July 02, 2012

Test Drive your City

by: Kirby Hoyt


Today’s post is by contributing writer Kirby Hoyt:

What if cities were construed as automobiles are? What would that look like? What would that be like? Currently, the design, production, marketing and sales of autos and homes, at least on the surface, seem fairly similar. Each offer new designs, finish options and utility packages, financing, etc. But if you scratch the surface, you find there are major differences. For instance, an automobile company will invest considerable resources into the research and development of their vehicles. Auto manufacturers are always looking for newer and better technologies that translate into a marketable advantage. One of the ways they develop and test these technologies is through racing.

Racing entails iterative design and testing of individual and comprehensive systems on multiple levels, with the most important test being race day. Being somewhat of a race enthusiast, I recently watched quite a bit of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and I must admit, this was truly a test of endurance for both driver and machine. The three drivers of each vehicle are mandated to take a break after three hours but the car continues for the entire 24 hours. Now this is 24 hours of hard and fast racing, a bit tougher than driving to the store for groceries.

Racing has brought all of us safer vehicles that are more durable and reliable than ever. When a car crashes at 150 miles per hour on the race track, the need to figure out how to allow the car to respond to the situation so the driver survives is paramount. The components we find on today’s autos are direct descendants from racing cars. Now how does this compare to housing?

From what I gather, most of the innovations take place from homebuilding associations, product manufacturers, architects, and universities, not the homebuilders themselves. This is understandable since the resources to compete would be steep and that would drive some builders out of business. Also, homebuilders survey their buyers about their homes, asking them what they like and dislike. To many, this doesn’t seem like a model for innovation. Supposedly Henry Ford once said “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”

One of the places where innovation and creativity is originating is through architects. They have been constantly pushing the envelope with home design. The famous French architect Le Corbusier once termed a house as a “machine for living.” With this logic, one would continuously look to construct a better machine. Machines that become more resilient with age; that transform waste into energy; that “learn” to accommodate their inhabitants; and that self-diagnose problems in advance. Architects and their colleagues in academia are looking at ways to do these things. Somehow the advancements are not translating into home construction.

Balloon framing, once the most popular building construction method in the United States, was first documented as being used in Chicago in 1832 (no cars yet) and continued until the 1950’s. It evolved into platform framing, otherwise known as “stick construction.” Now I know the old saying “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.”  Well, car companies don’t adhere to that logic because they understand that continuous R&D will provide better products and keep them ahead of the competition.

I remember the funny rebuttal from the auto industry when those in the computer industry joked about how cars were not keeping up with the times. Their response included comments about driving your car down on the highway, everything seems fine, and then it would crash for no reason. Okay, I understand that different products and services can’t be judged the same way. But is enough being done to continually raise the bar on how homes are being constructed, how they perform, and the quality of construction?

Quite a bit of research claims that homes built in a factory save resources and are constructed at a higher level. This concept of the pre-fab home has made a strong comeback in recent years, mostly because of architects creating compelling designs and the economic and environmental benefits. Even shipping containers have become vogue in recent years because of this movement, yet are there any homebuilders creating neighborhoods out of shipping containers? Probably not (faster horses, remember?).

One of the most exciting developments coming out of the academic world is the Solar Decathlon, where students compete to create innovatively designed homes with minimal energy inputs. As some of us have found, there hasn’t been much cross-communication between the results of this competition and the homebuilding reality.

Another overlooked part of the homebuilding world has been the planning and site design of housing communities. Locally, the bar is still quite low when it comes to community design. When New Urbanism came along in the 1980’s it took some time to be accepted and to adapt to multiple concerns, one of the primary being financing. The successes were documented and slowly the movement grew to the mainstream. The buzzword today is Agrarian Urbanism. This is an idea of suburban life over-lapped with agricultural conditions that allow dwellers access to local food, shared community amenities, and innovative housing. Our firm – EDGE Industries –  is currently developing one of these communities in Phoenix and we are finding ways to synthesize design, technology, and societal issues in positive ways.

Personally I believe that if we continually strive for better products, whatever they are, we can realize more sustainable ways of living – healthier, safer, and longer lasting.

Photo credit: A rendering of agrarian urbanism by the author.

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2 Responses

  1. Gene Holmerud says:

    How about growing food in your own back porch or back yard? That’s pretty accessible to Agrarian Urbanism. See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kirsten-dirksen/aquaponics-garden-technology_b_1628133.html and the farming in this FB album http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.103588126374475.4944.100001698631256&type=3

  2. Juan Lagarrigue says:

    Well, racing, you’re right, but….. when those car parts are sold in a commercial vehicle, they’re also put into a “experience” package in which each brand tries to stand out from the competition by combining more than efficiency and function, they sell “form” above all. Now cities are/were trying to reinvent themselves under those marketing rules, being a “experience” rather than just another subdivision, right? And to me there is the main flaw; trying to design something that needs to grow within. Why do we like Venice ( or Pamplona)? More and more I’m convinced that is not the proportions or the dimensions or the cobbles, but the inefficiency, the bad working plumbing, the puddles in the streets and the stray cats, the galloping table and the chipped coffee cup.When the city became trade currency for speculators, efficiency and bottom line took helm and it’s impossible to argue against it…. just my two cents.

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