Late in the evening of November 9, the Winter Park City Commission passed 3-2 a revision to the Historic Preservation Ordinance. This revision strengthens the ordinance and brings Winter Park into the orbit of cities with reasonable protection of their historic resources. The City Commission did the right thing.
This design for the Solid State house is an exercise in sufficiency. It will adhere to the tenets of the Sarasota School – a light touch upon the landscape, lightness in structure and massing, and a specific and intimate response to the unique West Coast of Florida. It also carries on Paul Rudolph’s tradition of experimentalism with materials, styles of living, and use of space.
Integrated with this tradition is the reduction of waste. The Solid State House reduces wasted space and construction waste.
If the curse of the 1960s was dingbats – those faceless apartment buildings stuffed onto small lots – the curse of this new era of false prosperity is something I call zombie architecture. Massive facades with empty windows facing the street characterize these homes, and perhaps also the inhabitants within.
The body of a dead person given the semblance of life…that pretty much sums up the style of architecture of all of these pathetic creatures. Will-less, mute, with unseeing eyes, these undead populate the streets of our community. The dead styles of yesteryear – Spanish Mediterranean, Colonial, Victorian, Queen Anne, and so on – are forced to roam the streets, with no free will to be what they want to be.
What makes these things open their giant maws and devour so many consumer goods? You can drive down streets and see them with their garage doors open, mouths stuffed with kayaks and bikes and racks of old clothing and unused exercise equipment and boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff. What causes these zombies to gobble so much material?
Voodoo capitalism has forced builders to mass-produce thousands of these horrid things, in order to move huge amounts of matter and energy through the system. These aren’t even enriching Wall Street lenders that much, with low interest rates. Instead, an odd witchcraft that has cast a spell on us, urging us to buy new, buy more, buy now. We rush to get a zombie, move in, shutter the windows, turn on the air conditioner, and then bask in the reassuring glow of our electronics. Or maybe mix a smoothie in our kitchens, admiring the view of the screened-in pool from safely within, and browse Amazon for more stuff.
To what evil purpose have these zombies been let loose upon the land? There are zombies everywhere – Colorado, Rhode Island, Arizona – and they are gathering force, a kind of stucco-clad zombie army.
Does not Selena’s forehead resemble Florida residential stucco? Is the zombie takeover imminent? There seems no way to kill these foul, lifeless carcasses, these mindless, reanimated corpses of the architectural past. They just continue on and on.
You may doubt the connection between the Zombie of folklore and zombie architecture. If there could be any proof, look at all the older structures getting demolished on a daily basis, making way for more zombies.
These zombies are ultimately metaphors for our slavery to materialism. We act as walking slaves to our gadgets, our machines, our clothes, and our experiences. This contemporary 21st century slavery is not marked with a collar or leg iron; instead it is marked by a simple note. Yes, a note, as in a mortgage note, which is a sacred witch-doctor pact that you make with an anonymous banker somewhere who stands to get very, very rich off of all of these zombies.
After exhausting the local libraries for Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsburg, Bowles, et al, an immersion into American fiction and poetry of the 1940s and 1950s has made newer fiction particularly bland. I’ve tried newer stuff – novels that have won all sorts of awards – and find them to be soupy, warmed-up oatmeal compared to what was going on right after World War 2. In 21st century America, our anxieties and fears have made our stomachs so twitchy that soupy, warmed-up oatmeal may be the only thing we can really digest anymore.
Oddly, I find recent architecture the same. Knowing how the software works, I see the buildings celebrated in magazines as sketchup models, or Revit masses, and not particuarly well designed ones either.
A house under construction close by here has a splitface concrete block pillar, with a girth about eight feet or so. It rises up behind a “frame” and is now being decorated with a little medallion of reclaimed wood. This passes for modern architecture today, I suppose. There isn’t much reason for the pillar, except to stop the rather bad chi coming at the house’s front from a cross street. It seems like gestural architecture.
What was once a design ethic, a “no-style” style, has now become just another half-hearted manipulation of hipster materials like reclaimed wood, draped onto forms that are easy to create in Sketchup. Make a floating rectangular mass, offset the four faces by a foot or so, push the center rectangle in until it becomes a void, and hey presto! there’s a form.
Meaningless Modernism isn’t half as bad, however, as the ungainly, flat traditional housing that passes for shelter elsewhere in the city. The marketplace has reduced every historical design style down to a vague, generic box with lots of gables facing the street, large windows out of proportion to the size of the building, and a kind of demoralizing noncommittal character. They are usually finished with wattle-and-daub (stucco, or whatever you may want to call it) and are busy and awkward without fitting onto their lots or sharing any dialogue with their neighbors.
I’m not all about architecture that has to shout “look at me,” and I feel like buildings that behave well together do make a nice neighborhood. So many of the newer contributions to our streets, however, regardless of style, seem to be deaf and dumb, with empty eyes wide open staring at the street or the sky in a kind of atavistic wonder.
It is the combination of the primitive and the very affluent which is the deadening effect. These houses are not even dingbats. They aren’t big enough to be mcmansions; instead they are just zombies.
And speaking of zombies, the new America of the 21st century has taken some getting used to. Gone are the quirky little side streets…gone are the people who live in the swamp, off the grid and disconnected from the mainstream…gone are the unpretentious pockets of honest architecture in small towns.
Instead, we are now all six-laned, large-turning-radius, long-traffic-light America. We are now the America of the Commercial Strip. We have managed to obliterate regionalism, in favor of the American Road. You don’t have local color anymore, because local color just gets you into trouble. All the tiny little restaurants must now vy for facebook likes and off-the-beaten-path hipster chic social media feeds.
Instead, I am learning to love our new culture. American culture is Starbucks and Target Urbanism, and our brands give us sanctuary. If you do try something local and independent, it better measure up to these standards, or woe to the retailer who tries to carve a different pathway.
I am learning to love an America that just feeds off of itself, in a sort of cannibal consumerism that remains the envy of the world. Thronging sidewalks are not found in downtown Orlando, or downtown anywhere, because in downtowns, they still produce stuff – lawyers produce lawsuits, financial types produce wealth, and generally service industries produce, well, something useful.
No, in our new, 21st century America, our most intensely populated urban scenes are places like South Beach and Downtown Disney. Today, at downtown Disney, the avalanche of visitors was clearly a sign that we have arrived. Urbanism is now a fine leisure activity, and we have reached the level where we consume urban experiences as the most elite way of expressing our prosperity.
We drive, park, and then walk along the downtown Disney boardwalk, not for a service, not for a doctor’s appointment or a meeting with work colleagues or to make widgets in a factory. Instead, we do this just…to do it. We lick ice cream, avoid strollers and plod along the sidewalk because we like it.
The 21st century America is one with unprecedented leisure time and wealth, and we are using this to dine, entertain, and shop with our fellow human beings.
This is a highly complex, sophisticated 21st century America. Regulations have never been higher. Every aspect of our lives has some kind of code or law governing how we deal with it, whether “it” is food, a service, driving, parking, walking, seeking healing, expressing ourselves in different ways. Dozens — no, thousands of laws and codes govern each step of our journey, much like the airwaves vibrate with thousands of unseen radio frequencies.
We are paradoxically moving at a frenetic pace, and yet we feel so often at a standstill, a paradox that produces a uniquely 21st century anxiety and fear. We are paradoxically free to prosper any way we can, and yet we are so constrained with laws and codes, further increasing our anxiety and fear. The boredom and lack of variety that arises from the triumph of American consumerism is also a curse. And yet we revel in it.
I’m trying real hard to love it.
South Florida connotes a certain lifestyle in media and popular culture. Miami’s bright, tall energy has always been intertwined with the Florida Everglades’ quiet, flat landscape – low, grassy plains soaked with swampwater and edged by dense jungle. The seam where these two opposites meet is neither active nor passive; it is, instead, a third thing, where man’s activity has subtly modified the landscape, and nature has slowed man’s pace closer to its own. My recent experience at the edge of the Everglades had a sort of off-kilter Caribbean or Central American sense of place that felt exotic and familiar at the same time, a pleasant tension that reassures me there is still an edge to Florida where the scratchy blanket of protective regulation is thrown off to reveal informal, naturalized structures that blend beautifully into the natural environment.
Southwest of Miami lies the city of Homestead, Florida, famous for being the front door through which Hurricane Andrew entered Florida in 1992. Today, Homestead is an exurb of Miami, with a relentless street grid extending west and south. Homestead’s suburbs are newer vintage housing, schools, and commercial strips grown after Andrew’s devastation, stopped only by the hard edge of the Everglades National Park. Along this line, the housing and farmland stops, and the wide River of Grass takes over.
Homestead’s western frontier is a jagged edge, a sort of squared-off, rasterized curve defined by a patchwork of rear property lines and rural roads. On one side, houses pop up in between rows of beans; on the other, a jumble of ficus and palmetto. At more than one location, abandoned asphalt strips crumble into the jungle’s interior, a subdivision extended a little too far. Here, no one ever built a home, the empty lots passing into a suburban archeology of rusted street signs and vine-choked fire hydrants, a developer’s dream faded away.
Back in the agricultural areas, open fields with crops alternate with tropical fruit groves. Mango, papaya, banana, and coconut bloom in the spring, wafting fragrant scents in the early morning air. Workers in the field are dwarfed by the flat landscape, a world away from the America’s eighth largest metropolitan area.
In this farmland area, the vernacular building style colorfully mixes shipping containers, chickees, and barn tin in a deliciously un-Miami-like way. The traditional Seminole chickee lends a tropical, exotic flair to this spotty rim of humanity pressed against nature’s vast size. Thatched palm fronds create a natural insulation barrier blocking the sun’s heat, and the fully open sides allow the tiniest of breezes to move air through the space underneath. This native response to the land is more appropriate than the thick-walled, stucco-buttered architecture imported from arid Spain and grafted onto Florida’s natural character.
The Seminoles take the opposite approach: Work with nature, have a light touch, and when a hurricane blows it away, build it again. This zen approach to fulfilling man’s need for shelter is decidedly unmodern and soft, and its presence at the edge of the Everglades lends a certain amount of respect to the power of nature just beyond.
Unconsciously, civilized life is stripped away layer by layer on the margin of the city. Abandoned subdivisions and Native American architecture both mark man’s over-reach into the wilderness. Yet another marker can be found on buildings constructed by modern means, where layers of veneer are stripped away, revealing raw materials, unpainted and unadorned, standing crude and timeless against the trees and the sky. The edge’s presence can be sensed where structures start to dissolve into informality.
Everglades National Park is a hard, urbanized boundary on the map, but on the ground it is an ironically blurred zone where the slow-moving river of grass influences human activities. The nuanced edge continues into the Everglades themselves, where Florida’s subtle water-nature is uninterrupted. Water flows in a gentle, slow sheet across Florida’s flat limestone bed coated with organic material barely thick enough for life to cling to. Where the limestone base dips a few inches, grass fails to grow; where a nub rises up above this hard plain a few inches, unique tree islands gather. These islands are so densely vegetated as to admit no human, their edges wrapped in a thick tangle of branches and leaves, a sort of bonsai-forest in miniature. Urban civilizations of insects, birds, and other small creatures inhabit these infrastructures, city-states of nature out of man’s reach.
In between approaching jets and the distant rumble of airboats, a larger silence takes over. Penetrating the membrane between inside and outside makes possible a certain perspective on the question of man’s activities in the context of the larger world. Confining our efforts to areas that are already strongly modified by human activities suddenly makes sense. Boundaries, once created, harden over time, and the softness of the western edge of humanity against the eastern boundary of the Everglades seems destined to harden. In its current state, this snapshot of the feathered, nuanced edge of civilization seems to be delicately balanced between the rural and the natural. Agricultural industry on the periphery of the great conurbation of Miami moves at the pace of seasons and rainfall, making a rhythm that is in between the seasonal flow of the Everglades and the nanosecond street culture of contemporary western civilization.
Florida’s ubiquitous industry, tourism, mixes with agriculture even here with airboat rides, fruit stands, and alligator wrestling shows peppering the edge of the wetlands. The Everglades vernacular architecture is not quite agricultural, yet not quite contemporary Florida either.
The flavor of these places has more connection to the Caribbean tropicalism one finds on islands like Puerto Rico, Barbados, and Hispanola. Endlessly adaptable shipping containers sit cheek-by-jowl with chicken coops and thatch awnings to create an ad hoc pedestrian space under palm trees. All is a little too clean and, well, inspectable to be really offshore; but it’s also a little more relaxed than the strangely uptight postmodern built environment we’ve come to expect in America.
Heading east out of the Everglades is a somewhat wistful journey forward in time. Mango-treed rural roads abruptly give way to fruit processing plants, which back up to grocery store strips, and the standard parade of global brand names enters the windshield, a gateway back into contemporary America. Stoplights take longer, traffic pace quickens, and today’s Florida, like a hairshirt, envelopes you in a cocoon of highly regulated infrastructure put there for your own protection.
Housing will take a great leap forward when the house becomes married to the concept of “solid state.” The Qwave will be the beginning of this revolution, when solid state – i.e., no moving parts – becomes meshed into notion of shelter. Ergo, the Solid State House. This will be the housing of the future.
With the introduction of “solid state” circuitry in the 1940s, the transistor replaced the vacuum tube to shrink circuits, improve precision, and eliminate maintenance and wear. This concept revolutionized electronics. While William Shockley and John Pierce created the transistor, they had to describe the new physical form, or state, they were working in.
Tubes were large, coarse, and had to be replaced when they overheated or malfunctioned. Transistors did not. Tubes required a lot of energy and current to move electrons around so they could do their jobs, rest and recharge, and activate devices. Transistors could do the same job with a fraction of the energy – thus reducing heat, cost, and time because they could also be spaced closer together. Radios collapsed from briefcase sized objects down to thumb-sized objects. A radio today is a mere speck, a partition within a larger microchip measured in nanometers.
The tinyhouse movement is still in its nascent stages, and running into some important battles. For one thing, the entire economic system is blockading this movement, because it is entirely designed for supersize. From the permitting process (you pay the same order of magnitude cost whether you permit 400 SF or 4000 SF – the same “baseline” cost applies, and the increase is only incremental). Municipalities have no incentive to reduce permitting costs, desperate as they are for cash. So the tinyhouse must pay the same tribute to the king as a mcmansion.
Builders have little interest in not-so-big houses, because they are built quicker with fewer materials. Why would a builder want to sacrifice price? The management of a construction job is the same, whether managing a 3-month, 400 SF project or a 3-month 4,000 SF project.
Builders also are accustomed to a certain supply chain of vendors, with whom they have developed relationships. Gypsum wallboard, for example, isn’t really cheaper; it is, however, the bread-and-butter staple of interior construction and has become a commodity that can be manipulated, either by material cost or labor rates, to always come out at the bottom of the options for interiors. If you are seeking an interior finish that has less impact on the environment, you will always pay more. The small house movement has not yet figured out how to work around this consumptive, wasteful supply chain, and unwittingly adopts it into the movement, rewarding the same people at the top of the chain, taking the same resources from the earth, and injecting the same waste. The notion that they are doing less of it only means that a tiny house is less bad than a larger house.
And finally, a tiny house, once it is finally finished, has hundreds, if not thousands, of individual separate parts and all of them move. The daily temperature cycle warms up and expands things during the day, shrinks them at night. Rain wears down finishes, opens up joints between materials. Air conditioning creates a humidity imbalance that nature is constantly trying to correct. Current construction methods, with all the different trades and specialties, has not addressed these in any different way than they were addressed fifty or a hundred years ago. Everything moves, subtly, if not grossly.
We haven’t even considered all the machines within the house. Air conditioners, ceiling fans, switches, faucets, water heaters, and on and on and on. All of these have moving parts. They break down, require maintenance, and have their own supply stream. Whether a house is small or large, it has all the same baggage in terms of motors, lights, machines, and pipe joints. The lengths of straight pipe between joints may be shorter, but the connections, where the leaks occur, are still the same.
The not-so-big-house will not, in its current form, succeed and converge into a broadly cast ethos for the masses. The “system” is embedded way too deeply into its bones. This system has evolved, Darwinian style, carrying all these bad genes into the present generation. If the mcmansion is doomed, so is the small house.
Another type of evolution is possible, however: Lamarckian evolution, that which can be changed in ONE generation. Like transistors evolved out of tubes, so can a solid state house evolve out of the current situation. This is the only possible pathway towards the future.
The ideal Solid State House shall have no separate moving parts. The Solid State House shall be endlessly customizable out of factory parts. The Solid State House shall shrink.
These are the reasons why the not-so-big house movement will be the testing ground for the Solid State House. Innovation is easy when you are dealing with large scale projects, and looking for ways to save money. Invention, however, is not possible. Large projects have too much riding on the scale to look at new ideas.
Small, projects, however, are the province of INVENTION. A new way of doing things is easier to test when failure is small scale. Edison tested thousands of filaments in his light bulb before he found tungsten. A filament is small. Shockley tested thousands of alloys in a transistor before he found gallium-arsenide, and even that needed to be replaced with something a little less poisonous. Finding that gallium-arsenide combination was invention. Perfecting it with silicon was innovation.
The Solid State House shall have:
Single components that service multiple uses. A roof panel, for example, shall be both structural and waterproof. Manufacturing shall be perfected so as to reduce waste in the roof panel process and eliminate the 3-4 large dumpsters that have to be hauled off no matter what size – room addition or mcmansion.
Circuitry above the head shall be all low-voltage direct current. LED lighting only requires 12 or 24 volts DC. Right now, we bring 120V AC to the LED light and it has a built-in transformer. A solid-state house will eliminate the transformer, reduce the quantity of expensive copper needed to get power to the light, and embed the wires into the construction.
Water-carrying pipes are in rigid PVC or copper because it is cheaper for long distance. A small house, carrying water shorter distances, will be able to use more flexible hoses, eliminating pipe joints. The future small house will bake these into the wall, much like holes in bread, eliminating a second material from the mix.
Air conditioning will be underfloor or in-wall through microtubules that work like sweat glands in reverse: constantly removing moisture from the air, channeling it into a system that cools air, and creating a transpirational cycle that will make the small house microclimate function in the same way as the space under a tree canopy. Unlike LEED, which requires a hermetically sealed space to minimize energy, this new system will work best when the windows are open. Reconnecting with nature will be a pleasant byproduct of the solid state house.
As many appliances as possible will be 24V direct current.
As many appliances as possible will function without motors, gears, or bearings. A “gear room” or utility room will be where the shameful old appliances, like washing machines, will be placed, those poor servants that still must labor in the old way. Eventually these will be solid-state, too.
The solid-state house will be at first very small. Finishes, which is the “look” of the house, can be anything. If the current preference is wattle-and daub, that can be added to the building. But the solid-state nature of the house, with prefabricated wall and roof panels cut to size and fitted together seamlessly, will have its own integrity regardless of the clothing it wears.
The last and most important part of the solid state house will be its transportability. A foundation system will allow it to anchor firmly to the ground and be connected to local utilities (if required). As a not-so-big house, however, it will also be easily transportable.
This exciting revolution will allow time and space to collapse finally, and bring architecture into our liquid, postmodern, nanosecond twenty-first century.
The Solid State House was recently published in The New Geography. Trendy Builder Magazine recently published this commentary:
New Geography contributor and architect Richard Reep envisions home design and engineering solution akin to “solid state” technology, involving complete houses with no “moving parts.”
Reep’s riff takes off from the premise of the “not-so-big house” movement, which, although it represents promise directionally, doesn’t have a practical or operational likelihood of widespread traction. Here’s how Reep sees a tie between the non-starter small house initiative and the solid state house of the future:
The not-so-big house movement will be the testing ground for the solid-state house. Small projects are the province of invention. A new way of doing things is easier to test when failure is small scale.