I find is astonishing how little though we tend to put into design really. Particularly when it comes down to buildings that are supposed to last 50+ years.

While the thought that a building should last only 50 years is foreign to me in the first place, it appears to me that even then we only think about building design in terms of durability, not about suitability.

We tend to apply current thinking and current situations to current building design that is supposed to last maybe some hundred years. Oh yes – there are buildings around that are much older than only 50 years.

Example cities

To give you an idea of what my issue is, let’s have a look at the long standing discussion about density in the urban context.

There’s a lot of discussion about avoiding urban sprawl and densifying the cities. Particularly under the proposed Auckland Unitary Plan. But rest assured, this is happening all over the place around the world. However I would like to ask the question WHY? What is so wrong about urban sprawl?

Usually the answers are related to services, public transport, land use, car use. Let’s have a look at this. However, we all know that in order to feed someone, you need a certain space of land for water, fruit, vegetables, meat and to naturally treat the footprint you are leaving in terms of carbon emissions and waste, ie wastewater. We simply need a piece of eco system to support us. And at the end of the day it does not matter too much where that piece of land is. In your backyard on in the country side. Having more land gives you the option to grow your own fruit and vegetables, get your own water from your roof (like most of rural New Zealand does) and treat the wastewater in your back yard (again like most of rural New Zealand). You have a chance to install sufficient solar panels to support your energy use or charge your car.

All of which will reduce the land use around you and the amount of stuff that needs to be trucked into the city for you to buy and drive back home. Which leads over to the driving. If you have public transport and use it – great. If not, this whole roading infrastructure thing kicks in together with petrol use, carbon emissions, congestions, oil spills, etc.

Now the only issue is that this is short sighted because we are basing our thinking on current transport. However we know that oil is finite – that is a simple physical and mathematical matter. We also have seen diverse new developments, like hybrid cars (well, the Prius is actually 15 years old), electric cars (well, the EV1 is actually 20 years old), air pressure driven cars etc. Likewise the internet has been enabling us to work remotely from almost any spot in the world at any time (actually I have done that almost 15 years ago) and we would not have to travel to the office in the city every day at 7:30am and there a a slight shift to working flexible times or even from home or partly from home.

So a future scenario is that we do not go to the city every day, that we buy less there, that we are commuting in electric cars that do not pose environmental risks, we live in neighbourhoods that support us, we can work remotely and grow food and grow trees that provide wood to heat our homes that supply energy and water.

Why would we density cities?

My little village got connected to the waste water system lately to get rid of the old septic tanks. They spent months of constructions and millions of $$$, charging people $10K to connect to that lovely new system that grinds and pumps poo over km of pipes to some central treatment plant while getting rid of local treatment plants in your back yard. While the latter one may be good for the smelly, leaky old systems, there are plenty of the old systems around that still work and the new ones, which are not that much more expensive than the $10K for the wastewater connection are actually much better and use less energy than the new grinding pumps while at the same time irrigating your lawn and putting your roof water back into your back yard and avoiding a drop in the water table.

Since many people got connected to the waste water system, the water table dropped because the water is (as of yet) still coming from the roof but being then pumped away as waste water. Town water will only coming shortly and one would hope that the roof water will then be released on site to fresh up the decreasing ground water table.

However watching all this M$ infrastructure put in place for no obvious benefit neither for the environment nor the people is mind blowing. No one even dropped dead because of roof water use (oh – actually – you can filter it too)…

Why do we build all that infrastructure?

Example architecture

I heard that the bank of america is putting a lot of effort into building very efficient HVAC systems into their new building while not putting too much effort into an energy efficient facade. The reason behind that is that they have all the computers and their data centre that creates a lot of heat so heating and energy efficiency in the envelope is not necessary.

However that design decision seem to be based once again on current design thinking. We all know that the efficiency of computers in increasing at a gigantic speed and that data centres are targeted for massive cooling load improvements and energy efficiency.

So one can assume that in 5 years time or maybe 10, they will only use a fraction of the energy and a fraction of cooling, so the heating demand for your commercial buildings will go up. Building an envelope now that is assumed to outlast any data centre design just seem to be silly and short sighted.

Example cars

I find it amazing that car manufacturer still advertise cars with comfort, technology and performance. Well – performance in terms of speed usually. They hardly advertise a new engine or improved petrol use eg MPG. As a matter of fact, they still have been using the very same engine for the past 100 years. Well, with slight improvements. Why don’t we see advertisement like “Same performance, half the petrol” (which would apply to the Prius for example in comparison to some of their other cars at the time, or even today).

Instead they are packing more and more superficial technology into cars, like self-parking (because we do not learn that any more), iPod connector (apparently utterly important for a new car) lights that turn on automatically (because we lost the ability to think), stabilisation system (because we speed too much), ABS (because we lost the ability to break correctly), etc, etc.

Now those are all nice to have gadgets and certainly improve safety, the core of your car has not changed for 100 years.

Once again, we know that we will be running out of oil – sooner of later. So would it not be time to think about the future? I welcome the attempts so far, however they seem to be rather an excuse than a real attempt to change the system. The Ford idea was great and so was the VW idea – build a car that the masses could afford. We need that again with electric cars.


To be continued I guess.

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