Everyday Architecture: It’s for the rest of us

DIY home improvement, construction, remodeling ideas and thoughts

When I was in architecture school back in the early 2000’s, I found myself falling into the trap of ‘glory design’ or ‘reinventing the wheel.’  While working on my thesis, I discovered that I was missing a crucial piece of the picture, which is that most of the built-world is devoid of ‘good’ design.  Luckily, I found a book called Architecture of the Everyday, written by Steven Harris and Deborah Berke.

This book opened my eyes to a less glamor-oriented type of design, but more importantly, a typology of design for the common dweller. In Everyday Architecture, design revolves around function, form, and beauty, but with less emphasis on stylization and more on regional or local tradition (vernacular). The concern is less on newness and more on the recycling of the old as well as a reduced budget rather than a maximum budget.  Simplicity is a solution set over technological overpowering of issues like heating, ventilation, and aesthetics.

There are many reasons why architecture has been hijacked by glossy, over-stylized, expensive design practices which are not even environmentally sound.  The profession in itself tends towards elitism due to an all-consuming focus towards ‘white collar’ professionalism, first starting during education, then continuing into internship and professional careers.  Architecture has become a very expensive career. Most that follow its conveyor belt to ‘stardom’  not only need to make it pay off their education, but also have aspirations toward higher monetary rewards.

So how do we return creative, thoughtful, efficient, and affordable design to the average dweller? To start, it is important to not want what others have and instead, concentrate on what our own desires and goals are for our habitation. This sounds rather simplistic, but is very difficult for many to do in a time period where everywhere we look there is a push towards someone else’s vision of what is important, cool, or beautiful. Let’s take back our own vision and begin to create a uniqueness specific to ourselves, our family, and our needs.

Simplification of the home’s necessities is one of the best ways to allow other creativity to come through. The home need not consume every dollar of the paycheck. Many of the greatest design ideas can come from our own ingenuity if we allow time to expand on our ideas, then do the appropriate research into such ideas. As Martin Heidegger put it, ‘to dwell is to actually create or take part of the making of our homes.’  It is sad to say, but the average homeowner is restricted in this day and age to their yard. Most ‘home improvement’ consists of mowing the lawn, killing weeds, or maybe growing a garden. It was not that long ago that most home owners actually built their home with the help of an experienced carpenter. Unfortunately, the modern housing industry has become a maze of technical and codified complexities, which cause most homeowners to feel unqualified to actually make or ‘dwell’ in their own home.

Many systems like heating, cooling, and ventilation have been hijacked by technological complexity.  On several occasions I have asked a client what kind of heating system they have and where it is located and “they don’t know”.  This is an example of the ridiculousness of this time period. We must return to ‘knowing,’ which will empower us to take back our homes. I have shown on my site much about organizing the home plan to maximize solar gain, to minimize overheating, and to promote cooling. These are rather simple systems that we can all understand and use to drive and support our homes’ energy needs. What I am getting at is “Knowledge is Power'” once we strive to understand a system, then we can make it out own. Modern home design,however, often involves electronic gadgetry to make up for our own lack of understanding (and laziness).

I am not going to suggest that every aspect of home construction is DIY, but some are.  Builders are often the worst in staying stuck in a building method or typology. It takes time to learn building systems and it takes know-how to actually build. With that, many builders stay with what they know and have built/contracted before. It is easy for a contractor to continue to use the same building systems because they know how to bid the project and how to specify which materials and subcontractors. This can keep them stuck in certain building typologies. It takes a certain type of builder, as with the client, who actually wants to learn new systems of heating and building. An open-minded client will find more potential with an open-minded builder. In other words, its is important for a client to look for designers and builders not for their websites’ pretty pictures, but the content and hopefully some good looking design. Also, understand that not all builders are receptive to DIY or sweat equity.

A client’s ability to help with the construction of their home is a difficult one to assess.  Certainly the more a client knows about the design and construction method of their home, the better.  However, building is a skill and it takes time to learn and practice, as well as physical fitness. Mistakes will be made along the way for anyone new to building, which can be costly and dangerous. The last thing a builder wants is for their client to fall off a ladder or run their hand through a saw-blade. Along this line, a contractor’s insurance company often will not want to know that a client is working on site. However This is real dwelling.


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