Why energy efficiency houses have to be unattractive?

There is the famous phrase we designers know well: Form vs. Function

It is never the Form AND Function, but they are always in an adversarial relationship with the VS.

Frank Lloyd Wright

I see this adversary relationship play well in the architecture field, especially when it comes to aesthetics in design. It is given that one (form) cannot be achieved with the other(function), but one can ONLY be achieved through the sacrifice of the other and vice versa.

I admit I am biased towards the FORM part of the phrase…much more than the FUNCTION.

It is not something I can admit easily to others, especially to paying clients. Can you imagine your architect only caring about the look of the house or building and completely ignoring the functional requirements? Having a building that looks great on magazine photos but not so much inside.

Recently, I reached out to a person who I met a few years ago for a potential house project she was planning at the time. She and her husband were in the early stage of planning to build their custom home somewhere north of Toronto when I met her.

I estimated that it would be a good time to reconnect and talk to her about the project she was planning for her family, and possibly pitch my firm to do the design work. With the recent emphasis on staying home/work from home (WFH), creating a comfortable and safe home environment with a unique design would be something her family might look forward to.

At least that was what I thought.

Once she realized who I was, she got excited and said those disappointing words, “we built our house”

It is all about the numbers

After the shock of realizing that she completed building her dream home within less then a year; finding the land, financing it and then actually having it designed and built the house. I was amazed. In fact, I was shocked.

While I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be involved in the project, I also wanted to see the house she built. I asked to see the pictures of her new dream home and her answer surprised me.

“ It is nothing to look at….we built the house that works for us”.

Why energy efficiency houses have to be unattractive?

She also mentioned that it was a net-zero house that can produce its own energy and therefore there would be substantial energy savings monthly. It was clear that she was not bothered by her own “nothing to look at” comment.

After I hung up, I started to think about the relationship between aesthetics and sustainability (like the Form vs Function analogy), especially from the non-designers perspective.

Why the “not much to look at” quality is ok as long as she can save money? OR, does she believe that the “saving money” has to come from sacrificing the look of her house?

This goes back to one of the oldest arguments, form versus function. To gain one thing, one needs to sacrifice something else, and hence the word “versus”.

That “something else” has always been about the intangible/ non-objective criteria such as aesthetics, looks, beauty, etc. The qualities are nice to have but not necessary.

When it comes to the topic of energy efficiency in buildings, the distinction becomes even more apparent.

Researching about anything to do with energy efficiency such as net zero house, I was only able to find information about the numbers. Not the photos, sketches, images of houses, but only the numbers.

Netzero Houses in North America:

  • The building sector accounts for 50% of all energy used in North America.
  • Retrofitting existing house is expensive and may at best, only result in energy savings of 30% compared to other buildings in the same location that have not been retrofitted
  • Net Zero houses achieve a 75% to 90% reduction in heating cost, with the annual heating bills as low as $150.

None of these points describe what the house might look like or how these type of houses would make people living in the houses feel like.

OK, I admit I found this information from engineering magazines… not from glossy and image-focused architecture magazines.

Separation of architecture and engineering

Why energy efficiency houses have to be unattractive?

Now onto the second point about the SEPARATION. We architects talk about the Importance of collaboration with other people.

However, I do not see much of “collaboration” or even the connection when I flip through industry magazines. In architecture magazines, it is all about the images…beauty of the buildings in daylight or even evening shots which are probably taken by some famous photographers.

I love looking at architecture or design magazines…thinking I might one day with the “unlimited budget” from a client who would let me have all the design freedom, I might be the one to create the masterpiece. With it, it would bring fame and fortune…ok, this fantasy story is for another post.

With perfectly shot photos of these buildings, I must admit energy efficiency is the last thing I am thinking of.

With the actual budget amount or the duration of the project hidden, there is a fantasy quality to these types of projects. It feels unreal to me and I imagine that feeling might be even greater for the rest of the public.

Zero-sum game mentality

I am guilty of this myself.

We generally believe that to gain something, (energy efficiency/ its savings in this case), we need to sacrifice something else (aesthetics, design). However this popular belief is misguided; they are not related or even can be compared to one another. They are two separate/ unrelated elements that should be considered on its own merits.

I think this black and white approach in our architecture field comes from not being able to articulate about VALUE designers can offer. (Yes, I have a difficult time with this myself)

In any design field including architecture, that “something” we sacrifice is always going to be the intangible/non-objective criteria such as aesthetics, design, or even the feelings one can get from those designs.

I suspect until we can attach (or convincingly explain) the dollar value to DESIGN, it would always be an insignificant element in any design works.

Final thoughts

In my architecture practice, I met many clients/or would-be clients that having well-designed houses are expensive or even worse, unnecessary

I think as architects, and the industry has not helped the situation by separating the architecture ( glossy images in the magazines with no budget info) of images we see on the magazine and what we see in the street.

With public perception of the design/aesthetics being expensive, (and not clear on the value it brings), it would be difficult to compete with the “energy efficiency and the savings” argument.

As an architect, I often hear the importance of our role as an educator for the public. However, the “education” loses its value if we are only talking about the value of design as if we are talking to another architect.

I had a crazy thought recently…

What if the concept of design/ aesthetic can be translated into something like energy efficiency requirements like numbers and percentages etc?

With the well-organized list/chart with items such as:

  • how big the window has to be to frame the 100-year-old house tree in the back yard?
  • design the skylight to direct daylight into the basement space so the word “ basement” means the airy/ outdoor like space

After the list-making, assign the points and percentages to each item according to clients’ value system.

Any new ideas/strategies about translating design items into dollar value?

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in Life Outside of Design Studio and has been updated for accuracy and completeness.

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