In Praise of the Dumb Box

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CC BY 2.0. Not so dumb building in Toronto/ Lloyd Alter

Architect Mike Eliason explains why simpler (and dumber) makes better buildings.

Dumb boxes that are under 6 stories can be manageable in long periods without power, whereas tall skyscrapers are problematic under the same conditions. And a neighborhood of dense, dumb boxes only increases that resilience.

Recently I was discussing the design of a new residential building in Toronto, where the building codes changed not too long ago to prohibit all-glass facades and limit openings. Every new building now has jogs, pushes and pulls, and colours to try and give it some variety; I suggested that architects should just go to Europe and see what they do with clean, well-proportioned simple boxes. It was a different aesthetic that people were just going to have to get used to, what Architect Bronwyn Barry hashtags as #BBB, or "Boxy But Beautiful.”

Simple is better for many reasons; that’s why I wrote In Praise of the Dumb Home a few years ago. Now Mike Eliason looks at the bigger picture and writes In Praise of Dumb Boxes. He notes that “ ‘dumb boxes’ are the least expensive, the least carbon intensive, the most resilient, and have some of the lowest operational costs compared to a more varied and intensive massing.” There are so many ways that dumb boxes are not so dumb:

Dumb Boxes are less expensive

credit: Simple forms, basic materials, nice proportions in Munich/ Lloyd Alter

Simple forms, basic materials, nice proportions in Munich/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Every time a building has to turn a corner, costs are added. New details are required, more flashing, more materials, more complicated roofing. Each move has a corresponding cost associated with it.

Dumb boxes are the least carbon intensive

dumb box

Dumb box with dumb chain link fence balconies in Berlin/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The more jogs and bumps, the more surface area and the more material needed to cover it and to hold it up. This is why I wrote so much about 56 Leonard in New York, where they do everything they can to maximize jogs and surface area. I wrote:

If we are going to ever get a handle on our CO2, we are going to see a lot more tall urban buildings without big windows, without bumps and jogs. Perhaps we might even have to reassess our standards of beauty.

Dumb Boxes are more resilient

Rows of dumb boxes in Munich

Rows of low dumb boxes in Munich/CC BY 2.0

Dumb boxes have reduced operating costs

simple exteriors

Simple exteriors of dumb boxes in Vienna/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Dumb boxes are great from an energy consumption stand point because they’re more efficient owing to lower surface area to volume ratio over buildings with more intensive floor plans.This is why have been such a critic of Bjarke! who goes out of his way to increase surface area and add complications, creating buildings that I believe will become maintenance and operating nightmares down the road. Every jog, bump and twist is ultimately a potential leak and thermal bridge.I have been following Mike’s work and learned a lot from him over the years, and he has pulled a lot of different threads together to write the article I wish I had written. While he is talking about Seattle in particular here, the themes are universal. In praise of dumb boxes is a keeper.