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Buildings That Do More with Resources

dMASS, Inc. was a partner in this year’s Buckminster Fuller Challenge. This article is one in a series about the semi-finalists. When you think about buildings you might think about the bricks and mortar, or the timber and hardware – the physical structure. If you've been following dMASS, you might also remember Howard Brown's short article on the purpose of a home in which he described the functions of a building, like protection from the elements, but also challenged designers to redefine and dramatically expand the benefits and functions a physical structure can and should provide. Specifically he suggested that dwellings should be designed as high-performing systems that keep people safe, healthy, comfortable, and give them access to a variety of services.

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work_BACC_3

Beyond the physical structure of a building and its immediate functions, how does it fit into an even larger system? MASS Design Laboratory takes an approach that buildings can be used to improve health, economic, and social outcomes. Architects at MDLab have been working around the world, including in Rwanda and Haiti, to design built environments that are safer, more resilient and can prevent the spread of disease. They use education and training to bring the fields of design and public health closer together, and develop lasting capacity to solve problems with a systems-based mentality.

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Build_Change

Build Change focuses more directly on safety, specifically on ensuring that homes in countries including Colombia, Haiti, and Indonesia are built to withstand earthquakes and other natural disasters. In addition to providing technical assistance to homeowners and builders, the nonprofit organization is working to change construction codes and practices so that all structures are built with earthquake-resistant techniques. Better building practices can save lives and resources – it costs less and uses fewer material resources to build a resilient structure than to rebuild a structure after disaster strikes.

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WATERBANK_IDEA_AND_STRUCTURE

In Kenya, PITCHAfrica designs sports arenas, schools and homes that incorporate rainwater harvesting and food production. The buildings enable communities to capture an existing and abundant resource—rainfall—and use it to promote health, education and community development. The integrated solution accounts for the interconnected nature of problems facing these communities, and uses building design to maximize benefits.

The approaches taken by these organizations reflect systems thinking and enable the resources used in buildings to deliver more benefits. Are you familiar with similar efforts in other parts of the world? Share your story below.

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The Value of Living Space: Why size isn’t the only thing that matters

Downsizing - whether it’s about companies, houses, or cars - is often a euphemism for doing less with less of everything. But consider the iPhone. When we downsized the fax machine, the scanner, the phone, the weather channel, and a GPS into one device that weighs less than five ounces, we valued it as a luxury item. Today it commands four times the price of a regular phone, though that’s still significantly less than the sum of all of the devices (or functions) if they were purchased separately.

When it comes to houses and apartments, we tend to focus on size, assigning a monetary value to the number of square feet in a dwelling. Until recently, downsizing in housing simply meant fewer square feet and a loss of function (much like in this 90 square foot micro-apartment that lacks the ability to invite a friend in for a conversation, let alone space to cook). But that may be about to change. In an increasingly urbanized world with resource constraints and rising costs, value will shift toward the measurable function a space provides.

LifeEdited, a New York firm that partners with real estate developers and investors, set out to design a living environment that packs the function people want from a more sizable apartment within a smaller footprint. They used the constraints of urban living to prototype what “luxury with less” might look like – and it looks good.

The company’s first effort, LifeEdited Apartment #1, packs “1100 square feet of function in 420 square feet.” The design of the apartment takes behavior and needs into account and enables spaces to be used efficiently for multiple purposes. Walls move, beds drop down out of walls, tables expand, and closets reach the ceiling in every available space. The result is a studio apartment with a spacious feel that can be used to host a dinner for 10.

The apartment was also designed to function as a system. Three of the four radiators, which carried excess heat and noise into the apartment, were removed. For cooking, the apartment relies on portable conduction cooktops, rather than a large stove with a pilot light that throws off waste heat in the warm summer months. The furniture is largely built in to fit the space and to offer the precise function that’s needed when it’s needed. Gone is sentimental, awkward furniture purchased for one space but ultimately destined to be locked up within the nation’s $22 billion storage industry, well cared for but never used.

While the initial design is aimed at a certain demographic (young professionals), it’s a model that can be adapted to a much larger audience. Consider a study featured on LifeEdited’s website that shows how people use the living space on the first floor of a typical single family home.  If you look closely at the summary diagram, you’ll see that over the course of two weeks, the dining room was barely visited and the formal living room was scantly used. The door to the porch was never even approached. Whole rooms in our homes serve little more purpose than a storage unit. So while we put a value on total size, we clearly behave in a way that shows that the functionality of a space really matters. And in the typical single family home, there’s definitely room for improvement.

The value proposition behind LifeEdited’s apartment will only become more attractive as resource pressures increase and more people move to cities. 1100 square feet of function in 420 square feet effectively means 680 square feet that doesn’t have to be heated, cooled, lit, cleaned, or otherwise maintained. For the person who lives there, it also means paying taxes on 680 fewer square feet.

Ultimately, what’s different about the thinking behind LifeEdited’s apartment is the introduction of a new value system that prioritizes function per square foot over measured square foot – in the same way the iPhone demonstrated that it’s not owning a camera and a bunch of other devices that matters, but it's the utility from each device that matters.

 

Photos courtesy Matthew Williams for LifeEdited.

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From the dMASS Archives: Focus on function

As we near our first anniversary at dMASS.net, we thought we might reach back into the archives.  Today we're sharing a few articles related to function, which you don't want to miss: Performance vs. Efficiency: dMASS thinking for better design When you design something from the standpoint of benefits or function you are much more likely to come up with a solution that performs better, not just something that’s more efficient.

The Business of Learning from Eggs: how to rethink your organization’s function Businesses and other organizations provide tools that deliver functions (which hopefully create wealth). Thinking about function is a great place to start with learning, designing, or rethinking just about anything.

How to Overcome Resistance to Change with Innovation As a designer or change agent, if you experience resistance to change brought about by innovation, think about the function that people are asking for, not the thing.

You Don’t Make Widgets: why design is about function, not things When there’s a truly innovative change, a fundamental shift in how something works, it’s easy to imagine that the designers and engineers did not start their process by asking, “How can we make this thing better?” Instead, they asked, “How can we do this better?”

When Conservation Fails If the tools we design – even the ones that are supposed to conserve resources – don’t work, then the resources invested in them are wasted.

Living in a Dwelling Machine: What are houses for? As a designer thinking about houses in 1939, Buckminster Fuller asked the most important question that every manufacturer should ask about their products and every architect should ask about the buildings they design: What is this product for?

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