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EVENTS

CORY REYNOLDS | DATE 10/1/2014

'Superlight: Rethinking How Our Homes Impact the Earth' Featured in the New York Times

Superlight author Phyllis Richardson is interviewed from her home in London, "where she lives in a Victorian house — with a polycarbonate and aluminum addition." To read the complete interview, continue to The New York Times. To read Richardson's Introduction to Superlight and for a selection of images, read below.

'Superlight: Rethinking How Our Homes Impact the Earth' Featured in the New York Times
ABOVE: Summer House by Mats Fahlander, Lysekil, Sweden.

HOUSES THAT 'TOUCH THE EARTH LIGHTLY'
By Phyllis Richardson


It was the Australian architect Glenn Murcutt who connected architecture with the need to 'touch the earth lightly', and his conscientious building methods inspired a generation of followers to reconsider the impact of built structures on the natural landscape. In 1940 Buckminster Fuller began experimenting with lightweight constructions as a way of making houses that could be prefabricated, widely produced and cost effective. The resulting Wichita House broke with conventional orthogonal forms (as did its predecessor, the Dymaxion House, of thirteen years earlier). It was never mass-produced, but it introduced the advantages of using lightweight materials for fully functioning houses.

'Superlight: Rethinking How Our Homes Impact the Earth' Featured in the New York Times
ABOVE: The Treehouse by Baumraum, Hechtel-Eskel, Belgium.

Today, in the wider built environment the definition of lightweight can be expanded from referring to a structure that is lightweight both in terms of the required foundation and in the choice of materials, its mobility, how well it is constructed and how efficiently it uses resources and generates its own energy, thereby making lighter claims on services. So touching the earth lightly can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but 'lightness' should be somehow measurable, and not a virtue for its own sake. In other words, the projects in this book demonstrate not only some combination of lightweight qualities, but also represent inspiring approaches to the question of lightweight, how best to achieve it, how to make a lightweight building that still works as a house, provides a degree of aesthetic enjoyment and offers the best use of space in a small-scale environment.
From tented shelters to modular units delivered by helicopter to floating houses, the lightweight building has come of age. Being lightweight is the motivating factor for a structure being included in the book, whether for reasons of versatility, impact or environmental concerns, as well as being an example of great design, but this is not to say that every building in these pages will be something akin to an paper cottage or one made from a shipping container, though these do appear. Not all will be fully functioning houses, though most are; not all will be without foundations of any kind, since in some areas an anchor of some description is necessary. But all conform to some aspect of 'lightness', and in some surprising ways. The best books about any movement in architecture are those that open a debate and reveal lines of exploration and some of the most radical thinking. Superlight is a showcase of what is being achieved in reducing the impact of human shelter on the earth, and the many exciting ways that architects around the world are responding to that challenge.

'Superlight: Rethinking How Our Homes Impact the Earth' Featured in the New York Times
ABOVE: Smart Student Hut, Tengbom Architects and Lund University, Virserum, Sweden.

One of the ways that they accomplish this is in their approach to materials. Lighter structural members being easy to transport, a heavier mass will require bigger, sturdier trucks, which means more pollutants expelled in getting the stuff to the site. There is also the environmental factor of creating materials such as brick or concrete, and whether the energy and waste created is offset by thermal efficiency. Timber can offer a road to zero carbon, but only if it hasn't been shipped around the houses that 'touch the earth lightly' world to build with. Steel (and sometimes aluminum, used in combination with glass) creates a much lighter appearance, and while the materials must be produced, again the measure of the benefits against the deficiencies must bring a calculated advantage.
Another aspect to consider is how well a house adapts to its environment, which affects energy consumption. Some houses, like Kengo Kuma's experimental Meme Meadows and Casa Apolo 11 by Parra + Edwards Arquitectos, use changeable cladding to adapt to temperature changes, rather than relying heavily on mechanical heating and cooling systems. Then there is the question of just how a building touches down on site. Instead of resting on deep-dug poured concrete foundations, perhaps it sits on piles, an efficient steel cradle, or even wheels. If it is delivered by helicopter to a remote part of the forest, maybe it is only held in place by sturdy metal clamps. Some projects are deliberately obscured by vegetation, making it difficult to appreciate every corner and angle. This strategy usually has to do with a reluctance to take out mature trees, so a house is nicely inserted, but the trees still have precedence over the architecture, which some designers find preferable to more conspicuous constructions.

'Superlight: Rethinking How Our Homes Impact the Earth' Featured in the New York Times
ABOVE: The Nest by A21 Studio, Thuan An, Vietnam.

In our ever-present awareness of climate change, the architects must be engaged with the turns of the environment and answer to it. Some have developed housing models that can float or cope with flooding; others, aware of the shortage of affordable housing in poorer communities, have responded with designs for houses that can be quickly and cheaply erected, as well as offering the comfort and spatial efficiency of a proper home.
The chapters of the book refer to characteristics of the lightweight house as I have found them in various sources and applied for a variety of reasons. There seems to be no direct imperative to build lightly, so much as to build better for various circumstances, mainly to make less of an impact on the natural surroundings and resources. So being 'superlight' is the result of a combination of intentions and concerns, all of which bear on the challenges of responsible architecture in the twenty-first century. The five chapters are more thematic groupings than hard demarcations, as all of the structures have multiple characteristics that signal their importance and reasons for inclusion here. All of these projects punch above their weight, so to speak, in terms of design and innovation, and also offer real options for reducing our demands on the earth, at least in terms of shelter. 'Lightness' has a pleasant sound to it, an onomatopoetic sound born of a lack of heavy consonants. In researching this book I initially imagined structures that almost defied gravity, or appeared to. I imagined the experimental projects coming out of Richard Horden's program at the Technical University in Munich, which have appeared in my previous volumes, and recalled the work of Werner Sobek at the aptly named Institute for Lightweight Structures and Conceptual Design in Stuttgart, whose work does appear in these pages. These ideas were of a futuristic bent, looking at space travel, a sort of luxury of mobility, flexibility and freedom from the confines of weighty mass.

'Superlight: Rethinking How Our Homes Impact the Earth' Featured in the New York Times
ABOVE: Meme Meadows by Kengo Kuma & Associates, Taiki-cho, Hokkaido, Japan.

But there are more pressing issues in domestic architecture that call for considered attention to weight than the delight of experimentation, however applicable the ideas or uses may be in future situations. The floating house has been on drawing boards in architecture offices around the world at least for the last couple of decades, owing to the rise in flood events. In the Netherlands, where the housing and flood risk have coexisted for centuries, not surprisingly innovation is carrying on apace. Some entire developments are being erected that include multiple housing units in all-floating villages that exist around a series of piers. All services are brought through pipes, which are immersed in water, though not embedded in the ground. Rather than streets, the maze of docks connect families to their neighbors and ultimately to solid ground.

'Superlight: Rethinking How Our Homes Impact the Earth' Featured in the New York Times
ABOVE: Floating House by MOS Architects, Lake Huron, Ontario, Canada.

Of course, there are communities that have lived with a waterbound condition for years and adapted well. Settlements of stilt houses existed in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages in Europe, and prehistoric pile dwellings have been found elsewhere. In parts of Southeast Asia today there are communities where people still live in stilt houses to cope with flooding or marshy ground unsuitable for land-based structures. So the idea of the 'floating' house became a two-fold consideration. Firstly, there are the houses that have been made to float on water. These are not the traditional houseboats that have been around through successive waves of architectural styles and trends. We are looking instead at what at first appears to be a traditional house type, transformed into a structure that sits happily on water, such as the Floating House, designed by mos Architects to inhabit the waters of Lake Huron. The house may initially appear incongruous, but if we remember that in northern Canada, particularly parts of Nova Scotia, it was not unheard of to move a house across the frozen lake, then a water-borne mobility isn't so out of order. The Exbury Egg is another, rather less conventional house that floats – its shape making it even more unusual than perhaps its sea-worthy quality.

'Superlight: Rethinking How Our Homes Impact the Earth' Featured in the New York Times
ABOVE: Exbury Egg by PAD Studio and Stephen Turner, Hampshire, UK.

There are also the less literal interpretations of houses that appear to 'float', whether by stilts or pilings, or because they are lifted off the ground into the trees, as with Baumraum's Treehouse and Go Hasegawa's design for Pilotis in a Forest, or just raised up a few feet for the sake of mobility, like the container hut Port-a-Bach, designed by New Zealand's AtelierWorkshop. This might seem a blurring of categories, but is meant to suggest the commonality between the two structural methodologies and to emphasize the lightness of touch on the landscape.
A house raised off the ground means one that has not had a foundation poured, a site prepared by levelling, or by blasting away at rocky terrain to achieve a flat surface. So although floating might mean just hovering up on small legs or a steel frame, it is still a way of minimizing the impact of structure on the landscape and an attempt to enable a house to coexist with its natural habitat, rather than going to great lengths to neutralize it. The Recreation Island House in the Netherlands by the team at 2by4 Architects deliberately blurs the literal and metaphorical approaches to 'floating': though it appears to be very much sitting up on the water, it is actually set on a little island, reached by a retractable jetty. It has foundations, but these are as minimal as the design could reasonably stand. Mats Fahlander's Summer House and Herreros Arquitectos' Casa Garoza both have a floating appearance over a rocky site that makes them seem like ships over land.

'Superlight: Rethinking How Our Homes Impact the Earth' Featured in the New York Times
ABOVE: Pilotis in a Forest by Go Hasegawa, Karuizaa, Nagano, Japan.

In the case of a flood threat we are beyond attempts to tame, except in excessive flood defences that are proving less effective, however some housing models are evolving that are cause for real excitement, especially in areas where housing costs generally are beyond the reach of the working population. H&P Architects' Blooming Bamboo House in Vietnam demonstrates what local knowledge, respect for native materials and innovative thinking can bring to coping with big natural disasters on a small scale.

Superlight

Superlight

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