Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Why I Stopped Reading Dwell

This is partly expanded on an email I wrote to someone, but the ideas have got lodged in my head and I need to type them out.

There is a magazine called Dwell. Since that magazine came out I've gawked enviously at the open gorgeousness of the houses photographed in there, but I stopped reading it a while ago out a an odd frustration.

The editors promote a philosophy based on affordable sustainability married with clean modern elegance, and I'm there totally with that, but then month after month the magazine seems to mainly feature expensive one-offs, tiny vacation houses that you couldn't really use as a full time residence, or else graduate architecture experiments. Actually obtaining or living in a house like most of the houses they feature is almost as out of reach as a more extravagant mansion. They seem to get tied up in what I can only think of as a sort of virtuous opulence - and though the virtue is great the opulence part sends the affordability (and the effectiveness of it as a design movement) out the window.

Which is frustrating, you know? I'd done a bit of deeper searching online for groups or even other individuals who might be devoted as amateurs to something more reachable, but hadn't really had much luck. I wanted some kind of open-source modern house project... something that had some or all of the following things as organizational ideals:

1) Build it with the least amount of materials necessary

2) Keep all components simple and easily accessible / repairable / replaceable. I mean, electrical wiring, plumbing, etc. doesn't really HAVE to be complicated. Construction doesn't HAVE to require large numbers of on-site contractors. It doesn't HAVE to be that hard!

3) Use the climate and landscape of the area to the structure's energy advantage

4) Make aesthetics a consideration in every stage of the design

5) Aim for construction that can be done well by a dedicated amateur

6) Aim to bring the total cost of materials in under $100,000.00

7) Keep an updated building code by region wiki-style resource to help people figure out what can be done where, and what they may have to go through to get something unusual approved.

It seems like that could be done. I had hoped Dwell would incline more in that direction, but it hasn't.

So my correspondent pointed me at this site:

http://www.openarchitecturenetwork.org/


At first glance I thought, well, neat! But it seemed fairly sparsely fleshed out, and seemed to concentrate mainly on Third World structures, so it wasn't quite what I had in mind. But that is because I was looking at this page:

http://www.openarchitecturenetwork.org/resources

Where I neglected to look at first was here:

http://www.openarchitecturenetwork.org/projects

That is much more like it! So - there is some delving to be done there.

Now, to tie this thinking in a bit with the subject of my last post - one of the things I've been thinking a lot about is that it's fairly easy to build a low energy consumption house in the southwest US, as the climate is favorable to human life pretty much all the time. But what about places like Buffalo, where it is mostly cloudy year 'round, often very cold, and frequently precipitating? I understand the Netherlands, and Northern Europe in general has a strong movement of sustainable architecture and design, so more aggressive climates can be negotiated, but I don't know much about what that really takes.

One of the things I think will eventually happen with wind turbine generators is someone will someday devise a simple-to-assemble backyard kit. This kit will be sold at Home Depot for under $1000.00. It won't be anywhere near powerful enough to power a whole regular suburban home, but what it will do is take a bit of the edge off of electricity consumption in the winter months.

wind turbine atop roof
This picture of a wind turbine atop a building roof in Chicago (ironically featured in an issue of Dwell!) linked to from dane brian's Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved You can read more and get a better view of the actual turbines here.

In the cold climate, it's this winter electricity and heating usage that really causes financial pain when utility bills arrive. Homeowners in these regions will be very open to anything that shaves some palpable fraction of this cost away, especially if it's easy to set up and they see some of their neighbors doing it without undue trouble. The second winter after these are introduced they will fly off the shelves, and every year thereafter they will get better and more efficient, and before anyone realizes it, suburban houses in the north latitudes will have wind turbines as often as they have swimming pools and satellite dishes. They don't have to power the whole house - they just need to cut the winter power bill by enough to offset their purchase price in the first half of the winter, and then save their owners an amount equal to their purchase price for the second half.

Houses in Buffalo are pretty cheap right now. Property values are down, and there are many abandoned dwellings.

An interesting experiment might be to buy the most inexpensive house there that can be found, and try modifying it to be both comfortable, stylish and use as little energy as possible without sacrificing luxury/necessities like cable TV, Internet access, refrigerators, washing machines, climate control and lights. Keep all the details about the endeavor publicly available online - show the costs and track them over a 3 or 5 year period. Make it as easy as possible for someone reading to replicate or riff on the experiment elsewhere, and share the details of what they did too.

Grow an open source home conversion project, and concentrate the initial examples on places with more extreme environments. Try to keep the crunchy out of it, make them support the kind of life people mostly really want to live. Not one of deprivation, but one of modest luxury.

Can it be done in a normal house, in an average neighborhood in a locale with a challenging seasonal climate? I bet it can. I kind of want to try it.

5 comments:

MJ said...

Very cool idea, Bill! I'd totally do that, too, if it were reasonably priced and accessible.

Bill Cunningham said...

If we find a couple more trustworthy people, we could set up an LLC and give it a shot.

Patti said...

Those turbines are so cool!! You know, if there were a government grant or some such to cover the cost, I would so love to be the first ratty-old-mansion owner in WNY to have wind turbines making my life cheaper to live! "Economic stimulus" checks, yeah, great idea--only not so much, when the entire amount goes to pay our taxes and utility bills!

You've mentioned before how hard the gas shortage is going to make life for us here in the snow belt, because of heating costs, but seriously, have you seen the way grocery bills are rising? You notice it right away when you're trying to feed a family of six--all of that food comes in on trucks.

Er, sorry, bit of a sidetrack there. *sheepish* But seriously, we are indeed at a point, methinks, where technology is just teetering on the brink of making energy production truly, sci-fi-ly cheap, at least for some applications, and I agree with you wholeheartedly--the best way to advance the tech and get a new infrastructure moving is to get the average Joe using what's out there NOW. And that does indeed mean a measurable increase in said Joe's ability to pay for a decent lifestyle, if the initial hump of supply/demand can be gotten over.

Bill Cunningham said...

It's like the death-by-a-thousand-cuts. The death is to oil dependence and the thousand cuts are incremental heat and transportation cost savings. It's a mistake to look for a knockout technology. Just let loose all the little ants and let them nibble the problem away.

Also, Hello Patti! I didn't realize you were still checking in here, as I've neglected this for quite a while. Glad to see you!

Patti said...

Oops, I thought I had this set to notify on new comments...$#@% web! *eyeroll*

It's a mistake to look for a knockout technology. Just let loose all the little ants and let them nibble the problem away.

Or, you know, do both! I love that they're trying to get hydrogen fuel-cell tech into working order, for use in everyday vehicles, and I don't think the big, long-term, high-startup-cost projects like that should be abandoned, especially if the benefit to the environment can be maximized. But it is indeed the little, incremental advances that will make everything, really, more affordable and sustainable--which will free up more money for the big stuff...I hope!

Ach, now that I know where to find ye, Bill, ye're stuck with me! =P This is actually the most fascinating non-fandom blog I've come across, and I'm glad you've taken it up again!