Less is Core

Margaret Barclay & John Scholz have big dreams of designing small(er)

It was more than a decade ago, but designers John Scholz and Margaret Barclay remember it well: “The auditorium at the AIA Convention was packed with architects, engineers, and builders eager for the latest news on advances in alternative energy and energy-efficient design. The MIT professor, and expert in solar panel research and design, strode to the mic and opened with an unexpected salvo: the greatest impact we professionals will have on creating a sustainable future will come from convincing our clients to build smaller.” This was more than a decade ago and the truth of the statement has not changed. MH+D asked Scholz and Barclay to explain.

Q. How has the average home size evolved in the last few decades?

A. In the 1970s and 1980s, the average home was less than 1,800 square feet. New home size had ballooned to 2,465 square feet, one-third larger, by the first decade of the 21st-century despite the 17% decrease in size of the average household. And it is not just floor area that has increased. In the 1970s, only 17% of homes had ceilings greater than eight feet high. This number, indicative of the overall heated volume of a home, has since increased to more than half.

Q. But aren’t we at least building more energy-conscious homes now?

A. The good news is that these larger homes are, on average, consuming only 2% more energy per year than the older, smaller homes. This is thanks to improved insulation, window design, and increased energy efficiency in heating systems and appliances. However, if average home size had remained at 1,800 square feet and the same design improvements had been applied to their construction, we could have expected to see their energy use plummet.

In addition to energy consumed, one must also consider the energy embodied in the structure itself. Embodied energy is the sum of all the energy required to produce the home including natural resources, manufacturing processes, transportation, waste, and human resources and even takes into account the potential end-of-lifecycle costs of destruction. Clearly, the smaller the building, the less energy it embodies.

Q.What does this mean for the future of design? 

A. Residential design is largely client driven, and design programs are often as much a matter of aspiration as of actual need. If we are to create a more sustainable future, our aspirations as a culture need to shift. They need to shift from the celebration of extravagance to the appreciation of simplicity, from the mania for acquisition to the pleasure of the truly useful, from the need for the new to the reimagining of the old, and from the compartmentalization of activities to the embrace of a richer use of space.

Designers teamed with forward-thinking clients can show the way, and design publications can display the beauty, ease, and comfort possible in spatially efficient homes, imagining a new American dream. But, a cultural course correction toward a more sustainable housing model will only happen if there are enough dreamers, enough people who are willing to repudiate the old paradigm of more is better and make less a core value.

Scholz & Barclay Architecture | scholzandbarclay.com | 207.236.0777

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