Questions of Efficiency

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

-Tim

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