Questions of Efficiency


President George W. Bush at Fort Bragg, Alabama

Barracks within the structure of the tower: a solution that is efficient in terms of land area – and because of its retroactive inevitability, provokes effective surprise. The unexpected overlap of two uses demands interpretation and generates a third meaning.

Rather than align the word “efficiency” with a style of architecture or a design methodology that favors empiricism over intuition, I would argue that the issue of efficiency is closely aligned with the role of judgment during the design process. Questions of efficiency pervade all scales and kinds of design decisions.  Evoking the relative efficiency of potential solutions is an important part of consensus-building and can drive a design process forward.


Hugo Häring: “Haus E”, 1935

Questions of efficiency also influence finer-grain design decisions. Hugo Häring designed two versions of Haus E to efficiently communicate a polemic. The seemingly-efficient rectilinear version requires compromises of program and functionality that are rectified in the second version. Through-room circulation in the main living space is moved to the side and rooms twist and turn to capture views and sunlight during specific times of the day. Häring’s point is that the ideologically imposed ordering system denies decisions that can improve the efficiency of the plan. We can read the “benefits” of the inflections from rectilinear plan, while at the same time, the original state of the plan is still present in the revised version.


The role of efficiency metrics during the design process, Utile, 2015

But beyond his judgment about what constituted a “better fit,” what metrics informed Häring’s second version? Are the areas of the two plans the same? Could metrics be conjured that would help qualify – and even quantify – the differences that were generated through a series of rational micro-judgments? At what stage in the design process should relative efficiencies be tested (if at all)? If we imagine an iterative design process like Häring’s where scenarios are tested and refined, there are points where efficiency can be measured – as a proof of concept, to help make a case for the design direction, and/or because it’s imposed by clients.


The potential influence of alternative efficiency metrics, Utile, 2015

Today, clients are most interested in cost/value metrics and the net/gross ratio is the most common during the generation of the plan. Net quantifies the potential review, and gross the total capital cost. The higher the ratio, the larger the profit. The percentage of window wall to floor area is the second most common metric. It defines the relative efficiency of plan shapes with the goal that buildings should have the minimum amount of relative expensive exterior cladding. As a result of these metrics, the plan layouts of market-driven building types have been fixed since the 1950s. The perpetuation of these fixed types has been further enabled by the globalization of the real estate market and systems furniture industry.

There are two ways that the metrics of efficiency can be deployed to invent defensible alternatives. The first is by using the metrics themselves to make a case for variations. The second is to use alternative or new metrics that prioritize, for example, passive environmental performance over development financing performance – yet can still lead to cost benefits. New parametric modeling tools can allow for multiple blended and weighted performance criteria, as a launching point for a project or a mid-process proof of concept.


Hugo Häring: House projects, 1941-46

Hugo Häring’s house project from 1941 displays multiple interrelated mico-efficiencies that create the rich domestic rituals of a pre-War villa in a shrink-wrapped package. In addition to the minimum room sizes and the geometric inflections, deployed in this case to accommodate only the necessary clearance around furniture and built-ins, there are efficiencies in the way that one use-area blends into the next. Of course, these are manifestations of efficiency that can only be intuited and not measured, proving that the best designers can weigh possibilities, make reciprocal decisions, and build a complex web of mutually reinforcing – and yes, beautifully efficient – architectural operations.


Tactical Urbanism and Its Discontents

Leave it to Neil Brenner to articulate this millennial planner’s long-time dissatisfaction with the tactical urbanism project. In his review for the current MoMA exhibition “Uneven Growth”, he asks “Is ‘Tactical Urbanism’ an Alternative to Neoliberal Urbanism?”, with the latter’s increasingly clear tendency towards economic polarization, environmental degradation, and the decay of vital public resources. The answer is at best muddled, he argues, without tactical urbanism’s serious reckoning with its relationship to the practice of power. To begin with some of his choice quotes (and please forgive the academ-ese on such an informal platform as this):

“Especially in light of the stridently anti-planning rhetoric that pervades many tactical urban interventions and their tendency to privilege informal, incremental, and ad hoc mobilizations over larger-scale, longer-term, publicly financed reform programs, it seems reasonable to ask in what ways they do, in actuality, engender any serious friction against the neoliberal order, much less subvert it.”

The problem is not only a question of scale, although the “acupunctural” approach favored by tactical urbanists seriously begs the question of how to scale up. Brenner persuasively argues that tactical urbanism can not just subvert the existing growth-first neoliberal order, but also, by internalizing a diminished role for public institutions, ironically reinforce it as well. To parse this with a simplistic example, will a well-designed parklet, trophy child of tactical urbanism, be so cheaply replicable that it can be reproduced on a massive scale? Will it also then draw attention away from public institutions, whose diminished economic and political capital led to a lack of adequate public spaces in the first place?

My personal problem with tactical urbanism (and other popular “urbanisms” to a lesser extent) is its general evasiveness about these questions, its shirking from the issues of “institutional (re)design”, and a consequent lapse into decoratism. Again, Brenner says it better:

“A number of the proposals circumvent questions of implementation entirely… [T]hey put forward relatively decontextualized design “solutions” to the pressing problems of megacity development—for instance, regarding water scarcity, insufficient land for housing, transportation bottlenecks, or issues of energy supply. Indeed, several of the proposals may be more readily classified within the rather familiar genre of dystopian design fantasies and technological prophecies… Because they bracket the formidable constraints associated with implementation under a neoliberalized rule-regime, these design scenarios remain at a purely hypothetical level—visions of an alternative universe that are utopian in the literal sense of that word; they are located nowhere.”

This sounds familiar because we see it over and over again in recent, well-publicized visioning exercises for the future, starting with the artificial sandbars, oysters farms, and pod structures of Rebuild by Design and the more recent Boston Living with Water. To be fair, interrogating the questions of “who pays, who benefits, who loses and who decides” is not part of the competition brief, but such questions are no less urgent and necessary than the fact of rising sea levels. To the credit of my colleagues at Utile, we did wrestle with the calibration between new public infrastructure and private investments on a new above-water ground plane. While we didn’t solve everything, I think we at least deserve being acknowledged for the intellectual seriousness of trying. Meanwhile, the strange absence of a strong socio-economic-political (not to mention legal and technological) premise is pervasive; are we designers working in an ahistorical time, where the future is just like the past, only with higher water levels and more abundant oysters?

Finally on a less angry note, it’s also important to acknowledge that there are urbanists out there whose work meaningfully asks questions about “[the] city of the future—its economy; its property and labor relations; its spaces of circulation, social reproduction, and everyday life; its modes of governance; its articulations to worldwide capital flows; its interfaces with environmental/biophysical processes; and so forth”. There should be more of them.

Hopefully, proponents of the various urbanisms, at least initially within the freedom of competitions and exhibitions, will more fully explore and give formal shape to the terrain of future possibilities, while keeping in mind that this terrain is not just environmental and technological, but fundamentally political too.