Adaptive Architecture (3): It’s role in collaborate community development

We continue our serialization of Eric Hunting’s essay, which we started on the 25th.

Eric Hunting:

Adaptive architecture offers the potential to radically alter the logistics of habitat compared to common contemporary development methods, expanding personal and social control over development and shifting things back to a mode of habitat more akin to that of pre-industrial times. It does this by reducing or eliminating the barriers of cost and time in the physical adaptation of structure and by the decoupling of the value of buildings from land, fundamentally altering the perspective of property. The wholly demountable building is an astoundingly disruptive technology when you think about it.

Traditionally, the value of land has been interdependent with how it is used -how it’s ‘developed’- and thus interdependent with the structures put on it. This relies on the essential non-changeability of conventional architecture -on that irrational assumption of architectural permanence. This has created the very peculiar phenomenon -or cultural delusion…- of perpetual real estate appreciation, which, as we have painfully learned in the past few years in the western world, is not sustainable.

The demountable building has a value independent of land because, at any time, it can be picked up and moved whole to some other location or even sold off as parts. It can also be radically altered in value and use through a reconfiguration of components. This reduces the value of land to that based purely on demand for raw space while affording the structures on it a very independent valuation based on unit component condition and re-salability. This would not automatically mean that a building must radically depreciate like an automobile or mobile home. Their depreciation is based on their engineered obsolescence -their deliberate design for irreparability. However, unlike a conventional building which has its value tied to land, it would depreciate according to the vicissitudes of market value on a discrete component basis, some parts wearing faster than others, some retaining market value relative to demand, some even appreciating. In other words, the relative value of the structure over time becomes akin to the values of furniture. You can buy the cheap and disposable stuff, buy stuff that lasts, or even buy antiques that appreciate in value.

Whether as part of primary cultures or later cultures, most people in the world for most of human history did not individually own land; either because they had no need to own it in any formal sense to use it or because ownership was limited to small ruling classes/castes. Though we often think of cities today as somehow a very recent advent of civilization, for most of history people have, out of simple necessity, lived at an urban density in a village-oriented habitat -even when that village was no more than a shared cave or a mobile collection of light huts or tents. The use of space in such early communities was subject largely to a peer-to-peer process of negotiation between immediate neighbors and often the whole community, initially in a very casual manner but increasingly formally as the nature of the built habitat became more sophisticated and the structures involved more substantial and dependent upon communal labor to create. Often community leaders, elders, or sometimes the ruling-class land owners or their assigned representatives assumed the role of mediator for these negotiations. All space was essentially ‘free’ for use but communities tended to create specific collective structures for protection, resource efficiency, and convenience, compelling one to participate in a negotiation for one’s share of space and location in the community layout. In such an environment egalitarianism tended to prevail because of a very direct peer pressure for fairness and equity and a dependence on one’s neighbors for building labor -if not for survival in general. As a result, most personal dwellings tended to be consistent in basic space, form, and design, though were free for elaboration, customization, and decoration within the limits of personal labor or labor one could trade for or coax free from one’s neighbors in some way. One was always cognizant of the fact that one’s rights to any particular space in a community were secondary to the needs of the community as a whole -or for that matter the will of the ruling lord or the like who might actually own the land and could decide at any particular time that he had better uses for it. But as a participating member of the community one was always assured that if one was compelled to move, the community would pitch-in collectively to make that move as convenient as possible and provide one with equivalence in replacement accommodations -or even some improvement as compensation for being compelled to move. And, of course, these decisions -because the labor involved could be so high- were very well deliberated and did not happen that often except where communities relied on architecture that required regular structural replacement -as in the case of buildings employing lighter organic materials.

This very social process of negotiation and deliberation over the use of space resulted in a typically very organic and evolutionary character to the architecture of early communities with a very specific hierarchy of social propriety played-out in structure in a sometimes fractal-like self-similarity of hierarchical architectural organization. This was particularly apparent in communities that developed vernacular architectures based on walled enclosures and court or atrium structures -clustered dwellings surrounding a shared open space deriving from the most efficient use of a walled enclosure- where a successive hierarchy of enclosed open spaces physically denoted the levels of social propriety in the community, as well as sometimes indicating phases of growth. The smallest of these open spaces represented the family domain, which in turn surrounded a space defining a small village, tribal, or extended family level of domain, which in turn could be organized in larger cities around massive public squares or plazas linked by primary thoroughfares and sometimes used to compartmentalize major tribal, religious, ethnic, or social class divisions and then in later periods often became the basis of organizing communities around trades and industries with trade guilds given habitat territories just like a major tribal group. (from this may derive, in modern cities, the tendency for regional commercial specialization in cities almost as if it were being organized like a gigantic department store or market bazar)

Though early dwellings were often based on high labor construction -particularly stone and earthen construction- and could sometimes withstand the elements for centuries, attitudes about their permanence and value were very different from that of dwellings today. A relatively young community would, of necessity, rely on smaller simpler dwellings that were more easily changeable based on the need for the community as a whole to work out its ultimate persistent architecture as a process of trial and error and because the net pool of labor was relatively small. As the structure of the community became more stratified with experience, it was safer for individuals to invest a lot of their own elaboration on initial structures and thus they would tend to expand in size. In situations where there was an upper-class land-owner such as a feudal lord, they generally regarded all buildings as disposable no matter what amount of labor might have gone into them. Serfs/tenants had little incentive to invest in their dwellings where their future was less certain and so would tend to keep dwellings simple unless they were in closer proximity to civil structures dictated by the ruler and which thus had a better chance of being left unmolested across generations. In some cultures all or most structures were automatically disposable because they relied on light materials that needed whole replacement on a regular basis or because religious traditions -often with a rationale in disease control- required the ritualistic destruction of a dwelling after the death of an occupant. In Japan, the cultivation of the ‘ken system’ and modular building vernaculars that so inspired Modernist designers was in part compelled by frequent war, earthquake, whimsical edicts by nobility, and outbreaks of fire that required a very pragmatic attitude about the long term survivability of architecture and created the need for structures that were light, potentially demountable, and easily replaced with more valuable personal possessions kept small and easily transported. It was a common practice in Japanese cities and towns prior to the Meiji Period to build communal fireproof safety vaults of heavy masonry in which residents would quickly secure valuables removed from their homes when word of an advancing fire reached them. Clearly, this modern notion of the house as a permanent repository of life-long accumulated wealth is a very recent concept that seems very dependent upon the security provided by the home insurance and banking industries, which as we have increasingly seen is incapable of coping with disaster or disruption on a regional scale.

Adaptive architecture compels a similarly pragmatic attitude about the disposition of the personal dwelling and the nature of property. By decoupling the value of structure from the value of land through demountability, new -or perhaps we should say more traditional- models of property become apparent and we return to a situation where habitat becomes a social construct rather than an economic construct. In the conventional real estate market there generally exist only two options in the disposition of dwellings owing to the strict coupling of structure to land value; total ownership and total lease. One either owns ones dwelling and its land whole or own rents a dwelling owned whole by someone else. Mobile homes have created the potential third option in the form of ownership of dwelling independent of rental of space -which was actually a common situation in earlier times- but the horrendously poor quality of mobile homes and their very rapid depreciation relative to their cost and the high cost of rental space to put them on has made this a userous option of last resort for a desperate underclass unwilling or unable to move to cities. With adaptive architecture that has a high degree of demountability (and with that perpetual incremental maintainability like conventional buildings) one can regard a building as a portable possession akin to the furniture inside it and thus a broad spectrum of options opens up between these two ownership extremes. A commercial land owner now has options to lease space much like space in an office building without a large investment in structures or can choose to build superstructures to increase density of use without a great investment in finishing. A home owner now has many possible gradations of ownership to transition between on the way to full scale home ownership with labor cost largely eliminated by modularity and industrial production of building components a home owner can easily assemble himself. They can invest in a home incrementally, relocating as necessary to obtain more more space, and choose at any time between components that are new or used/refurbished and bought on a house parts aftermarket. The scale of dwellings can freely fluctuate according to their varying use. One can add or sell off parts of a home incrementally as one’s household space needs grow and shrink.

But what’s most interesting here is the potential in the community context for collective land ownership with a peer-to-peer socially collaborative process of space allocation. Like these early communities, a community based on adaptive architecture can assume collective ownership of a large piece of land -perhaps through the model of a corporation- and then use any social process it desires to allocate space for its individuals with the whole habitat free to evolve at a very rapid pace to accommodate trial-and-error cultivation of experience and refinement of overall community architecture. There are many possible models to explore in this context; Kelsonian models of community investment corporations, group collectivization of discrete parcels, state ownership and granting of land as a commons under community management, and so on. These things become practical to explore because one’s personal investment in structure remains independent of location and independently fungible down to the discrete component level.

Such models anticipate the situation of Post-Industrial civilization, where progressive functional failure of nation-states coupled to cultural trends of demassification and the rise of industrial independence result in communities, both physical and virtual, becoming the essential functional geopolitical and geoeconomic entities and needing to cultivate a system of property rights more akin to a global system of squatters’ rights than what we are familiar with today. In this environment, very different cultural models of property are likely to emerge. Western civilization has generally adopted a rather primitive concept of property rights deriving from medieval religious notions of divine right and dominionism -god as ultimate landlord granting rights to his chosen upper-caste authorities (his will reasoned out of success in warrior conquest) for similar disbursement by grant, lease, or sale. It’s a weird model that assumes that everything must be owned by someone in order to exist or be of use. In contemporary law this model persists, with bureaucratic nation-states assuming the role of earlier kings and popes and the concept of divine right rooted in the sometimes near-psuedo-religion of patriotism along with it. We really haven’t progressed very far beyond the Magna Carta in the past 800 years… In primary cultures, with their commonly animistic belief systems, a much more sophisticated model tends to prevail. The earth owns itself -often being attributed with some existence as an organism or personality- which, most of the time, deigns to allow human beings to do as they please on its surface. It’s up to the community to figure out how to manage this use according to the balance between the needs of individuals and the group as well as the dictates of natural order and balance. Thus property rights are a negotiable social convention limited by the willingness of a community to recognize and defend them by force where necessary. This is the actual logical/physical reality of property, this model more sophisticated -despite our common perceptions of these cultures as primitive- by virtue of that fact that it does not attempt to disguise this essential fact with mythology or religion. In the future property will increasingly be measured in terms of ‘use bandwidth’ over material possession -your rights to use as opposed to ownership of some measured portion- as is the case of the ‘real estate’ of a computer network. We can only speculate at how this cultural evolution may play out, but it is clear that the unique virtues of adaptive architecture and their impact on the conventional real estate market may play a very important role in it.”

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.