Efficient Buildings, Living Buildings & Beyond

Part 1 of a 12 part series

Imagine navigating your way towards a building that you are entirely unfamiliar with, one that you have never visited before. Still a significant distance away, walking along the street, you begin to form your first impressions of the building. Your mind is racing with questions, is the building itself a focal point within the neighborhood or does it fit rather oddly into its surroundings? Does the building appear warm and inviting? Or is it cold, monotonous, and redundant? Still yet, is it just another box that looks more or less like the rest? Walk a little further and get a little closer to the building. You may find that as you approach it, your impressions of the building will change. The periphery within which you perceive it has narrowed and it becomes more difficult to experience the building in its full context. Yet as you near the building it becomes easier to absorb its many details. For example, you may be astonished by how well these details are a kind of local manifestation of the impression that you had formed of the building as a whole or it may be the case that these details are simply uncharacteristic of your overall impression.

Begin making your way through the front entrance and into the foyer. Does it exude feelings of warmth – a space that looks inviting and seems to effortlessly draw you further inside? Or is it a space that appears arbitrary and confusing whereby you are not quite sure in which direction you should travel? As you continue to navigate deeper into the building, these impressions that you have formed may be strengthened, as if there were some commonality throughout the fabric of the building. What is it that reinforces your impressions? Is the space warm, comfortable, and yet functional? Or is the space confusing, seemingly arbitrary, as if the placing of doors, corridors, and furniture were merely an afterthought? Whether you are visiting a friend in a fifth storey condominium, making your way to a colleague’s office on the tenth floor, or shopping at a street level store, these are the impressions and kinds of experiences we have when we visit, work, or live in any given building.

Unfortunately the people who are responsible for designing and constructing these buildings make no essential reference to how human beings experience the building or to the quality of the building as a support habitat for human activities. Figuratively speaking, these people deal with the building from the “inside-out” whereas people who visit, work, or live in the building experience it from the “outside-in” 1.

The notion of dealing with a building from the “inside-out” is characteristic of the contemporary approach to building and is a result of the application of highly specialized knowledge which permits teams of specialists to design and manipulate various elements individually. The foundation, frame or structure, skin, systems for conveyance such as elevators and stairwells, mechanical systems for heating, air-conditioning, and sanitation, and electrical systems, are dealt with as separate entities. None of these teams operate with the building as a whole. In fact, to apply highly specialized knowledge the members of each design team must concentrate on those details which fall within their respective domain of expertise and their decisions, made within this domain, are then integrated with other decisions to achieve an overall design.

However, there is a second reason why this approach can be referred to as one that works from the “inside-out” which pertains to the very nature of highly specialized knowledge. (2) Consider one of the team members as specializing in the strength of materials. This person has acquired this specialty not by working with materials and observing their typical behaviour, rather by being introduced to a continuum: a mathematical abstraction wherein the properties of the materials are uniformly distributed throughout space. Within the continuum the specialist is able to learn about the different forces that act on a finite element and, once the finite element is in equilibrium, how equations can be written with the forces summing to zero. Equipped with these equations the specialist is able to move out from the inside of these materials and insert values for the parameters that represent real geometries, real materials, and real loadings. However, it should be noted that this highly specialized knowledge cannot be used to design a building but can only be used to optimize a pre-existing design. Specialists are only able to optimize a design concept piece by piece, gradually accumulating to form the efficient design without any reference to the experiences of the people who will use the building. Hence the contemporary approach proceeds from the “inside-out” and is entirely separated from the experiences of people visiting, working, and living in the building.

Essentially, the teams of specialists take inputs of materials, energy, labour, capital, and specialized knowledge and transform them as efficiently as possible into the building that roughly corresponds to the needs of the client. What makes a building competitive relative to other buildings is how efficiently these resource inputs are transformed into the desired output; it is this efficiency that dominates the character of these buildings, which includes profitability as another input/output ratio related to the input of capital. Profitability is merely a function of the degree to which the requisite inputs can be efficiently transformed into the desired outputs where capital resources are obviously included, but the process is not limited thereafter. Efficiency promotes profit; it allows everyone to accumulate profit and it permits tenants to pay reasonable rent. If a developer, architect, contractor, or client was unwilling to make use of these modern processes they would not, as a result, produce an efficient building and would thus accumulate less profit, i.e., they would have to charge higher rents to tenants and higher fees to investors. Hence the hierarchy of precedence is crowned by efficiency.

In contrast, a different kind of approach was used in the past. The accumulated experience of generations of builders created building traditions that, as a reflection of the experiences of the many participants, were integral to a way of life and culture. Few, if any, drawings were used and modest amounts of specialized knowledge were applied. Master builders acquired the necessary knowledge through lengthy apprenticeships and thus gained a vast knowledge embedded in experience (Vanderburg, 2005, p. 173-207). Yet there was little difference between how they experienced these buildings and how the rest of society experienced them, except that they had a great deal more experience concerning the many aesthetic, structural, and material details of the building. Because of the way human experience is symbolized, this translated into the practice of regarding every detail in the context of not only the building but also its surroundings, namely, as a local manifestation of that whole; something of the whole was enfolded in all of its features.

(1) (Vanderburg, 2005, p. 173-207; p. 236-308).
John Kenneth Galbraith was one of the first to recognize that the application of highly specialized knowledge in the design and manufacture of any product requires that the task be broken down to a point where highly specialized knowledge can be applied. For example, heat transfer or fluid mechanics cannot help in the design of a vehicle but these specialties can be applied to the optimization of any detail where fluids flow or exchange heat (Galbraith, 1978). This was further developed by Willem H. Vanderburg in Living in the Labyrinth of Technology (2005).