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Tiny Homes, Foldable Furniture, Walkable Futures and Our Brains on Time
Alex Steffen, 10 Jun 10

A medley of interesting, worldchanging items:

The Secret Powers of Time, a fascinating talk exploring the ways different people look at the future, with thought-provoking observations about the ways technology is changing our relationships to time.

If the world can rally $18 trillion in new investments by 2030, we could supply 95% of the energy needed globally with renewables by 2050, says a coalition of groups led by Greenpeace in a new report Energy [R]evolution: A Sustainable World Energy Outlook. Lots of challenging assumptions in the report, but also lots of great information on best practices and technology innovation curves.

The Audi Urban Future Award is an interesting competition between six architectural firms (including Worldchanging friends B.I.G.) to design scenarios for urban life in 2030. As you might expect from a car company, automobiles are pretty central to the concepts (indeed, their site says explicitly "Audi is confident that there will be cars in the city of the future."); still, lots of interest here.

A thoughtful piece on how American regulations limit the ability of cities to use green stormwater infrastructure to make dense communities simultaneously more leafy and livable. Showcases some interesting solutions, and reminds us that extremely dense environments can still be green in both senses of the word.

Alisa Kane explores the implications of living in a very small house. ("Not just small, but tiny. Like under 100 square feet tiny.") Along the way she covers a number of cool tiny house projects in Oregon. Roger Valdez follows up with a post about smaller homes in Seattle. Given that right-sizing our homes is a pretty key strategy for low-impact urban living, worth a look.

To live in those smaller spaces, we need a new kind of design:

Helsinki Design Lab keeps coming up in smart conversation. They seem to really be pushing some interesting edges with strategic design, from their Low2No extreme green building competition for the visionary Jätkäsaari neighborhood to growing a new model for waste management as micro-enterprise in India.

Bradley Kreit over at IFTF asks some interesting questions about living in a world overflowing with data and distractions in a post calledWhat if We've Created the Wrong Environments for our Brains?

Christopher Leinberger (with whom I'll be doing a panel in Seattle on the 1st of July, for those in the area) makes some fascinating points about the ways North American cities are changing -- and how they could be changed much more quickly with smart investments in rail -- in Here Comes the Neighborhood.

Great short blog post How Portland Sold Its Banks on Walkable Development. Given that, especially in North America, the biggest single impediment to building or retrofitting walkable urban neighborhoods on a large scale is lender inertia, really worth a read. (Finance, again, proves to be perhaps the most critical sustainability battlefield.)

The decline of American car culture: "It's a rarely acknowledged transformational shift that's been going on under the noses of marketers for as long as 15 years: The automobile, once a rite of passage for American youth, is becoming less relevant to a growing number of people under 30."

The folks over at Shareable have a special "futures" editorial package out, including a story by Worldchanging pal Cory Doctorow, a piece on open data/ open cities and a piece I contributed. Some good stuff there.

Feature image on homepage of "Metropol Parasol" © j mayer h via The Economist.

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Hi Alex,

I'm sure you've already encountered Gary Chang's 300sqft modular Hong Kong apartment. Ostensibly impressive, but an element of it gave me a twinge. Specifically, with so much modularity, it seems to me that there is a hazard of two activities colliding with one another. For instance, suppose one activity requires hardware that is on the opposite side of a wall unit while another depends on that side of the wall unit to be covered. Even in the demo, Chang can't see the TV while working in the kitchen. It's a trivial example, but if you think about the combinatorial space of possible activities that can go on in a dwelling, this degree of engineering heavily constrains them in unforeseeable ways. The net effect of that is "oh crap, I can't do activity X because I need part A and part B in the same place and I put them on either side of the same wall unit."

It seems to me that there is an element of irreducibility when considering spaces for people, due to the utility of random access. It is also worth observing that a single person dwelling demands the most resources (area, water, electricity etc.) and likely progresses something close to logarithmically as we add people. Christopher Alexander suggests a single-room space in the order of about 400sqft as the basis of a successful configuration for a single person. I concur from experience, but can also attest that it is crowded for two.

It is also worth noting that only a small fragment of the population typically inhabits single-person dwellings: freshly-minted adults and elderly people whose spouses are deceased or otherwise live alone. As such, it might be a case of premature optimization to try to engineer these living spaces too heavily.

It might make better sense to operate at a larger scale with permissive legislation around rental suites and outbuildings, or a nook-and-cranny approach to urban planning, rather than uniform, hyper-engineered micro-condo highrise projects, such as those in my home town of Vancouver (which incidentally gets much more praise in your book than it deserves).

Posted by: Dorian Taylor on 12 Jun 10

"It is also worth noting that only a small fragment of the population typically inhabits single-person dwellings"

In the US, there are 31 million single-person households, making it the second most common household size at 27% of the total. The most common size is two persons, accounting for another 33%.

Posted by: cc on 13 Jun 10

Busted. I should have looked at the data. Though a snapshot of the breakdown of household sizes doesn't address what I was trying to consider. I would be looking for something more like the breakdown of population who spends A% of their life living (contiguously) in a dwelling made for #B other people (along with #C actual other people). I don't really have the time to go hunting for that data but feel free to surprise me again.

I was merely going on the intuition that people probably don't live alone for the first two or so decades of their life, they probably don't live alone for at least another two or so decades in there in the middle (not necessarily all at once), probably more. They probably do live alone at least twice at different stages of life. During this period a number of demographic and technological changes may take place. By the time someone returns to a single-person dwelling it will be under radically different conditions (assuming they left in the first place, but if not leaving was the rule, we would likely be in bigger trouble than the nuances of housing them).

A statement that has more fidelity to my (I concede, still intuitive) sentiment is "don't go to the trouble of hyperengineering single-person dwellings because only a tiny fragment of the population (over the lifetime of the building) will use them the same way at any time".

My overarching observation is that the more you engineer a space, the more you prescribe how it ought to be used. I further submit that modular space is more, not less prescriptive than its un-modular counterpart. Moreover, all the extra materials, technology and planning to enable modularity for the purpose of shaving off a few square feet of floor plan might not always be the best strategy. Lastly, all the extra money spent on modularity will undoubtedly be a sharp deterrent to scrapping it when trends inevitably change.

That all said, perhaps it would be judged viable to design a highly efficient single-person dwelling complex with identical modular suites packed in like sardines to service the part of the market who expects to turn over frequently and only needs the minimum functionality of living space because their life happens outside their home. But then, I wonder at least, is that really the kind of world I would want to be designing for? Perhaps that is best saved for a different discussion.

Posted by: Dorian Taylor on 13 Jun 10

Very interesting design.. I am totally impressed by it. I live in Qatar and I visited some of the labors apartment which has small rooms. Each room comprises of 6 labors and very congested... no space... I think this designs will perfectly fit over here.. How about the cost of the system?

Posted by: Sayeed on 17 Jun 10

is it the google adds bar that makes my Firefox page jump about all the time? Worldchanging used to be one of my favourite websites... but now it's just plain unreadable as it keeps jumping! If I REALLY want to read something you guys have written, I have to download the page to my desktop.

I tend to zoom in a little, but not so much that the page should jump 3 inches to the left or to the right every 15 seconds or so.

Any ideas what I can do?

Posted by: eclipse now on 1 Jul 10

OMG, I loooove everything. I'm working on revamping my house, just finished painting inside/out, this past week the front landscaping done, still need to do the backyard. But, the prize will definitely be my computer room. It will become my oasis with the clean, dual purpose furniture. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I'm bookmarking this. Toni

Posted by: Toni Goodman on 11 Jul 10

This is one of the most innovative designs I have seen. I used a Murphy bed for several years and this by far takes the cake. I wonder if they do wholesale.

Posted by: RodneyR on 13 Jul 10

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