Small is Beautiful

Tata Nano, the world's least expensive car.

This article about the Tata has me a bit worried. For those of you who don't keep up with Indian automotive companies, the Tata is the world's least expensive car. It's spartan as hell and costs $2,400. The problem lies in the fact that Indians aren't into the idea of owning the worlds cheapest car. It's just not selling (contrary to this Wired article from 2008 which predicted that it would be a huge eco-problem because it would put so many people on the road, I agreed then, oops). And that's a problem for me. Let me explain.

Green technology is incremental. The gains it provides are percentage points, and as percentage points go they tend to be low. Not that I'm against them, I think it's a great effort, and I'll try to employ them probably even more than most architects. But I have a different approach too. If I only learn a few lessons in architecture school, one of them will be that every square inch costs money.

Oh? Don't want to pull that flat wall in to fit the contour of the rooms? Only 10 square feet you say. Well let's see, that's $140 a square foot in hard costs, plus your borrowing costs and other fees - times 10. Yup, that just cost you $2,000. Want to put a kink in that wall?

If your home is half the size it costs half a much. Half as much to heat. Half as much to cool. Half as much to repair. Half as time much to clean. No new technology - just smaller. It doesn't just work for buildings, it works for cars and other things too. This Formula 1 designer made an electric car that gets 350 MPG just by making it super light weight (more info).

I've brought up this idea to my professors and I usually get lukewarm feedback. Most buildings are formulaic. So many square feet per occupant, so much height, so many watts per square foot for lighting, etc. I'm told reinventing the wheel shouldn't be done, but in NYC or London people live in much smaller spaces because of the cost. I'm convinced that a good percentage of my generation would be willing to live in somewhat smaller places (say 10-25% smaller) in order to save money/work less/have more disposable income. Isn't that what our generation is all about? Less shit, more experiences.

But the Tata is proving otherwise. People do want more stuff. Bigger stuff. Nicer stuff. But this is also a country of poor people on the come up. Like most of our grandparents and great grandparents they didn't have anything growing up and now they want the Cadillac, their double quarter-pounder, and the swimming pool behind the mcmansion. Maybe we're different? Maybe not, if my brief stint on this planet has taught me anything it's that people are more similar than they are dissimilar.

As I always tell my friends who want me to build something. If we make it half the size we can make it twice as nice. Most have never thought of this. A big table from plywood can be cool but how about a coffee table made of black walnut instead? Consuming more doesn't mean consuming more. It means consuming quality, and that's what I want to build.