How Much Does Your Household Weigh?

CC BY 2.0. Bucky Fuller's original Dymaxion House

We have to seriously concentrate our minds on the embodied carbon of stuff we have, and the operating carbon it emits.

We have often quoted Bucky Fuller's question: How much does your house weigh? He first asked it when trying to market his very light Dymaxion House and later asked it of Norman Foster. I have always been preoccupied with how much things weigh; just before I entered architecture school I tried to bicycle from Toronto to Vancouver. As I noted in an MNN post, "I have never forgotten that everything weighs something and every ounce matters; in architecture I always tended toward light and portable and minimal."

While researching for a recent post, How much does your car weigh? I came upon a fascinating article written in 2009 by William Braham, then Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, titled How much does your household weigh? He wrote:

The same question should be asked about today’s buildings — for environmental reasons, since each additional pound of material requires more energy and resources to manufacture, transport and assemble, not to mention to heat, cool, clean and maintain after construction. Designers and clients alike can be easily misled by sustainability ratings that ignore size or scale and focus on minor aspects of a building’s total environmental effect. How important is the efficiency of a furnace if the house is super-sized? Or if it requires a long car commute? Environmentalists in the ’70s used to joke that it was more efficient to live in an apartment in a dense city with the windows open all winter than to live in a solar house with an hour-long commute — a contention that would depend on the location of the city and the size of the car. The point is to get the scale right.

Professor Braham notes also that there is much more to our buildings than just the original structure. "Architects necessarily focus on the physical scale of buildings and sites, but environmental flows and effects operate at many other scales and along other dimensions, from the biochemical to the global." Those other dimensions include the fourth -- time.

Chris Magwood

Chris Magwood at Boots on the Ground/ Photo Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

A lot of people have 2050 on their minds these days, after the release of the latest IPCC report on climate. That's when we are supposed to be emitting zero carbon. However, I recently attended a short presentation by Chris Magwood about his Masters thesis on embodied energy vs operating energy in buildings, and realized that we all have to become very concerned about our emissions over time. (More on this when I get permissions and more information from Magwood.) Braham writes, "When we make visible the spatial and temporal dimensions of design projects, the object of environmental design shifts and changes."

And it isn't just our buildings, it is all the stuff in them. The weight of our households includes "the cars, appliances, furniture, clothes and stuff that fill houses, garages, self-storage cubicles, even the offices to which we commute. It may not be quite as crisply palpable as Fuller’s question, but a better question for environmental design would be: “How much does your household weigh?”

Samuel Johnson wrote: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” We have our own deadlines now for cutting our carbon emissions. We should be concentrating our minds.