Against Disposable Architecture: Moss Wants to Design for the Duration

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We’ve been thinking, lately, about the tragedy of disposable architecture.  An important part of our design ethos at moss is to avoid ideas that are just trendy and by their nature will be out of fashion and need to be replaced in a few months, years or even decades – in other words, design that is disposable.

Last weekend my mother noticed a block of apartments being torn down and commented that she’d lived there in the 70’s when it had already been quite elderly and a little rundown.  Wasn’t it a shame that the nice old building with good bones had to go?  A moment later, she realized that her turn-of-the-century apartment building was still standing.  It was the 60’s era unit next door being demolished.

She was relieved. I wasn’t surprised.  A walk through any Chicago neighborhood will show you the same thing – older cottages, greystones and courtyard apartments stand while newer buildings tossed up in the 80’s are being torn right back down again.  We’ve talked about the tragedy of teardown’s in Chicago’s neighborhoods before now.

What makes a building disposable?

Construction standards declined sharply as mass produced building materials became the norm.  At the same time houses began to be filled with objects both fixed and moveables closely linked to trends and not intended to last.  A 2007 study by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) lists the expected lifespans of home construction components from light switches to termite proof foundations and while some of the items are expected to last “a lifetime,” many more are only intended for 5-15 years.  How can a building composed of disposable building materials and finishes out last its components?

In some cases the function of the building is quickly outlasted.  This might just be a question of a house being too small (or large) for the shifting demographics of its area, or of a factory building where factory jobs are outsourced to another location.  Buildings originally designed for too-specific of a purpose are hard to adapt to changing times and situations.

There is also the question of “style.”  A perfectly sturdy, functional building can be targeted for tear down if its hated by its owners or neighbors.  There’s no perfect answer to prevent a building from going “out of style,” nor do we want to suggest that designers work only with what has been done before and avoid all visual risk.  Still, the unlovely buildings of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s were hard to love even at the time.  They have aged poorly.  No one is rooting for them to keep standing or willing to do the maintenance work needed to keep any building hale and weather resistant.

What does a building need in order to last? 

Well, good luck plays a part.  Any particular damage, an unfortunate site, or an impatient owner can doom even the best of buildings.  But all other things being equal, staying power does depend on design.

To last, buildings must be both sturdy enough to stand the winds of time, useful or adaptable enough to stay in use, and likable enough that people will want to use them.

These concepts aren’t new.  The probably pre-date the Roman architectural chronicler Vitruvius who coined the eponymous vitruvian triad of all good buildings: Firmitas, Utilitas and Venustas, or firmness, commodity and delight.  He proposed that any building be structurally viable, that it serve some useful purpose and that it be aesthetically pleasing in some way.

True sustainability certainly demands that we consider how a building can last as we design it.  

As designers, we feel it is vital to lend our effort to the preservation of buildings both current and future.  We can do that by working with existing building shells – remodeling, adapting and reusing wherever possible.  When we build new we need to design with the future in mind, creating durable, adaptable spaces that will be used and loved for generations to come.  

Enough disposable buildings already!