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Variability

The formulae that one learns in school which so beautifully describe and prescribe the world around us are made up of these things called variables and sometimes constants. Tantalizingly, if the constants are varied, the effect is often a whole new unrecognizable reality. Writers and film makers have often played with this toy and we have some fine and fun entertainment as a result. But playing with constants can also be highly instructive in two ways. First it calls into question the validity of the constant itself and second it sheds light on the behavior of the other variables in the formula. It exposes their sensitivity to the constant and to each other and it may shed light on the physical arena the formula was designed to describe.

As I have noted before, architecture is not physics, and efforts to quantify our subjective discipline must always be accompanied by the asterisk of doubt. After all we really cannot ever expect our experiments to yield the certainty that the quadratic formula or Newton's gravitational equation. But despite the subjectivity and complexity of distilling architecture into Xs and Ys, it is still worth the effort. If forces us to think deeply about what architecture means, if anything; it enhances our understanding of the building blocks of the discipline; and it gives us hope that we can find ways to produce a more objectively satisfying built environment.

In my last post I described the importance of the sun as a factor in design. At the end of the piece I placed that factor in the context of other important considerations one of which, street aesthetic or appearance from the street, is to a large extent a constant in the following sense. That a building is perceived positively by any passing viewer, engaged or not, captive or not, known or not is of extreme value to the owner on whom some judgment may or may not pass. We care about how our building, particularly our home appears; much as we often care about how we look to others. Ada Louise Huxtable, the renown architecture critic says it well in her commentary on the Getty Center in Los Angeles, "Architecture keeps no secrets. It is the great communicator. It tells us everything we need to know, and more about those who conceive and build the structures..." Yet this power and the resultant concern about how we are perceived through our architecture tends to distort the design process. Judgments can and will be made on appearance and there is certainly something fundamentally pleasing about a well designed facade but we tend to overvalue this visual first blush effect. I am not after a wholesale dismissal of street aesthetic. But I am questioning its level of importance. I want to vary this constant along a spectrum from "it matters a lot" to "it matters a little", in essence creating a better balance among the variables in the architectural formula. Unlike the gravitational constant, I argue that a change to this value, while it would certainly alter the built environment, would not change life as we know it. Indeed if we were less concerned about aesthetic judgment and more concerned about the beneficial behavior of, for instance, ideal orientation to the sun, we might find the world to be a better place. Which leads to the question, what are our goals in designing buildings? If the answer is we want to look great from the street and be sort of efficient, then we can continue to design the way we do now. But as another variable - this one the economic variable, energy cost, increases rapidly, we will find its corresponding indirect effect on building design to be street altering indeed.

I know a house, a long narrow rectangle conceived and built in 1949 that is oriented exactly to the axes of the compass. It is not parallel to the street, nor does the facade that most clearly represents the front give any nod to some perceived aesthetic value accorded that position. As an aside, the late Dr. Norman Fisher told me during a tour of his sublime Louis Kahn designed home here in Hatboro, that Kahn said to him that there is no front to a house. We cannot vary the placement of any property relative to the street or approach nor can we vary the relationship of that property to the sun. But we can choose to consider both factors as we design. In the case of this home, because the "street facade" faces due north it is mostly bereft of windows. The opposite side, the rear or south facade of course faces due south and these walls are completely glass. The east side is partially glass and the west is mostly blank. Now this home was designed in a time of exceptionally cheap energy and many aspects of the home, particularly the lack of insulation and thin panes of uninsulated glass, belie the simple but profoundly effective nod to the sun that the designers made in the interest, I believe, of energy efficiency. Only one other trick is deployed in an otherwise basic box to complete the passive solar magic: a deep overhang, about 4 feet, runs the length of the south side. This simple device has the powerful effect of shielding the high hot summer sun but allows the winter rays to flood and warm the interior. To the extent that the vast majority of our housing stock and accordingly the aesthetic norms we have inculcated over time reflect a period of cheap energy, we are due for a real shift as we adjust to high energy costs. Our post war housing template celebrates the street and ignores the sun. Complex regulations and standards drive complex material and technological solutions to energy efficiency while a basic understanding of orientation would improve efficiency radically in the aggregate without any advanced thinking. That is not to say that we should not employ advanced thinking to issues of comfort and efficiency. It is just that it should be layered on simple almost primitive knowledge.