“Theoretically, planning may be good. But nobody has ever figured out the cause of government stupidity - and until they do (and find the cure), all ideal plans will fall into quicksand.”
Richard Feynman

What Do You Care What Other People Think?

Christopher Alexander on Green Materials

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“We need new types of materials and techniques which have the following two functionally necessary attributes fo the construction process:

  1. We need to be able to shape materials rapidly and carefully so that the process of shaping … easily creates living centers …
  2. … We also need the the process of shaping and forming centers to be adaptable, so that subtleties of dimension can be accommodated easily and can be made cheaply.

While preindustrial society often had a labor-material ratio of 5:95 or 10:90  for building construction  (materials being far more expensive than labor), in modern society more than 50% of the cost of building now lies in labor. Labor-material ratios of 50:50, 60:40 and even 70:30 are nowadays common in building construction. Labor is the expensive item. Since we can no longer afford labor-intensive ways of making beautiful details … we need … ways of achieving the two functionally necessary attributes, but by new means which are not labor intensive.

We know from the green movement, and from current thinking about sustainability, that building materials are a matter of major importance in maintaining life on earth. There is, for example, a green index which aims to describe those materials that have long life, least energy drain during production, that use renewable resources ….

Does this mean that using green materials is the secret of life? Absolutely it does not! The assumptions in the “green” analysis are too limited

For example … In its original form, the use of straw bales for walls has wonderful attributes. It is a renewable resource, it is cheap and easy to cut. It has the wonderful quality that you can lay out a house, then get a feel for the room sizes and opening, then move them around and adjust them until the house is really comfortable. Only then, plaster it. All this is hugely positive. But as implemented in its evolved high-tech version, because of earthquake problems, and for various other structural reasons, another way of using straw bales has evolved; this adds an inserted standard timber frame … and ties the frame together with a beam and braces.

In this new form, now widely used throughout the United States … the high-tech straw-bale technique has lost nearly all the adaptive qualities of the original straw bales themselves. They have now become merely infill panels …

The essential thing about a living architecture is not the greenness of its materials but the capacity  of its materials to form living centers … That requires a different kind of thinking, a determination to focus without wavering on this aspect of their adaptive process …

I would argue, that it will require, primarily, process-based methods – methods which use high technology to give us processes, not components, and processes which can create sophisticated  elements and members, fast and cheaply, yet fitting local circumstances and the eye of the person doing the work …

No matter how wonderful a stone wall might once have been, if you cannot afford to build a stone wall now in a house of ordinary price, it is wasteful and foolish to dream too much about stone walls. Stone walls were part of the technology, economic life, and social life of another era, Primitive technologies are unlikely to work for us because, so often, they just don’t work economically.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 3: A Vision of a Living World

I am reading these books with two conscious “agendas”. One is a nourishment for my soul (through which it is touching on many aspects of life). The other is as a practical guide on how to build a future house. It is on this practical aspect that I’ve felt questions and tensions regarding the feasibility of what Alexander writes about in my life (and in the lives of others who are in a situation similar to mine or even less well to-do).

I want to completely embrace Alexander’s centers and fundamental process and so I am constantly asking how to do this in a practical way. I agree with Alexander, that the assumptions of the “green analysis” are indeed limited … and ironically often very mechanistic … however … my exploration of “green” materials has not been ideologically driven. It has been practicality driven. I have an abundant supply of clay-rich soil which can be used to fill earthbags, plaster walls and floors.

I do feel a change, inspired by Alexander in relationship to concrete (which he uses a lot and in very creative ways)  … it is still not a material that appeals to me, but it is a material I would consider using now in a relevant context. However,   I do NOT have an abundant supply of wood to build forms, metal to create reinforcement, cement to mix concrete or tools to apply it. Making it an impractical material.

Alexander’s position (see excerpt below) on “green” materials is based on the increased proportion and cost of labor in construction. That, in my mind, goes to the heart of the matter. Since this text was written and published there has been a major shift in money and labor. Money has become scarce and jobs are disappearing. This means that many more (often skilled) people now have plenty of free time which can be dedicated to labor-intensive construction of private houses.

That is the position I am in. I cannot find a role in society that will provide me with enough money to build a house in processes that Alexander describes. Even the “low cost” examples he describes feel completely out of touch with me and my life. I can however dig up  clay-soils around me and try to use them to build a house.

Granted, this solution does not scale up well. I am not going to become a builder. I would not make this effort for any of my neighbors. And you will not see large scale building being built this way. But that is the exactly the point. I have drifted away from the world of large scale buildings, in a way rejected by it. They are becoming a less significant part of my life, as are the people that inhabit them.

Most people, in the world I know, live in lifeless architecture in cities. They are not content, but they are complicit, doing the best they can within what they have. They are not reading Alexander and wondering about how to create living structures. I am, and increasingly more people like me are. This raises many questions on how Alexander’s precious and inspiring work can be contextualized and applied where it is, for now, welcomed.

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