by Douglas Black March 31, 2016 (Originally posted on the ENERFICIENCY Blog Aug 3, 2003).
Housing, like nearly all products produced in the last 50 years, has become disposable. We build-in obsolescence disguised as “affordability”, but in reality the practice provides a continual sales generator for manufacturers.
Additionally the inheritance taxes that families are subjected to have all but eliminated a tradition of “family homes”. Other cultures in the past and even today have enjoyed a tradition of homes that may remain in one family for several generations.
Banking practices also discourage long-life homes. The possibility of mortgages that transfer to yet-to-be-born owners is remote at best.
But it is possible, even practical from an energy and resource efficiency point of view, to build homes that are intended to last for a hundred or more years. Let’s say a residence is built as “usual” at a cost of $150,000. During the first 30 years it will need new windows, roofing, HVAC, and perhaps siding, an additional cost of perhaps $75,000. Twenty years later, when the home is 50 years old, it is most likely to be considered “obsolete” as the original family residence – not because they prefer to leave, but because it is “worn out”.
Now let’s say a similar residence is built on the same spot, after razing the first home. Conservatively adding for building material and labor inflation, the cost of home number two, in current dollars may be $450,000. After 30 years, again we need to replace roofing, windows, and equipment, at an additional expense of $150,000. Again, after 20 more years (100 years since the original residence was constructed) the home is considered obsolete and is razed.
Now a third similar home is built on the same spot. The cost is now $750,000 and the 30 year upgrade adds another $250,000. After 20 more years we raze the third home.
What have we accomplished in 150 years:
- We used 4.2 times the resources needed originally
- We spent $1,875,000 in hard costs
- We spent $500,000+ in end use energy costs
- We used 3 times the energy necessary to produce enough materials to build one house
And what about the family?
- The 5th generation since the first has no idea where the “family home” was, what it looked like
- The family itself has dispersed
- And remember there have been five generations. Since we have constructed three homes, and considering that there is an “empty nester” grandparent family to add in, we really needed to build six homes.
So hard costs and energy, not even considering the health and environmental costs associated with power production, should be calculated at $4.75 million.
The Old Way is a New Way.
Now let’s suppose that a home is built to last for generations. Let us also suppose that it is designed for three generations of one family to live in all at once, and designed to accommodate extended family with ease. And built with materials that will last far longer than typical, with simplicity for maintenance. How about if we use products that maintain themselves indefinitely, living products.
Now how about if we build this home so that waste is managed on-site, and it utilizes local resources and local energy sources. Let’s go one step farther and say that it can produce it’s own energy on-site. Perhaps the wiring and infrastructure can be run in easily accessible chases that provide an opportunity to add or convert to new technologies without difficulty, say 100 years from now.
What if global climate changes create wild swings in local climate – let’s build it so that it can remain comfortable in all climates, -20F to 110F, dry or humid.
What would the up front costs be for a family home like this?
The size does not have to be any larger, but a “bunk house” added nearby can accommodate visiting relatives. This would not be unlike India’s travelers inn’s, where pilgrims stay and visit with each other in a common area, then retire to sleep in an arcade around the perimeter.
The technology is available now to build a “zero-energy” home. This can be grid tied so that the existing electric infrastructure acts as battery storage, but the internal wiring and mechanical can easily be built into chases with home-runs to each room. This would allow for any number of unknown changes.
A thermal flywheel can be built into the foundation, essentially to store cool for summer, heat for winter. Thin coat photo-voltaic can be laminated to standing seam roofs, or set in laminated glass to produce electricity. Glass can be a very long and relatively maintenance-free material choice.
The maintenance question can first be addressed with a living roof. Living plants that collect water, help keep the building cool, and don’t wear out every 20 years as asphalt shingles will. Secondly the walls could be built of straw bale construction. There are straw bale homes in Europe several hundred years old right now. Or stone. We know stone walls will last for eons. If the contractor of the Roman aqueducts used current building philosophy we would not have any idea they ever existed because they would have disappeared over 1000 years ago.
If we consider the indoor comfort levels we require, in all climates, and engineer those requirements into long lasting “skins” like stone, the costs are not that much greater than typical wood siding and drywall.
How much? Perhaps $300/sq ft, or around $600,000. And when you add in energy costs – wait, there would be virtually none, because this is a zero-energy home. So we’re talking about $600,000 vs. $4,750,000 over five generations – five generations of a family who have maintained a tradition.
What about affordability? First, we must ask ourselves “Who is purchasing the home?” In our first example, the purchaser was always the immediate user. Each generation had to “start from scratch” and fend for themselves.
Sure, it can be argued that subsequent generations “may” inherit some cash to invest into their home. But taxes and a host of other fingers are in the pie, effectively diluting the original “value” of the family home. And what is the value we should put on keeping a “family” intact, in-touch with each other, and within reach of the traditional homestead?
The long-life home proposed here is purchased by the family – several generations. What if the costs could be spread out over five generations? Certainly there is no economic model of a 100 year mortgage, but just as certainly there are ways to reorganize our nation’s tax structure to encourage retention of homesteads within families in perpetuity.
Homes of a more modern age, say the last 500 years or so, are occupied even today all across Europe. We have very few “old” homes in this country. Many would use the argument that we were not building like the Europeans in 1650, but then the question becomes “Are 20th century homes going to be here 200 years from now?” Not the vast majority.
As Americans, we seem to admire the European sense of family, at least advertisers like the Olive Garden restaurant chain and others on Madison Avenue believe so. And I believe we do as well. Where there are large, strong families in this country, I’ll bet there is a “ground zero” someplace.
Even our largest structures, like the Eiffel Tower and the Brooklyn Bridge, amaze many people when they find out they are over 100 years old. Only 100 !
Monticello, that masterpiece of a home built by Thomas Jefferson, was not built to last only fifty years. Jefferson also said that no generation has the right to use the resources of future generations, else the world would eventually “belong” to the dead.
The Ten Generations Home
We need to change how we think about our homes. I have begun designing a home that will last for not five but ten generations. That’s three hundred years.
The Ten Generations Home includes many of the features I described above, and includes a bunkhouse nearby where 20 people could sleep. The living roof system looks good and is good for the environment, and will continue to look good for hundreds of years.
The style of a home like this should not be “trendy”. It would be pointless to try to predict tastes or styles in the 23rd century. The place to look is back, not forward, to learn how to make the architecture timeless. It reminds me of another interesting design problem.
It involves the way “we” communicate DANGER to people 10,000 years from now. This is necessary around the nuclear waste storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. We cannot be sure that the neighbors will speak English in January of the year 12,003. And a metal sign will certainly rust away by 2100. So what do you do to be timeless, to communicate your “design” statement across centuries, rather than just this season?
Consider the ancient monuments of Asia, Egypt and the Americas. Look at the monolithic structures in Europe. These were constructed to be eternal. They were designed to “perform” forever. The ancient designers intended that the structures communicate. With the spring equinox, or winter solstice, or any number of celestial events, the structures communicated a unique message.
The architects of these treasures (and we do consider them treasures) built with permanence, not the built-in obsolescence so prevalent today. They built with a connection to the Universe, a celestial connection, an ageless language with no name.
Four Cornerstones of Timeless Construction
Sustainable industrial design practices dictate that we consider the triple bottom line. That is the impact our project will have on the environment and the community, as well as the economic bottom line. We look at how our project will affect our neighbors today, the air and resources we need right now, and our balance sheet for this quarter.
I believe these are a great start, but for housing we should change this to future considerations. The economics over several generations; the social consequences of resource depletion over several generations; and the impact multiple generations of a family household have on the environment. The fourth cornerstone of a Ten Generations Home is inclusion of that nameless quality that “speaks without language”.
I call this fourth cornerstone of timeless construction the ancient aesthetic. It is not easy to “run the numbers” on something so esoteric. But I believe we can incorporate shrines such as are found in millions of Buddhists homes, or create quiet seating areas reminiscent of Japanese gardens, or design a celestial event that can “communicate” to future generations of family on a significant night or daybreak.
From a certain point in the parking lot of Stonehenge, precisely where a 7,000 year old piling stood, the full moon on an equinox will set into a cradle of monoliths. Similarly on the morning of the solstice, the sun rises directly up the spire of the temple at Angkor Wat in India, perfectly designed.
I think there is a spiritual connection to this feeling of aesthetics that we recognize as wonderful design. Christopher Alexander describes this quality in the landmark book written some twenty years ago “A Timeless Way of Building”. Alexander calls it “a process of order out of nothing. It cannot be attained, but it will happen of its own accord if we will only let it”. To seek the timeless way we must first know the “quality without a name”, says Alexander. “The Quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named”.
One of my favorite translations of the twenty-five century old Tao of Lao Tsu is from Brian Browne Walker and describes Tao as the Way without a name…
“beyond words and beyond understanding. Words may be used to speak of it, but they cannot contain it….
… to see beyond boundaries to the subtle heart of things, dispense with names, with concepts..”
As a designer it is difficult to put your mind around that. But I think it touches a deep and inner “eye” we all have, perhaps the very essence of what makes us human. Feng Shui practitioners understand the impact color, sound, and our living space has on our physical and spiritual well-being. This has been understood for thousands of years. Feng Shui describes the art of achieving that nameless quality our collective consciousness always recognizes as “a good thing”.
I would suggest that this recognition of the archetypal aesthetic is a right-brain activity that humanity has in genetic memory. We get fleeting glimpses once in a while, but we are way out of practice.
Back away from Business as Usual
Beginning with the Greeks, societies became logical and calculating. The Industrial Age brought us to the point where we live to work for the “company”. Our homes are temporary, because (we claim) our lives are too mobile. We tell ourselves that we must be available for the job opportunity.
Industry has also sold us on the idea of obsolescence. We don’t demand products that last for generations because Industry will not produce them – it is not in their economic interest. But they did not tell us that. That sounds bad.
The bill of goods that the Industrial Age sold us (and we ate it up) is that “we” will improve economically and then “want” the new model, because, doggonit, “we” deserve it. The motive appears to shift from corporate self-interest to flattery. And while America blushes, we use up the resources of our great-great grandchildren.
Certainly it is not too late to make a change. Adaptability is the strength of our species. But ancient history, indeed our planet, is littered with reminders of thriving civilizations that “didn’t see it coming”. The Maya, the Olmec, the builders of the Sphinx, all stopped dead in their tracks, after amazing success (arguably superior to our own in relative terms). They could not predict weather, or volcanic disaster, or climate change.
We are the first who can see the disaster coming, yet collectively are in denial. Our descendants may ask “They knew it was coming – why didn’t they prepare our house for the storm?”
Currently residing in Chicago, Douglas Black has promoted sustainability and energy efficiency for more than three decades and is writing a work of historical fiction based on his family history under the pen name Duke Pierce Reade.