Dematerialization

While walking around our neighborhood my wife and I noticed a coach house; not an uncommon sight in Chicago. Coach houses no longer provide shelter for horses and carriages and have mostly been renovated into either garages or living spaces, but it brought up an interesting question. What other physical objects or parts of our environment are obsolete but have been repurposed because of their embodied cost, and what other objects do we commonly see today that will be obsolete soon but are expensive or permanent enough that they will need to be repurposed?

Being an (intern) architect the obvious answer is buildings. They're the most expensive thing, very permanent, and get repurposed continually but that's been going on since buildings have been built. The most recent widely adopted answer is smart phones. They have largely replaced calculators, GPS, maps, watches, address books, social interaction, etc. They've also created things that most of us couldn't have imagined just a decade ago, but none of these tangible items are objects of any significant permanence - old GPS units aren't going to be crowding us out of urban centers. My answer is parking lots.

It's always bothered me (oh the things that trouble me) that vast amounts of capital sits idle for much of its useful life. If we could put it to use more often it would raise the quality of life for all of us. The majority of cars sit idle 20-something hours a day, most people's homes are empty while they're at work or on vacation, offices (outside of architecture anyways) are empty at night, my computer doesn't run at full load continuously, most of the tools I own go unused 99% of the time - the list goes on. Cue the sharing economy.

People can rent out parts of their homes, Uber and Lyft make use of idle vehicles, zip car does it with a different business model, and cloud computing places processing burden on machines that run near full capacity continuously. There will always be inefficiencies, but the gain of even a few percentage points can free up billions of dollars worth of wealth to the benefit of all - assuming the powers that be don't hoard it all for themselves; that's another question though.

I think we can safely say that autonomous cars will soon be a reality. Tesla just released a car that has impressive autonomous features and the self driving Google cars keep getting better. This combined with the quick adoption of Uber seems to spell out a clear endgame. I have no idea when, but at some point in the not so distant future few if any of us will own cars. They'll be autonomous; rented, borrowed, or subscribed to; we will get places quicker; car accidents will be greatly reduced; roads will change; traffic will largely cease to exist; car insurance premiums will decline; police departments will have to find a new source of revenue; and parking lots will stop being built because cars won't need to sit idly (sort of, they'll need a place to charge at 3AM).

This will free up valuable real estate in urban areas, but how this could affect the suburbs is less clear. Certain typologies like strip malls and shopping centers rely on parking to create a sort of interstitial border. The mat to the artwork if you will (don't take that analogy too far). You can't just place infill there as it'd obscure the duck (branding of the businesses that occupy the buildings).

The whole situation is a reminder that our built environment is a reflection of our current level of technology. Advances like smart phones and the internet often get dismissed as some novel curiosity, but the reality is that such technology can be transformative. In this case some mostly intangible items like clever programming, sensors, and machine learning (to greatly oversimplify) will replace thousands of square miles of physical asphalt and concrete. It will reduce water runoff caused by hardscapes, the urban heat island effect will be reduced, the load on sewage treatment plants will be reduced in areas with a combined sewer system, urban areas can become more dense which means shorter commutes, and in turn a virtuous cycle of energy reduction will begin as less energy is needed for all the aforementioned activities. That and less parking lots. No one likes parking lots.

Quick Note - There Is No Skills Gap

I've pointed out previously that there are many jobs where employers say there's a skills gap. "I want to hire someone but there's just no one out there with the skills I need!" This is BS. There isn't a skills gap, there's a what we're willing to pay you gap. I'm helping my firm find a new hire so now I'm experiencing this first hand.

In the Chicago architecture job market there's a shortage of people who know how to use Revit (pencils are to AutoCAD as AutoCAD is to Revit). My firm wants to hire someone who knows how to use this software, but so is every other firm. Revit is a deep program that takes a long time to learn and it isn't typically taught in schools. Hence, the salaries for these people has gone up. We can't find someone at a salary level we can afford but instead of admitting to that they say no one knows how to use the software.

 

What's With All Those Crazy Houses in Japan?

Small House in Tokyo by Sejima.

If you're the type who regularly visits architecture blogs you're probably aware of the seemingly endless stream of whimsical homes coming out of Japan. They tend to be compact; modern; stark; and often defy safety/code, and unlike the US the primary clients are middle class. So what's the deal? Why are people in Japan so willing to give architects such a free hand?

House in Yamasaki by Tato Architects.

In Japan wooden homes are depreciated over a 20 year period and on average are demolished after just 30 years. The whole list can be found here; steel reinforced concrete building have the longest depreciation at 47 years. 87% of home sales in Japan are new homes compared to 11-34% in most western countries. This costs Japan about 4% of it's GDP annually, so why do they do it?

After WWII there was a shortage of housing in Japan and the world in general that led to the construction of many poorly and cheaply built homes*. As they aged it was simpler to tear them down than it was to rehab them. At the same time land prices skyrocketed. When the value of land goes up the type of building that can justifiably be built on a site changes - more homes were razed. In the 1980's an asset bubble in land prices brought  government controls and rules regarding the steep depreciation of buildings**. All of this culminated in the current system of essentially disposable homes.

So how does this lead to such experimentation? Taking risks with the design can be a bad investment in the US because banks will rarely finance the construction of a radical design. Since most homes are purchased through a mortgage, the bank owns the home and they won't approve something they can't readily sell. Almost no one buys a "used" home in Japan so the homeowner and architect can design whatever they want. It doesn't affect the bank since they can't resell it anyways. Hence...

Also worth checking out is how these homes are built - largely automated gigantic CNC mills run by CAD/CAM.

Long Tall House by SPACESPACE. Notice the lack of railing.

As wasteful as this practice may sound to a westerner it's just normal in Japan. It makes one wonder which of our norms may be just as arbitrary. 

* Most of this info is from this Arch Daily article.

** Japan's Lost Decade, yes that's facile but if you're interested Paul Krugman wrote a great book about it called The Return of Depression Economics).

Rural African Architecture - DIY

Constructing a building is expensive. As such, it's fairly rare that a client will take many risks, so if presented with the opportunity you really have to make the most of it. There are probably a lot of great architects out there that none of us know the names of because they swung and missed at their first big opportunity - if they ever got it. This guy is not one of them.

TED - Diébédo Francis Kéré: How to build with clay... and community

A former professor of mine from IIT, Frank Flury, held a studio in Ghana over the summer and built this library with student labor and hand tools. What's going on in Sub-Saharan Africa?

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