02. Design

Elegant Simplicity, The Golden Mean

parthenon-2In the most fundamental sense, design is how we organize our environment to meet our needs, whether those needs are functional or aesthetic or spiritual (which are often indistinct from one another). It has been suggested that human culture, and consequently human design, has shifted from a phase of dependency on nature to a period of independency from nature.

In the former phase (99.8% of our evolutionary history), we lived very gently on the land, typically meeting our basic needs as simply and lightly as possible. In the latter phase, which we call “history” or “civilization”, we sought to conquer nature and use her for our own purposes, often imposing grand structures and edifices upon the land and creating our own local environment and enclosed microclimate – typically to the detriment of the natural environment and now even the global climate.

The Greening of Design

It is also becoming more widely understood, within the progressive design community, that we must now shift once again – to a phase of interdependency or partnership with our environment. This relatively recent progression, which could perhaps be dated to Earth Day 1970, can be interpreted as going from Industrial Design (readily manageable uniformity, which remains our dominant paradigm), through Efficient Design (reducing energy inputs), Green Design (non-toxic renewable elements), Integrative Design (whole systems approach), Ecological Design (collaboration between natural & built environment) to Regenerative Design (restorative & relational).

Yet even this trend and these new and more enlightened approaches to design are necessitated by our past – and still current – failure to design (and live) appropriately and sustainably within the limits of the natural environment. Thus we must now actively design towards, not only reducing our impacts, but regenerating the human/natural environmental interface and restoring the global balance that we’ve so fundamentally undermined.

Balance is one of the primary elements of design, along with proportion, pattern, rhythm and harmony. Balance is an intrinsic quality of design and harmony is the external manifestation that expresses a relationship to the landscape which contains it. Good design is timeless, functional, and beautiful, ideally in its elegant simplicity. Too much architecture is an expression of the designer’s ego or of an idiosyncratic aesthetic.




Even in our monumental phase, in which the “great” societies created near-permanent landmarks to their own values – the pyramids, the walls, the temples and cathedrals, the city-scapes – there was an intentional application of universal design principles or archetypes that were gleaned from the natural world.

In the Western tradition, the Golden Proportion – found in everything from a fiddlehead, snail or pine cone to the swirl of a hurricane and the spiral of the galaxy – was manifest in the Great Pyramid, the Parthenon and DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man (named after Roman architect and author of De Architectura, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio) and the Mona Lisa.

From the East, however, another ancient design tradition might better inform us as we move toward sustainability. Rather than the geometric perfection and permanence of the Greek tradition, Wabi-sabi is a Japanese world view and aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience. It understands authentic beauty as imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, and is based on the elements of asymmetry, asperity (roughness), simplicity, modesty, intimacy, and the mimicry of natural processes.

From an engineering point of view, “wabi” may be interpreted as the imperfect or unpredictable quality of any object, due to inherent material or design limitations; and “sabi” can be interpreted as the principle of imperfect reliability, or limited durability. We will return to these concepts in future essays.

These principles, however, are not unique to the East:

Would I a house for happiness erect,
Nature alone should be my architect,
She’d build it more convenient than great,
And doubtless in the country choose her seat

Horace (20 BC), author of the term “golden mean”

The essential elements of appropriate design include these: functional (form follows function), elegant in its simplicity, consistent with needs but not excess, adaptable to various life stages and occupants, buildable with available materials & skills, materials and methods appropriate for the bioregion, affordable for both occupants and the world at large.

Round Cob Garden Shelter on Recycled Granite Block Foundation with Recriprocal Roof of Native Lumber

Round Cob Garden Shelter on Recycled Granite Block Foundation with Recriprocal Roof of Native Lumber

The primary determinant of construction cost, energy use and environmental impact is size. Small houses cost more per square foot but less overall, require fewer natural resources, demand less operating expense, tend to accumulate less clutter, are easier to clean and maintain, are more intimate and reduce life to its essentials.

Principles to make small work:

  • minimize circulation spaces (hallways)
  • avoid diagonal circulation paths
  • maintain an open floor plan
  • employ multi-function spaces
  • tie spaces together visually
  • separate spaces without walls
  • use thin interior (movable?) walls/dividers
  • create niches, shelves, and built-ins
  • employ views to expand small spaces
  • use varying heights, colors and textures – expansive or intimate
  • incorporate indoor/outdoor transition spaces
  • locate windows for view, ventilation & natural light

“You know you have reached perfection of design not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away.” – Antoine de Saint Exupéry (author of The Little Prince)
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by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes

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