Our old paradigm of non-integrated, ‘stand-alone’ architecture has resulted in the littering of our precious surface space with unsightly buildings and edifices. This wasteful paradigm precludes use of the surface land for gardening, yards, or pleasant outdoor living spaces – the land potentially used for these is taken up by inefficient box-like structures.
Older ‘visionary’ architects showed remarkable lack of vision, in merely softening the lines of the boxes, or in feeble attempts to hide them with natural features. At the end of the day, once-pristine valleys were littered with a series of boxes, as ‘developers’ failed to truly develop the land, and instead tied it up supporting structures that have not changed in essence since the dawn of ‘buildings.’
I propose a ‘new’ architecture; one integrated with nature, one that allows a better use of the land (both commercial and residential). The architectural paradigm I propose (the same I did in 1976) will increase energy efficiency immensely, reduce electricity requirements, and simplify cooling and heating of living/working spaces. It will reduce building maintenance costs considerably.
The paradigm I propose is not really new – it has been used by other animals since the dawn of time. It was popularized by J.R.R. Tolkein’s mythical hobbits. These furry-toes creatures lived in comfortable houses built mostly underground, allowing the surface space to A) remain unsullied and natural or B) be ‘put to use’ as home gardens (enough space to feed the family living below) or simply as above-ground yards, gazebos, rock-gardens, etc.
Ancient underground cities in Cappadocia region of Turkey, in Italy and Wales show this idea is not new. While not entirely underground, the abandoned cities of Mesa Verde in North America exhibit a similar integrated synthesis between natural spaces and community spaces.
Native American pit houses approached this ideal, and if modernized would be an integration between partially above ground housing and nature. Note the visual and ecological impact of housing is minimized with both these interim methods.
Of course, we have a possible bias of living in holes underground; we imagine moles burrowed in dark, confined spaces without fresh air and shudder. Yet with modern technology, the underground living spaces could be virtually indistinguishable from above-ground living spaces; big-screen monitors, cameras, and microphones could bring outdoor views to video ‘windows’ in below-ground quarters. These screens could show a painting, a ‘window’ view of outdoors, or be used as a TV or computer video monitor.
With modern HEPA air filtration, the air in a new ‘below ground’ home could be just as fresh as a traditional one, and perhaps healthier, since pollen, dust, and pollutants would be filtered out. The ‘exhaust’ from the structure could be carbon-filtered (of smoke, gases, odors, etc.) before being returned to the atmosphere.
As the Earth provides both an insulating and cooling effect, cooling a house in summer or heating it in winter will be much simpler (and thus more cost and energy effective). Sheltered from snow, wind, and rain, the modern housing would be protected from the most direct and obvious effects of weather.
Carports just below the surface would keep the surface space from being littered with automobiles, and provide protection against theft, vandalism, and the elements. Thus, a typical home’s surface profile may show a driveway stopping at a vehicle lift, or disappearing into an underground or mostly underground carport. An alternative would be community parking areas (also undergound, perhaps below a community garden or solar farm), like modern ‘park and rides’, allowing the residents to walk or bike from their homes to the lot. This would save many tax dollars on unnecessary intra-community roads, by limiting the travel (and thus wear and tear) on them, or eliminating the need for them altogether.
Imagine the neighborhood you live in now, if all you could see when you looked out was gardens, yards, and maybe solar panels. No unsightly houses and cars; at best maybe a gazebo or sheltered porch. Just imagine. Would the land look better, would your view improve? Would you feel you lived in a more beautiful place? Or would your valley look better covered with traditional box homes, packed right next to each other, and lined up like a child’s building blocks?
The same paradigm could apply to commercial structures such as malls and public buildings. When you went to the courthouse or library, what if instead of seeing an aging building which would soon need to be replaced, you saw merely a park or community garden, with a discrete entrance way to the below-ground facilities? For those concerned with safety and security, these types of buildings would be easier to protect, police, and control access to than typical above-ground structures.
What if instead of unsightly government housing projects, we built them underground, and left the surface for a community garden, which could potentially feed (and productively occupy) large parts of the tenants? What if instead of new malls blighting our landscapes, we saw parks above, then below parking lots and stores? What if Wal-Mart used the above ground space saved to make solar farms, to provide the entire facility’s electrical needs at no cost to the company or communities?
Would you rather have this (a current Wal-Mart ‘super store’ footprint)…
…or this? Which has a more positive impact on the community and planet? Which would be more profitable to Wal-Mart? To us?
Simply by deciding to build down instead of up, we can change the entire landscape. By adopting this new paradigm, we can save ourselves costly maintenance and upkeep above ground buildings require due to ‘wear and tear’ due to exposure to the elements. We can utilize our land more productively and efficiently. We can minimize energy and maintenance requirements.
In a planet that soon will have nine billion people, a planet in which many go hungry, this not only makes sense, but seems imperative. In a planet where much of the litter we make is the buildings themselves; defacing or disturbing the landscape, exhausting unfiltered pollutants, and in general cluttering up the whole place, this is insane.
Detroit makes my case better than any words could; an entire city, once the major manufacturing center of our nation, laying in virtual ruins, a pile of trash we made above ground and then abandoned.
In the new paradigm, we would stand to lose little and gain much. Rich people could still have their massive rooms, and still decorate them opulently. Instead of walking through a door to get outside, they might have to take the stairs or elevator first. So many do this in ‘high-rise’ apartments already, the change would be subjectively subtle.
There were many entries for sustainable construction projects in recent years, and this year’s Holcim awards show good attempts at integrating existing spaces, but scant few (none) for implementing an entire new paradigm. Perhaps the best practical solution would be to combine above-ground sustainable construction and communities with newer, below-ground communities.
Whatever we decide on, we had better do it fast. Our population is growing and our ecological burden on the planet as well. We continue to trash our precious surface spaces with unsightly and inefficient above ground structures. Before need presses us underground, a planned step in that direction may preclude a future survival need to do so.
As we abandon old and outmoded ways of thinking about our world and ourselves, I suggest it is time to abandon old ways of thinking about our living spaces; not only where they are built, but how. It is time to abandon wasteful and inefficient paradigms. I call on modern architects to provide us with designs for new and more efficient structures, structures with less visual and environmental impact on our communities. I call on citizens to insist on new ‘green’ communities, instead of the boxlike and virtually identical ‘Californication’ homes that have been pushed by ‘developers’ on our communities.
I call to an end on the same old communities, built by mega-builders and promoted by developers. These new developments are a blight on our landscape, a misuse of our land, and do a disservice to community members by providing poorly-insulated, non-green homes that will require an ongoing investment to maintain, heat, and cool. Any up front difference in construction cost (and thus price) would be easily recovered over the years, in personal savings and in positive effects on the community.
I call on mega-corporations like Wal-Mart and on our government to lead the way in this initiative. Once people see the cost-benefit analysis has proven in reality to be in their favor, more and more people and corporations will get on board. If people are offered the choice between living in an integrated community, or in a typical series of boxes like they do now, I think they will choose integrated every time, once the benefits are demonstrated.
I call on activists to insist on this type of financially, ecologically, and environmentally sustainable construction at all levels.
If we heed the call, we could truly begin the ‘greening of America.’ Modern and visionary architects could provide conceptual plans for consideration. The firm that leads in this could not only positively impact the communities and thus the nation, but also set the standard for others who will eventually follow.
Opportunities abound, in the midst of our crumbling cities and infrastructure. As Albert Einstein so famously said (translated loosely into English) ‘the significant problems we face today can not be solved at the same level of thinking that originated them.’ Here is an opportunity, to move forward in our ways of thinking and being, as individuals, families, communities, and as a nation and planet. Here is an opportunity to implement our sustainable ideals into the very core of our human experience; where and how we live.