Style or Substance?
November 8, 2009

In "Forest Architecture," Allison Carruth notes the possibilities of a new kind of sustainable architecture. But her conclusion is key, particularly, that the scale of these bulidings may be more transformative than their style. Perhaps the new sustainable design should have as its motto, "more style, less substance."

In the case of Whole Trees Architecture cited in Carruth's post, the aesthetic model, while of interest, may not portend greater change in housing choice, architecture or design. While this use of felled trees does gives rise to new formal readings, recycling large-scale found or discarded objects has occurred in varied forms and styles in residential architecture recently. Two examples:

The Big Dig House by Single Speed Design uses the steel and concrete of I-93, dismantled as part of Boston's Big Dig project and used "as is" in the house. Image removed.


And ScrapHouse, constructed entirely of salvaged material, was a temporary residence built in San Francisco's Civic Center for Earth Day 2005.


This idea of reuse, and more broadly materials-driven design has been gaining in popularity, but by its nature requires customization. Here, design and construction have to be improvisational, responding to the materials collected. This approach inverts the process--materials first, planning or design second, with design often shifted to design/build methods in order to manage decisions that can't be pre-planned. This process resists replication and standardization, and thus more widespread adoption. Some designers and contractors, however, are embracing the challenge to find ways to establish reliable access to salvaged materials and methods for integrating them.

But back to the teaser in Carruth's conclusion: for sustainability, the scale of a project may be more radical than its form. The choice to build less, to live with a smaller footprint, has the potential--if widespread--to have a greater impact than the most oft heard green strategies. Could we replace the McMansion with the mini-house? It's great to see inventive approaches to design that show the opportunity in building small.

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