can grow them.
Elemental forms can be very efficient carriers of information when they ask less of us to unlock their story.
This round pool, for example, is recognizable as such in fractions of a second whereas a more complex water body might require some investigation to see if it’s a stream or a pond. Even if we don’t consciously ask ourself that question, our mind is still burdened with having to recognize the complex shape. The whole world cannot be composed of elemental shapes, of course. But things that can be simply shaped while at the same time being understandable are a welcome relief in our increasingly complex world. In the end, the goal should be to achieve a healthy balance between simplicity and complexity, so the more we’re bombarded with more and more information, the more we appreciate elemental but understandable things.
The Minimalism Hazard
"Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.” ~Einstein
Minimalism seems at first like the ultimate simplicity, removing every non-essential thing until we're left with the real essence of whatever we're designing. Unfortunately, many architects ignore Einstein's dictum and begin removing essentials. They eliminate the visible roof entirely, for example, leaving the owner with leaky flat roofs in wet climates. They try to reduce the top of the wall to a single line, but then can't properly flash the parapet. Unlike the iPod, which kept all the essentials but got rid of everything else, much architecture today gets rid of essentials as well in the name of style, and then suffers for it.
Don’t confuse the path to simplicity with a simple or easy path, as it requires many choices, and editing things out.
Which sorts of simplicity should we choose? Everyone will likely have their own mix, but I’d suggest that any choice that removes clutter and allows us to focus on the most important things is probably a good choice. What do you think?
Yesterday was the third anniversary of the loss of Steve Jobs, and to this day, most people completely miss his biggest contribution: the enabling of new living traditions where there had been none before. Much like the way Gizmo Green dominates green building conversations, almost all stories about Steve focus on the technical side of his brilliance. But if you go back and read what he actually said, it’s clear that one of his core motivations was to allow ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
There’s an apparent disconnect between what Steve did and what a few of us are trying to do for sustainability that actually isn’t a disconnect at all. Steve built powerful tools without knowing everything that people would do with them. He had some ideas, to be sure, but there’s no doubt that he took delight in people coming up with uses he never considered. He famously said that a Mac is a “bicycle for your brain,” because bicycles transform humans from one of the most inefficient species at travel to one more efficient than all but a few species such as condors. Steve didn’t need to know where you would go with your bike in order to design the bicycle/Mac… he just needed to design it to make you more effective.
The Original Green is sustainability built upon an operating system of living traditions, and it’s what kept humanity alive for almost all of human history. We’re at a strange and rare point in history where the living traditions for building sustainable places and buildings have died almost everywhere on earth, beginning in the early 20th Century. And so there is much confusion about the nature of living traditions, and whether they can even exist at all today.
News flash… they can and do exist. The blogosphere is a vibrant living tradition that sprang up in just the last decade, with millions participating and hundreds of millions (or more) reading their work. So there’s no doubt they work well today, even if architecture and urbanism aren’t reaping their benefits yet.
Part of the resistance in architecture stems from rejection of things before our time because of the need to do transgressional work. This prejudices architecture against things that have long been proven to work, which is where new living traditions probably need to begin. The other part is a misunderstanding of how the process works because most of us have never seen them work in architecture or urbanism. The illustration above shows how it works.
The worker in the illustration is like the Original Green itself… the intelligence behind sustainable places and buildings. Living traditions are similar to the tool (or operating system) wielded by the worker. The products created are the built artifacts of places and buildings.
Problem is, architects tend to confuse the artifacts with the worker. An intelligent worker can build different things tomorrow from what is built today. Just because we begin with artifacts long proven to work doesn’t mean we won’t be producing better artifacts tomorrow. As a matter of fact, a living tradition is always learning because the heartbeat of a living tradition is four simple words: “we do this because…” Basing design on principles in this way, rather than style, means that everyone is allowed to think again, and that what we build tomorrow has the hope of being better than what we build today.
We’ve grown so dependent on our gizmos that we often forget about the natural ways of doing things… ways that are often just as effective and usually a lot less costly than the mechanically-driven methods. Take fitness, for example. How many Americans get in their cars and drive to the gym where they work out on the equipment, then drive back home again, spending $100 or more per month by the time you count the memberships, the gas, the wear and tear on the cars, and the value of the commuting time? And how many more people sign up for memberships but quickly quit going, while the membership fees keep draining from their checking accounts?
My friend Nancy Bruning was the editor of the Original Green, and she’s also a prolific author, with one of her latest being 101 Things to Do on a Park Bench, which lays out the idea she calls Fitness Alfresco. Nancy shows you some of those moves throughout this post.
But there’s a problem shared by both Fitness Alfresco and the Original Green: there’s not much money in it. Americans spend billions of dollars per year with the fitness industry, and that’s almost certainly dwarfed by the building equipment and control industries. Meanwhile, Fitness Alfresco costs you nothing but time and some comfortable clothing. So how can Fitness Alfresco spread beyond the circle of Nancy’s influence if there’s no big money to drive it?
I’ve been asking myself the same thing about the Original Green. I’m unlikely to find big equipment manufacturers as sponsors or advertisers because I advocate for doing things that require less equipment. And I repeatedly make the case that the things with the greatest impacts are not the measures that make our buildings smarter, but the ones that make us smarter. So where’s the corporate sponsorship future in that? Is the Original Green just a book and a website, destined to die when I run out of passion or run out of time?
I watched a fascinating conversation with two friends on Facebook recently spurred by this story on the happiest cities in the US. One friend is strongly conservative (as is the article) and the other is reliably progressive, but they came to a surprising agreement via this train of thought:
The happiest cities aren’t where you think they should be, and for the most part represent places considered to be “backwards.” But why is that? Places where people know how to do for themselves, raise their own food, etc., should be considered the most sustainable. And they’re demonstrably happier.
Why, then, should they be cast in a negative light? Is it possible that it’s precisely because they are more sustainable? Meaning that they consume less? Specifically, they spend less on consumer goods? And so it’s therefore in the interest of the vast American Media-Advertising Complex to portray them negatively? Both my friends came to this conclusion from markedly different places on the political spectrum.
So what hope is there for those who advocate consuming less? A decade ago, there wasn’t much hope because we all got our information from the top down, and that information was all sponsored by big corporations with many things to sell you. Now, however, we have learned how to bypass the corporate megaphones and speak directly to each other via a growing choice of New Media such as blogging, Twitter, online communities such as Facebook, and more.
New Media for Designers + Builders describes this revolution in detail, and it’s a revolution I believe will bring as much change as the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago. Those New Media are therefore where the hope lies for real sustainability.
It’s not just theory, either… there are those out there who are showing us how to get it done. One of my real heroes is Chuck Marohn, who went from being completely unknown a few years ago to being the leader of the Strong Towns movement today… a movement that just held their first national gathering a few weeks ago. Chuck’s message to cities and towns is precisely an Original Green message about spending less, but getting more. Strong Towns could not have existed in 1994, but today, it’s beginning to change America.
So that’s my take on it… but am I missing something? This is a “half-baked post,” with several ideas I’ve been thinking on for some time, but I’m not at all sure that I’ve got it all right. What do you think?
The following are tweet-casts of the Atypical Building Types session at CNU22 in Buffalo last week. I’ve edited the tweets lightly whenever I remembered something else the speaker said.
• Simple, flexible, & replicable: those are our new flex-building ideals.
• We want to be able to aggregate buildings in small increments because that’s what makes financing work in today’s market.
• The keys to making incremental buildings work are paying attention to fronts, backs, & shared courtyards.
• The most adaptable buildings are a designed on a single chassis that allows many buildouts over time.
• I'll talk about Baldwin Park and several types we use that have good vertical mix.
• We're all about getting stuff implemented, not just being theoretical.
• Building type choice is one of the most important, if not the single most important, decision we ever make in place-making.
• New types need to be "better than market" to really show the success of the type, otherwise nobody will take a chance on building them if they’re not more compelling.
• “Individual entry stacked flats” is a term we use for units that are similar to a mansion apartment… so long as it’s the type of mansion apartment that has only one front door.
• Individual entry stacked flats are a great way of integrating 1 bedroom units into an existing larger-home context because it doesn’t seem like you’re building out of character with the neighborhood.
• Individual entry stacked flats can look just like townhouses when they’re attached.
• Individual entry stacked flats bulk out to fit in a street full of larger row houses.
• Multi-entry stacked flats are great corner units because they can have entries on each frontage.
• Flex units can attune well to the market because of their adaptability to today's market.
• Flex units are designed to easily morph from their inaugural residential condition to retail when the time is right.
• The first level of a flex building should be a 1-story flat because that's what converts to retail later on.
• The podium building is most far-reaching & evolving type in our toolbox today. It mixes construction types, pushing wood to its limits in the code.
• CNU should take a lot of credit with the push for podium buildings, which let us build 5-6 story buildings.
• A podium building is typically concrete on the main level, with a 4-level wood building above.
• SuperWood buildings are a new type of podium building composed of 5 stories of wood construction (type 3A) on a concrete podium with upgraded fire rating on all exterior walls.
• SuperWood buildings can put bigger box retail in the concrete base.
• The concrete first level of podium buildings can be extra-tall for large tenants who need tall ceilings.
• Viewed from downhill, our new SuperWood building is an amazing thing to see, with a tall main level and two lower parking decks. All told, it looks like 9-story mostly-wood building!
• Let's look at Julie Sanford's Edge Dwellers.
• In America, we've created construction where we can't live in buildings without outside air.
• There are many international sources of design inspiration for these case study houses.
• Edge dwellers are designed to produce more energy than they use.
• All of these case study houses are meant to be built of locally available materials.
• The tent dweller is a model of disengagement with the land, hovering lightly above it.
• The eco-dweller admits natural light & amplifies breezes, and is meant to live off the grid.
• Eco-dwellers are raised on piers, treading very lightly on the land, preserving existing drainage patterns.
• Our Belize project aims to reinvigorate local traditions of hardwood construction.
• These Belize cottages have no insulation in exterior walls, and are built without highly skilled labor.
• The Belize cottages reduce the number of layers we typically build in a building. What you see is what you get: studs, sheathing, and siding.
• We want to build a much smaller conditioned core of the building.
• After the meltdown, the lenders weren't there any more, so builders could no longer build spec houses. In some ways, this was a good thing.
• The problem is, you can't get the pace of construction to sustain a project without the financing of individual buildings.
• One of the greatest puzzles to American construction today is how to increase the capacity of building without the financing we once had.
• We are now looking at modular construction to boost our capacity.
• Modular is not less expensive than good stick construction - it's about the same. The bonus is speed.
• We're doing Marianne Cusato modular designs by Clayton Homes.
• One really interesting thing about modular is that it fits great on the tiny lots of old towns because the modules have to be small enough to travel down the highway.
• Going from the staging area to the building site in an existing town with a modular house can be an adventure. We have a special subcontractor for that.
• “Lift off” is that moment when your heart's in your throat with a modular house in the air and destined to go between two existing houses.
• The smallest cottages have porches built with the house in the factory. Larger houses have site-built porches.
• This presentation is mainly about the building types I'm not allowed to build.
• My idea for this new type began with English leasehold from the Middle Ages.
• Today, the threshold of an urban development is to have a pro forma that's better than surface parking.
• Here’s the core question: How do you get the price down so low you don't need a public-private partnership for an urban infill?
• You can get tremendous variation along a street just by making the boxes a little larger or smaller than the ones next door.
• Our tiny incremental $300,000 building in New Haven has 6 tiny units & flex space on street… and still, the landowner elected to keep his surface parking!
• My day job is to work for a luxury apartment developer. At night, I do townhousecenter.org.
• T4 didn't really exist before Miami21. It now applies to about 1,000 acres in the city.
• If we can figure out T4 in Miami, we can build quite a lot of it as successional upzoning occurs.
• We designed a 25' wide row house type to fit two abreast on Miami’s typical 50’ lots.
• Our Miami townhouse type doesn't have parking. Miami21 requires 1.5 spaces/unit, which is a problem.
• We're working on an exemption to off-street parking for small buildings near transit in Miami.
I will write up my presentation and post it sometime soon.
• Roughly ⅔ of the buildings once existing in New England have been torn down.
• It is interesting that parking is considered part of the burden of the lot rather than part of transport system.
• Someone should initiate a parking credit for blocks with Zipcars.
• The key to the best new building types is funding that doesn't require Wall Street.
• The biggest problems with live-works are fire codes & finance.
• CNU is working with the FHA to get the allowable percentage of work area in live/works increased.
• Working at home should be a basic human right.
Plans can be poetic on several levels, from simple sensual beauty to deeply embedded meaning. Great planners create profound poetry in their best plans, and while this doesn’t rise to those levels, I feel it is some of my best work. Here’s what it means:
CNU kicked off last year in Salt Lake City with a competition to redesign the Mormon Block. Salt Lake City is built of these mammoth blocks, measuring 660 feet on a side and containing exactly 10 acres. What do you do with blocks that big? Because the Original Green’s ideas on Nourishable Places had an early influence on Agrarian Urbanism, I was asked to lead a session on Agrarian Urbanism and the Mormon Block. My competition entry on Wednesday served as the basis for my presentation on Saturday.
The idea of putting a garden in the city has potential story lines that trace back thousands of years. In the Judaeo-Christian heritage, paradise at the beginning of the world was a garden and at world’s end, it will be a city. Many of the most beautiful places on earth not yet ruined by sprawl put these two ideals together, allowing you to look directly from the city out into the countryside, such as this view from High Street in Broadway, one of the most beautiful towns in England's Cotswold hills.
It is just as poetic to see the town in the distance from the countryside, so long as the town is small enough to perceive all at once, like Chipping Camden is as seen from this meadow. The trick to building a garden inside a Mormon Block is that there’s no way you’ll feel like you’re out in the countryside because you simply cannot get that far from the urbanism all around the edge of the block. And while a small patch of garden embedded in urbanism can be profound in the hand of a master, it’s easier to make an impact by pulling off the feeling of moving from city to garden in a short distance.
I set out, therefore, to try to move from the city to the garden in ten paces. It’s not as difficult as it sounds… it happens all the time in villages like St. Alban’s in England shown here. And then it occurred to me: maybe, if I could pull a few planning tricks, it might be possible not just to move from city to garden in ten paces, but actually move from city to what felt like country in ten paces. So I set out to try to figure out how to do it.
One obvious solution is to make sure that there are turns in the road. This country road winds for miles through England’s Dartmoor National Forest, but you can never see more than a few dozen yards ahead of you because the path is constantly twisting and turning along the contours of the land as it searches out the more level tracks through the landscape.
Hedgerows are another useful technique for controlling the view, and because England is famous for them, here’s yet another British image. A hedgerow is tall and thick, creating a view wall so that you cannot see into the adjacent field. Hedgerows can also be edible, planted with fruit or berry bushes. And while bedding crops often grow at more than arm’s length, edible hedgerow plants bring the fruit right up to your face if you’re walking along the edge of the path.
Street width isn’t often discussed as a technique for making the way seem longer, but it can be highly effective. It’s simple proportion: moving 300 feet along a street that’s ten feet wide seems like a much longer distance than traveling an equal distance on a boulevard that’s 200 feet from building face to building face. Take this simple test: Look at the second image above, then imagine walking from one end of Pienza to the other, then imagine walking one block in Salt Lake City. Which seems like a greater distance? So the path should clearly be narrow.
It’s not possible to completely hide the buildings at the street from within the garden, but it is possible to clothe the insides of the buildings with green. New Orleans does a fabulous job of this, adorning buildings with galleries that are practically begging you to hang a lush garden of potted plants, such as the one that is shown in this image.
So here’s how the idea developed: The first move was to decide that there should be something special in the middle, which is where you’re furthest from the city. Working edible gardens need a place for the work of the harvest, and the time of harvest has been an occasion for festivals throughout human history, so it seemed appropriate to put the place of the harvest at the center of the block. And because the block is square and urban, a harvest place that is round and green seemed to be the perfect counterpoint on several levels.
That mammoth block size was the very next thing that had to be addressed. Portland is famous for its walkability in part because of its very small block size, where block faces are around 195 feet per side. Dividing the Mormon Block in thirds creates sub-blocks with similar block face dimensions once you take out the width of the sub-block passages. And in order to create the best walkability, there should be corner entries as well, which create iconic flatiron buildings. All told, this scheme creates twelve gateways into the garden: four at the corners and two along each side.
So the basic scheme was set: enter through the city walls at the twelve gateways and proceed along narrow, curving, hedged pathways through the garden to the place of the harvest. Here’s the basic idea of one of those pathways. But should they just curve in one direction, like giant turbine blades? Doing this would give you no choices along the way from the city streets to the center of the garden, making each path pretty much identical. Once you’ve walked one, you’ve pretty much walked them all. So I decided there should be intersections along the way. But how, and how many?
Intersections are easy if you run the pathways both to the right hand side and to the left. How much should they curve? Curve too little, and it’s pretty much a straight shot to the center. Curve too much, and each of the plots of the garden becomes tiny as the block is eaten up with too much roadway. A perfect balance seemed to be to lay out the pathways for seven intersections between the city sidewalks and the place of the harvest. At each of the seven intersections, you could turn right, or left, going further out or further in. And so your path from each of the twelve gates to the place of the harvest could take innumerable paths as you selected your way through the seven circles of choices.
So that’s how the paths laid out. You’ll also notice a few more things: The twelve cottages scattered around the outer edges of the garden house the gardeners. Bio-intensive gardens this big would be full-time work for these twenty-four people (with maybe some occasional help from their children.) Just outside their cottages, at the outer circle, is the orchard border that further frames the green circle of the garden. And the innermost circle of sunburst-shaped buildings are the sheds where the tools of the garden and the tools of the harvest are stored.
There are other stories here as well, but I’ve gone on long enough. What do you see?
I dreaded the idea of moving my office worse than a root canal, but it might turn out to be one of the leanest, greenest, and all-around best things we’ve done in a very long time. At first, we didn’t even consider moving home because we simply have too much stuff. We were in a 1,500 square foot office a few blocks away from our 747 square foot condo; how is it possible to condense every three square feet into one? But late one October evening, I asked Wanda “do you think we should consider the unthinkable?” And so it began.
Moving your office to an equal or larger space is easy: you just call the movers and then spend a day or two getting set up to work again. But combining 1,500 square feet of work space and 747 square feet of living space into 747 square feet of live/work space is much more difficult because you have to look at every single thing and say “do I really need this?” It’s an intense exercise in getting lean with living and working. We spent almost the entire month of January doing exactly that, and the three months since sorting it all out. Here are some things I learned, organized by simple rules of thumb… and you can click on the bird to tweet a rule of thumb if you like.
Get lean by ditching flab, which is anything I don’t need today.
We keep far too much stuff because we might need it someday, just as our body does with fat… storing calories because we might someday need them. When we moved, we gave loads of furniture, office supplies, and the like to MakeShop Miami, the maker group I wrote about here. They can use it today, while I only might need it someday.
Sentimentality is a hard master, forcing me to carry a heavy load just to see it again someday.
Take pictures. Good ones. They take up no space at all in your place, especially if you store them somewhere in the cloud. I had several architectural models I’d kept since school. At this point, they looked like models of ruins because the models were ruined. I also got rid of a lot of drawings from school, saving only my best work. I keep all my professional drawings, of course, but the idea that anyone would want to see my lesser work from school just doesn’t make sense.
Lean by lack is poverty, but lean by choice is highly treasured.
No diet is pleasant at the moment, but the leanness that comes afterward can be great fun. Getting lean has caused a massive 4-month hit to my productivity, but it promises to pay off for years to come.
Work somewhere too small to clutter.
I once thought a space large enough to clutter was a luxury but it’s really a burden. Here’s a huge point about the images in this post: Nothing was prepped for the shoot. All “straightening up” took 30 seconds or less. This is how we work. We can’t afford not to. And it saves a ton of time cleaning up every few months and searching for stuff every day in between.
Label stuff crisply and neatly. The smaller the space, the cleaner it needs to feel.
You can get away with hand-scrawled labels in a big office, but a small office needs to feel more composed. And where would you rather be working anyway: somewhere really sloppy, or somewhere that raises your spirits? When space is small it is more important to surround yourself with things that lift your spirits.
Shred with text left-to-right so ribbons of paper include only a digit or two of an account number.
I had every check I’d ever written, all the way back to when Wanda and I got married when I was just 19. Why? Because I’d never taken the time to recycle them. The IRS says you have to keep 7 years of records, but I kept everything back to when we moved to Florida, 11 years ago. I kept tax returns older than that… or at least the ones we had. We had three back-to-back floods in our office several years ago during a rooftop construction project, and they destroyed tons of drawings and company records, so what we have is really spotty. But in any case, don’t just recycle it. Identity thieves might be able to do something even if the record is really old, so make sure you shred everything before recycling.
Never lay junk mail anywhere except in the recycle bin… next, get on the National Do Not Mail List.
In a small space, you can’t afford to handle stuff twice… especially if it’s something you’re not planning to keep. So go straight to the recycle bin when you check your mail.
Have an invisible inbox. A massive stack of stuff to do is demoralizing.
See the white cabinet just to the right of my red chair in the image above? It’s an Ikea shoe cabinet, but it makes an awesome inbox. I can pivot it open, drop stuff in, and let it close… and it stays out of sight until I’m ready to work on it.
Keep things you use each day close around, but store further away what you use less often.
People say storage units are a sign of hoarding, and an indicator of not getting rid of enough stuff. Quite the opposite is true if you’re moving your office home. We have three workplaces: the stuff we need every day is in our two tiny workspaces at home. The stuff we need weekly is in a small storage unit a bike ride from home. The stuff we need monthly or less is in a larger but less expensive (per square foot) storage unit on the mainland. All three places are set up for work. Without the two storage units, working from home would be impossible for me.
Rinse junk mail instead of scrubbing. Don’t fear the inbox.
Ever notice how something you could have merely rinsed right after you used it takes some real scrubbing if you let it get hard and crusty? Junk mail is that way. It’s more important in a small space to not feel the walls closing in around me… including the digital walls of stacks of email. So every morning, I delete all the spam that my spam-catcher doesn’t catch, plus all the emails that aren’t exactly spam, but which I have no intention of ever answering. This leaves me with a small fraction of what greeted me when I first sat down, making it more likely that I’ll actually look at what’s left… and then respond to it.
The first act of simplification is discovering which things can do double-duty… or more.
Start with your furnishings, such as these bookshelves which are actually doing triple-duty.
Next, consider your equipment. Do you really need all of it? We’re now down to just two computers: Wanda’s laptop and mine.
Then think about your digital business. Dropbox doubles as a cloud server and a backup system for me, for example. But it’s expensive, so I’m storing several terabytes of files that don’t often change on a WD My Cloud server I can access from anywhere on earth. Before saving stuff there, however, I’m organizing it all. It’s something I should have done years ago, but I’m using the move home as the reason to finally get it done.
My digital setup is an entire post’s worth of material. I’ll put that post up soon on Useful Stuff. The essence, however, is this: when you work in a small space, your biggest enemy is clutter. Both physical and digital. So you need to spend an unusual amount of time simplifying things in the beginning. You’ll thank yourself countless times from that point forward.
Small equipment can go many places that are impossible for larger equipment.
We’re down to just one letter-size scanner, which sits snugly on the end of my desk. Our old printer was a beast, but our new one sits neatly on top of my drawing files.
Take advantage of the space under a desk that's over and around your feet.
Wanda stores copy paper on a shelf above her feet, and Buddy, Tanner, and Sally make a bed around her feet. I store stuff to either side of my feet because why should all that space be wasted?
Work in a garden room whenever possible. It’s a luxury most people never get to enjoy.
I work outdoors whenever the weather is good for several reasons. It’s a change of scenery. It’s a great pleasure. On a good day, the light is excellent. It’s easier to focus if Wanda is on the phone indoors. And it gets me acclimated to the local environment so I can live in season, often not needing to turn on the air conditioning when I return indoors. I’m working inside right now, for example, with only the breeze of the ceiling fan needed for comfort.
What It Means
There are obviously many lessons here, and I’ve just touched on some of them briefly. Is there anything you want to know more about? If so, I can blog about it in greater detail… or we could just talk about it here. What makes the most sense to you? And what do you wonder the most about, if you don’t already work from home?
Earth Day began in 1970 with a mission to steer the passions of the day into environmental protection, but things are afoot today that may finally help channel the environmental movement into its real mission: building a better future. American rivers were ablaze in 1970, and industrial cities lived under a perpetual pall belching continuously from its smokestacks. I grew up a hundred miles away from one of them, and one of our playground insults was “you stink like Birmingham.”
Recovering our skies, our waters, and our lands from the ravages of industry’s degradations was the essential first step… no doubt about it. But just as an alcoholic’s eventual goal shouldn’t just be to get sober but to live a better life, our goal as earth’s residents shouldn’t just be to clean up our messes, but to build better places.
Some people have been working on this for a long time. The New Urbanists, for example, started working out ways of building more sustainable places as far back as 1980. More recently, a number of them have taken on the mammoth problem of recovery from the addiction of sprawl.
The engine of sprawl was fueled by the 20th Century’s energy glut and the mirage of perpetual expansion, making it a bloated target for anyone interested in building more sustainably. But sustainability’s allies have also become part of the problem. The LEED rating system, for example, was created with the very best of intentions, but it has also become so flabby that there are now calls for a lean alternative. And place-making regulation at all levels of government, environmental or otherwise, has become not just a thicket, but a complete unnavigable hairball of regulatory centipedes. Conjures up some disgusting images, right?
It’s time to come lean. Fortunately, there’s a small crack team already working on that. The Lean Initiative doesn’t advocate for a complete free-for-all, but rather for “pink tape” instead of red tape… in other words, lightening the load so that more of us can get meaningful stuff done. The Lean Initiative is built on seven Foundations. Here’s a quick look at some of the lean things some of us have been building upon them:
• No equipment is so efficient as the machine that is off. Tweet
• Single-crew workplaces make many business possible in your neighborhood today that would be impossible larger. Tweet
• Build places where you can make a living where you’re living, and walk to the grocery. Tweet
• Working at home should be a basic human right. If it were harmful, humanity would have perished centuries ago. Tweet
• Do business with agreements that don’t require a lawyer to tell you what you agreed to. Tweet
• Don’t advertise. Spam has vaccinated us against ads. Be the marketing you want people to see. Apologies to Ghandi. Tweet
• Sustainable places: nourishable, accessible, serviceable, securable. Green buildings: lovable, durable, adaptable, frugal. Tweet
• Begin every rule “we do this because…” so the people know why, not just what. Consent of the governed arises from why. Tweet
• Whenever possible, set up things that regulate themselves, not requiring lots of external energy to run smoothly. Tweet
• Don’t grow regulatory “scar tissue” the first time something unpredicted goes wrong. (Thanks, Jason Fried!) Tweet
• A building for 2 people should not be regulated like a building for 2,000. In a lean world, regulation follows risk. Tweet
• Free gardens & small farms from industrial food chain regulation. They feed neighbors, not millions of strangers. Tweet
• Those making regulations should be affected by them. We have no right to burden others with loads we do not bear. Tweet
• Regulations must be regional. Green building standards on Cape Cod look ridiculous on the Gulf Coast, and vice versa. Tweet
• Generate services as locally as possible. You can borrow from your neighbors if the outage doesn’t affect them. Tweet
• Make beautiful sights and sounds with the rain, then get it back into the ground as soon as possible. Tweet
• Trading lane width for sidewalk width is one of the best infrastructure exchanges, and full of virtues. Tweet
• No sign of a vibrant, lovable place can be seen from further down the street than a line of street trees. Tweet
• Put parking on streets, on alleys, or in garages. Few things are more corrosive to cities than surface parking lots. Tweet
• Nothing reduces infrastructure as broadly and as much as doing business in your own neighborhood. Tweet
• Dispense with the gym. You can get fully fit working out on a park bench, which should be lean infrastructure's icon. Tweet
• Tell the children why, not just what. With what, you only pass or fail. With why, you can figure stuff out. Tweet
• Today’s kids will spend most of their lives on stuff that doesn’t exist yet. They must learn how to figure stuff out. Tweet
• Embed the greatest wisdom within that which can be loved, so that it may spread broadly. Tweet
• Lessons learned from things nearby stick with us easier than those from things we cannot see. Tweet
• Put homework on blogs, so each student’s work is visible to the world, and commenters help them get it right. Tweet
• Build places that put old and young together because the old are those with the most wisdom and the time to teach it. Tweet
• Combine proverbs with hyperlinks so the idea sticks with you and directs you. This might be education’s future. Tweet
That’s a lot of stuff… what are your thoughts? What parts of this make sense?
Maker Spaces are fascinating on several counts, but the most important one is something you might not have thought of: the secret sauce of Maker Space innovation isn’t something inside the building, but rather what’s around it. The Maker Spaces themselves only need to be large, open, cheap, and wired... and you can find places like this almost anywhere. It’s what they’re connected to around them that determine how innovative their work is likely to be.
What Makers Do
Makers do two basic things: They recover old crafts, and they figure out how to do new stuff. So a Maker Space is part school and part laboratory. Makers are both learning and doing, and they must learn skills in order to make stuff. Often, they’re working with supplies or components that are old and cheap, but it is specifically this low entry threshold that makes what they’re doing so accessible and empowering, as they hack and crack their way under the hoods of disciplines as diverse as cooking, computers, sewing, and rocketry.
Why They Do It
Actually, you should ask one of them why they do it, as you’ll get some interesting answers. But at their core, Makers are a lot like the free bird above. While the rest of us might be more like the birds caged inside, comfortable and out of the elements because we’re supported by all our complex systems from air conditioning to the industrial food chain, makers relish getting outdoors. And in the process of learning the skills they learn and figuring out the things they’re discovering, they become much more robust and resilient as they become acclimated to the inner workings of things the rest of us take for granted.
Ask a random person on the street about innovation and how it is produced, and chances are, they’ll begin to tell you about companies like Apple that work with big budgets, the latest technology, strong corporate infrastructure, and maybe piles of cash. This corporate sort of innovation depends on large power structures and massive infrastructure. Maker innovation is almost completely opposite. Budgets can be small or non-existent, often using found or donated materials. Technologies might be decades (or sometimes centuries) old. And while it’s completely impossible for one person to create a product like an iPhone on their own, almost all Maker innovation occurs in small groups that are often as tiny as a single person. Maker innovation removes the necessity of as many outside power structures as possible, depending often on little more than a roof overhead and electrical power.
Things That Spark the Mind
Entire books are written on innovation-rich environments… far too many to reference here, although Richard Florida’s Creative Class series of books are some of my favorites. But in any case, it’s clear that some settings foster going through the same motions repeatedly, while others are seedbeds of innovative thought. Innovative settings tend to be those where many things are possible… places where there are many ways to turn, and where on a whim you might turn another way and end up at a different place. There, you might see someone you didn’t expect, or maybe even meet someone new. And if that person doesn’t do what you do but wants to hear about your work, then you just might be entering that most insight-rich zone of looking at your work through the lens of another discipline.
Corporations with a highly innovative culture and track record are often insanely focused on a narrow product line, as Steve Jobs famously characterized when he said "I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things we have done.” It should be no surprise that getting thousands of corporate creatives focused on those few products seems to call for an inward-looking setting. Makers, again, are almost exactly opposite. There aren’t normally enough of them to just happen into very many unplanned meetings with other disciplines inside the Maker Spaces… at least not every day. Sometimes it works, but you’re dealing at most with a few dozen people on any give day, not thousands. So it’s essential for Makers to look outward, connecting broadly with who's around.
Three Maker Innovation Essentials
The workplace is obviously essential, as this is where the work is done, but there are no absolute essentials for the workplace beyond being big, open, cheap, and wired. The second essential is the walkspace around the workplace, which is the collection of paths leading to the third essential category, which is where connections with others can occur.
Beyond the essentials of being big, open, cheap, and wired, there are a few other attributes that are helpful: First, unless you’ve found a really cheap warehouse, an old building in a soon-to-be-recovering neighborhood is important because nothing else is likely to be cheap enough, as Jane Jacobs pointed out years ago. You need the space wired with electricity, but also equipped with wireless Internet. There should be places to work alone and places to work together, places to meet and present, and places to post stuff to read. There should probably be a paint booth, and definitely a place to clean up.
Here’s where it gets fun. The innovative potential of the paths that make up the walkspace is directly proportional to the Walk Appeal of those paths because you’ll walk much further (and therefore reach far more connection points) on paths with great Walk Appeal. But it’s not just about self-propelled transportation. "Thinking on your feet” is no longer just a euphemism for the ability to think quickly; we now understand that walking (and other physical activity) may actually stimulate the brain. So just as fostering better Walk Appeal builds a stronger customer base for businesses, that same better Walk Appeal builds a more innovative walkspace around a Maker Space. So Maker Spaces should be doing everything they can to enhance the Walk Appeal of their walkspaces, both the measurable things and the immeasurable, knowing that those things directly build their chances of innovation.
What should Maker spaces hope to connect to? Makers are disproportionately young, and the young tend to be less wealthy than the old. And because Gen Xers and Millennials are less likely to own cars, it’s important to be close to housing most of them can afford. Affordable housing can be smaller units like one- or two-bedroom cottages, or it can be accessory units like carriage houses, rear-of-lot cottages, upstairs or lower level apartments, rear lane cottages or even mews, all located on lots with larger houses that are normally occupied by the landlords. Maker spaces should be located near civic space such as a park, green, square, or plaza because that’s a destination where you don’t have to spend money. Walkable places to eat are a must; the two essentials are third places where you can set up shop and work. Coffee shops are a type of third place that arguably spawned the Enlightenment a couple centuries ago, and they are the adopted homes of today’s Creative Class. There are more connection places that are also good Sprawl Recovery tools, but these are the first essentials.
The Tactical Urbanists (a group populated by quite a few Makers) are great at starting things on shoestrings… their own well-worn shoestrings, in fact. Build your Maker Space walkspace and foster connections along the way as tactically as you can. And pay particular attention to the new Lean Urbanism initiative… Makers are fundamentally Lean, so many ideas should be cross-pollinated between these groups. And by all means, recognize that Makers are arguably creating the most vibrant living tradition in our culture today… so use the tools of living traditions to build the walkspace and its connections. The opposite to a living tradition is the command & control operating system, which is perfect for building armies and factories. It’s the operating system best suited for most corporations. Living traditions, on the other hand, are the best operating systems for building buildings and towns… and the thriving Maker movement. Command & control thrives on large numbers, global trade, and petroleum. Living traditions thrive at scales too small for the factory and with local trade, and are fueled by ingenuity. Command & control depends on us taking orders. Living traditions depend on us talking to each other. They are the highest form of ideas that spread, and are characterized by “plant small, harvest large."
PS: If you want more on this, I’m doing three-hour presentations on these ideas at the Traditional Building Conferences in Boston in July and St. Paul in September. If you’re around, please come!