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Simplicity: Durability's Counterpoint

Posted by Matt Power

Oct 3, 2013 1:51:00 PM


After grad school, back in the late eighties, I remember hearing that a friend of mine had landed a high-paying, stress filled job as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Then, just a couple of years later, she suddenly quit and went into something of a self-imposed mental retreat. What happened? She read Henry David Thoreau’s famous book, Walden, and changed her life. She later told me that things in the corporate world had become too complicated and joyless, and life had lost meaning for her.

Re-reading Thoreau’s book recently—something I try to do every few years—I too had an “aha” moment. I began to think about how the concept of simplicity and transience applies to designing and building sustainable shelter.

In Green Builder, we typically advocate for tougher, longer lasting materials. Products and houses here in the U.S., I’ve often argued, should be predicated on a 300-year lifespan. Instead, American manufacturers rarely exceed 50 years as the outer limits of a product warranty period.

But if durability is the Yin of sustainability, perhaps transience and changeability are the Yang. Sure, a net-zero home that will be occupied for centuries is a great improvement over conventional ways of living. But temporary, biodegradeable or re-configurable housing also has a strong environmental story.

I would break such housing into three levels, starting with the lightest footprint: At level one are yurts, tipis and tents that are occupied for a few months of the year, and can be folded up and removed when the season is over, leaving no trace behind. There’s no deforestation required, no disruption of soils.

At the next level are what I would term “natural” homes, built from abundant local materials that can return easily to earth at the end of their useful life. That doesn’t mean these aren’t durable structures—sod or adobe or rammed earth homes can last for centuries—but in the end, much of their mass can return to its original state.
The third level would include homes that are modular and flexible in nature. Perhaps they are built and assembled in sections, or designed to allow for future generations to reshape them into new living spaces.

In our October issue, you’ll find examples of all three of these types of shelter, some of them combined in surprising ways. For example, some homebuyers have discovered that adding a yurt or other tent structure to a home can be an inexpensive, eco-friendly way to create a a guest house, studio, yoga or meditation room.

It’s easy to discount temporary shelter as something separate from the business of creating sustainable shelter, but in the end, isn’t every shelter temporary? What matters is the time frame. Scientists predict that the next ice age, which could happen in less that 10,000 years, will grind even our mightiest buildings in the Northeast into unrecognizable particles.

Why not expand the meaning of “sustainable housing” to include all kinds of shelter?

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