On Elegance and Energy Efficiency

Public Domain. Farman Goliath via Wikipedia

Dr. Steven Fawkes defines elegance as "the quality of being pleasingly ingenious and simple."

Towards a new architecture was the English title for Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture, a collection of essays written for a magazine starting in 1921. In a chapter extolling the virtues of airplanes, he notes that everything about an airplane “lies in the logic which governed the enunciation of the problem and which led to its successful realization.” In almost no time at all, the airplane had changed the world.

In Le Corbusier’s beloved airplanes, everything was about efficiency and economy; pilots then and now had to know the weight of everything and the exact amount of fuel to get that plane and its contents to its destination. Airlines today spend billions on new planes that squeeze out the most passenger-miles per pound of fuel. If you didn’t have enough fuel, you had a serious problem.

Today, we have a different kind of fuel problem – we have to stop burning it, we have to stop releasing the carbon dioxide that is cooking the planet. That means thinking about radical efficiencies, rethinking both the design of our houses and where we put them. Corb wrote:

The airplane shows us that a problem well stated finds its solution. To wish to fly like a bird is to state the problem badly... To invent a flying machine having in mind nothing alien to pure mechanics, that is to say, to search for a means of suspension in the air and a means of propulsion, was to put the problem properly: in less than ten years, the whole world could fly.
BLeriot Spad

Bleriot Spad via Wikipedia/Public Domain

Today, we have another problem well stated: We have twelve years to cut our carbon emissions in half. Dr. Steven Fawkes looks at the issue in his blog, titling his post Elegance and Energy Efficiency. The Oxford Dictionary defines elegance as "The quality of being pleasingly ingenious and simple; neatness."

I was immediately reminded of Le Corbusier and his airplanes. Dr. Fawkes even uses an airplane analogy of his own – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French pilot and author: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

He applies this principle to buildings, and notes how we have failed:

We have the technology and the know-how to design systems that are highly energy efficient, even energy positive – but we don’t typically use them because we engineer systems using conservative thinking and standard techniques. These systems are clunky (defined as “solid, heavy and old fashioned”) in their use of materials and energy, much of which is simply wasted.

Dr. Fawkes describes the system that I have in my own hundred-year-old house, with a gas boiler and pump circulating hot water to big cast iron radiators and a few modern panels, controlled by a thermostat that is in the wrong place (people upstairs freeze while we are warm). He notes that the heat leaks away through the walls and through air leakage, leading to high heating bills and unnecessary carbon dioxide emissions.

Dr. Fawkes makes a case for the Passive House as being simple and elegant compared to my leaky and clunky old house, which is built the way many new houses are in the UK. He places it within a larger context.

Now contrast that clunky system with a house designed to Passive House standards. It will have very high levels of insulation, higher performance windows and doors, a vapour barrier and a mechanical ventilation system with heat recovery. It will use 5-10% of the energy of a comparable house built to normal standards....
Simply put, as well as a number of other advantages such as low running costs, healthier environment and greater resilience, a Passive House building has elegance; the quality of being pleasingly ingenious and simple; neatness.

Dr. Fawkes has another quote about elegance that reminds me of Le Corbusier's airplanes: “The goal of elegance is to maximize effect with minimum means.”

This is the way we have to think about our buildings today: use materials with a minimum of embodied carbon (which is why I like wood so much) with a minimum of fuss (which is why I praise dumb boxes) but with good proportions (which is why I hashtag Bronwyn Barry's #BBB or Boxy But Beautiful). And now, as Dr. Steven Fawkes concludes:

It is time we demanded elegance in design and stopped accepting conventional, clunky, energy guzzling buildings, industrial systems, vehicles and other stuff.
Farman Goliath

Farman Goliath via Wikipedia/Public Domain

Le Corbusier noted that the world of aviation changed in ten years by sticking to essentials, "having in mind nothing alien to pure mechanics." We have to do the same with buildings and transportation in about the same length of time. Dr. Fawkes is pointing us in the right direction. Read all of his article here.