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Experimenting keeps the magic going: beware of dogmatic “tradition”

Thanks to the site and Kirsten’s YT channel, we’re lucky to be exposed to lots of architecture and (sometimes brilliant, sometimes experimental, occasionally plain quirky but exciting anyway) building ideas.

We meet architects and their work, some of whom are prestigious (say, the chief architect of Apple Stores around the world until recently, BJ Siegel; Pritzker Prizker winner RCR stuff in Catalonia; a high-profile architect with Bill Gates, Mark Benioff, and others among his clients James Cutler; and a long etcetera).

Herb Greene, his personal residence Prairie House (Greene House) in Norman, Oklahoma, 1961

But we also cover vernacular construction, often self-built with no help from professional architects, at least for the major design decisions and material elections (if permitting is involved, architecture firms are often needed in vernacular projects as well).

We’re also interested in covering housing issues, from urbanism (see our documentaries on tiny houses and lean urbanism, both produced before such things were cool) to the consequences of house prices across areas of the US and Europe, which brings destitution but also creative ideas to get around big problems, from embracing itinerancy by choice (see Aaron Fletcher or the vanlife phenomenon) to designing minimum viable dwellings when nothing else is available.

There’s a difference between a shelter and nothing above your head (see, for instance, Paul Elkins‘ and U-build‘s designs, covered recently on this site and Kirsten’s channel).

The problems with purism and purists in any field

But when you openly cover such a range of stories and welcome experimentation from all sorts of perspectives, you also sign up for comments criticizing either how expensive a design is or the opposite (how cheap and unhealthy for people experiencing destitution, basic makeshift shelters are). Such statements avoid almost always the context and nuance the video and the text imply: we don’t offer solutions but highlight projects in which others work that we consider interesting and worth it for enriching the conversation around beauty, philosophies of life, housing, healthy communities, etc.

Most critiques have valuable insights, and then some are very similar to the ones expressed by purists of all kinds: either too much standardization (meaning “homogenization”) or lack of basic standards, either too simple or too complex, either too commercial and market-oriented or to independent-minded (and therefore exclusive).

Herb Greene, Joyce Residence Image: Robert Alan Bowlby. Robert A. Bowlby Collection, American School Archives, University of Oklahoma Libraries

Comments say a lot about the projects we cover but also about the commenter and why one particular story seems too off for them: let’s remember that only a small minority of people watching tend to leave a comment at all, and some watchers will only comment once, and will pick either the story that most resonates in them or the one that causes them to cringe. It’s up to one’s attitude and perception of the world to pick which moment can be more personally enriching and collectively constructive.

In the same way, concept products (for example, concept cars) are bold industrial design interactions that allow any team to learn about advantages or hurdles in any direction they choose to explore; dwellings can also serve as manifestos for their creators (either architects or makers of all sorts: vernacular architecture seldom included architects for conventional houses built according to one place’s tradition and shared knowledge).

And, as with any manifesto, houses can be experimental and feel very different from the common denominator in one particular place and moment in time. Should tradition and regulations determine every aspect of a house build, from which plants one can have in the front yard to their size, type of energy used for climate, or even overall impact and efficiency? It’s a complex question that can’t be answered with one-size-fits-all approaches.

Change doesn’t come from regulation; regulation follows change

While we wait for the evolution of zoning and building codes to accommodate better the needs of populations (harmonizing the interests of all incumbents: owners and also their descendants or newcomers who experience price hikes and can’t afford the cost of living in certain areas), at *faircompanies we also decided to explore what’s happening in the worlds of experimentation, which sometimes can be flagged as “too modern,” or sometimes “too traditional.”

When a house is on wheels, the main critique comes with the stigma of RVs and the fact that people aren’t attached to their place. When on the other hand, a home (sometimes suburban, sometimes rural, occasionally periurban) is designed as a holistic homestead and relates the house to the benefits of surrounding plants, such as an edible garden, protective trees, and other design tips prevalent in approaches such as that of permaculture. Some flag those houses as “messy,” “hippy,” “cultish,” or any other label.

Prairie House interior, 1962, Look Magazine

Some of the videos intend to highlight what somebody, usually very knowledgeable, has to say about some field of expertise or life experience, often concerning housing.

In such approaches, people react with emotion, and sometimes, that means that most people respond very positively, whereas those who differ may feel the urge to comment. In these situations, somebody may point out that the person or project we chose isn’t something appealing or viable to the median population, generally due to options dimmed too radical, impractical, or difficult to extrapolate to more conventional lifestyles.

Our response tends to express that our video documentaries aren’t displays of what Kirsten considers people could or should do but mere ways of living that we estimate valuable for people to learn. Now, taking what is worth from something, according to our needs and perspective, is an art on its own, and there’s not one or the right way to do so. Those who asked us for more information about one particular project, or even asked for references or how to contact somebody, know we try to keep the conversation going for the benefit of everyone involved.

All experiences are valuable, so why labeling?

Some apparently conventional stories can be valuable when they show valuable and innovative workarounds or when it’s the person that deserves the spotlight due to a particular type of interest and knowledge: that’s why some stories seem to turn around a small apartment or house, or even camper, but in reality, they tend to explain whole systems.

Consider, for example, three recent videos of makers, more than “builders” or “architects” who nonetheless address some of the issues associated with the need for basic shelter as a human need, as well as the housing crisis in places as disparate as the US West Coast and London.

Two of these three creators are in the US West Coast, an area with an affordability crisis in housing, as well as a dire homeless problem. Polymath maker (DIY inventor and Boeing retiree) Paul Elkins has been sharing his simple designs of basic shelters and human-powered vehicles for years; he lately converged with another creator in a more than unconventional position in society, defining himself as “homeless by choice,” guerrilla grazer and nomad shepherd Aaron Fletcher; the third one, U-Build co-founder Nick Newman roams around London in the electric converted van he uses as a live-work setup.

Prairie House Interior, 1961 Image: Julius Shulman

We’ve received praising comments on the videos we’ve published regarding the three of them, but it’s also true that some critiques have expressed that their work is not related to “normal” or “decent” housing for the majority, nor a humane “temporary solution” to address anything. Sharing design templates with others over the Internet is a powerful knowledge tool that can encourage people from other places and walks of life to consider aspects they previously had not envisioned.

To illustrate his approach to a “building blocks” template that allows anybody with a screwdriver and a mallet to build furniture, sheds, or houses of any size, Nick Newman used with us one analogy anybody can understand: U-Build boxes for self-build structures are something like “if IKEA and LEGO had a baby.”

Matrix-based innovation is not homogenization

Yet Newman’s explanation doesn’t necessarily promote industrial-scale standardization from a one-size-fits-all perspective. On the contrary, U-Build doesn’t predefine structure sizes or shapes, and the material used for its “building blocks” is conventional plywood. One commenter in the last video in which we feature Nick Newman and U-Build expresses his concerns about such modularity becoming an entry point for a world engulfed by the same templates reproduced en masse.

On the contrary, in defining our houses and urban grid, “the inferno of the same” (one expression by German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han about the contradictions of today’s society, searching for radical transparency and looking for pleasure in obsessive repetitions to buy and to consume as entertainment) seems to come from zoning and building code regulations, and not from bottom-up designers and makers.

Bruce Goff, erstwhile Bavinger House in Norman, Oklahoma (demolished in 2016), 1950

U-Build offers virtually infinite combinations using basic building blocks, leaning towards creativity (or difference) from uniformity in a very similar way as “information” gets rearranged in molecules and proteins. These are the building blocks of the “information to replicate” used by living organisms, from the simplest to human beings, thanks to RNA and DNA.

Such an approach to design is not a call to standardization but rather an invitation to iterate and play the way somebody would play with a set of very simple LEGO pieces; hence comparisons to the basic ideas expressed by the Japanese Metabolist movement are more relatable than cookie-cutter suburbia. U-Build is also relatable to matrix-based industrial design and architecture, with pioneers in the field, such as the indie creators of the Grid Beam modular system, Phil and Richard Jergenson, in Northern California.

Using good systems and templates to speed up change

Designers Ken Isaacs and Victor Papanek also played with matrix-based frameworks in which basic “building blocks” could create complex structures, just the same way anybody can play with LEGO or Erector Set. Yet a video explaining such an approach will find mixed opinions among people who look for different things. When a user posted that U-Build was “very creative,” another user replied to the comment (which had become the most popular in the early thread) with a “Fix housing, don’t downgrade.”

American suburbia, dominated by very strict single-family use zonification, lack of density, and absence of mixed-use buildings that could blend community and proximity, expanded thanks to regulatory decisions prioritizing some values over others. We have covered stories that try to realistically harmonize the gap between cookie-cutter housing developments and approaches that promote conviviality and active lifestyles, from the so-called “pocket neighborhoods” to modest but determined regulations that allow for partial densification of single-family use zoning, like the legalization by California, followed by other States, of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs, secondary homes, or also backyard homes).

Herb and Mary Greene, 1961 Image: Robert Alan Bowlby. Robert A. Bowlby Collection, American School Archives, University of Oklahoma Libraries

ADUs increase flexibility within families and also add their surface to the property. What should be considered as an incremental initiative in the right direction and something mainstream doesn’t elude controversy in the channel: most projects dimmed as appealing or interesting are sometimes flagged as “expensive” or “exclusive.”

Some ADUs are indeed personalized solutions that, in dealing with a lengthy permitting process, can extend over time and become expensive. Some California towns such as Clovis have actively sped up the ADU process by promoting pre-approved templates anyone in town can use (video). From the moment we visited Clovis to today, other places like Los Angeles allow design templates pre-approved in the area, such as an ADU story recently posted by Kirsten in Northeast LA.

Need for more partial (& perfectible) solutions

In trying to streamline the process, some ADU builders have tried to become rather “producers” of modular, prefabricated small homes (sometimes flat-pack, sometimes factory-ready, sometimes 3D-printed on-site) to benefit from economies of scale and, as a consequence, keep prices on check despite inflation and supply chain hurdles during the last years. We’ve extensively covered the field of modular backyard homes and even created a playlist with some of the most innovative models.

Some of the market-rate modular and prefabricated ADUs are costly, especially according to commenters looking at the process displayed by companies we have interviewed, such as Cover, Abodu, Modal, or Samara. However, almost no comment highlights one of the main differences between Accessory Dwelling Units and tiny houses: backyard homes become a part of the property’s square footage legally, with its obligations and advantages, whereas tiny homes are legally RVs and, therefore, tend to depreciate over time like any other consumer product (for example, a car). There are, of course, very particular tiny houses that will hold better with the passage of time (as there are cars that even appreciate over time for their perceived quality, exclusivity, scarcity, or a combination of these and other factors).

Things seem to be finally moving outside cities, yet such stories also get comments from people frustrated with housing prices. These projects, they say, aren’t for everybody. Of course not. The projects aimed at destitute people trying to get back on track aren’t for everybody. But each of these stories inspires and (we have learned over the years) can make a difference, if only by bringing a can-do attitude and eluding entrenched opinions.

A growing number of housing advocates, architects, and citizens analyze how building codes and zonification can shape a society and bring comparisons between developments of exclusive single-family use, parking requirements within city limits, and poor public transport networks and their counterparts in other developed countries from Europe or Asia.

Surroundings affect use, behavior, and wellbeing

In most areas, mixed-use streets, car-free streets, and high-density grids are forbidden by law; at the same time, some of these advocates remark that American city centers lost their vibrant combination of storefronts, mid-rise buildings for housing and offices, and affordable but effective public transportation grids such as tramway fleets.

These mixed-use city streets, with people on the street and a sense of higher conviviality, evolved over the decades —they state— into a less dense, more compartmentalized urbanism that prioritizes car use and requires a minimum amount of hollowed-out parking blocks in places that in the past had been denser, more alive, and more aesthetically pleasing. Perhaps more humane as well, they say.

It’s perhaps a bit too idealistic to think that in a short time, anybody can have the house they want to buy or rent in the community they imagine ideal. Still, it’s aspirations that move us towards goals with a certain quality some envision: electric cars over gas cars is a transformation happening in real time that, studies say, has already benefited air quality in urban and suburban areas, but both are cars and rely on the same conception of urbanism and mobility.

Areas designed for pedestrians, bicycles, and public transportation create networks of relations in real time that point-to-point errands made by car from the suburban driveway to the parking lot of the service visited can’t. Suppose people find alternatives to move around and make errands close enough to home in a safe environment to go on foot, biking, or by bus/tram. In that case, they will decrease their car reliance for close-to-home errands and start building stronger communities, the saying goes.

Some templates demonstrate how high-quality densification with mixed-use, good services, pedestrianization, and interesting architecture transform the urban experience and make it more pleasant for any age. Towns and cities across the world have shown models that can partially inspire a vernacular of denser communities in North America, and some of them exist across the US, from Charleston to Santa Barbara to Savannah, whereas new developments aim at integrating a such blend of privacy and conviviality, such as Culdesac in Arizona.

Bettering urbanism

Walkable urbanism doesn’t need to be cramped, dangerous, and polluted with traffic side by side with narrow sidewalks and a lack of bicycle paths. But so far, walkable urbanism becomes less legal and less of a reality the further to get from Charleston and Savannah in the South, or outside traditionally urban areas in the US Northeast, and outside medium-sized college towns across the Midwest and West, like Santa Barbara and Davis in California.

All these considerations are only a part of the picture. Every society has idiosyncrasies associated with values, place, and the generational zeitgeist (for example, the youth’s propensity to choose urban centers over suburbia received a shock due to a pandemic and the work-from-home culture it kickstarted).

There’s also a call to research a certain authenticity and connection with nature in individuals and families relocating in rural environments where raising a family and experimenting with permaculture can be compatible with teleworking and meeting like-minded people once in a while.

The utilitarian urge to provide the maximum benefit to as many people as possible shouldn’t be incompatible with the urge for experimentation in fields related to construction, housing policies, urbanism, and holistic approaches to what it means to “live” somewhere. Many highly idealistic experiments try to account for different ages, lifestyles, values, and incomes. Also, the meaning of “vernacular” carries different connotations to scholars of European tradition (and also to “traditionalists”) as to young professionals living somewhere in North America after being born somewhere different and having studied in another area.

Experimentation allows for new things to be put to the test. Lack of air conditioning in the US South and Southwest meant people would share moments in their porches with lemonade and some chat; air conditioning changed some of these opportunities for conviviality forever, yet nobody in humid and tropical areas will want to go back and hang out for hours in pre-A/C porches for the sake of tradition. We could argue a similar thing with electric lighting, modern sanitation, home appliances, mass media, etc.

The problem with Pleasantville pushers

The American vernacular doesn’t need to copycat old European models the same way music or literature don’t copy their counterparts but follow their own evolution (with, of course, legacy and influences), yet some developments and exurban commercial areas (the new “malls”) explore a tacky version of Disneyland-meets-Pleasantville-but-balloon-framing: a plasticky version of a dream doesn’t better the organicity of reality. The sense of space, values, and societies is different depending on where you go, so why would building codes ban experimentation for the sake of one-size-fits-all templates?

I recently read one article by Coby Lefkowitz about the importance of what he calls “magical places.” They make us feel and linger on something magical and beyond mere utility or aesthetics; places that make us dream and behave as perceptive or even cultural landmarks bring character to the local human experience.

Most of the time, such places don’t follow strict rules of style, vernacular, common sense, pure utility, or economics, and they include a higher dose of experimentation, naïveté, and risk-taking. They may behave as nineteenth-century follies to make us reflect on the Romantic discussion of what’s beautiful and what’s sublime (or beyond beautiful). Subjective perception, events, and the personalities of architects, builders, inhabitants, landscapes, or entire cities and cultures seem to be condensed in these “magical” places.

Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí wasn’t in fashion for decades among the local intellectual class of the twentieth century: too baroque, too “irrational,” too naïve, or worse. Yet Barcelona today can’t be understood without Gaudí’s dent into his perception of the sublime in the work that humans can achieve in a lifetime (or, in the case of his temple of the Sagrada Familia, they can set the work so others can finish what has to become a collective endeavor, like cathedrals in the old days).

The US prairies aren’t understandable in the American or global psyche without the work of modernist architect Frank Lloyd Wright, despite the effort of some so-called “traditionalists” that try to diminish his true impact on us all.

In search of what belongs to a place, a zeitgeist, and a long timeframe

Other less-known architects contributed with high work to the vernacular in “magical,” sometimes whimsical places.

If there’s something that should be considered at the same time modern, experimental, and also vernacular in the Central and South Central region of the US, is the whimsical experimentation of Herb Greene (Greene House in Norman, Oklahoma), and Tulsa’s celebrated architect (yet somehow unknown outside architecture circles) Bruce Goff, an architect who wasn’t afraid to explore organic and eclectic designs, just like Gaudí or Frank Lloyd Wright.

Goff’s influence is genuinely American, blending modernity, Native-American, and African American influences from the former Indian reservation that would, later on, become Tulsa. The city now comprises old land belonging to the Kiikaapoi (Kickapoo), Wahzhazhe Ma zha (Osage), Muscogee (Creek), and Caddo tribes, among others. The city also hosted the 1921 race massacre that ended with the bright future of the Greenwood district, also known back then as Black Wall Street, a prosperous African American neighborhood.

Goff started his career mastering conventional styles, then studied the Prairie Style by Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan as an American vernacular, though his childhood’s landscape and also sources like Antoni Gaudí, Claude Debussy, Eastern art, nature’s design helped him explore with little conventional restrictions. Herb Greene was one of his students.

Those who went to meet the place were Native American and pioneer culture intermingled, with the iconoclast allure of counterculture artifacts as the magazine Whole Earth Catalog, pushed the conversation for the rest. We shouldn’t settle with “the Inferno of the same.”