Parsus

I’m about to propose an additional principle to the ancient architectural “Triad” asserted by Vitruvius over 2000 years ago. It’s a little like adding to the Ten Commandments, so the audacious idea deserves at least a little introduction and explanation.

I mentioned the Vitruvian legacy in my last post. His philosophy and writing from just before the 1st century have had an overwhelming influence on architecture since the time of Christ. Vitruvius’s Ten Books of Architecture were the “original” (and only surviving) architectural treatises for a full 1500 years, when they were revised and updated by Alberti in the mid 1400’s. A hundred years after Alberti came theFour Books of Architecture by Palladio, whose own practices and designs were also indebted to Vitruvius. And now, 500 years after Palladio, there aren’t many architects who can even claim to be standing on the shoulders of Vitruvius, Palladio, and the ancient architects; instead, much of of modern architecture remains in their shadow, still struggling to achieve formulations, methods and patterns as enduring and effective.

Da Vinci's Vitruvian manBiomimicry in architecture sounds like an edgy new idea, but over two millenniums ago, Vitruvius saw it as a basic characteristic of any architectural practice. He said that building design should always be an imitation of nature, which is why his study of order and proportion led him to investigate the proportions of a human body and to develop an understanding of the geometric foundation of nature’s patterns. After all, our need for shelter doesn’t separate us from nature, but rather comes from the same requirements and instincts that are common to all species. In the most primal sense, our homes are our nests, according to Vitruvius, making us all the more integrated with birds and the bees and the natural world around us.

When Vitruvius said that building architecture should strive toward the three goals of his Triad, he was also trying to describe what should arise from our natural instincts. To repeat them again here, they are (in Latin) Firmitas, Utilitas and Venustas, or strong, functional and beautiful. It’s hard to argue with the simplicity and the obvious benefit of those three equally important objectives, but it also suggests an ideal that makes perfection elusive. Something could always be little better. It’s the pursuit and balance of the Triad’s imperatives that’s important. There isn’t a summit on that path.

While the Triad is as true and useful today as it was then, I’ll submit that it’s harder now to comply with the principles when each of the issues have been complicated, ironically, by our increased comforts, technology and knowledge.

Strong is now an entire science and a whole professional practice unto itself. Structural engineering makes what is and isn’t strong both very finitely definable, but also more easily undermined by mistakes or poorly executed details. Vitruvian strong might have been a bigger rock;strong today might be a series of weld joints or rafter ties with critically placed screws or nails. Strong today is also constantly being redefined as our bigger and more complex buildings have to ward off the most challenging slings and arrows of nature. Building engineering requirements are always catching up with the lessons from the last horrific hurricane or earthquake. The good news is we can calculate with some accuracy exactly how strong buildings are, but the bad news is that there’s usually a worst-case scenario for which even the best buildings aren’t prepared. In any event, engineers are in charge of firmatas.It isn’t overlooked.

Beautiful has never been an objective evaluation, but it’s always been easier to understand when the vernacular variation of individual buildings is intended to assimilate into–rather than disrupt–the local architectural character. On the other hand, we now have whole sections of the country in which some architectural disruption is warranted. Vitruvius and Palladio could never have imagined the repetition of banal design that would come to so dominate a country’s landscape. Beauty is a tough dictum when ugly is so dominant in the psyche of designers and consumers alike. To sort it all out, we now have “Design Review Boards” to dictate what is acceptably beautiful. But most of us think we know venustaswhen we see it. We long for it, and know we’re struggling to raise that standard.

Functional is a relative consideration at best, because at the extreme excessive end of the spectrum, it’s hardly rational. Must we design to accommodate 20 seat home theaters, an extra steam shower and a place to put fifty pairs of shoes? The obvious answer is that what functional means is defined by the owners and occupants, but sometimes one wishes there were limits, especially when these “requirements” compromise the quality of the building itself, with less consideration given to venustasand firmatas. Needs, desires, culture and economics all wrangle over what is meant by utilitas.

The passage of time is always kind to what is true and right, and has therefore confirmed the usefulness of the simple principles in the Triad. Despite our advancements and excesses, attention to those rules still makes buildings better. But to address the issues arising from our contemporary lifestyles, it seems that the Triad is now incomplete. Were they here, I think Vitruvius and the ancients would be quick to agree.

For all of the centuries that preceded the industrial era, nearly every building would have been LEED Platinum and Net-Zero. They were inherently recyclable, biodegradable and sustainable. The construction materials were natural and mostly came from the local area. There weren’t a lot of other options. In the winters, the buildings were expected to be cold; in the summers they were often hot; sometimes the temperature was “just right,” but no one expected their buildings to stay at consistent temperature year round. That kind of comfort hadn’t yet been invented.

It took the revolution of our industrialized civilization to create the technology and the lifestyle that caused buildings to be not energy efficient and not sustainable. We created the means and the demand for full-time, year-round, constant living environment temperature control. The cost of that kind of comfort, however, is too high. It has required too much consumption of a finite energy source and too much fouling of our planet. For the sake of comfort, we spend too much money, use too much energy and ruin the place where we live.

There’s an alternative. We can design and build homes and buildings of all types in which the heating and cooling loads are tiny enough to eliminate our dependency on fossil fuels. By making the demands small, we can use very simple and small electric heating and cooling systems and then offset the small amount consumption with relatively small PV arrays. Energy independence is really that simple and is practical now. It only requires that our buildings have more and better insulation, and a tighter, more diligently sealed envelope. The necessary building materials are off-the-shelf and mostly low-tech. The building science involved is well-researched and the information is widely available. All that’s left to make zero-energy buildings the new normal is to make it a top priority in all building design and construction.

Therefore, I humbly suggest that we add Parsus to Firmatas, Venustas and Utilitas. Our word parsimony is formed in part from parsus.It means thrift, frugality and extreme economy, and when applied to energy efficiency instead of money, the stinginess connotations are only virtues. Parsus deserves to be elevated to the Vitruvian platform. The Triad should become a Quatern.

We really don’t have a choice. Our lifestyle is unsustainable unless we reset our priorities and make radical energy reduction an inviolate objective for every building. We have to do what we cando. We can make buildings that don’t guzzle energy and trash our planet. An equal commitment to Parsus would make Vitruvius proud.

The Quatern: Firmatas, Venustas, Utilitas and Parsus.

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