What if we started designing like we had stopped pretending?

I wrote a post on Horizons of Significance borrowing a title from Dark Mountain, What do we do after we stop pretending? I find this a most powerful question, the one question that cuts to the heart of where we are today and points to what we need to work at resolving.

We’re surrounded by a frenzy of activity, even as “externalities” catch up with economics and evidence mounts that none of the old ways will work for much longer, we see busyness all about. We who see ourselves in part or in whole as designers, tend to want to be given more responsibility for the why, the how and the when of human ingenuity’s expressions. We tend to chafe that engineers are brought in to do not only their work, but ours; and that when it comes to the more refined questions of visual expression, everybody’s got an opinion, and our, as we see it, more developed and experienced take is not given its due.

It appears at this point that this dynamic of professional self-pity is only the way this, our profession, attempts to metabolize the wider predicament I’ve termed the Crisis of Expertise.

This brings us to today’s point. As designers, at least as people who’ve put thought, training, experience and passion into questions of how decisions of utility, aesthetics and performance come together; what would we be doing if we stopped pretending?

The broadest way to look at this question is to counter the extreme irrelevancy of so much economic activity and ask how the remains of this brief moment of cheap energy, global communication, and highly trained population can be put to work creating artifacts that will have lasting value long after this bubble has burst. While all around us irreplaceable treasure is being squandered on ephemera, like highway bridges, airliners, container-ports; all with about twenty-year life-spans – filling “needs” that won’t be feasible within that time and using up a never to be repeated opportunity to take energy out of the ground to power a large infrastructure that creates lasting effects on the physical fabric of our world. Even more effort is expended on another even wider expanse of even shorter duration ephemera, like electronics and fashion – and housing.

That’s right, what now passes as the “product” of the “Housing Industry” are artifacts that for the most part have useful life-spans of well under ten years. They are sited and deployed as units within a Zombieconomy that will probably not even outlast their pitiful durability as livable structures. The phenomena, suburban America, which Kunstler calls the Greatest Misapplication of Wealth in History, will this be our legacy?

So, what do we do, if we start to design like we had stopped pretending? Once we begin to look at the question, and admit that this is probably the most important task we could take on at this point, it appears to open our eyes to a world of possibilities. It also requires a quick ramp-up in our understanding of what long-term viability might really entail. It will also require the adoption of a discipline, an approach, to build up a mastery of the self and of one’s abilities to actually affect reality as opposed to living under the delusions of Control and our constant diversions into fantasy and wish-fulfillment.

This process requires us to give up “Hope” along with “Optimism” and “Pessimism” both. It also sidesteps ideology, no preconceived notion of “How the World Works” can ever lead to a “Program” that will “Solve” our “Problems.” Even before the alphabet of various ideologies began to melt-down into the absurdity we see passing as public life today, they were doomed to fail because that is Not “How the World Works!” Giving up on these “mainstays” requires a process of self-development. In the end, this process liberates us from the binds, single, double and multiple, that constrain us and hold us within the thrall of a paralytic fear hiding beneath an uneasy apathy.

Facing reality, stripping away the rationalizations and the cultural taboos that protect them, is a difficult process, but not only necessary, it’s rewarding. We begin to see how our personal truths – the truths we find for ourselves, not the pablum imposed on us to keep us in line – begin to find their ways to expression and take us to a place where notions of certainty are not tied to excessive egotism, but to a deep awareness of the limits to human power. Stripping away Utopian and Dystopian fantasy ultimately leaves us cleaned out and ready to do what can be done.

Here’s a very practical design/engineering question that could have a tremendous legacy for the long-range future. “What will people live in after civilization?” “What can we do today, to “Seed” the Earth with “Structures” that just might have useful lifespans as long as the pyramids have existed?”

The pyramids are an interesting parallel. These early products of civilization concentrated and exploited the life-blood of a whole region to create structures that have lasted four thousand years. But what utility have they ever provided? At the time, they were the contemporaneous expression of civilization’s Death Wish. They dramatized the Ancient Egyptian’s Cult of Immortality, one of the earliest of civilization’s fixations of ignoring the reality of living beings upon this Earth for a fantasy of “Life Everlasting.” These structures abide, but they have done nothing – save to serve as quarries – to help sustain life over all this time.

The “Space Program” is a recent example of a similar activity. It’s been said that a moon-shot used comparable energy to the building of a pyramid just in rocket-propellant. Done under the broad auspices of the same underlying Death Wish and Cult of Immortality expressed in physical artifacts and activities, it has also done surprisingly little that will be looked back upon in a thousand years as having done any good for sustaining life in the long-haul.

What if the tiniest fraction of the coming decade’s human activity were to be devoted to creating structures that just might be of use five hundred, or a thousand years from now?

This question throws current “Economic Realities” on their head. It, along with a myriad of related questions, opens us up to a view of our strengths and how we can devote our lives to something positive with lasting benefit. It will also  open us up to the broad gulf of humility as we begin to explore how little we can do to control outcomes once we stop fantasizing and limit ourselves to activities that have some sober chance of actually doing good. We will begin to see how so much of what passes for striving for gain is actually counterproductive. We begin to see not only our insignificance when trying to create lasting structures, but how important it is to put our attentions onto living the life we have today as if it mattered.


7 Replies to “What if we started designing like we had stopped pretending?”

  1. I am sure that I probably have told you this story years ago, but just in case I haven’t….Back in the mid-1970’s, my thesis in Architectural graduate school looked at the issue of design buildings for longevity.

    This topic came out of visiting a building that had won awards a few years earlier and noticing that it had not held up well but grew to be much broader in intent that the mere superficial deterioration that I had observed on this building.

    In the course of my preliminary research, I came across a number of factoids in government sponsored research papers. One of these claimed that more housing had been built during a specific period within the Twentieth-Century (I don’t recall the specific period) than had been constructed in all of history prior to that time. The second came from a study of housing constructed after WW II and concluded that the average useful lifespan of this housing would be roughly 35 years.

    At the time, as a young architectural student, this last statistic seemed absurdly short. After all, I thought, one of my design professors owned a home in Sweden that had been in his family for hundreds of years. But now I have come to understand a lot more about that the concept of a “useful lifespan”.

    In my architectural practice I routinely watch as people who purchase perfectly operational homes; homes which were adequate to raise a family the size of theirs or larger back in the 1970’s, come in with requests to “update thier homes”. Often updating includes a number of small additions to house modern kitchens, greatrooms, master bedroom suites with modern sized closets and master bathrooms which cumlatively can literally double the size of the existing house.

    But along with this expansion, this work also triggers a whole range of technical ‘upgrades’ as well. Some like wiring for home entertainment systems or adding granite countertops are about lifestyle, but others are about bringing these extensively altered homes up to modern code requirements, which quickly means new electrical and plumbing systems, new heating and cooling, better insulation, and perhaps some remedial structural modifications.

    Pretty soon, the costs of working around the limitations of the old house make demolishing the old home and constructing a new home seem pretty economically compelling. In the minds of the owners, and sometimes us design professionals, these otherwise perfectly sound homes have reached the limits of their economic useful lifespans.

    Of course, in the language of sustainability, the old house contains a lot of captured energy which will be lost forever when it demolished. Even ignoring the energy implications of building the new home, this tossing out of the old before its true lifespan represents a major loss of non-renewable resources. But using an economic model that undervalues captured energy in place, that never seems to matter.

    As I read your particular post, it points sharply toward the need to redefine our design objectives,so that we begin to design for a future where we what we design for a longer lifespan than 35 years.

    To some extent, I think this takes a discipline and willness to live with the inconvenient and perhaps a willingness to spend more initially to allow for flexibility and maintainability in the long run.

    A good example of this problem is when I look at what has happened with boat building. Boatbuilders have substituted building materials that are non-renewable and difficult to modify, for a limited lifespan of perceived lower maintenance, lower production costs, and faster production times.

    Even when we look at the world of wooden boat building, by and large glued construction has become the current trend. And while it can be argued that in the short run glued construction produces a lighter, stronger, perhaps more reliable building technique, one that does not required the precise skills of plank on frame, these boats once built are stuck in time, and as parts fail, the whole boat fails.

    Very thought provoking Tony and great reading…Please keep it up.


  2. Thanks Jeff,

    If only we were still dealing with a 35 year life-span for housing! Currently constructed tract houses in places like Phoenix or Las Vegas, or some of the development spilling into the Mojave desert out of L.A. have no hope of even holding out the weather for a decade they are so shoddily built. Here in Rhode Island we have Potemkin Villages that would have done Potemkin proud! They stand along the highway, cul-de-sac strip-malls with built in MacJob holder housing.

    Your description of contemporary boats being “stuck in time” captures the predicament perfectly.


  3. Great post – more please!

    However, I’m not convinced that uniformly increasing the lifespan of our built environment necessarily leads to more sustainable outcomes, or a better built environment.

    I don’t think every toolshed, petrol station or juice bar needs to be built for the ages…

    On the other hand, many ephemeral buildings, from the Ise Shinto shrine, to Thoreau’s cottage, to a teepee or igloo are models of beauty, utility and sustainability.
    An Arnhem Land aboriginal bark canoe is cut from a living tree, used for a week or two for collecting magpie goose eggs, and is discarded to become food for other living trees.

    I want my great-grandchildren to have the opportunity to make new, beautiful things relevant to their own society, rather than just recieve beautifully-built, long-lasting heirlooms.

    My greatest concern about our society’s artifacts (from houses to boats to toasters to i-pads) is the asymmetry between the shortness of their ‘useable lifespan’ and the great persistence of their materials (and their material/energy consequences). If anything, the ephemeral is not ephemeral *enough*!

    In some ways, we build for eternity; plastics that will last thousands of years, copper piping, gold solder, cadmium batteries, synthetic ceramics, asbestos fibre.
    And then we composite then with temporary materials that rust or rot, or we detail them to be flimsy, or to be obsolete or unfashionable within years.

    Long after the artefact is useless or replaced, the ‘eternal’ materials we made it from lie in landfills, poison our kids or litter the places we care for. You have written in other posts about the flags of fibreglass insulation that hang from trees and fences long after the cheaply-designed houses they were built for have collapsed. Beaches are littered with ‘disposable’ flip-flops made from thousand-year plastics.

    The timber in our buildings can’t be burned or mulched, as it has been made toxic with CCA, LOSP or urea formaldehyde. The plastics can’t be recovered, as they are bonded to the timber.

    The same analogy applies to the composite-timber boats; they don’t quite rot away, they can’t quite be recycled or permanently preserved. The ephemeral timber and the ‘eternal’ plastic are at odds with one another.
    As Jeff comments, a partial failure becomes a total failure, but the consequences last a very long time.

    What’s more, the asymmetry applies to the energy debt and pollution consequenses of the materials as well; high energy aluminium or plastic bonded to lower energy timbers. Our artefacts are neither ‘low impact/short life’ or ‘high impact/long life’ but a Frankenstein’s stitch-up combining the worst of both.

    I think there’s space for the ephemeral, provided that it is *completely* ephemeral; low embodied energy, recyclable or fully biodegradeable, sustainably sourced, cycled again and again. Michael Braingart and William McDonough in ‘Cradle to Crade’ describe this as the ‘abundance of the cherry tree’.

    Then leave the ‘eternal’ for the things that demand or deserve it. A library, a seed bank, a cathedral?

    There’s a middle way, too. Stuart Brand in ‘How Buildings Learn’ writes about buildings made of ‘shearing layers’ (site, structure, skin, services, space plan, stuff), with a long-lasting exoskeleton & structure but increasingly replaceable/ephemeral and accessible layers of material and service within, which can be updated (sustainably?) without compromising the more robust envelope.

    I don’t want to commit my children to having to ‘put up with’ an eternally-built world built completely to my tastes. I don’t want them living in the shadow of my pyramids. I’d rather they had the opportunity to build to their own ideas and beliefs.
    Decay – of old houses, of old boats, of old tastes – is a good thing, provided we leave future with the materials, energy, clean air and space to build anew.


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