The Urgency of Getting It All Right

Architect Jesse Thompson of Kaplan Architects on the need for a new design theory

Q. How has your approach to design changed in 2020?

A. So, 2020. The year that tried to beat us all down using every trick in the book. What does design theory do when confronted by a global pandemic? What does design theory say about a West Coast on fire and our state in an extreme drought? A year when thriving businesses are suddenly shuttered and schools closed with little warning? What kind of design theory can survive this onslaught? I think what we have to do is get it all right.

I’m not a particularly deep thinker. I’m someone who believes in action, and in stubbornly trying and experimenting until what you do gradually gets better. Learning from smarter people than you. Writing down lists of the mistakes you’ve made so you don’t make them again. Fairly simple stuff. The design theory we need right now is to be architects of all things at once, a theory of getting everything right at once.

Q. How do we go about that without compromising on behalf of one aspect? I think you’ll need to break it down for us.

A. Sounds like a tall order, right? Isn’t just making a beautiful building hard enough? It must be, or we wouldn’t be surrounded by so many ugly creations. Many architects have spent their entire careers focused only on beauty, since that alone is such a challenging pursuit. At the same time, aesthetics alone has never been enough. We also need the technical and the ethical moving along with us, as equal partners.

If we’re honest, we know why the technical and the ethical get shortchanged in our profession. We shouldn’t be surprised that the invisible might be a harder sell than what our eyes readily understand. Get to “good enough” with our minimum needs satisfied, and technical and ethical excellence often drops away, happily out of the picture.

Q. Any recent projects you feel encompass this philosophy?

A. What is especially strange about our present time of rolling disasters is that architects and builders across Maine are assembling buildings on a daily basis that perform in a way that would be indistinguishable from magic to someone in 1960 (to use Arthur C. Clarke’s definition of “sufficiently advanced science”). Our Ecology School project in Saco will feed 200 people three times a day and shelter them from the weather in every season, powered entirely by the sun. Our Passive House work with Avesta Housing is exceeding our governor’s 2030 climate action goals right now for hundreds of Mainers a year who lack deep pockets, all for rock-bottom construction costs.

Q. Many of us want to build in a responsible way, but sometimes price gets in the way. Can we have high-performance homes without paying higher costs to build them?

A. Home building is expensive, no question about it. However, if you can afford to build a house right now, you can build a net-zero house for the same cost as a “bad” house, as long as you are in for the long haul and not flipping it. We’ve built net-zero homes at all budgets, from affordable housing to luxurious homes so we know that price doesn’t need to be a limitation in any way. A mere 10 years ago the cost might have been beyond the reach of the average homeowner, but the cost of solar panels alone have dropped by 80 percent in 10 years—we are in a completely different time. We wouldn’t see fields of solar going up across Maine if the economics weren’t right right now!

Q. Now let’s go back to beauty. As an editor of a design magazine, I must say form is important to many of us. How do we get form to be functional in a responsible way?

A. Without beauty we’re lost, clearly! It’s just that we don’t have to choose between beauty and function, that’s the misperception. Every shelter magazine regularly publishes features on gorgeous homes that were built for over $1,000 per square-foot that still burn fossil fuels by the truckload (literally, in Maine). I’ve become more convinced it’s because we don’t lust after “better” in all aspects enough, not because of cost or technical skill. We just haven’t decided that the “better” we can all achieve is something we all deserve yet.

We actually have all the tools in hand right now. We know how to design healthy, tough buildings that lift the spirit and delight the eye. We just need to know they are possible and start to want them as much as we lust after all the other fabulous aspects of shelter.

This current moment has surely exposed the danger of that minimal thinking. We have a nation of empty schools and office buildings that we have walked away from out of fear they will make us sick. And what of the hurricanes, fires, and floods? What bare minimum effort will all those buildings expose?

All we have to do is get it all right. Sounds like a fun challenge, doesn’t it?

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