Designing for the Future

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Designing for the Future

Inherent in every architectural design is a prediction of future conditions

Posted on Feb 20 2013 by Martin Holladay

When an architect, residential builder, and owner sit around a table for their first design meeting, their ostensible goal is to begin designing a house. Whether they realize it or not, however, these three people are also predicting the future.

If the team members are planning to build a code-minimum house in the suburbs, they are (in effect) predicting that the next thirty years will be similar to the last thirty years. The future homeowner expects to be able to afford to buy a car and to find enough fuel for the car to carry him or her to work and to the supermarket. The owner expects the local municipality to be able to deliver enough potable water for cooking, to keep a family clean, and to keep the lawn watered. And the owner expects energy prices to be stable enough to allow the home to be heated in winter and air-conditioned during the summer.

On the other hand, if the team members are planning to build a PassivhausA residential building construction standard requiring very low levels of air leakage, very high levels of insulation, and windows with a very low U-factor. Developed in the early 1990s by Bo Adamson and Wolfgang Feist, the standard is now promoted by the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt, Germany. To meet the standard, a home must have an infiltration rate no greater than 0.60 AC/H @ 50 pascals, a maximum annual heating energy use of 15 kWh per square meter (4,755 Btu per square foot), a maximum annual cooling energy use of 15 kWh per square meter (1.39 kWh per square foot), and maximum source energy use for all purposes of 120 kWh per square meter (11.1 kWh per square foot). The standard recommends, but does not require, a maximum design heating load of 10 W per square meter and windows with a maximum U-factor of 0.14. The Passivhaus standard was developed for buildings in central and northern Europe; efforts are underway to clarify the best techniques to achieve the standard for buildings in hot climates. on an urban infill lot, they may be predicting that energy prices will rise or that fuel supplies will become tight.

And if the team members are planning to build a cistern-equipped house and barn on 10 rural acres, they may be predicting that water supplies and food delivery systems may be disrupted in future years.

Predictions of doom are nothing new

In 1973, when the first oil crisis caused fuel prices to spike, Americans could pick and choose from a variety of doomsday scenarios. Paul Ehrlich’s book, The Population Bomb, was still selling briskly. The Club of Rome’s report, Limits to Growth, predicted that future materials shortages (including energy shortages) would lead to a collapse of industrial economies. Tens of thousands of young hippies, convinced that the capitalist economic system was unstable, moved to rural areas in search of a “self-sufficient” lifestyle that would help them weather the coming economic storm.

Most of the back-to-the-land hippies who aimed for food self-sufficiency gave up after a few years. In retrospect, it’s easy to see the flaws in the doomsday scenarios of the 1960s and 1970s. While the global population is still rising, food and energy supplies have, for the most part, kept up with population growth. After spiking in the 1970s, energy prices dropped sharply in the 1980s and 1990s. And although the capitalist system experiences periodic recessions, the U.S. economy has proved to be remarkably resilient.

Energy prices are particularly unpredictable

In recent years, because of improvements in wind turbine technology and lower prices for photovoltaic(PV) Generation of electricity directly from sunlight. A photovoltaic cell has no moving parts; electrons are energized by sunlight and result in current flow. (PVPhotovoltaics. Generation of electricity directly from sunlight. A photovoltaic (PV) cell has no moving parts; electrons are energized by sunlight and result in current flow.) modules, the price of electricity generated from renewable sources has dropped. In fact, prices for renewable electricity have fallen so dramatically that many utility executives have been caught by surprise.

Just a few years ago, “peak oil” analysts predicted that the era of easily recoverable oil was behind us and that rising energy prices were inevitable. Since then, new drilling technologies have ledLight-emitting diode. Illumination technology that produces light by running electrical current through a semiconductor diode. LED lamps are much longer lasting and much more energy efficient than incandescent lamps; unlike fluorescent lamps, LED lamps do not contain mercury and can be readily dimmed. to a boom in U.S. production of oil and natural gas (a development that is far from an unalloyed blessing). During the past year, oil prices have fallen sharply.

Older Americans will recognize a pattern here: oil price increases and doomsday predictions are often followed by unexpected oil price drops and a period of complacency.

And yet…

Although the doomsday predictions of the 1970s didn’t play out as expected, we aren’t out of the woods yet.

These days, scientists warn that humans are releasing so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that major disruptions to human populations are almost inevitable. We’ve already released enough CO2 to cause rising global temperatures, rising sea levels, and an increase in the frequency of severe storms — and CO2 emissions are still rising.

A scientific consensus has emerged: life on our planet is facing an unprecedented crisis. This consensus is so strong that any glib comparison between today’s environmental crises and the overwrought doomsday predictions of the 1970s would be ill-advised.

There’s a problem, however: just because scientists have achieved a consensus about global climate change, doesn’t mean that we know how the coming crises will play out. It's hard to know whether our complicated systems for delivering food, fresh water, and energy will prove to be unexpectedly resilient or unexpectedly fragile. Either outcome seems possible.

So how do we design our buildings?

Our environmental crisis is extremely serious. I have heard several dedicated environmentalists — people who have devoted their lives to working for political changes designed to protect the environment — confess over a beer, "We're screwed. It's already too late."

That said, it’s very hard to guess what types of shortages, if any, will govern our lives in the future. Energy may be scarce — or energy may be cheap.

It’s possible that future droughts will be so severe that no amount of architectural cleverness will allow anyone to live in Arizona in 2060. These droughts may create millions of refugees, even within the U.S.

On the other hand, some states are likely to face an increase in precipitation.

Climate change may result in bumper crops in Canada and Russia, and food supplies may be plentiful. It’s also possible that future food shortages will lead to famines.

New carbon taxes may encourage Americans to live in dense urban areas, where it’s easy to commute to work by public transport or bicycle. On the other hand, food and water shortages may be so severe that urban refugees flee to rural areas, where it’s easier to establish a large garden and keep a flock of chickens.

A time to be humble

It’s possible to design a house that can resist floods; it’s also possible to design a house with a rainwater collection system and a large cistern.

It’s possible to design a house for the coming age of cheap electricity; and it’s possible to design a house for an energy-scarce future.

It’s possible to design an urban house for homeowners who intend to bicycle to the local farmers’ market; and it’s also possible to design a house in the country with enough acres for food self-sufficiency.

What we can’t easily do is design a house for all of these futures. If we’re convinced that we face a future of energy scarcity, and we are lucky enough to be able to build a new house, it makes sense to invest tens of thousands of dollars in extremely thick layers of insulation. If we’re convinced that electricity will soon be cheap, however, or that many of us will soon become environmental refugees, an expensive superinsulated house might be a poor investment.

Anyone who foresees a high likelihood that many of us will become environmental refugees will probably prefer to rent an apartment rather than to build a new house.

Most predictions are wrong

Some readers, including a few green architects, are probably eager to respond to my musings. Many green designers have come up with a grab-bag of design details intended to make homes more resilient. (In fact, several articles discussing the need to address resilience have been published here at

Suggested residential details may include a rainwater collection system, a system to reuse greywater, a large PV array, a gasoline-powered generator, an attached greenhouse, or compliance with the Passivhaus standard.

There are two problems with most "design for resilience" advice.

The first problem is that most of these suggested details are expensive.

The second problem is that most of our predictions turn out to be wrong. It's likely that many of the expensive features of these "resilient" homes will never be needed.

I recently had dinner with Tim, a residential designer who confessed that he spent a considerable sum of money in the late 1990s installing Cat 5 wiring in every room of his new house. (You remember Cat 5 wiring, don't you? It was supposed to carry large amounts of data to our computers and TVs.) The Cat 5 wiring was recommended as an excellent way to "future-proof" one's home. Needless to say, Tim has never used his Cat 5 wiring.

Fasten your seat belts

One thing I've learned from past predictions: even when we're right that the future will be rocky, the future often surprises us by being rocky in unexpected ways.

I don’t have any simple answers for designers. We live in interesting times.

Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “The Evolution of Superinsulation.”

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Feb 20, 2013 3:38 PM ET

About that recent fall in oil prices...
by Dana Dorsett

"Since then, new drilling technologies have led to a boom in U.S. production of oil and natural gas (a development that is far from an unalloyed blessing). During the past year, oil prices have fallen sharply."

In the period since the fracking boom started when oil prices were in the $100/bbl range, demand for oil in the US has fallen by about the same volume that US oil output has increased. The amount of that US decline in demand is also about the same as the entire oil output of Iraq.

During the same period the growth curve of worldwide oil demand has shallowed, but not yet reversed. But WAY too much credit has been given to US tight-light fracked oil for the recent downturn in pricing. While the exact numbers vary by the geological formation and oil developer and the numbers are in SOME dispute, most industry analysts believe the break-even wellhead price for fracked oil over the lifecycle of the well is in the $75/bbl range. While it's still possible to make money pumping from fracked oil wells that are already producing, there is a high financial risk for drilling any NEW wells, and the financial backers of oil developers understand this. The number of drilling rigs operating in US shale formations has fallen off a cliff in the past quarter- nobody will put up the money to keep the "drill baby drill baby drill baby drill..." hamster wheel going until prices rise to a profitable level.

The average production life of a shale oil well is about 3 years, at which point 95% of all of the oil it will EVER produce is already out of the ground. Unless they keep drilling at the 2009-2014 pace, US oil production will begin to decline. The decline will be slow at first, but will accelerate as the number of wells approaching end-of-life become the majority. But whether that decline in US production will have a dramatic affect on the world price for oil remains to be seen, since it is but one factor (and not an overriding factor) in the oil market:

The REAL cause of the oil price decline is stagnant-to-declining economic growth in Europe, where oil demand was declining even with moderate economic growth, the declining demand in the US despite fairly healthy economic growth, and the reduction in economic growth rate in China over the recent decades' averages, combined with a policy shift in China away from oil and toward electricity as transportation fuel. In short, over the past 5 years almost ALL of the world demand growth for oil has been in China, with only modest a amounts of demand growth in the rest of the developing world, and outright decline in the developed world.

When the 800lb gorilla on the demand-growth side of the market gets a cold, all the players on the supply-growth side of the market begin to sneeze. The high-cost supply developers (offshore Arctic and tight-light shale, even new oil-sand development) gets the plague. The "missing" growth in anticipated Chinese demand that had led investors worldwide to invest in oil development may never develop if China doubles-down on it's transportation electrification policy (which they seem to be doing.) There is still relatively cheap oil plays in other parts of the world (many owned by nations with despotic government), and until world demand growth picks up faster than those developers can increase the pumping rate, the price of oil will stagnate.

The narrative that fracked oil has been the factor that has driven down the price of oil is truly myopic. It may have been A factor, but (keeping the animal models going :-) ), fracking at best the mouse, not the elephant in the oil-price market.

Note: At $100/bbl oil Mark Lewis from Kepler Cheuvreux (a big European investment bank) did a bit of analysis last year demonstrating that at $3/watt for utility scale PV (which is more than the current world price), investing $100 billion in PV at $3 watt would provide about the same transportation energy per dollar to where the rubber meets the road in an EV than investing the same money in $100/bbl oil and continuing to drive internal combustion engine cars. At $50/bbl the $3/watt PV provides almost twice as much energy per $ of invesment.

The full analysis lives here: (See chart #3)

It currently costs about $2/watt to install utility-scale solar.

So, while there will continue to be price volatility in the oil markets, the falling cost of PV (with a long term learning curve of 22% reduction in cost every time the installed base doubles, which is every 2-3 years) will become a price damper for the high side of that volatility over the long term.

Meanwhile, Citi-Group (a big US investment bank) just announced a plan for $100 billion in financing for renewables by 2025(go figure!):

If you want to know where the price of oil (or energy broadly is going long term, watch the policy decisions in China & India, very populous countries where energy use growth per capita are high. Both are betting heavily on PV- primarily because it's cheap and getting cheaper, and requires neither water resources nor fuel to work. Continuing to invest in high-cost oil plays is a bit like buying a lot of cat-5 cable, and the bankers know it.

We do indeed live in interesting times! I suspect the Saudis have read the analysis coming out of multiple banking sector sources showing just how close the decline of oil is, which may be one reason they are pumping now at any price, refusing to cut back, which keeps the world demand from going into rapid decline. Any oil that is still in the ground in 2050 is probably going to be a stranded asset.

So, will oil prices go up from here?


Will oil prices go down from here?

You bet!

It's only a matter of what time frame you're talking about.

Does fracking to get the tight-light shale oil really make a difference of when & how the price of oil goes up or down?

Not much. It's a short-term game that only makes sense to play when oil is trading above $75/bbl, which is not a price that can compete with $2/watt PV in the transportation market over the long term. And that $2 / watt price in 2013 will become a buck a watt well before 2030.

Feb 20, 2013 8:12 PM ET

Oil prices

Martin - Excellent article. Dana- excellent evaluation of oil vs. pv's. The price of oil may have something to do with the things you both have mentioned, but they come nowhere near explaining the dramatic decline in prices. Crude oil cost $100. last July ! Now it's around $50. There is no way that this has a LOT to do with supply and demand. Not a 50% drop in 6 mos. There are political and hedge fund factors at play. The Saudis dropped the price to hurt Iran, and Syria; they really don't like Assad. They also want to hurt Russia, who has supported Syria. These 3 countries can't produce oil as cheaply as the Saudis. The hedgefunders have been betting that the price would continue to rise, and when the Saudis pulled the rug out from under them, to support their own interests, the hedge funds were forced to sell all of their futures and options, driving the price down further. I'm no expert in these matters, but I read some about it,and our government really does not want the public, or the mainstream media, to know that a handful of people control prices and markets, and with good reason. Dana, could you explain why PV makes better economic sense when oil is at $50. vs. when it's at $100.? It would seem to me that cheap oil would make it harder to justify the up front costs of PV. No?

Feb 20, 2013 11:04 PM ET

Our Future
by Malcolm Taylor

Apostate! Apostate! There goes Martin being all sensible again.

Feb 21, 2013 8:55 AM ET

>>>> The Cat 5 wiring was
by Keith Gustafson

>>>> The Cat 5 wiring was recommended as an excellent way to "future-proof" one's home. Needless to say, Tim has never used his Cat 5 wiring <<<<<

raises hand

at least the wire is cheap.......................

I do still prefer hard lines as the wireless can be flaky..............

Feb 21, 2013 12:51 PM ET

Cat 5
by Malcolm Taylor

Brings up an interesting point. For a decade I've just provided conduit for any tech wiring, reasoning that it allows for a variety of uses. Is adaptability a good buffer against an unforeseeable future? If so, some of the choices we make, which at present provide for more efficiency, may in the long run turn out to limit the house's future.
Probably the most adaptable house, which lends itself to renovations and replacement of its constituent parts, is a single story structure with an unconditioned trussed roof on a (much maligned) crawlspace. Building assemblies that are complex and interdependent, and those that fail if not kept in pristine condition, might be poor bets. So for instance spray foam compares unfavourably to batt insulation, and a complex air sealing strategy which might inhibit future changes may not be a useful thing to include in our present builds, despite the initial energy benefits they confer.

Feb 21, 2013 3:07 PM ET

cost benefit oil vs pv ?
by Debra Glauz

"investing $100 billion in PV at $3 watt would provide about the same transportation energy per dollar to where the rubber meets the road in an EV than investing the same money in $100/bbl oil and continuing to drive internal combustion engine cars. At $50/bbl the $3/watt PV provides almost twice as much energy per $ of invesment."
The last line confused me. How does cheaper oil provide less energy per dollar invested.

Feb 23, 2013 9:28 AM ET

oil vs pv
by Keith Gustafson

funny I thought the same thing

I believe he is speaking of the investors perspective, IOW, cheap oil is a lousy investment

Feb 23, 2013 1:22 PM ET

Rumors abound in the markets (response to Kevin Zorski)
by Dana Dorsett

Of course it's about supply and demand, but the price today also about anticipation of future supplies and demand. The fact that unrest in oil supply countries and international sanctions against others has failed to make the market sufficiently anxious about future supply to raise the price only underlines these facts:

The previously anticipated level of growth in demand from China failed to materialize, and the pumping capacity from all suppliers is more than adequate to cover the adjusted estimates of near-future demand. OPEC pumping capacity has not increased dramatically over the past 5 years except in Iraq, one of the very zones where that capacity is being diminished and under stress, a condition that under times of tight supply would cause prices to spike. Instead that situation is being met by a massive yawn in the market, along with the increased sanctions against oil producers Russia & Iran. This is definitely supply & demand, and the near-future anticipation thereof.

Debra: I guess I need an editor! :-) If you look at chart 3 on p.15 (pdf pagination) of the full analysis link, you'll see than $50/bbl oil produces nearly twice the energy where the rubber meets the road than $3/watt PV does, and not conversely as I wrote.

Also note, the $/bbl numbers in that analysis is the price at which the oil producer breaks-even. $50/bbl is below the break even point for most tight-light shale plays, and is roughly the break-even point for oil sand plays.

Mind you, the actual world price for large scale solar is already trending toward $1.50/watt , which may end up being the 2013 price, so there is already rough parity with $50/bbl oil. Buck a watt PV is coming. Residential scale PV in both Australia & Germany costs less than $2.50, Solar-City's US cost is now ~ $2.10. Electrification of the transportation sector in China under their new policy directions will put downward pressure on oil prices sooner than many in the oil-biz are willing to say out loud. If the US follows suit it's "game over" for the exotic high-cost oil suppliers, but the OPEC suppliers can still make it pay (and well) at $25/bbl, which is still competitive with buck-a-watt solar.

Feb 25, 2013 10:26 AM ET

Designing for Futures
by norm farwell

It might be useful to look at this through a risk/benefit lens. A house that depends on less (less maintenance, less energy, less technological complexity) will be a more adaptable and future-proof building. Hi-tech, specialized, complicated systems are potential dead ends in an uncertain future.This is why I think it makes more sense to take care of heating and cooling on the demand side (by insulation) rather than on the production side (for example by technologically complicated heating systems coupled with PV) even if the latter appears to be financially easier right now.

I remember reading Stewart Brand's _How Buildings Learn_ many years ago. He makes the point that good buildings adapt, sometimes radically and in completely unforeseeable ways. So design and construction should not foreclose alternate uses and should include the inevitability of renovation. Tedd Benson's approach of building in chases for mechanical systems makes good sense to me.

A future proof building will be easy and safe to work on. For that reason I reject foam--there's a lesson to be learned from all the trouble we made with lead paint, asbestos, formaldehyde, PCBs etc. And designing for the future should ultimately include a cradle-to-cradle concern with the end of the life of a building and its components. The materials of buildings should be as reusable and benign as possible. The technologized building-as-machine-for-living idea breaks down when you are left with toxic waste at the end--an expensive and useless appliance that can't be fixed.

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